A RE­PORT ON ‘THE BABYMAKER’, THE MAN WHO TOOK SPERM DO­NA­TION INTO HIS OWN BED.

Ed Houben is Europe’s most vir­ile man. And af­ter years of do­nat­ing sperm the ‘nor­mal’ way (ster­ile room, cup, cash), he and some women want­ing to get preg­nant for free be­gan cut­ting out the mid­dle­men and get­ting it done as na­ture prefers. To­day, Houben ha

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A lit­tle while back a woman – an ovu­lat­ing pro­fes­sor from Ger­many – ar­rived in Maas­tricht, the Nether­lands, to a neigh­bour­hood just be­yond the city cen­tre. She parked her car at a dis­tance from her des­ti­na­tion so as not to be recog­nised (she knows a few pro­fes­sors in Maas­tricht), and was briskly mov­ing down the foot­path to­ward the apart­ment of Ed Houben, when she got caught be­hind a fa­ther walk­ing his lit­tle boy. The fa­ther and son drifted past the square, but when they came upon Houben’s flat, the fa­ther pointed a fin­ger in the dark, and the boy looked up to the third floor where a star-shaped lantern was lit in a win­dow. “That is where the Babymaker lives,” the fa­ther said. Later, when he heard the story from the ovu­lat­ing pro­fes­sor, the Babymaker was de­lighted, for not ev­ery­one ac­cepts what he does, and so he spends a lot of time ex­plain­ing the where­fores and what-hows of his vo­ca­tion, of­ten with a star­tling dose of Dutch hon­esty. The frst time Houben slept with an­other man’s wife was in Am­s­ter­dam. It was 13 years ago, he was 32, feel­ing unattrac­tive, con­vinced no woman would ever con­sider hav­ing sex with him again. He wasn’t a vir­gin, but the sex­ual en­coun­ters that had come his way were, frankly, as rare as dogs in space. In fact, it had been 10 years since his last en­counter, though he claimed not to miss it, the sex that is, busy as he was with his job, vol­un­teer­ing for the na­tional guard and war re-en­act­ments that a man of his in­ter­ests can get sucked into. How­ever, he’d made a huge de­ci­sion. Con­vinced that hav­ing a fam­ily might not be on the cards for him, Houben (pro­nounced ‘who-been’) de­cided to be­come a sperm donor. He would show up twice a month at the clinic, ‘pro­duc­ing’ in the des­ig­nated room into a cup for cash. The frst time he went, they didn’t even take his name. It couldn’t have been more cold and im­per­sonal. “I was sort of ex­pect­ing this gift of life to be re­ceived with sirens and fan­fare,” says Houben. “I re­mem­ber say­ing, ‘Hello?’ and some­body from an­other room an­swered, ‘Yes?’ ‘I have a cup here.’ ‘Oh, yes. Leave it on the ta­ble.’” The more Houben do­nated, the more he de­sired some in­ti­macy from the process. He be­gan to ad­ver­tise his will­ing­ness to do house calls on var­i­ous web­sites. Pro­duce a sam­ple in the down­stairs bath­room, de­liver it up­stairs – knock, knock – and re­treat again, let­ting the clients take it from there. And on this oc­ca­sion, here in Am­s­ter­dam, he an­tic­i­pated it would be no dif­fer­ent. The woman had met him at the train sta­tion on her bike, and to­gether they walked to her house, where they met her hus­band. She made some din­ner, and they talked – wife, hus­band, Houben – un­til about 11pm. She smoked a joint and went up­stairs, ner­vously. Houben had worked a full day in Maas­tricht and then took the train two-anda-half hours north. He’d missed the last train back. It was pos­si­ble, he thought, that he was too ser­vice-minded. The man kept chat­ting with him un­til, at mid­night, Houben said, “Look, I really have to cut this short, be­cause tomorrow I’m on the frst train…” He knew how badly the couple wanted a baby and how badly he wanted to help. Sperm do­na­tion, as crazy as it sounds, was what now gave mean­ing to his life. As for the couple, he un­der­stood that theirs was what they call in the Nether­lands a ‘traffc-light re­la­tion­ship’, one minute green and one minute red. The light was green now, but the man was ster­ile, hav­ing been snipped. “I have to ask you a ques­tion,” Houben asked the man, “be­cause maybe you no­tice she’s ner­vous all the time…” “Yes, I’ve no­ticed,” said the man, and then he ex­plained. “She’s an artist,” he said, “and she feels very con­nected to na­ture. Ba­si­cally she can’t imag­ine a happy child will be cre­ated from a sy­ringe. She asked me to ask you – be­cause she’s too shy – if you would con­sider cre­at­ing this child the nat­u­ral way.” At this, Houben found him­self fus­tered. “I really didn’t know what to say. I felt caught in a sit­u­a­tion which many men would fnd highly stim­u­lat­ing. Here’s a guy ask­ing you to have sex with his wife with­out wor­ry­ing about con­se­quences and my ro­man­tic re­ac­tion was, ‘Do you have an STD test?’” He was perched, of course, on the di­vid­ing line be­tween two lives – be­tween be­ing an ar­tif­cial in­sem­i­na­tor of women and a nat­u­ral one. He thought it over for 15 min­utes – a long time to leave a woman and her hus­band in limbo. He was think­ing: ‘Is there any eth­i­cal rea­son not to do this? Who would I hurt? Af­ter all, this was the way seven bil­lion peo­ple on earth have been cre­ated.’ Fi­nally, Houben de­cided he would help them. They climbed the stairs and en­tered the room, and the woman was re­lieved to see him there. When Houben turned to her hus­band to say “I’ll take it from here,” he al­ready had his pants off. “We were three per­sons in the bed, and I was so sur­prised that I didn’t know what to say. I had this com­bat in­side – my head full of non-stim­u­lat­ing thoughts – but he never even ac­ci­den­tally touched

me. He sim­ply wanted to be present when his child was cre­ated.” Af­ter that night, Houben had no prob­lem if hus­bands wanted to be on hand while he

limit him­self to mar­ried, het­ero­sex­ual some­thing ed­i­fy­ing about this mar­ried were on a jour­ney – one as pri­vate as their wives. And in this strange, di­choto­mous act of largesse and cuck­old­ing, Houben him­self might save them from self-re­crim­i­na­tion and ego-free fall. By shar­ing his seed with their wives in this way, in the ovu­la­tion go-zone, he might pro­vide them with the great­est gift of all – a no-strings-at­tached baby. And in so do­ing, com­plete their fam­ily with the fi­nal puz­zle piece. What he least ex­pected in re­turn was grat­i­tude, but that’s what he got. Houben is now, at 46, one of the pre­em­i­nent makers of ba­bies on the planet, fa­ther to 106 chil­dren of whom two-thirds were made the nat­u­ral way and the other third made by ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion. In ad­di­tion, there are 30 or so he es­ti­mates from his years at the clinic. Put an­other way, Houben, who was at one point only hav­ing sex once a decade, has fa­thered roughly 10 kids ev­ery year for the past 15 years. And he’s still at it, thump­ing his way into history. So prodi­gious is his legacy the BBC asked if he was ‘Europe’s most vir­ile man’, while he of­ten gets billed by me­dia as ‘the Sper­mi­na­tor’. The pre­req­ui­site for his call­ing, he be­lieves, is full trans­parency. Visit his web­site – with the tagline, ‘It is nice you found my web­site!’ – and you’ll dis­cover that he has tested neg­a­tive for gon­or­rhea and chlamy­dia. You can see, too, that he’s tested neg­a­tive for syphilis and HIV. You can gaze upon pic­tures of him, one in which he kneels be­side one of his small chil­dren, from some years ago when he was a bit more youth­ful. Nev­er­the­less, he’s quick to de­scribe him­self as a truly ugly fat guy with glasses. An en­do­mor­phic bach­e­lor with a some­what block-shaped head and lower grill of un­even teeth, he lives in a five-room apart­ment, univer­sity hum­ble but rel­a­tively roomy by Dutch stan­dards, from which his mother comes and goes, of­ten cook­ing and clean­ing for him. He doesn’t own a car and cy­cles every­where, no mat­ter what the weather. In short, Houben might be the world’s least likely nat­u­ral in­sem­i­na­tor (known in the donor world as an NI, as op­posed to an AI, or ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tor) – and maybe the best, if there’s such a thing. Re­gard­less, he’s a nor­mal-seem­ing per­son liv­ing a spec­tac­u­larly ab­nor­mal life. He drinks cof­fee and goes to work (work he won’t spec­ify for his em­ployer’s sake, but it in­volves shar­ing his love for Maas­tricht and its history at an an­nual salary of 18,000 eu­ros). He strolls the Old City, greet­ing those he knows with a cheery smile and slightly stiff for­mal­ity. But then, his out­side-of-work sched­ule is con­structed around an ever-shift­ing line-up of assig­na­tions, all de­ter­mined by the ovu­la­tion cy­cles of his clients – the women who come to him from the coun­tries of Europe, from Brazil and Aus­tralia, Hong Kong and Ja­pan. And some­times they fly him across the world for the same, sole pur­pose. In one record week, he had six part­ners and 14 ejac­u­la­tions (re­leas­ing around four bil­lion sperm), not that he was count­ing. He’s also slept with three women in a day, and dur­ing one par­tic­u­lar fruit­ful streak suc­cess­fully im­preg­nated eight women in a row. In an ar­ti­cle pub­lished a few years ago, one of Houben’s nu­mer­ous would-be moth­ers, one to whom he reached out on a fer­til­ity site, says, “Ed is so un­prob­lem­atic. You don’t even no­tice him.” An­other com­mented, “It’s nice, what he does. But on the other side, I’m sure it’s not that he has to force him­self. He’s a man... maybe 50 per cent really wants to help with start­ing a fam­ily, and the other 50 per cent likes hav­ing sex with women he finds at­trac­tive. I don’t really see a prob­lem in that. No one is al­lowed to have fun hav­ing sex? He’s not forc­ing any­one.” Houben claims that, over time, he’s been able to shed his self­con­scious­ness in the boudoir – com­ing to in­habit his role as spermprovider/lover with con­fi­dence, stress­ing the fact that, ac­cord­ing to his own in­ter­net re­search, odds of con­cep­tion are higher by the nat­u­ral method, and higher, again, if a woman has an or­gasm (ex­perts dis­agree on whether ei­ther is true). Though it’s been a while since the Babymaker had his sperm tested, pre­vi­ous anal­y­sis sug­gested that his swim­mers are more po­tent than av­er­age, and he guesses that to­day, at 46, his sperm is prob­a­bly “sim­i­lar to some­one else’s in their twen­ties”. Houben also claims to be an egal­i­tar­ian in the bed­room. He em­pha­sises that for a decade he ac­cepted women re­gard­less of their at­trac­tive­ness. (In the past three years, how­ever, he’s re­vised his pol­icy, ask­ing for pic­tures. “All women are per­fect,” he says, “but phys­i­cally some are more per­fect than oth­ers.”) He says his im­pe­tus was sim­ple: that a nor­mal guy like him could make a dif­fer­ence in a woman’s – or a couple’s – world full of empti­ness. And for those who find them­selves at the end of the line – with lit­tle dig­nity and money left – he of­fers his ser­vices for free, as he feels that life shouldn’t have to be bought. “I’m rich in chil­dren,” he says, “but not in money.” When you first meet Houben, he seems highly adept at this par­tic­u­lar sort of brand­ing – the self-ef­fac­ing self-ag­gran­dis­e­ment. He’s help­ing peo­ple, not tak­ing ad­van­tage of any­one. He’s giv­ing, not hav­ing sex with strangers. He’s quick to tell a story about in­form­ing his friends for the first time, fear­ing that they would re­gard him as de­bauched, and to his re­lief be­ing called no­ble. And it’s dis­ori­ent­ing, for he lives in what might be con­sid­ered a morally am­bigu­ous space that he ar­gues isn’t am­bigu­ous at all. “I really be­lieve chil­dren should be con­ceived from an act of kind­ness and that they de­serve to know their fa­ther as more than a num­ber,” he says. “I for­bid my­self to feel proud of what I do. I don’t have any chil­dren – other peo­ple have chil­dren be­cause of my small con­tri­bu­tion.” To that end, his pact with cou­ples and would-be sin­gle moth­ers reads like this: to be there if you want your chil­dren to know their bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther, or if later they want to find me them­selves, to not stalk or try to re­pos­sess said chil­dren. To trust and ac­cept the tacit agree­ment we’ve made, with­out a signed con­tract or threat of child sup­port, that in pro­cre­at­ing, all par­ent­ing is ceded to the mother while main­tain­ing a dis­tant in­ter­est only ac­ti­vated by their, or the child’s, ap­proach. (To date, his leap of faith seems to have paid off: not one of his clients has sued him for child sup­port.)

De­pend­ing on your van­tage point, his credo might seem rev­o­lu­tion­ary or ma­nip­u­la­tive, un­palat­able or gen­er­ous. So is Ed Houben a self-styled saviour or sex ma­chine – or is it pos­si­ble, in this blurry age of in­be­tween­ity, to be both at once?

Even though his life might seem like a gang­ster’s par­adise, when plans fall apart, Houb­den can feel “quite sad or even an­gry for a few min­utes. In [both] my job and in do­nat­ing, I’m to­tally de­pen­dent on what other peo­ple want me to do.” He speaks of a re­cent sit­u­a­tion when a couple of women can­celled their ap­point­ments due to ill­ness and sched­ul­ing con­flicts, which, as it un­folded in a flurry of texts, left Houben won­der­ing if theirs had been more an is­sue of cold feet. Still, at his apart­ment on a calm Thurs­day evening, af­ter hav­ing ‘per­formed on de­mand’ with an ovu­lat­ing sur­geon who’d driven two hours for a one-hour ses­sion, the spin­ning world seemed some­what put back on its axis. Houben was loung­ing, hair di­shev­elled, belly pro­trud­ing from the bot­tom of his shirt, in a sat­is­fied post-coital haze on the couch. Look­ing at the man from both sides, he’s one who’s both help­ing peo­ple and ac­tu­al­is­ing him­self in the most Dar­winian sense. A half­hearted plate of grapes and some crack­ers sit on the cof­fee ta­ble, no doubt on of­fer for the woman who’d just left. Ex­actly three grapes have been plucked from their stems. “I’ve helped rich peo­ple, poor peo­ple, peo­ple who in their coun­try are fa­mous,” he says. “They all come be­cause they’ve reached a point of des­per­a­tion with re­spec­tive med­i­cal sys­tems, and I of­fer my­self as a bet­ter op­tion than a one-night stand.” How home vis­its typ­i­cally work de­pends upon whether one is a new vis­i­tor or a re­peat. In the case of a re­peat, as the sur­geon was, both par­ties can dis­pense with the for­mal­i­ties and, af­ter some fresh­en­ing up and a quick chat, pretty much get down to busi­ness. Of­ten, the women are driv­ing some dis­tance with plans to turn around and re­turn home that same evening. But in the case of new would-be moth­ers, Houben will sit for as long as nec­es­sary to achieve some level of con­nec­tion and com­fort, then even­tu­ally, if in agree­ment, move the ac­tion to the gue­stroom. “This is where the magic hap­pens, the cre­ation of life,” he says, show­ing GQ into a cramped war­ren, with­out a hint of irony. The gue­stroom fea­tures the en­tice­ments of cou­pling: a dou­ble bed draped with a pink bed­spread. Night­stands, one on ei­ther side, hold books tout­ing baby first names and sin­gle-mum sur­vival kits, moth­er­hood and preg­nancy tips. There’s a framed mantra on ei­ther stand, one in blue and one in pink, that reads ‘Keep Calm and Have a Baby’. On the bot­tom shelves, there are pads and new un­der­wear, of­fer­ings of bottled wa­ter and juice. Some­times a woman might leave a lit­tle gift for the next woman – lo­tion, an un­opened preg­nancy test. Among the items adorn­ing the room is a stat­uette of a preg­nant woman with a child touch­ing her belly. When Houben has a vis­i­tor, he’s also happy for her to spend the night – what­ever’s eas­i­est. And de­pend­ing on the sched­ule, he’s happy to try mul­ti­ple times. Ev­ery­thing gets a lit­tle trick­ier, though, when peo­ple travel to the Nether­lands from as far away as Aus­tralia and some­times stay up to 10 days. He’s al­ways clear with the would-be moth­ers that he has a sched­ule to keep, synced to the ovu­la­tion cy­cles of oth­ers. (He can have a dozen women in ro­ta­tion at any given time.) If he has free time dur­ing their stay – which is rare – he’s happy to act as a tour guide in Maas­tricht or to ac­com­mo­date his vis­i­tor with ad­vice. He turns over the guest room to them, pro­vides an ex­tra set of keys to the apart­ment and ex­plains the bus sys­tem. If it seems a louche lib­er­tine life, Houben’s also run­ning his own sort of free, ex­is­ten­tial Airbnb, in­stantly meet­ing new peo­ple, tak­ing on both their woes and ela­tions. Prob­lems can arise when some­one de­sires time out­side the bed­room – or even declarations of love (six, so far). And this is where it’s tricky, lines blur, and even Houben gets con­fused at times. In the 13 years of do­ing this work, he claims to have had three girl­friends, all of whom were clients but iron­i­cally none of whom had ba­bies by him. At the mo­ment, a Viet­namese woman wants non­busi­ness time, but her visit will over­lap with a couple sched­uled to ar­rive from Tai­wan, which causes no small amount of con­ster­na­tion. In the messy of­fice at the other end of the apart­ment from the gue­stroom, Houben shows pic­tures of some of the women, and their chil­dren, at least half of whom he’s met – ‘Ja­cob’ from Jerusalem, ‘Eve’ from Berlin. Some are of mixed race, some of var­i­ous re­li­gions: – a Mus­lim daugh­ter, a son who is Ortho­dox Jewish. Some­times he for­gets their names. “This one looks like her mother… this one looks like her fa­ther,” he says, flick­ing through the im­ages. “It seems like half my kids have blond hair and blue eyes. From what I learnt about ge­net­ics in school, some­times I won­der, how come?” That evening, Houben has a Skype call sched­uled with a prospec­tive would-be mother. She’s from Bel­gium, blonde and pretty, with a sad sweet­ness in her voice. She al­ready has one child, and her hus­band, the love of her life, died sud­denly in an accident. She des­per­ately wants one more child to com­plete her fam­ily, which is what has led her to Houben. They speak a while, in Ger­man. Is he at­tracted to her? “No, not yet,” Houben says. “If I had to choose a model for the cover of my mag­a­zine, I would not put her in first place. But I also find kind­ness at­trac­tive, so I’m giv­ing her the ben­e­fit of the doubt. When we meet, there will be per­sonal sym­pa­thy.” There’s no blueprint for a ca­reer in hands-on pro­cre­ation, no job coun­sel­lor urg­ing the lat­est crop of col­lege grad­u­ates into a life of for­ni­ca­tion. If there were, we might all just re­treat to the canopy and call our­selves bono­bos. And yet there is a his­tor­i­cal prece­dent. Con­tin­ued on page 144

I’m rich in chil­dren, but not in money.”

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