For Ryan, biological fatherhood started unconventionally. It was his wife's (now ex-wife's) plan: They would drive from their home just north of Los Angeles to New Mexico, to a small town nestled in the mountains between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, where her cousin Maria (not her real name) lived. Once there, Ryan would have sex with Maria, in the hopes of impregnating her and giving Maria and her lesbian partner a child.
In Ryan's version of the story, he's like a bumbling Homer Simpson, simply following his wife's orders. But for Maria, it was a miracle. She and her partner were miles away from any sperm bank. Plus, they could afford a child, but not the up-front cost of sperm and in-vitro fertilization, which can run tens of thousands of dollars. Ryan, on the other hand, had plenty of sperm to go around.
Maria gave birth around the same time Ryan's wife became pregnant with his son. Something clicked. He quietly told his wife that he wanted to keep donating. She understood, he said, but as with her cousin, she didn't want to talk about it.
Most of the women on KDR wanted to meet their future child's biological father in the flesh, not on a two-dimensional sperm bank stat sheet.
Soon after, Ryan found the Known Donor Registry, the Facebook for sperm donation. Founded in 2010, preceded by a Yahoo forum that was plagued by a constant "adult content" label, the site hosts a chat room, forums, and profile pages from more than 20,000 members trying to get or give away sperm.
The site was created to connect donors to families like Maria's, who wanted something other than a clinical sperm donation. The US fertility industry is worth over $3 billion, and some 30,000 babies are born from donor sperm each year, but the conventional sperm bank scenario doesn't suit every couple.
For one thing, it's expensive: Sperm from a bank costs at least $200 per vial, with most doctors recommending at least two vials per attempt and sometimes up to four. (A man produces, on average, two to five vials of sperm per ejaculation.) Then there's the cost of the insemination procedures, which start at about $300 per cycle and run into the tens of thousands of dollars for in vitro fertilization. Fresh sperm lives longer inside of a woman's body than frozen sperm. After a few unsuccessful attempts, it adds up.
Many of the women on the KDR live in rural parts of the country, far from sperm banks, and are hoping to find a traveling donor or someone willing to ship their sperm. Others are working-class couples, making enough money to support a kid, but not enough for the upfront payments to banks and doctors. Some women appreciate the intimacy of artificially inseminating (AI) or being artificially inseminated by their own partner in a bedroom, rather than by a doctor in a cold office.
Most of the women I met joined the site for a different reason: They wanted to meet their future child's biological father in the flesh, not on a two-dimensional sperm bank stat sheet.
Beth Gardner, a San Diego-area resident who founded the site, believes that kids should have a chance to know their dads. While sperm banks offer seed from "open donors," kids only get their donor dad's contact information once they turn 18, and those vials cost upwards of $675.
All the sperm on KDR is free. The site allows donors (men) and recipients (women) to identify their preferred relationship after birth, with options like "uncle role," "no contact," and "co-parent."
Ryan is a "no contact until 18" kind of guy. After the first time with his wife's cousin, Ryan has fathered kids with five straight and lesbian couples through KDR.
Looking at a site like KDR, it's hard not to feel anxious about why the men do it. Many of the site's donors start like Ryan—they're asked by a friend or family member; they forge on with the donation, but they second guess or compartmentalize. Ryan compartmentalizes. He and his ex-wife agreed never to talk about his donations. While some of his motivations seem murky, it's straightforward to him.
Ryan was the youngest of ten kids growing up on a farm halfway between Fresno and Bakersfield. As a teen, and a member of the Future Farmers of America, Ryan said he inseminated hundreds of dairy cows.
"I'm deep in their butthole, holding their cervix, while you're leading his big thing in there," he said, describing the process.
"There was no great talk," he went on. "It's like, OK, we got him in the shoot. Grab his nose. Hold it. Let's give 'em this... Very mechanical."
His oldest brother died in an industrial accident, at 23, when Ryan was in third grade. Much of his brother's body—his corneas, his bones—were donated. He thinks a lot about where his brother's parts wound up.
"That probably shaped my thought process in this a lot more and it's probably within the grief of his loss that I'm able to compartmentalize the donation in a way," he said. "I've never really psychoanalyzed that part, but it's like, you know, this is just one of those gifts."
He donates blood, he said, and money to organizations like St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, City of Hope, and Usher's New Look. He's always been a "donor" type of person—why not donate his sperm, too?
Gardner has an alternative theory about why most men are on the site.
"Some of them are conscious of it. Most of the men are not: It is absolutely a biological competition," she said, laughing. "There is a harem of available uteruses and they want as many as possible."
It is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the growth of the site—how to reconcile the masturbating male on an internet site with the resulting bundle of joy, the zoomed-in tadpole rendering of sperm with the zoomed-out cum. There is a necessary dissonance between what the men want and what the men have to tell women that they want, Gardner said.
"They don't want to raise them. They don't want to interact with them. They just want to make them, and that gives them a tremendous sense of accomplishment and it's so pervasive in the donor community," Gardner said. "You get a lot of donors who are smart enough to say it's because their aunt had trouble making a baby and 'I'm just such a great person.' And that's part of it."
The other part, she says, is a biological drive to spread seed. But she wonders: What's wrong with that?
"Do you want a baby? Is he handsome? Is he smart? Awesome. Supply, meet demand." —Beth Gardner
KDR is, she points out, packed with women who desperately want to give birth—women who won't even entertain the notion of adoption. And while the women, seeking to fulfill their evolutionary need to procreate, are treated with sympathy and respect, the men, following a different evolutionary call, are viewed with suspicion, she said.
Gardner, herself, admits to being guilty of it. When she first posted on the Yahoo message board and immediately got two-dozen responses, she thought: "These guys are crazy!"
"So some guy is somewhere on the, 'I don't really like being social' spectrum," Gardner said. "But he wants to make babies? Great. Do you want a baby? Is he handsome? Is he smart? Awesome. Supply, meet demand."
Gardner and her wife found their donor on KDR. They now have two daughters.
Sperm banks, she points out, screen the sperm, but there's nothing they do to vet the donors that a savvy woman can't do on her own.
She had her donor tested for STDs and bought multi-state criminal and civil background checks. Their donor signed a contract ( which is available on the website) before attempting insemination, forfeiting his rights to custody. Their daughters will grow up a phone call away from their biological father.
Gardner makes it clear that KDR is a community resource, not an organization or a company, and that, in the end, the safety is the responsibility of the user.
"We can't make anyone be safe, but we can try to provide the information, and the cultural 'norms,' that reinforce safer behavior," she said. "The latter is actually the most effective—by building a community around making smarter choices, new people are most often educated by existing members when they come in and ask a question or make a comment that makes it clear they may not be taking enough precaution."
The site's day-to-day challenges include website maintenance, educating the users, and cracking down on obviously bad behavior. Because the site is a Deadwood of sorts—a place where people come to escape the regulated world of the fertility industry—Gardner rules with a light hand. But, as a result, early users found themselves up against the gruffness of the frontier.
Chat conversations are dominated by donors despite the fact, or perhaps because, they are outnumbered four-to-one by recipients. Women who have successful pregnancies tend to leave the site without a trace: It's time to raise their kid. The men, especially the men who want more offspring, stick around.
In those early chats, men espoused the necessity of absolute anonymity on the part of the donor, a claim that Gardner calls, through gritted teeth, a myth started by men who don't want their wives to know about their hobby. Other conversations tended to veer toward topics like the alleged fertility benefits of natural insemination (NI), despite the fact that most women are seeking AI.
A chat example from 2012:
A_Dad: I was telling a recip about ship.
And this girl is very pretty, works as a model.
and she says, "I think I prefer NI". and I say "well AI is safer, just as effective and doesn't feel like cheating."
and a tiny voice in the back of my head is saying "you fool - go for it" :-)
but I didn't.
A_Dad: I guess I am a fool.
Dallas.Donor: no you aren't
if/when i donate via NI... i'll be trying to get it overwith
to be honest
and it'll be to help the person
A_Dad: she is very pretty though... part brazilian. :-)
A cup and a syringe worked fine for Gardner and her wife. They tried insemination, with a previous donor's sperm, in a Starbucks bathroom, in their third-wheel trailer parked next to the beach, and in the back seat of a car in a hotel parking lot. Ultimately they found success with a San Diego-based donor who made the handoff in the couple's own home.
Over the years, many of the seediest of donors—ones who were found to be lying or manipulating women—have been kicked off the site, Gardener said. Others became outsiders and left by choice.
With recent technological advances making it easier and cheaper to ship sperm, men can process requests without leaving their home. Some brag of having fathered dozens of children, though actual numbers are impossible to verify.
In addition to Maria, Ryan has had sex with three women, all straight and married, from KDR. He's also contributed sperm for artificial insemination to two lesbian couples on the site.
"It's hard to get past the guilt," he said of the sex. "It's like, you don't want them to replace your wife, and you know that you can't have a relationship with them. So it's like, 'Well, there's worse things I've done on a Thursday night.'"
After several drinks at a dive bar in the valley, Ryan told me about the guilt he felt after one woman's orgasms.
"I felt guilty, but I could tell in her eyes she didn't feel bad for feeling good," he said. "I could tell it wasn't an emotional connection. I think that made me appreciate her more as an individual, the fact that she did love her husband so much that she could even have that intense kind of release and still be just like, 'yeah.'"
I suggested Ryan might be the Derek Fisher of sperm donation.
"I'm a role player," he said. "I treat them with respect. I understand that there are certain things that I'm not there for. I'm not an emotional part of their life. I come in. I do this."
He compares the experience to his upbringing on a farm. "There's emotional attachment that gets built with all of them or I wouldn't do it," he said. "This is going to be probably the most bizarre way of putting it: Being a farm kid, involved with the FFA, we had project animals. I loved each and every project animal knowing that they were going to be slaughtered and eaten. And so, it was just ingrained in me that I'm going to offer that animal the best quality of life I could, because just because he's going to end up being somebody's dinner doesn't mean I should just go out there and kick them in the ribs every morning. I love and care for them."
For some couples, like another that Ryan visited, sex is a religious choice—more "natural" than AI. Others might not be entirely aware that, just as doctors are only absolutely necessary for women with fertility problems, syringes or catheters can replace sex.
When Ryan was donating (he hasn't responded to a KDR request in more than two years; too busy, he said, raising his son) he just went with whatever the couple suggested.
Sex-seekers were a concern for Margarita and Amanda Baylus when they first logged onto the site. The Riverside couple—a pharmacy technician and delivery nurse, respectively—knew they had the means to support a child. And while they had concerns about about the thousands of dollars they'd pour into a sperm bank, their primary reason for picking KDR was because they wanted to meet their donor.
Amanda had always known she wanted kids but for Margarita, who struggled with her sexuality into her late 20s, the idea of motherhood felt like a fairy tale. After a decade of turmoil, she met Amanda and was wary of anything—a baby, a biological father, who could potentially come between them.
Amanda said she was desperate and willing to settle on a donor who didn't check all of their boxes but Margarita was the opposite, threatened by all the donors.
"What's my role in this?" she said. "It's kind of like being a father—what if we don't connect?—and I don't even have the biological thing."
One KDR donor, Jesse, a military man from Sacramento, checked a lot of boxes. He was Hispanic, like Margarita, and had green eyes, like Amanda. He lived in the same state, but not so close that they'd run into him on the street.
After phone calls and e-mails, they bought him a plane ticket to Southern California.
"She can say, 'I got her pregnant,' [even though] it wasn't necessarily the old-fashioned way, the normal way." – Amanda Baylus
While he was sitting in the airport, Margarita texted him to make sure he had the results of the STD test. He didn't. She told him to go home.
Margarita already had her guard up about Jesse. She questioned his intentions. She didn't like that, alongside AI, he had NI listed on his profile.
"But I was trying to tell her: He's a guy," Amanda said. "Of course he's going to try to go NI!"
Jesse, too, was feeling unsure about the exchange. He was a long way from his Christian upbringing. The oldest of seven, Jesse says he became the man of the house at the age of five, when his dad, a drunk, walked in, held a gun to his head and said, "I want nothing to do with you."
His mother, Jesse said, broke the two apart by throwing a crib at his father.
"That was the last time I ever talked to him," he said. "I was so confused, trying to figure out those words, I don't think I ever had an opportunity to feel anger. I was just trying to make sense of the world and what was going on.
After a childhood of poverty and on-and-off homelessness, Jesse went to nursing school where he learned about the reproductive system. The idea of trillions of sperm cells never reaching the egg freaked him out. He was equally shocked meeting all of the young women in his classes who had no interest in having kids.
He got married and had a daughter. His wife said she was a "one kid kind of woman," but when he looked into his daughter's eyes, he thought: That's not right that she doesn't have a brother or sister.
Jesse went rogue. Possessed by this need to father again, to give his daughter a sibling, he started visiting adoption agencies alone. He never actually completed an adoption, but seeing all the orphaned children laid a foundation for his interest in sperm donation.
"I was the only one considering adopting a child. My wife didn't want any more children," he said. "As I began researching various agencies and read their requirements on what they look for in potential parents, that's how I decided that it would be a good idea to follow the same requirements as an interview guide."
It was in the adoption agencies that his "traditional values," as he puts it, toward parenting began to shift.
"I was like, it looks like it doesn't even matter," he said. "I look at these babies. They don't care about morality... All they want to do is live life. They want a chance to live and go to Disneyland, go to preschool. I look in their eyes and they don't really care. They just want to be loved."
Around that same time, a friend, whose husband is sterile, asked for his sperm. He was torn. He knew that he'd have to tell his wife and his daughter. He'd have to tell his mother, too. Spiritually, he still had misgivings about having sex with another man's wife, about what he perceived as an abandonment of his biological child. But after a year of getting to know the family, he made up his mind.
His wife, after months of discussion, agreed. Her primary concern, he said, was not the other women, but a fear that it would cause legal trouble or interfere with the life of their daughter.
Jesse has donated blood, hair, and, when he dies, he says, he'll donate his organs. He met his wife while donating blood at the clinic where she works.
"She knows I'm a donor type of person," he said. "She knows that it's a part of who I am."
Weeks later, when Jesse looked at the ultrasound, he saw himself.
"What if that was me?" he thought. "What if I said 'no' and I never would have existed? I appreciate life a lot more trying to think about my mom and dad, if they never had met."
Like Ryan, after the first pregnancy, Jesse found KDR.
"I got on the site, and I looked at the map, and it was showing, globally, hundreds and thousands of people," he said, "Everywhere from China to Australia to England and all over Canada, America, Mexico, I was thinking, You gotta be kidding me. I wish I had known this when I was 18."
Waiting in the airport for the second time, Jesse was sweating.
"I was really trying hard to convince myself that whatever I was doing, everything I was thinking, and every step I took, from getting on the plane, to getting off the plane, to in the shuttle, repeating myself over again, 'Am I doing the right thing?'"
He'd gotten the STD tests and, as Amanda and Margarita vetted other donors, they'd realized Jesse was still their best option.
They picked him up at the airport and drove to a restaurant for breakfast. Everyone was nervous, Jesse said, but they all clicked.
"It was like déjà vu, like it was meant to be," he said. "I could just tell that they were ready to be parents."
They drove to the hotel where the couple had booked adjoining rooms. Jesse masturbated into a cup, knocked on their door, handed it off, and went back into his room to wait.
For Margarita, who felt insecure about her role in the process, the fact that conception occurred in a hotel room, rather than a doctor's office, was invaluable.
"Just the feeling of me knowing that I helped get her pregnant was the most wonderful feeling," she said. "He wouldn't be here if it wasn't for me. Yeah, it wasn't my DNA, but hey I did it. Just that feeling of being a part of it, I think you can't take that feeling away."
"It was personal," Amanda said. "It was intimate. She can say, 'I got her pregnant.' It wasn't necessarily the old-fashioned way, the normal way."
"I did everything up to supplying the sperm," Margarita said.
Related: Eating Bacon Is Ruining Your Sperm
Levi was born in October of 2012. When I first met him at the Amanda and Margarita's favorite coffee shop in Riverside, he was full of life, his eyes bulging at the new world around him.
During the pregnancy, Margarita's mother struggled to accept her daughter's role in the process. A traditional mother, she had been slow to recognize the women she brought home as legitimate partners. She'd ask about Amanda's expectations for motherhood, without asking Margarita.
Levi completely redefined the relationship.
"She'll post pictures of him: 'My grandson,'" Amanda said. "The fact that she even acknowledges that he's her grandson is a big deal."
"You can't deny a baby, you know," Margarita said. "No matter how much you disagree with something, how much my mom maybe felt a little weird about it, or disagreed with it, you can't deny a baby. You look at their eyes and you see."
Margarita has long ago overcome her fear that her biological absence will render her the third wheel of the family.
"Especially now, he reaches out, it just makes you feel good," she said, staring at him. "It makes me feel like, OK, I'm doing my part and I am a part of him and it's not just my head saying, He'll never connect."
They went, as a family to visit Jesse again last year. After another round of insemination, Amanda is due in July—it will be Jesse's 15th biological child. Jesse, unlike Ryan, considers himself a father to all his offspring. He can name them all in order and even tries to keep track of their birthdays. He'll check in with the Bayluses occasionally, on birthdays or Mother's Day.
While in Sacramento, Margarita was relieved to see that there was no magical bond between Levi and "Uncle Jesse." They don't even really see a lot of similarities between the biological father and son.
Jesse, on the other hand, was overwhelmed. He had to swallow down a knee-jerk feeling that he was abandoning Levi, a feeling that was softened watching Margarita and Amanda parent. He was speechless, he said, and while he was careful to respect his role as the biological father, to maintain his role as Uncle Jesse, he was overwhelmed with emotion.
"I mean, I'm sorry, but I just can't even put it into words," he said. "There's my son."
Earlier this month, I knocked on the Baylus's door and Levi answered. The two-year-old smiled at me in the doorway. While we waited silently for his mom to catch up, I was struck, in the same way I was struck the first time I met the family, by his existence.
I'd interviewed dozens of men and women from the site about all of the awkward body fluid hand-offs and tentative contact agreements—but here was this kid, not an abstraction, weightier than all of the strangeness that led to his being born.
Sitting under the avocado tree that shades their well-kept suburban home, Amanda, Margarita, and I talked about all the politics and perceptions of Known Donor Registry. While we talked, Levi didn't say a word. Who knows how he'll feel about his parentage in a decade, but on that day, he played in the backyard with an ordinariness that was almost cliché, smiling, showing me his clown doll, and popping wheelies on his plastic ride-on truck.
Follow Dave Simpson on Twitter.