By Multimedia Producer Elisa Menendez
“The harassment has been so bad that I had one [sperm donor] pretend to be my husband and enter my office at work.”
Janine* is among a growing number of women searching for a sperm donor online.
After delaying having another baby due to the pandemic, her husband later lost the ability to have further children. They started looking into fertility clinics.
But the process was lengthy and there were few eligible donors available. Pressed for time, they decided to take their search online to find a private donor.
It didn’t take long before Janine started to be subjected to “significant levels” of sexual harassment on Facebook sperm donor groups - with one man even showing up at her workplace.
“I discovered him in my office and recognised him. I screamed and ran to a friend,” she told ITV News.
Janine has a growing list of dozens of male donors that she has blocked on Facebook after harassing her, sending her explicit images of themselves, or attempting to pressure her into sex.
But she was yet more shocked to discover that “so many” donors are also active on dogging and sex forums.
“Most of the donors who pressure us into [sexual acts] are found on swinging and dogging groups or websites," she said. "The public needs to be made aware of this.
“The majority of men who message me are creeps and it's very much an unregulated industry with men using their positions as a way to obtain sexual release.”
As more reject accredited fertility clinics and take their search online, fears have been raised about the darker side of sperm donor social media groups that leave many exposed to a host of risks.
Along with sexual harassment, concerns have been raised about the number of children some sperm donors are fathering privately, with so-called “super donors” often using spreadsheets to keep count of them all.
One sperm donor said that although there are some "truly kind donors", fertility social media groups are overrun with men who attempt to "coerce vulnerable women into sexual acts they aren't comfortable with and seem to get pleasure from their position of power".
"In my opinion, most of the active donors on these groups are there for selfish reasons - out of desperation for sex or to reproduce on a dangerous scale," he told ITV News under the condition of anonymity.
"Very few of them have procedures in place to prevent future inbreeding and do it purely for financial gain or sex addiction. On a level playing field many would be considered undesirable or deviants and some just outright dangerous."
"I believe I dodged a bullet"
A lack of obligatory health tests involved with private donations also leaves people exposed to sexually transmitted infections, while their children can be at risk of inheriting genetic conditions.
A judge recently made the "unusual step" to name a sperm donor from Nottingham, James MacDougall, after he hid his genetic condition - Fragile X syndrome which causes learning difficulties - from women responding to his adverts on Facebook groups.
He had fathered children with three women, said the judge, but in the past four years he has acted as a sperm donor in a “large number” of cases. According to Mr MacDougall, he is the father of 15 children.
The judge revealed his identity at a family court hearing in late May so other women considering using him as a sperm donor are aware of the risks.
Janine was one of those women who had responded to his ads. She had met up with Mr MacDougall and she and her partner had considered him as a potential donor for their child.
She says he did not disclose his genetic condition to her. The first she heard of it was on Facebook.
“I was going through my feed and I was shocked to discover it was James,” she said, adding that she did not believe he was "malicious" and at no point did he ever harass her.
“I'm pretty liberal, but I felt sick. I believe I dodged a bullet.
"It's why I now insist upon genetic tests for donors."
The rise in online sperm donations
Pride Angel, a worldwide online platform connecting single, gay, and infertile couples with sperm donors, has seen the number of UK donors on its site jump from 504 in 2011 to 4,938 this year - an 880% increase.
Director and co-founder Erika Tranfield said the site has seen a “significant” increase in its membership over the last few years and now has almost 100,000 members globally.
Sarah Norcross, director of fertility charity Progress Educational Trust (PET), said it’s difficult to know exactly how many people are donating sperm outside the regulated system but “anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that this number is growing”.
Experts point to a number of reasons. The first is that many believe it is quicker and cheaper.
At an accredited clinic, Intrauterine insemination (IUI) is lengthy and can cost up to several thousand pounds for prospective parents. Longer waits for clinic appointments due to the pandemic are also likely to have pushed more people online.
Secondly, there is a nationwide shortage of sperm donors in the UK going via accredited routes. The most recent research shows that more than 75% of sperm used in the UK is from overseas donors.
Despite a new PET survey finding that 53% of male respondents in the UK would consider donating their sperm, there is too much red tape involved, compounded by the absence of a national system for donors, says Ms Norcross.
“This openness to donating is being squandered because there isn’t an easy pathway to do so,” she told ITV News.
“There is a high attrition rate among sperm donors – a lot of men don’t make the grade, or when they realise the implications of donating they change their minds."
Ms Tranfield agrees the process can be off-putting for some donors. At clinics, they undergo a series of health tests, along with having counselling, providing several donations, and travelling to and from the clinic.
And donors who wish to remain anonymous have increasingly fewer chances of staying that way. A 2005 law change means donor conceived children can find out identifying information about their donor father or siblings when they turn 18, while the rise of home DNA testing and websites such as AncestryDNA and 23andMe, means it's becoming easier than ever to track down blood relatives.
The £35 payment donors receive per donation at accredited clinics is perhaps not enough of an incentive for some.
"Obviously it's no longer just a bit of beer money for a small donation that’s not a difficult act for a guy to do with no consequences,” says Ms Tranfield.
Thirdly, many parents and donors want more control over the process with the option to meet face-to-face or discuss having the donor in the child’s life, which is not possible via a fertility clinic.
This is one of the reasons Ms Tranfield, a microbiology scientist, and her former partner set up Pride Angel, a website which matches donors and parents. A fertility clinic wasn't an option because they wanted to know their donor and the alternative of looking online as a same-sex couple wasn't better as a lot of men asked for sex.
Her two daughters were born with a known sperm donor - they see him several times a year and their grandparents even more. They agreed from the outset he would take on an uncle-type role in the children's lives.
She said: “More donors like the idea of - if there are any connections in the future - why not make that from the very beginning? If you get on with somebody, doesn’t that make that a nicer process?
"And after all, 50% of the genetics of your child will come from this donor."
The 'need to seed': "I've heard of sperm donors having 120 children"
Though some men offer to donate sperm on social media groups for altruistic reasons, many treat it like a business, use it as a way of forcing women into sex or spreading their genes as widely as possible.
The UK fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), allows sperm donors to father children for up to a maximum of 10 families.
But there is no way of knowing how many children private donors are fathering. Ms Tranfield says she has come across "prolific" donors who have excel spreadsheets of how many people they've donated to and how many fell pregnant.
"They actually call them ‘kills’," she explained. "So every time they successfully help somebody achieve pregnancy, they call it a ‘kill’.
"Those donors are motivated by ‘the need to seed’. They just want to create as many genetic connections as possible.
“I’ve heard of people having 120 children, 80. They can be quite high numbers - worryingly so.
“Once they’re done in one area, they will spread out, then some will start to donate in other countries.”
This raises a host of concerns, including the risk siblings unknown to one another could unwittingly commit incest as adults.
Experts warn of genetic sexual attraction - a phenomenon in which intense attraction can develop between biological family members when they meet after a long period of separation. For some, they can mistake their sibling connection as one that is sexual.
However, even those who go through accredited HFEA clinics could be donating privately too. And there is no law stopping them from donating to as many families as they wish.
“Everybody thinks that the [HFEA] guidelines that are in place are fail proof but they’re not. You don’t know where else they’re donating to," said Ms Tranfield.
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How it works
The process of finding a donor online initially seems simple. Those looking to fall pregnant on the groups - often lesbian couples and single women - share posts with varying amounts of information. Some simply list the dates they are ovulating and ask for urgent meet-ups. Others introduce themselves and their partner, state what they are looking for in a donor, along with a list of requirements like health checks, offer of payment or travel costs, and their preferred method of insemination.
Donors share advert-like posts with some including photos and and their reasons for wanting to help people fall pregnant. Others create graphics promoting their "services", with some boasting of so-called “superior" or "strong" genes and "high success rates". Some suggest recipients travel to their home and perhaps stay overnight nearby, or that they insert the sperm donation in the back of a car after meeting.
Many women make it clear they only accept artificial insemination (AI), which sees the recipient insert the sperm donation herself, usually without the donor present.
But ITV News found some donors reply to posts immediately - and only - asking "what method?" and "please state preferred method", while others insist they will only perform "NI" (natural insemination - sex) as it is the most effective way - despite the science not backing this.
Others instead suggest “PI”, partial insemination, which sees the donor masturbate and insert his penis in the recipient at the point of ejaculation, or “AI+”, in which the recipient won’t be touched but will be asked to do something arousing to the donor. They say they feel "more comfortable" having sex, and provide examples of when a recipient's partner has been in the room watching to make them feel more at ease.
“When people are in situations whereby they’re desperate to have children - they could believe that," adds Ms Tranfield, who says her website Pride Angel immediately removes members who ask for sex or money, unless for expenses.
“And there are guys out there that will proactively seek lesbians because it’s a bravado thing.”
So far, Janine and her husband, who have been looking on Facebook donor groups for some months, have rejected more than 60 online donors - many because they immediately asked for natural or partial insemination.
"A few asked for AI+ to help them ejaculate," she said. "Many men try to make up excuses or convince me that AI isn't that effective and they provide anecdotal claims.
"Other men were rejected because they were married and doing this in secret, or just live too far away."
She showed ITV News examples of concerning messages she has received by different male donors. One threatened her after she refused sexual acts and sent nudes. Others wrote lengthy paragraphs trying to persuade her otherwise.
"I have received plenty of penis pics and fluid messages," she said. "I am not alone and other women in these groups have experienced similar incidents."
But she is concerned the true scale of harassment on such groups is being covered up. Many who try to warn others or complain find their posts removed or not approved by admins.
Some sperm donation groups are run by donors themselves who "egg each other on" and "big themselves up" by pretending to be parents and recommending each other, said Ms Tranfield.
ITV News has seen examples of some male donors rallying around each other and posting abusive comments to those who complain about them, while one woman claimed she paid a man more than £100 for a donation she does not believe was actually sperm.
And there are not only a host of health and safety risks involved, but legal too.
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Jade Quirke, a senior associate at Russell Cooke solicitors specialising in surrogacy, adoption and children law, told ITV News many parents and sperm donors are unaware of their rights when they enter into these arrangements which can become "problematic" further down the line.
A sperm donor would not be classed as the legal father (and therefore not legally or financially responsible) if they donate to a couple who are either married or civilly partnered at the moment of conception.
“However, if he donated to either a solo parent or a lesbian couple that aren’t married or in a civil partnership, and conception takes place artificially outside a UK licensed clinic, then that means he will be a legal parent and he will have financial responsibility for the child," explained Ms Quirke.
"That doesn’t mean necessarily the sperm donor is then going to be named on the child’s birth certificate and have a role in the child’s life, but from a legal perspective, it’s quite significant and I think many people don’t realise that is the legal position."
Ms Quirke said she would encourage people to put in place a pre-conception or donor agreement before going ahead. Though it is not legally binding, it helps make sure all parties are aligned, and if necessary, would be considered in any potential court proceedings.
“I often find that the reality of the situation is very different to what everyone perhaps thought pre-conception," she added.
"Nobody's regulating this"
Despite the risks involved, experts ITV News spoke to were not against private donor arrangements and understood why many are rejecting accredited fertility clinics for this route.
Ms Quirke added: "There are risks. There are risks with any sort of fertility treatment. But women will continue to do it [private arrangements], and they should be allowed to do it, but there needs to be greater protection, awareness and understanding."
Janine has also not been deterred and still hopes she and her husband will find the right donor for them.
But now, she wants to see more transparency on social media donor groups and believes more restrictions should be put in place to stop more people going through what she has.
"Social media allows them to maintain their anonymity without revealing their ID. I firmly believe this needs to be regulated and ID checks performed," she insisted.
"I would like to see legislation now put in place requiring that all donors submit valid IDs, and undergo a genetic test. So far, some just go for a standard STI - and that's if you are lucky."
Pride Angel's Ms Tranfield added: “There is nobody at all regulating the social media sites and the risk is therefore quite considerable if you are not informed."
"There is no information about the dos and don'ts, what's right and what's wrong."
A Meta - the company formerly known as Facebook - spokesperson said: “We know that Facebook can be a place where people talk about a variety of personal and medical issues, which we allow. This can include communities discussing issues related to fertility. However, we have explicit rules against harassment and sexual solicitation to help keep people safe. We remove this content when we find it and encourage people to report it to us if they see it.’’
*We have changed Janine's name to protect her identity.