28 May 2012
Edwin Davies is a freelance writer and critic whose writing on film, television and culture has been featured on Box Office Prophets and the Guardian. His work can be found at A Mighty Fine Blog.Appeared in BioNews 658
Sperm Counts: Overcome by Man's Most Precious Fluid
Published by New York University Press
ISBN-10: 0814757189, ISBN-13: 978-0814757185
Buy this book from Amazon UK
The fluidity of semen is an idea that Lisa Jean Moore returns to throughout her book 'Sperm Counts: Overcome by Man's Most Precious Fluid', though she is often less concerned with the physical qualities of the substance than she is with its fluidity as a concept.
Though the early chapters of the book do offer a brief, comprehensive account of the physical properties of semen and its constituent parts, the main thrust of her interest lies in the way it is perceived. This relatively simple and ubiquitous substance can mean very different things depending on its context: semen means one thing to a doctor, quite another to a prostitute or a porn star.
In pursuit of these potential meanings, each chapter focuses on a different context, offering illuminating examinations of the different concepts seminal fluid has represented over time, as well as the ways some attitudes towards it have changed, while others remain the same.
For example, the first chapter focuses on the different historical and cultural ideas surrounding semen, such as Thomas Aquinas's notion that the purpose of semen is to recreate itself – since semen comes from men, it is meant to create more men, and so women must be created from men with 'weak' sperm. This plays into one of the earliest ideas about sperm; that they contained tiny people, or homunculi, who then grew inside the womb.
While the concept of the homunculi fell away, Moore argues that it was outlived by the idea that a man's qualities are reflected in his semen. It became wrapped up in moralistic ideas about the ramifications of promiscuity and masturbation, both of which were seen as wastes of semen that could lead to illness, madness and death, as they weakened men's constitutions.
Going even further than that, though, Moore highlights that the correlation between a man's sense of masculinity and self - or of being a 'real man' - and his semen still persists to this day, exemplified by the view some hold that having a low sperm count makes you less of a man. The idea of semen as the essence of a man also survives in the way athletes are discouraged from sexual activity before an event, lest it might somehow take away some of their power.
The relation between semen, sperm, and ideas of masculinity occupies the majority of the book, and provides some fascinating insights. Moore displays an especial interest in the way in which sperm is anthropomorphised in order to give it traditionally masculine characteristics – describing them as assertive or competitive, and with the implied athleticism of being good or bad 'swimmers' – and the way these notions are reinforced from a very early age.
In a particularly fascinating chapter, Moore dissects a number of books designed to teach the 'birds and the bees' to young children. She argues that through metaphor, euphemism and abstraction the writers, whether intentionally or not, reinforce gender stereotypes by portraying sperm as being male and making them out to be heroic, active figures overcoming obstacles to achieve a goal. The egg, meanwhile, is overwhelmingly depicted as being female, and remains passive.
Moore's argument goes that, through these semiotic signifiers, as well as a general lack of discussion of alternative methods of reproduction or family units, these books serve to reinforce conservative, heteronormative ideas of gender and sex that run counter to the overall progression of society.
Such alternatives also serve as the background for one of Moore's most compelling ideas: that sperm banks and artificial insemination, by altering means of procreation, could be seen as an attack on the traditional roles of men in society as fathers.
However, Moore is quick to point out that since sperm banks have very strict selection criteria, and overwhelmingly prefer men who represent traditional ideas of masculinity, they actually reinforce the very ideas their processes threaten. Moore handles these contradictions deftly, weaving a complicated image of the issues at play, though she offers frustratingly little comment on the grey areas into which sperm banks enter when they favour the sperm of 'more desirable' men over others.
'Sperm Counts' is a lively, witty and hugely accessible examination of a subject that is so often left under-discussed. Moore's line of argument is compelling, even if her focus is occasionally myopic, and always provocative, asking pointed questions about ideas of masculinity in Western society in an inquisitive tone that is engaging and insightful. It's a truly seminal work.
Buy Sperm Counts: Overcome by Man's Most Precious Fluid from Amazon UK.