I, was sitting in a cafe recently, doing something I don't normally do — chatting about sperm. In fact, I was chatting about sperm with another guy. We were talking about the news that, as from now, sperm can be cloned in a laboratory.
“It's only mice, so far,” I said.
“How do they do it?”
“They take a bit of a stem cell, I think, and ... ”
What interested us much more, though, was the response, in various newspapers and broadcasts, to the news of this research. The response, essentially, was the question “Will this make men redundant?” In other words, when the technology develops to the extent that it can be used on humans, will a significant number of women want to be fertilized without using sperm that has been acquired by the old-school method?
And, if they do, how will this make men feel?
Pretty bad, was my initial feeling.
After all, biologically speaking, a man is two things. He is, first, a sperm-making factory, and, second, a sperm-shooting machine.
So it would not be surprising if, on some level, men felt put out — a little emasculated, even — by the “artificial” sperm production technique. Soon, if you want sperm, you will be able to get it without going to the traditional sperm factory. You might say that, for men, this is rather like owning a cotton plantation, and reading about the discovery of nylon.
Maybe some men will be relieved to read that, so far, the new cloned sperm are a bit like nylon. They work — sort of. But when you make something out of them, the end product is less durable and more likely to be faulty.
Earlier medical research on sperm, which showed that it could be frozen and then implanted at a later date, was, if anything, comforting. This meant that you could freeze your sperm, and then, if you died, your genes might still have a chance of being passed on. This also meant that if, at a later stage of your life, you lost your capacity as a sperm-shooting machine, nobody need know. Well, nobody outside your close family, anyway.
Cloned sperm, of course, is a different matter. One day, some time in the near future, the scientists might get it right. And then what? Since the dawn of time, men have always known that, whatever they do, however badly they behave, they are still the only place to go if you want sperm.
Well, possibly not for much longer. Won't this affect us, somewhere deep inside our brains?
Maybe a little bit, we decided. And then we tried to imagine what would happen if the situation were reversed. If scientists discovered a way of cloning eggs from stem cells, would men even consider the possibility of doing without women? Would newspaper articles trumpet the possible redundancy of the female half of the species?
“Never,” I said. “Men would never want to get rid of women.”
“Yes, but that's not to say they feel the same way about us.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, look at how we revere women and their eggs. And compare that with how sperm is depicted.”
I could see his point. How is sperm depicted? We see it as messy, at best. And also a bit creepy, a bit sinister. The presence of sperm — or semen, the fluid in which it is contained — is a potential violation. It is an insult. Remember the scene in Fight Club in which a restaurant worker adulterates the food with his semen? And the follow-up article in which the author of Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk, tells the story of how he was approached by a waiter who had seen the film of Fight Club, and who told him, “Margaret Thatcher has eaten my sperm.”