Female Sperm and the Future of Reproduction

Genevieve Smart introduces us to the bioart of Charlotte Jarvis and Susana M. Chuva de Sousa Lopes who, through creating female sperm, seek to disrupt normative ideas around sex and reproduction.

In the wake of recent scientific breakthroughs, sperm and eggs manufactured from human stem cells are increasingly heralded as the ‘future of reproduction’ (Witt, 2023).

In March last year, biologist Katsuhiko Hayashi successfully produced “mice with two dads” from male eggs (Ledford, 2023). Three months later, Cambridge researchers developed the first ever ‘stembryos’: synthetic human embryos derived from human stem cells (Weatherbee et al, 2023). With each passing month, we are one step closer to a reproductive future where same-sex couples can produce genetically-linked children, where up to four people can produce an embryo, where men can produce eggs, and where women can produce sperm.
 
A major contribution to these developments comes from a collaboration between bioartist Charlotte Jarvis and scientist Susana M. Chuva de Sousa Lopes: In Posse (2020-25), a project seeking to produce the world’s first viable female sperm and to reexamine our definitions of family, reproduction, and sex difference.

In Posse: Female Semen Version 1. Photo Credit: Miha Godec

In Posse is divided into three components. Firstly, Jarvis and de Sousa  are creating ‘female’ sperm from Jarvis’ skin and blood cells. By genetically reversing Jarvis’ adult cells into pluripotent stem cells (cells capable of taking many forms), these stem cells can be developed into sperm.

Secondly, they are producing seminal plasma from the donated blood plasma of cis women, trans women, and non-binary people. This collective co-creation models a democratic form of reproduction and a feminist art practice “which rejects the idea of the singular (male) creative creator” (Jarvis, 2020, 23).

Thirdly, they are ritualizing this experience. In Posse’s donors are invited to “call the ‘female’ semen into existence” by re-imagining and re-enacting an Ancient Greek woman-only fertility festival called the Thesmophoria (Jarvis, 2020, 34). Through artistic and historical contextualization, In Posse aims to make scientists “acutely aware of the mistakes of the past, whilst considering the future they are helping to build” (Jarvis, 2020, 39).

In many ways, In Posse shows us that to go forward, we must first go back: Jarvis’ adult cells are genetically reversed; her modern technology is contextualised by an ancient ritual; and the ‘future of reproduction’ is realised by first re-examining the binary understandings of reproductive sex that have dominated our past and present.

Patriarchy: past and present

Throughout history, sperm has been revered as the source of an embryo’s soul, and even man’s unique genius (Jarvis, 2020, 3). In Posse aims to highlight sperm’s patriarchal overvaluation by inverting its sex, and by drawing on an alternate history of reproductive power: the Ancient Greek woman-only Thesmophoria festival.

As historian Eva Stehle notes, women at this ancient fertility festival would perform an imaginative “female form of fecundation” to gain “access to reproductive energy without male input” (2007, 173). In doing so, these women inverted the Ancient Greek medical narratives which presented sperm as the embryo’s sole source of life and women as mere ‘vessels’ (Laqueur, 1990, 58).

Today, Jarvis has been shocked by how far the social conception of sperm’s potency persists. Audiences frequently express concern that the creation of female sperm intends to “get rid of men,” as if sperm is all a man can contribute to society (2020, 14). “Now, ‘women’ are used to being reduced to their reproductive utility,” Jarvis quips, “but less so ‘men’” (2020, 14).

‘So what! I grew a whole person!’

If women are defined by their apparent capacity to become pregnant, pregnancy is often considered the definitive female act. The pregnant female body, Jarvis observes, has become “a symbol of dichotomous gender roles, of heteronormativity and traditional, stereotypical definitions of sex” in contrast to ‘queer’ and ‘innovative’ reproductive technologies (2020, 24).

These distinctions fell apart when Jarvis became pregnant during the development of In Posse. “It is funny to me,” Jarvis reflects, that whilst “expending huge amounts of time, money and energy on creating a transgressive, activistic, queer form of reproduction, my body managed it on its own in just 9 months” (2020, 26).

For Jarvis, her pregnancy was a “palpable demonstration of the body’s mutability”, a “queering experience” in which she inhabited multiple selfhoods whilst growing an extra heart, brain, and set of ovaries (2020, 24). When I spoke with Jarvis for a Broadly Conceived event, she elaborated that pregnancy made her re-evaluate what is framed as “new” and “radical” in bio-art. Jarvis’s prior project Ergo Sum may have created beating heart cells, and the bioartist Stelarc may have grown a new ear, but “so what!,” Jarvis exclaimed, “I grew a whole person!”.

In Posse Thesmophoria. Photo Credit Eleni Papazoglou

Shifting bodies

If Jarvis’ descriptions of pregnancy as a “queering experience” sound like Maggie Nelson, this is no coincidence. Jarvis was hugely influenced by Nelson’s pregnancy memoir, The Argonauts and its insistence that “any bodily experience can be made new and strange” (2015, 72).

Disputing queer theorist Lee Edelman, for whom queerness and the female pregnant body are diametrically opposed, Nelson asks: is pregnancy “inherently heteronormative?” or “[i]s there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters one’s ‘normal’ state, and occasions a radical intimacy with—and radical alienation from—one’s body?” (Edelman 2004, 18; Nelson 2015, 13).

The pregnant body, in Nelson’s memoir, is just one example of a body which shifts, with boundaries that are not easily defined, and meanings that are not easily fixed. Whilst Nelson’s pregnant body transforms hormonally and physically, her trans partner, Harry Dodge, undergoes hormonal therapy and top-surgery. In different ways – and certainly with different social receptions – bodies take new shapes and form new selves, even when simply growing up and growing old. If In Posse is seen to modify the body, Jarvis and Nelson demonstrate how the body was no fixed entity to begin with.

Trans Alliances and Tensions

Like Nelson, Jarvis also brings together trans and cis people in her work. In Posse’s seminal plasma is created from the donated blood of cis women, trans women, and non-binary people as “a symbolic standing together in rejection of patriarchal hierarchy” (2020, 22). But just as scholars have critiqued Nelson for underplaying the uniqueness of trans experience, In Posse’s exhibitions have been covered in trans rights stickers (Carson 2021; Jarvis, 2023).

Whilst not made explicit, the trans critique of In Posse is likely threefold. Firstly, female sperm is not a new invention, as many trans women already produce sperm (cárdenas, 2016). Secondly, the inclusion of nonbinary people in a “female sperm” project risks perpetuating a common tendency to misrepresent nonbinary people as a subset of women (Jarvis, however, stresses her aim is to not exclude any willing participants). Thirdly, to define sperm as “female” because it derives from cells with XX chromosomes may, on the surface, be seen as biologically essentialist.

In Posse, however, does not so much define the ‘female sex’ as interrogate its complexities. Against trans-exclusionary feminists who profess that trans people contradict the ‘science’ of sex, Jarvis highlights how this science is already rife with contradictions.

Female semen half way through being made. Photo credit: Miha Godec
Jarvis’ chromosomes collected and imaged at Lieden University Medical Centre. Credit: Charlotte Jarvis

The Science of Sex

In Posse’s supporting notes remind us that the female sex is ‘measured’ in a multitude of ways – including physical characteristics, the brain, hormones, and chromosomes – none of which are uniform across one woman’s lifespan, let alone across all women.

How can we coherently define the ‘female sex’ when there are women without ovaries and wombs, women who are ‘flat-chested’, women (like Jarvis) who have higher levels of testosterone than the average male, women who stop producing oestrogen in menopause, and women who are born with ‘opposite’ chromosomes to their reproductive sex? For the scientists working on In Posse, the “impossibility of defining sex” means they are “beginning to question if the term ‘sex’ can even be used at all” (Jarvis, 2020, 7).

This is not the first time sex has eluded definition. Historians and anthropologists demonstrate how the ‘facts’ of sex are constantly shifting and are often influenced by social bias. After all, it was only in the 1980s that sperm, once scientifically described as virile and active, was recast as the powerful egg’s weakly-thrusting prey. (Herdt, 1993; Martin, 1991).

Conclusion

 In Posse, then, does not seek to uncover the quantifiable ‘truth’ of reproductive sex. Instead, it enacts “performative research”:

“[N]either ‘true’ or ‘false’, its value derives from the fact of its existence. It is not dichotomous but rather it is transformative. It is a journey. It has the power to shift; to change; to evolve, resolve and reform. It is, ultimately, queer” (Jarvis, 2020, 32).

In emphasising the mutability of ideas, experiences, and identities, In Posse brings to science the superpower of the arts and humanities: a capacity to embrace the ambiguous and the unknown, whilst illuminating how our social contexts influence constructions of knowledge.

If, as the historian Thomas Laqueur famously argued, “[t]he nature of sex […] is the result not of biology but of our needs in speaking about it,” In Posse shows us the conversations we should be having (1990, 115). For, as Claire Horn powerfully articulates in her analysis of artificial wombs, the technologies we herald as the ‘future of reproduction’ “will only be as innovative as the social context in which they arrive” (2023, 20).

About the Author

Genevieve Smart (she/her) is a CHASE-funded doctoral researcher examining queer and non-female childbirth in avant-garde literature. Smart co-organises Broadly Conceived, an interdisciplinary network for reproduction researchers, and is a postgraduate editorial intern at the peer-reviewed journal, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. Her Twitter handle is @genevievesmart.

References

cárdenas, micha. 2016. “Pregnancy: Reproductive Futures in Trans of Color Feminism.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 3 (1–2): 48–57.

Carson, Tyler. 2021. “Engendering the Anti-Social Thesis: The Queerness of Pregnancy in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts.” Studies in Gender and Sexuality.

Herdt, Gilbert, ed. 1993. Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History. New York: Zone Books.

Horn, Claire. 2023. Eve: The Disobedient Future of Birth. London: Wellcome Collection.

Jarvis, Charlotte. 2023. Charlotte Jarvis and the Possibility of Female Sperm: Broadly Conceived February Meeting, Interview by Genevieve Smart.

Jarvis, Charlotte. 2020. In Posse: “Female” Semen and Other Acts of Resistance [Exhibition Pamphlet]. Eindhoven; London; Slovenia: MU Hybrid Art House; NESTA; Kapelica Gallery.

Laqueur, Thomas. 1990. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ledford, Heidi. 2023. “Making Mice with Two Dads: This Biologist Rewrote the Rules on Sexual Reproduction.” Nature 624 (7992): 499–499.

Martin, Emily. 1991. “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.” Signs 16 (3): 485–501.

Nelson, Maggie. 2015. The Argonauts. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press.

Stehle, Eva. 2007. “Thesmophoria and Eleusinian Mysteries: The Fascination of Women’s Secret Ritual.” In Finding Persephone: Women’s Rituals in the Ancient Mediterranean, edited by Maryline Parca and Angeliki Tzanetou, 165–88. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Weatherbee, Bailey A. T., Carlos W. Gantner, Lisa K. Iwamoto-Stohl, Riza M. Daza, Nobuhiko Hamazaki, Jay Shendure, and Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz. 2023. “Pluripotent Stem Cell-Derived Model of the Post-Implantation Human Embryo.” Nature 622 (7983): 584–93.

Witt, Emily. 2023. “The Future of Fertility.” The New Yorker, April 17, 2023. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/04/24/the-future-of-fertility.

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