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
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.”