In my research career thus far, I have interviewed just shy of 100 sperm and egg donors. When others learn this, their first question is nearly always, ‘why do they do it?’ Sometimes I simply tell my new acquaintance that people donate because they want to help someone else have a family. Every donor I have interviewed, whether they donated sperm or egg, has told me this was an important motivation for them. My research has, so far, been UK-based and ‘helping’ is the motive which is very much expected in this context, where payments to donors are minimal and donors must consent to being identifiable to their offspring.
However, I know that implicit in this person’s question about motivation is the assumption that ‘helping’ is not really considered enough of a reason. Donating sperm or eggs is sufficiently unusual and radical an act that it requires more explanation and indeed the questioner rarely looks satisfied with this short answer.
At this point in the conversation, I’ll often describe one of the ‘selfish elements’ which many donors wove into their donation stories. Typically, I’ll mention that some women might have been ‘egg sharing’ and thus they also had the ‘bonus’ of reduced cost IVF treatment for themselves. Donating could thus enable women to afford more rounds of IVF. Or I might describe what some sperm donors have told me: that, even though they understand they won’t be a ‘Dad’ to any children born as a result, they value being able to pass on their genes to the next generation. Nods of understanding result; these motivation stories tap into gendered expectations about men and women’s reproductive roles.
In a recent article, I focus on these ‘selfish elements’ which regularly featured in donors’ motivation stories and examine them through the lens of sociology of morality and motivation. Much of the existing work in this field, draws on Mills’ (1940) concept of ‘vocabularies of motive’. Mills instructs us to interpret ‘motivation talk’ not as an indicator of some kind of inner psychological state, but as a social act, part of the presentation of a moral self. He demonstrates how the motivations which can be expressed are socially contingent, with certain kinds of motives (religious, sexual, financial) being more or less acceptable or expected in different times and places and in relation to different actions.
To a certain extent, this work helps to explain egg and sperm donors accounts of donating. They all articulated the motive that was most expected of them (helping others) and, where they added an additional motive, these generally fitted with gendered expectations of men and women: women will do whatever is necessary to have a child and men are motivated to ‘spread their seed’.
However, when we understand motivation talk as a social act (as Mills does and as I do) these ‘selfish elements’ are puzzling. Many donors explicitly described these parts of their stories as ‘selfish’ or positioned them as problematic and/or in opposition to their more altruistic motives. So why share them? Why would my participants present themselves in a more negative light than is seemingly necessary? Why not just say (in line with the narrative expected of them by UK regulators and fertility clinic staff) that they had just wanted to help other people have a family.
In the article, I explain why, whilst it might be considered the ‘right reason’ to donate, a solely altruistic motivation story is often viewed as implausible in relation to egg and especially sperm donation. This is partly related to the UK policy context. Here, donors and recipients (at least in clinics) tend to be unknown to one another at the point of donation. In more individualised societies, altruism towards strangers can be pathologized or perceived with concern or suspicion. As Shaw (2019) explains in relation to kidney donation to strangers, such actions can lead to questions about whether someone really understands what they are doing or whether they are being coerced. Singularly altruistic motivations are particularly difficult for sperm donors to express because an established vocabulary of motive is already attached to sperm donation: this is something that young men are expected to do in exchange for ‘beer money’ (Thompson, 2008).
Somewhat paradoxically, in this context, when donors include a ‘selfish element’ in their motivation story (often described as a secondary motive), this actually bolsters the credibility of their overall account, including the primary motivation to help others.
This may all sound very cynical and strategic, as though donors (and people generally) are always carefully constructing the ‘best’ account of their actions which they can ‘get away with.’ However, this is not the case. Although more strategically selected motivation stories will be offered in some contexts, in others we strive to offer an account of ourselves which feels authentic. An authentic motivation story should not be understood as one which successfully identifies some kind of pre-social drive. Instead, it is an account which the narrator perceives as comprehensive and plausible. In line with interactionist understandings of the self (Mead, 1934), we assess the plausibility of potential motivation stories through the stories we tell, imagine telling and expect will be believed by others (particularly by others who we feel know us well).
‘Selfish elements’, or similar practices whereby people appear to pass up opportunities to present themselves as singularly ‘good’, are not unique to accounts of donation. They can also be seen in everyday practices of confession, apology, modesty, self-deprecation and self-parody. Sociologists must attend to these aspects of interaction in order to understand the messy, and sometimes contradictory, ways in which moral practices are embedded in social life.
Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self and society (Vol. 111). Chicago University of Chicago Press.
Mills, C. W. (1940). Situated actions and vocabularies of motive. American Sociological Review, 5(6), 904–913.
Shaw, R. M. (2019). Altruism, solidarity and affect in live kidney donation and breastmilk sharing. Sociology of Health & Illness, 41(3), 553–566. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9566.12805
Thompson, M. (2008). Endowed: Regulating the Male Sexed Body. Routledge.
Leah Gilman is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the Department of Sociological Studies at The University of Sheffield. Her research explores family relationships and reproduction in the context of cultural, policy and technological change. She is co-author of the monograph, Donors: Curious Connections in Donor Conception (published in 2022 with Emerald Publishing).