From pants-wearing frogs to artificial insemination, the human race has come a long way in our understanding of sperm facts.
People have been fascinated by sperm for a very long time. And luckily or unluckily, as a queer woman who used donor sperm to conceive, I find I get to talk about sperm facts quite a lot. When I told my mother I didn’t plan to keep my child’s origins a secret, she responded, “Well, yeah, but you wouldn’t use the word sperm with a toddler!” Obviously, she hadn’t read Cory Silverberg’s brilliant children’s book, What Makes A Baby. The book (one of my toddler’s favorite bedtime stories) states simply, “When grown-ups want to make a baby, they need to get an egg from one body and a sperm from another body.” Thinking back on my own reproductive education, my understanding of egg and sperm facts was never so tidy. In fact, I think I was introduced to the concept of sperm in the 1989 movie Look Who’s Talking.
In the opening credits of the movie, a group of sperm (made of vinyl and fishing weights) race down a sort of tunnel. The lead sperm shouts encouragement to the others and eventually finds an egg, which he (the sperm are very clearly gendered) burrows into. As a child, I got the impression that I was witnessing something grown-ups didn’t exactly want me to know about.
So how did we get to the point of anthropomorphizing sperm in popular entertainment? To answer that question, we have to go back to the discovery of sperm itself.
Prior to the discovery of the spermatozoa, people had the vague notion that semen was important for baby-making but didn’t know much beyond that. The honor of seeing the cells themselves for the very first time went to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in 1677.
Leeuwenhoek was a microscope enthusiast who used an early microscope to examine his own semen “without sinfully defiling” himself. There’s a really great telling of the story on the public radio show Radiolab, in an episode called simply “Sperm” (though get ready for quite a lot of gender-essentialist language). But of course, seeing the “seminal worms” didn’t mean scientists understood what they were or why they were important.
While there are some delightful images of tiny people inside the head of a single sperm, in the late 1600s opinions on the subject of reproduction were quite divided. There were two camps: the spermists, who thought the soul and the blueprint for life were inside the sperm cell, and the ovists, who thought the soul was contained in the ova (or egg).
The field remained divided until the 1700s, when Lazzaro Spallanzani made tiny pants for frogs. You read that correctly. Spallanzani proved that something in semen was absolutely necessary when it came to conception…by making tiny taffeta trousers for male frogs. When the frogs mated with the pants on, the result was no tadpoles. Without the pants, conception occurred as normal. Spallanzani took it a step further and used the fluid left in the tiny pants to artificially inseminate female frogs and…surprise! Tadpoles! Spallanzani himself, however, was never convinced that it was the sperm that was vital to conception.
It wasn’t until 1876 (only 40 years before my great-grandmother was born) that someone identified the role of sperm in reproduction. That someone was Oscar Hertwig, a German zoologist and professor who witnessed the sperm and egg fuse while he was studying fertilization in sea urchins.
It’s one thing to know what scientists thought about the tiny cells, but that doesn’t necessarily explain the attitudes of everyday people at the time. The earliest sex education in America (in 1918) was for soldiers and primarily focused on the prevention of STIs, not a comprehensive guide to egg and sperm facts. By the 1920s sex ed was also being taught in some schools, and a sex ed film called The Gift Of Life specifically warned boys of the evils of masturbation. This may suggest that sperm was still elevated to a special place in the imagination, even if everyone knew there wasn’t a tiny man curled up inside each one.
Though doctors had been trying artificial insemination on humans since shortly after the frog-pants experiments, it became more common in the 1900s. In 1953, for the first time frozen sperm successfully resulted in a pregnancy. Being able to freeze sperm and use it later was a pretty big deal, and nowadays sperm banks are big business. But this technological advancement doesn’t seem to have shifted popular ideas about sperm itself.
So let’s get back to Look Who’s Talking for a moment. A sperm and an egg are both single cells. Both are necessary for reproduction. And neither has free will or thoughts. Yet, in that movie intro, the sperm cells are portrayed as willful, aggressive, wanting something and going after it. Hell, one of them even talks. In contrast, the egg is just a thing to be burrowed into. And it turns out, that’s a joke in not just one movie. An article about conception in How Stuff Works refers to sperm that make it to the fallopian tubes as “hard charging survivors.”
Where did the idea of aggressive sperm even come from? Well, it turns out it might have been Aristotle, of all people. In 1991, anthropologist Emily Martin argued that scientific descriptions of sperm and egg were largely based on “stereotypical male-female roles.” And although Aristotle lived before an actual sperm was ever seen with a microscope, he laid down a lot of our modern attitudes about conception in Generation of Animals, published around 350 BCE. Aristotle speculated that males and females had different “nutritive discharge” that contributed to conception. In this view the female contribution was nothing more than raw materials, while the male sperma directed development. It’s worth noting that in the same piece of classic literature, Aristotle claimed men have more teeth than women do (not true).
The story of sperm turns out not to be a linear one of greater knowledge leading to deeper understanding, but one of cultural biases so entrenched that even scientists can’t shake them. But I want to leave you with a bit of hope of a more nuanced understanding for future generations. While researching for this article I’ve encountered more descriptions of sperm charging through the female reproductive tract than I can count. However, I also found this encouraging explanation of how conception works on Scarleteen, a website of “inclusive, comprehensive, supportive sexuality and relationships info for teens and emerging adults.” Check this out: “A lot of people have been told about reproduction with the emphasis on sperm cells, which might be some of why some folks have imagined them as playing a way bigger part, all by themselves, than they do. So I want to flip the script here and start, instead, with ova, or egg cells.”
That statement is downright revolutionary, and it’s the perfect antidote for the laughing, racing sperm of Look Who’s Talking. For ages our understanding of sperm facts has been based on our concepts of men and what they are. But it turns out that men and sperm are two very different things, and sperm are just cells.