book spotlight: sex cells by rene almeling
Guest blogger emeritus Rene Almeling has a new book out: Sex Cells – The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm. Based on her dissertation and post-doctoral work, the book reports what Rene has learned about the market for donated sperm and eggs. It’s a rich book that highlights the different ways that cultural ideas about gender roles shape markets.
To take but one example, men and women are often treated quite differently by reproductive medicine professionals. Men (sperm donors) are treated almost like day laborers. For a long time, they weren’t screened aside from race (i.e., white parents want sperm from white men). They are paid poorly and their work is seen as a form of leisure. In contrast, there was historically much more attention paid to egg donors. Women who gave eggs were treated quite graciously and carefully screened. This is odd considering that we inherit a lot from both our mothers and fathers. Yet, gendered ideas about men’s sexual morality meant that men were treated as an afterthought in this market.
Family sociologists will also benefit from reading this book. I like the later chapters because they describe how the donors’ relationships to their biological offspring has changed over time, even if it is slanted by our gendered perceptions. I wouldn’t be suprised if the stable state of this field is one where you have a significant number of families that are combined biological/non-biological parents.
I see this book less as a contribution to the sociology of geneder. We already have a voluminous literature on the ways that gender roles shape the way we think about each other. Rather, this book is a contribuion to economic sociology. Neo-classical accounts of market get one thing right, there is more supply of sperm than eggs; men are cheap. But neo-classical accounts don’t quite capture how culture produces the non-pecuniary dimensions of this market. As Rene admirably captures, the reproductive medicine field is an experience as well as a place of commercial transaction. Culture mediates our experiences of this field.
This book is good reading for folks in medical sociology, history of medicine, gender, and economic sociology. Recommended!