All the kit to keep you fully Zen.
1. ‘NAVA’ WATER BOTTLE, $34.95, BY KOR Hydration is essential – especially for Bikram yoga fans. This chic bottle holds 650ml and the ergonomic spout means no tilting is required. 2. ‘3 STRIPE’ TRACK PANTS, $50, BY ADIDAS These classics keep you comfy and cool while finding an inner peace. 3. MICHAEL O’NEILL ON YOGA: THE ARCHITECTURE OF PEACE, $96, BY TASCHEN Bridging the gap from ancient monasteries to suburban gym franchise, O’neill’s tome is, appropriately, a lavish meditation on yoga and those who practise. 4. FOAM ROLLER, $49.98, BY NIKE Combining trigger point pressure and massage, nothing is better for stretching out tight, weary muscles. 5. ‘URBAN’ CREW SWEAT, $150, BY 2XU Best known for compression gear that’s highly versatile, the Aussie company also produces stylish clothing, which delivers performance and comfort in equal measure. 6. ‘SOL SUDDHA ECO’ YOGA MAT, $49.99, BY GAIAM Avoid slipping around midsession with this thermoplastic elastomer mat, which is kinder to the environment compared with the PVC alternative. 7. ‘ELEMENT’ DIFFUSER, $195, BY TOM DIXON With a combination of watermelon and amber musk diffused through British charcoal, this light and fresh scent is the ideal way to create a soothing environment. 8. ‘RAW ENERGY’ POWDER, $34.95 (120g), BY AMAZONIA The formula of ginkgo, ginseng and yerba in freeze-dried coconut water releases slow and consistent amounts of energy over the course of an entire workout. Add to coconut water to help rehydrate. 9. ‘CHARGE 2+’ SPEAKER, $249, BY JBL* With sleek lines, a rugged casing and 12 hours’ playtime, it’s ideal for listening to killer tunes (not just yogic chanting music), whether indoors or out.
Houben, he name-checked two of his biggest heroes: Helena Rosa Wright, a 20th-century English pioneer of women’s rights, and a mystery man named Derek, who was called into ‘secret service’ by her. During World War I, more than 700,000 British men died in battle (in addition to millions of returning soldiers/husbands who suffered either debilitating physical injuriess or PTSD), leaving a generation of women without a way to have babies. Enter Derek – a cosmopolitan Brit who once worked on a rubber plantation in British Malaya. He was, by all accounts, charming, good-looking, a lover of ladies. As Wright witnessed the deep social cost of these frayed, childless marriages, and as science offered no practical solution (the frst ‘test tube’ child would be born six decades later, in July 1978), she hit upon an idea, one practised in other cultures. For those couples desperate for children, a quiet deal could be made. A telegram would be sent relaying likely ovulation dates and Derek would rush to the scene, impregnate the wife and vanish again. In this way, he allegedly helped to create 496 children. Whoever this dashing Derek was, and whatever his apparent charms, his were much simpler times. Today, nightmare stories abound – the donor who knew he was sterile, selflessly offering himself for sex; the prolifc contributor who was autistic; a white supremacist who donated in Scandinavia, fguring his clientele would be white. In the case of ‘Donor 7042’, a Danish man with a severe genetic disorder helped create 99 children with what the media came to call his ‘Viking sperm’. At least 10 of the children have the disorder, which can cause cancer and shorten life expectancy by 15 years. And yet by his willingness to be open, and by offering his services for free, Houben also seems to occupy a place apart from his cohort. During the four days Houben spent with GQ, his honesty caused an intense sort of whiplash. On the one hand, the logistical reality of his life was totally intriguing, and of course we were moved by the plight of the women coming to visit. But on the other hand, cynicism and disbelief crept into our thoughts. And the matter-of-fact manner in which he spoke only served to jumble up such feelings. He answers each and every question with graphic willingness and vivid detail – so political correctness was damned – and he describes the women who come to him, as if reading chapters of an illicit novel aloud. Which seems both a bit unpleasant and a violation of privacy. (And yet the questions continued.) He’s slept with concert pianists and ex-lingerie models. He’s slept with 13 doctors. There was a handicapped would-be mother whom Houben had to carry two storeys up to his apartment. Another disabled woman couldn’t control her facial expressions, he says, but when she took off her clothes, had the most beautiful body he’d seen. Then, there was the woman from a former Communist country who, unlike so many others, knew exactly how to give and derive pleasure. (“I saw a documentary about how people from former Communist countries are better lovers, because without money, that was one of their only forms of selfexpression.”) As well, there was a lesbian who told him that if she was going to be with a man once, then she wanted “to do it all”. Next come stories of the husbands. There was one from Istanbul who wrote up pages of detailed instructions, sent by email, for how to stimulate his wife in bed. After travelling all the way to Houben’s front door, he sat outside in a rental car as Houben had sex with his wife, never to meet. There were also husbands with testicular cancer and one from Belarus who lived too close to Chernobyl. Like other men of his generation, the Belarusian ended up realising he was sterile after a seemingly impossible 15 years of trying. The couple would drive 1600km to get to Maastricht and stay for three days. When Houben had sex with his wife, the husband sat in the living room, watching TV. It was peculiar, but Houben understood his pain and his willingness to try anything for a baby. “The starting point has to be, ‘Can you imagine how it feels after 15 years’ disappointment?’” he says. “You don’t start from, ‘OK, I heard I’m sterile, now I’m going to have [this guy] bang my wife.’” Yet another man arrived, scaring Houben by the sheer size of his person. He was a specialforces offcer, ripped and trained and intimidating. When his wife said she thought she was still a virgin, Houben was incredulous, until her husband dropped his pants to reveal his appendage. “Caution,” says Houben. “Some men are not well-endowed. It was really, in erect form, a pinkie fnger.” The husband said that his wife deserved the chance to have a baby and that it would be “a gift” to let her have sex with “a normal man”. Still, he stayed in the room to participate. “We kept to our zones,” says Houben. All of this honesty was, at times, too much. But the Houben Doctrine, preached often to the media, is dispassionate and simple– the system is broken; these couples are often desperate and “beyond jealousy”. A signifcant part of his willingness to be so public about what he does, to put his life on display, Houben says, is so his ‘children’ will know exactly why he acted as he did and that he, in choosing to sleep with their mothers, had their best interests at heart. Besides the actual doing of ‘it’, Houben plays other roles: quasi-therapist, quasi-friend, quasi-lover, quasi-father. His is a life revolving around ovulation thermometers, pregnancy tests, bodily fluids and occasional fleeting moments of unbridled joy when things work out – the transactional relationship is anything but simple. Spend enough time in Houben’s world, though, and you begin to get the feeling that his entire life is quasi – and fleeting. He feels he should quit by 50, when his sperm quality will likely be declining. Would he miss it? “Maybe I would miss the variety, but I’d trade it all for love anyway, a family of my own. But I have made it so that that is almost impossible.” “I cannot imagine there not being a hole in my life,” he says.
In the guestroom, then, is there an art to the lovemaking? “Normal methods,” says Houben. Missionary is best, but he prefers a side-by-side position (especially “if you’re bloody tired”, which, between a 40-hour work week and his line-up of women, he always seems to be). Foreplay, both manual and oral? yes. Later he clarifes in a text, “We see all forms of foreplay both consent to as contribution [sic] to a better chance. The more we accept each other as physical lovers, the more excited about each other we are, the more our bodies prepare for success.” Has he ever been hurt – a fall from the bed, a blow from the headboard? “No, never.” Though back in his artifcial-insemination days, he ran into a painful predicament. It came during a stretch when he was flooded with donor requests, as in, a time of excessive masturbation. “The skin got lesions, and they wouldn’t heal. Even with the help of my family doctor, I had to leave it totally alone for six weeks. I couldn’t do anything for anybody for that period. Maybe it was the universe’s intention
that a child would be created. But now it won’t.” The six weeks gave him time to retool, as it were. “That started a bit of a process in my mind,” he says, “because, you know, the natural way is always lubricated.” The oldest woman he’s ever tried with? “Forty-nine.” The longest he’s ever tried with someone? “Six years and counting.” How many tries in a day with one woman? “Five.” How many sets of twins? “Four.” Number of virgins with whom he’s had sex? “Four.” Percentage of husbands in the room during intercourse? “I would say no more than 20 per cent.” Percentage of lesbian couples? “Forty.” STDS? “I get tested every six months. If some women could have their way, the test would be no more than a week old, but no one’s going to mistake me for a heroin addict.” Ever date for fun? “What would I date for? I basically drown in one-night stands. But I would love to have a relationship.” Biggest conundrum? “Once they’re pregnant, they’re gone. It’s a bit of a hollow shell.” Strange requests? “I’ve had no requests which I categorise as strange. In that sense, I admire the courage of women who say they prefer natural method, but that’s usually it.” Ever run out of sperm? “That was a long-time concern of mine. Three days of abstinence is perfect. But there was this woman from Germany. We met at six in a hotel in Maastricht, we slept together, half an hour, everything was ducky… She was hardly gone when a Belgian couple contacted my mobile and said they were ovulating. I said, ‘OK, but there will be only two hours of abstinence,’ and they said, ‘Better a small chance than no chance.’ The small chance is now a seven-year-old girl.” In talking at to Houben, it’s natural to become curious of the couples who seek out his services. And so, he contacts new clients, who agree to meet GQ at their home in Germany. Lara, 36, answers the door smiling, while her husband, Max, 40, floats cheerily in the shadows. (Both requested anonymity.) They ‘saw’ Houben fve nights earlier, after frst meeting for a glass of wine in a town halfway between Maastricht and theirs, to make sure he wasn’t an axe murderer. Then they retired to a hotel. Two rooms – Houben took one, they the other. And at the appointed hour, Lara left Max and went next door. How Lara and Max reached this place was amazing, even to them. “If you’d told me a week into my marriage that fve years from now you’re going to fnd this Dutch guy and… Never. Ever!” says Lara. When they weren’t pregnant after six months of trying, they had tests done. They learnt that Max’s sperm was weak and that Lara was tilting towards early menopause. They realised they were part of a statistical group, the one in 10 who need help getting pregnant. They tried treatments, fve, at $8600 a pop. Lara had two miscarriages. The last, in the middle of the pregnancy, was the worst. “Everything was fne,” she says. “No pain, no bleeding. And then we came back to the clinic for the next ultrasound, and [the doctor] didn’t say anything for the frst couple of minutes. I was like, ‘Well, I can already tell what’s going on. There’s no heartbeat anymore.’ The heartbeat had just stopped.” That’s when they realised they were part of another statistical group, the one out of two for whom IVF doesn’t work. Broke and bereft, they felt boxed in. They contemplated adoption, but Lara harboured fears of legal loopholes and more heartbreak. “Being unlucky in the whole process, I didn’t feel strong enough to be able to handle it if a child was taken away from me,” she says. Years ago, as it turned out, they’d seen Houben on German TV. She’d written his name down but lost it. Three weeks ago, they were watching TV and he appeared again. They thought of it as pure serendipity. “We were sitting here that night and asked each other, ‘Yeah, what do you think about that?’” says Lara. “‘I mean, we’ve done this, this, this, and that… Why not?’” Soon enough, they were driving to meet him. “We had a good conversation. He’s seems like a nice guy. That’s enough for me. I don’t want to start a modelling company, so what do I need good looks for? I just want a real baby.” That day, Lara admits, she was nervous – as was Max – but after having been through all the hardship, she was also fairly zen. “What we learned from the last year: be humble, be patient, make peace even if it never works,” says Lara. “We’re not going to die. We’ve still got each other. We have this place. We’re pretty happy here.” She’d had one-night stands in her youth, and knew she didn’t have to, as she says, “be in love to have good sex”. Her only worry was that she “might feel like a prostitute after”, and that the feeling might alter the dynamic between her and Max. But then, in Houben’s room, she says that she never stopped thinking about Max. In the other room Max couldn’t stop thinking about her. “When I came back to our room and I saw him, I had so much appreciation,” says Lara, squeezing his hand. “That was my feeling. And for you?” she says, waiting for Max’s thoughts, which he articulated in German. “OK, so he was happy that the situation was over, and that I got out of it being OK. “Having sex is not having sex in that situation for him. It’s coming towards a target. But if I went out alone with Houben for dinner, he would get jealous.” This was a specifc kind of compartmentalisng, in which Houben served as the seed but then not much more. As soon as his function was fulflled, he began to vanish – a footnote. Perhaps it was almost besides the point to care what to make of Houben, to assess some fnal judgment or moral rank. These were unwritten pacts, wrought from secret worlds most of us would never understand. Lara and Max said they planned to keep meeting with Houben until either Lara got pregnant or “it didn’t feel right anymore”. And if they were to have a baby, would they visit him again? “That’s not how we’re thinking about it,” says Lara. A while later, following up with Lara, she said she’d had a “biochemical pregnancy” that hadn’t taken and that she was still trying with Houben. The image Lara painted – of her and Max that night in their room, wrapped in each other’s arms, having taken a big step towards their dream – is a hard one to shake. Because, next door was Houben, alone in his hotel room, remote in hand, watching a symphony on TV. It prompts thoughts of that little boy and his father on the street in Maastricht, the father pointing to the star in Houben’s window, calling him the Babymaker. “He apparently said it in such a nice way,” says Houben, when frst telling the story, “like a guy in Paris saying, ‘Oh, there’s the Eiffel Tower,’ you know, not condemning or anything.” The Babymaker. Who lives up there. Making babies. For free. Beyond judgment and loneliness. Making more babies after those babies, as many as possible, too many to count, in order to fll some hole in the world, or maybe one inside of him. For even the Babymaker doesn’t know which anymore. n