Do we ever see sperm in a good light? When it appears in cinema, we wrinkle our faces in disgust. We see it in Atomized, the film version of the novel by Michel Houellebecq, when a pervert teacher masturbates onto an essay written by one of his pupils. And in the final scene of the film Happiness, when a teenage boy masturbates out of a window. Then he ejaculates, and the camera tracks the progress of a dog. The dog eats the semen. Todd Solondz, the director, seems to be signing off with a smirk, and also a visual “yuck!”
It gets worse. The feminist Andrea Dworkin saw a link between the idea of ejaculation and spending money — after all, to “spend” means to ejaculate. And, while women “use money especially for adornment so that they will be desirable to men,” men, on the other hand, spend money the way they ejaculate — for pleasure. For Dworkin, women buy beauty, and men buy women. She goes further: “Violence is male; the male is the penis; violence is the penis or the sperm ejaculated from it.” Now think of the traditional “cum shot” in pornography. It's a demonstration of Dworkin's thinking. It's about power and arrogance.
The gentlest depiction of sperm I can think of comes from Woody Allen, in the film Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask. Here, we see Allen in the role of an anxious sperm as he prepares to be ejaculated into the great beyond. He's worried about all the rumors he's heard, particularly the one about being slammed into a vast wall made of rubber. You laugh, partly because you feel sorry for him; you know that, in the brutal Darwinian world of sperm competition, he will never make it.
To understand the relationship between a man and his sperm — to understand, that is, why he is just like a walking, talking sperm — you have to go right back to the most primitive form of life you can imagine. Think of prehistoric fungi in the primordial swamp. These early forms of life were not divided into males and females; they did not have male and female reproductive cells (or gametes). They just had plain gametes. When sexual reproduction occurred, it was between equals. And then something important happened, something that, countless millions of years later, would make men behave badly. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
In his classic book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins tells us about the process that turned equal-opportunity gametes into male and female sex cells. Imagine, for a moment, that the primordial soup is a kind of office party peopled only by one sex, and that these one-sex gametes are all the same, and that they all fancy each other. As Dawkins points out, they would be roughly the same size. They would each contain 50 percent of the genes needed for reproduction, and enough nutrition to feed the growing embryo.
But, Dawkins wonders, what if some of the gametes happened to be just a little bit bigger than the others? These cells would have a genetic advantage, because they would contain more food for the embryo. But this would have had an unbalancing effect on the gamete population. Now, a smaller gamete would have its own distinct advantage. As long as it could dock with a bigger, food-carrying gamete, it would not need to be so big and cumbersome. According to Dawkins, then, natural selection favors two types of sex cells — large ones with plentiful food supplies, and small ones with fast propellers. Medium-sized gametes have no advantage, and so they die out.