Trent Arsenault was in the Borg Cube when he heard the knock. “Trent,” his father called through the door. The Borg, tucked into a canyon southeast of San Francisco, consists of a modest two-bedroom ranch house plus a few tents Trent has erected in the backyard. It’s a warren of floor-to-ceiling modular shelving built to hold all of Trent’s worldly property, which he stores in 800 bins weighing 24,000 pounds. In what was designed to be the living room, a Tempur-Pedic adjustable bed is situated within the shelving units, and an identical second bed next to the first serves as a workstation, with swing-out hospital trays for a desk.
A flat-screen TV is mounted face down, directly over Trent’s pillow, and another is mounted in his shower. Wires snake everywhere. A hose system on a timer automatically refills the birdbaths outside. Behind the house, near a lemon tree, a 50-foot antenna collects radio-astronomy data from solar flares and broadcasts Trent’s ham-radio signal. Inside, there is a low, near-constant murmur of electronic machinery: radio static, conference-call chatter from Trent’s IT security work, digital chimes, a dulcet computer voice announcing Trent’s next appointment. It is an elaborate system, and it reminds Trent, in a good way, of the devouring cybernetic empire in Star Trek. “The more complex the better.”
“Trent,” his father said. He knocked again. “Trent, are you in there?”
This was last March. Trent hadn’t seen his father in almost a year. For months, he hadn’t responded to his parents’ calls and letters, and at first they hadn’t known why. They hadn’t known that in 2006, Trent hung out a shingle on the Internet and became a do-it-yourself sperm donor, giving his semen away to whoever asked. He was part of a growing movement of peer-to-peer sperm donation that bypassed regulated banks, and in some cases dropped the customary anonymity, but Trent went further, offering unusual transparency by posting records on his website, including STD-test results, his driver’s license, family photos, and a link to his Facebook page. The FDA, having learned what Trent was up to—he suspected a local sperm bank had tipped off the agency—launched an investigation, eventually filing a “cease manufacture” order. Trent had become consumed with the FDA action and avoided informing his parents. “I became unreachable to my family for a while,” he says.
Trent’s father, Reverend Charles Arsenault, is a leading minister in the Assemblies of God, the world’s largest Pentecostal church. Eventually, Charles and his wife, Lillian, who live in Springfield, Missouri, turned to the Internet to find information about their son, and Lillian discovered his sperm-donor website. They sent more letters, by certified mail, expressing love for their child but taking an increasingly reproachful tone. Last March, his mother wrote of “the consequences of such depravatory giving of one’s seed to unknown and most likely degenerate individuals.” Trent had “dishonored and humiliated” the family, and his only hope was to “truly repent and embrace the precepts of the Bible.”
Trent didn’t respond to that one, either. Soon after, his father flew to California, drove to Trent’s home in the town of Fremont, and knocked on his son’s door. Trent, lying on his work bed, didn’t answer. His father sat for a while in his car out front, then left. He returned in the evening, but again Trent didn’t answer. He wanted to spend time with his father. He knew his father had traveled from Missouri just to see him. But … “I just knew that if I talked to him, it could talk me out of everything that I was doing.”
When Trent was 16, he and his best friend made a pact to devote their lives to science and never to marry. “Like most of our wild plans at the time, it was Trent’s idea,” this friend remembers. “I went along for entertainment’s sake. It was simply this zit-faced, socially awkward, nerdy teenager’s excuse for not having to ask out the girls I liked.” In other words, it was the sort of vow that teenagers make and soon forget, except that eighteen years later, when FDA agents showed up on his porch in August 2010, Trent was a well-paid computer-security engineer at Hewlett-Packard and a 34-year-old virgin. He was also, by that point, the father of ten children. The government was not happy about how Trent had pulled this off.
But if the FDA hoped, by intervening, to save America from someone it viewed as a dangerous rogue breeder, its action did more to set back its cause than it could possibly have imagined, turning Trent into something of a poster boy for an entire generation of new DIY donors. The showdown between man and state on the free-sperm frontier drew predictable media interest, mostly mocking and outraged, which in turn generated considerable outreach from strangers, almost all overwhelmingly supportive. Since appearing on various television news programs, Trent has received hundreds of encouraging e-mails, and he’s closing in on 2,000 Facebook friends. Someone recently formed a new Facebook group called Free Sperm Donors, mimicking Trent’s eschewal of anonymity, and a similar new organization called the Known Donor Registry has quickly attracted more than 5,000 members.