Women and men who are paid to produce sex cells must manage their own bodies: women through shots and surgery and men through routine masturbation and abstinence. Although they have very different physical experiences of gamete donation, both egg and sperm donors provide evidence that variation in social context is associated with variation in bodily experience. Egg donors describe the injections and egg retrieval in much less onerous terms than do infertile women, because being paid thousands of dollars and not trying to become pregnant results in a different embodied experience of IVF. Sperm donors portray masturbating for money as requiring a surprising amount of bodily discipline while rendering the orgasm less pleasurable, which leads them to make distinctions between their embodied experiences of masturbation inside and outside the sperm bank.
For some, these findings will make intuitive sense. After all, there is enormous heterogeneity in all kinds of bodily experiences. But there is a strong assumption that IVF is inherently difficult and demanding, which derives in part from a well-developed feminist critique of the technology. For example, anthropologist Monica Konrad interviewed British egg donors and was shocked to find that they described donation as ‘simple’ and ‘quick’. Even after she read to them from a pamphlet describing the shots and surgery, she was ‘struck by [the donors’] reluctance to comment in any detail on certain aspects of the egg induction process. To an outsider, the process seemed an exceptional commitment, if not an onerous and risky undertaking’. In the end, Konrad steps in with her own assessment when she writes that the donors ‘downplay the considerable amount of preparation time that must be invested in the process’ and are ‘refusing to acknowledge the pain, discomfort, and risk’.11 Rather than dismissing egg donors’ statements, I suggest another explanation for why their descriptions do not conform to researchers’ expectations, namely that their embodied experiences of the technology are different from those of the infertile women who are most often the subject of research on IVF.
Social scientists have focused on the many ways in which people ‘see’ the body or ‘think’ about the body, but the experiences of gamete donors contribute to a growing literature that suggests there is also variation in how the body feels. In the medical market for sex cells, it is the social process of gendered commodification that influences women’s and men’s embodied experiences of donation.