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Sperm with personality

Danish sperm gets the Viking treatment when it is marketed in the US. Advertising plays on the masculine Viking's robust urge to conquer and on the modern stereotype of the Scandinavian male as civilised, sensitive and handsome.
Dane is a tall, blond and athletic young man. He is outgoing, fun with a masculine build and sounds like the life of any singles party. Dane isn’t in a dating mode, though. But his sperm is for sale.

Cryos is the world’s largest sperm bank and has its headquarters is in the Danish town of Aarhus. The company has established the subsidiary Scandinavian Cryobank in Manhattan in New York because of the huge market for Danish sperm in the US. The company has firmly established itself on the American market and Scandinavian sperm can be downloaded online from or acquired directly from Scandinavian Cryobank’s New York office.

Sperm donation and new reproduction technologies are a well-documented and central gender political issue. Recently Danish legislation opened up for insemination of lesbians and single women. At the same time the rights of donor children in relation to sperm donor anonymity are being widely discussed.

As many gender researchers have pointed out, our notions of reproduction are framed by norms for gender and sexuality. The American anthropologist Emily Martin has for instance demonstrated how a heterosexual patriarchal paradigm is reproduced in stories about reproduction in scientific texts, while sociologist Lisa Jean Moore has analyzed how the story of reproduction in children’s literature is told in gender stereotypical terms.

Furthermore, in a series of ground-breaking articles Moore along with Matthew Schmidt demonstrate how dominant thinking about masculinity is revealed in sperm bank marketing. Sperm represents biological cells along with ”actual” men. Sperm is masculinised to such a degree that sperm donors are depicted as supermen in contrast to other men whose sperm quality isn’t as good.

Sperm with personality
Within this narrative of masculinity the microscopic sperm cell is not just a product used to create a child but rather a warrior, fighting his way forth to the egg cell.

This doesn’t just apply to commercials for sperm banks. In their analysis of Lennart Nilsson’s documentary The Miracle of Love, the Danish gender researchers Nina Lykke and Mette Bryld point out that the egg is described in more or less passive terms as waiting for the one and only. In other words, it represents a heterosexual romantic notion of release when the ultimate (and weary) warrior comes first and gets the waiting egg-princess.

With slogans like ”Congratulations. It’s a Viking!” and “Do Vikings need sturdier cribs?”, accompanied by pictures of beautiful blond, blue-eyed babies, Scandinavian Cryobank plays on a particular notion of Scandinavians in an American context – the stereotype of the civilised, handsome and intelligent Nordic male and their children.

Sperm tourism
In Europe Scandinavian Cryobank is also a well-known sperm bank. Because Swedish legislation has removed the anonymity of sperm donors, Denmark boasts of attracting sperm tourists from Sweden.

England also imports sperm from Denmark. This has resulted in headlines such as “The Vikings are back for Britain’s women” and has fanned the flames of speculation concerning the apparent poor sperm quality of English men.
Scandinavian Cryobank’s success has also sparked interest and a certain concern in North American media. Although the economic power of the consumer typically is at fore in the US, marketing of Scandinavian sperm is criticised for creating ”designer children”. What happens if you suddenly have masses of children riding their bikes around Detroit looking like small blondes kids in Aarhus?

To answer this criticism Scandinavian Cryobank has launched a new website. The Viking rhetoric is still in use, but added to the images of blond, blue-eyed babies are pictures of babies with an African and Asian appearance. We are also told that a potential buyer need not have Scandinavian blood in their veins. The Viking metaphor has evidently gone multicultural. Or has it?

Sound Scandinavian tolerance
”Congratulations. It's a Viking”, heads the picture of a black baby with curly hair. The Viking metaphor is put to clever and strategic use within a North American multicultural discourse. Pointing back to ancient days of Viking conquest the Viking comes to represent natural curiosity and modern interest in the outside world.

Of course Vikings are also infamous for their strength and brutal behaviour, but they also enjoyed the outdoor life, which according to this narrative is the actual reason why they conquered England, Greenland, Iceland and most of northern Europe. The Vikings of today are a more peaceful breed, however. The Sperm bank's "new wave Vikings" are simply curious children, exploring and challenging their local environment.

The positive multicultural narrative can also be detected in Cyrobank's emphasis on the fact that their customers come from many different places, have diverse ethnicity and also include homosexual couples. However, no sperm donors have an African background just as they also declare that they have never had a homosexual relationship.

The sperm bank’s declared openness plays on associations to the tolerant Scandinavian, just as the product is tied to another characteristic Scandinavian trait: quality, quality and yet more quality. This is underlined by a link to the Swedish company Playsams tasteful, designer toys. The dominant cultural reference "We are Scandinavian" is the positive backdrop for Scandinavian Cryobank as a company that puts the customer's wish first: The burning desire to have a child.

By focusing on Scandinavian characteristics the company’s promise is a completely healthy product: A curious child, who is also an outdoor person, peace loving and wilful. The reference to Vikings plays a central role in branding the product. At the same time the company utilises a multicultural rhetoric, exemplified by the black child, to legitimise the use of the Viking metaphor.

Along with the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard we contend that the product moves away from a particular utility value and it is instead its symbolic value that is expressed. More than anything else, we come to expect that the sperm we buy is a robust quality product just like the old Vikings who can deliver and conquer the egg. And Scandinavian Cryobank can back it up by referring to the donor children who are a result of the company's work.

The fact that we are lead to believe that we as new parents will fall in love with those tiny Viking only contributes to the romantic picture being painted and we are drawn into a dream about a cute baby that maybe even has a turned up nose.

A sensitive Viking in Hugo Boss
Scandinavian Cryobank's sperm isn't just sold as biological cells. We have to do with individual and carefully selected young men: Adam, Agge, Boie, Dagh, Ebbe, Emil, Gorm, Otto, Oluf, Karl and Hugo – they all have names with four letters and in certain cases there is a clear association to Nordic mythology.

Besides having to undergo a complete health check and present their family tree three generations back each donor has to produce a very detailed description of himself. We can for instance read that one of the donor's grandfathers was in the resistance movement during the Second World War and that his grandmother is the world's best cook.

Cryobank's staff also comment on individual donors. Their impressions are presented as a kind of neutral and reliable background knowledge, which complements the donor's own description of themselves. From Ingi's own description we know that he is 180 cms tall, has greenish brown eyes and dark hair. Added to this are comments by Cryobank's that Ingi is handsome, apparently a combination of Antonio Banderas and Johnny Depp. And he's not the only one. Dagh for instance isn't just outgoing and cheerful; Cryobank can easily imagine him as a Hugo Boss model.

Each sperm donor is described using a wide range of conventional codes. They are generally masculine, handsome and intelligent on top which they are also friendly, outgoing, cheerful and well-balanced young men, who are going to college or have a degree. Sensitive Vikings, one might say.

Personal descriptions play a central part in sperm selection. In an interview in the Danish broadsheet Jyllands-Posten, Director Ole Schou ascribed the popularity of one particular donor to the fact that he finished his description of himself with the words "God bless America".

The presentation of each individual donor doesn't vary much from other individual presentations on the Internet, for example on dating sites. Scandinavian Cryobank, however, offers more information on the future biological father and above all information is presented as objective fact.

Natural selection
According to Ole Schou customers choose a donor whose sperm will create a child that resembles the customer. And that is quite natural, says Schou in the interview in Jyllands-Posten, and that's why it is also possible to buy a picture of the donor as a baby. In that way buying sperm almost creates the same kind of chemistry that occurs between people in real life. An interpretation that turns selling and buying sperm on the Internet into something completely natural.

Apparently customers choose a donor that resembles them. Not many people, however, look like male models or have an Antonio Banderas-look alike partner, but the thought is fascinating. On top of finding a donor that resembles them, American customers have the opportunity of up-grading their appearance.

What is the significance of turning sperm into a product that possible buyers can acquire on the internet? While in Denmark you have to depend on your doctor to choose the best sperm donor, in the US however you can read far and wide about your future child's genetic material.

And as testified by the marketing of the particular virtues of Scandinavian sperm in the US, captivating tales are being told under the headline "Made in Denmark". Is it any wonder, that this Danish export is a hit in the USA?

Charlotte Kroløkke, Ph.D. in communcation and Gender Studies at the University of Southern Denmark.
Karen Foss is Regents Professor ved Department of Communication and Journalism, University of New Mexico

Translation: Annette Nielsen, MSc
Related sites
Scandinavian Cryobanks website

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