Sperm Counts: Overcome by Man's Most Precious Fluid
If you are male and would like to contemplate either your importance or your uselessness, consider this: If coordinating the massive, multiphase, international operation it would take to accomplish impregnating every fertile woman on Earth with one of your sperm cells was possible, your contribution could be accomplished in less than two weeks. Two and a half billion new people, all just as adorable as your own baby pictures. That is, of course . . . unless some other guy gets there first. That paradoxical value of semen--on one hand it's genetic dynamite, an indispensable lifeline to the future for the guy lucky enough not to shoot blanks, and on the other hand it's just a step less disposable than other renewable bodily products like mucus or saliva--is the tantalizing contradiction explored by Lisa Jean Moore in her academic study Sperm Counts: Overcome by Man's Most Precious Fluid.
Moore is an unlikely candidate for a monograph of this sort, since not only is she an associate professor of women's studies at Purchase College, but she's a partnered lesbian with two daughters. (Her two girls were conceived with artificial insemination, however, and she spent several years as president of the board of the Sperm Bank of California.) She does acknowledge in the introduction that "of course, as women our relationship to semen is markedly different from what it is for men." But it's this outsider status that permits a perceptive and clearheaded cultural read on the often contradictory meanings society has assigned to the ol' baby gravy. Moore sums it up beautifully: "It is necessary to understand how sperm has come to embody the extremes of masculinity--the best and worst notions of what we think it is to be a man."
The best notions, Moore explains, have to do with manly virtues of conquest, virility, and fitness. From the earliest writings of Thomas Aquinas warning against squandering the liquid manifestation of a man's soul and Anton van Leeuwenhoek's microscope-aided discovery of the little swimmers, sperm's mini-marathon inside a woman's body is a reflection of the fighting spirit of the guy who supplied it. In a devastating deconstruction of 27 children's books addressing the facts of life, Moore points out that almost as uniformly as the act of conception is a variation on "Mommy and Daddy love each other very much and decide to have a baby" (find me the sex-ed book 'fessing up to "Mommy had a tearful phone call with her sister and two of her college roommates while Daddy felt his entire life sucking away in one fell swoop"), the journey to the egg is depicted as an athletic race with only one medalist. She describes the recurring character type of the triumphant sperm as "a diligent laborer, heterosexual, and cheerfully competitive but a good sport, cocky, intentional, speedy: a winner"--who happily penetrates an egg uniformly depicted as seductive, silent, and, in one case, festooned with a giant finish line.
Semen provides a different kind of finish line in pornographic movies, where the "money shot" of male orgasm is the formal conclusion of the sex act. It's in porn where semen's meaning crosses over from positive to negative--consider the common ground between bukkake fetish videos such as Wad Gobblers 13 and Cameron Diaz's sky-high bangs as a coiffure-ized interpretation of the virgin-whore complex in There's Something About Mary. Whatever delight men find in women's acceptance of their cum, there's an equal amount of shame in how it pollutes everything it touches, sometimes symbolically, but also literally in the case of HIV-infected semen. In one of the more poignant passages, Moore interviews sex workers who lament that, even though their work entails just as much exposure to hazardous materials as any EMT, employing the universal precautions of the medical profession would destroy all their business. It's the final transformation, thanks to forensic DNA sequencing, of semen as a criminal calling card that turns men's most precious fluid against them as accuser and condemner of their basest activities.
Moore began her research in 1990, and unfortunately it shows in the sometimes dated final manuscript (she describes the pecking order of the traits by which our culture values men as "think George Clooney over George Costanza"). While nearly every point she makes about the hidden significance of sperm is a home run, ultimately, this is an academic sociological study written in an appropriately starchy style that's much drier than other science/entertainment books such as Natalie Angier's Woman: An Intimate Geography. But overlooking those imperfections results in a fascinating read packed with conclusions that are easy to swallow. Or, if you prefer, spit.