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.
The requests for Trent’s own sperm have only increased. Just in the last few weeks, he has received about a hundred new requests from women across America. He has, by now, made more than 500 “donations,” been responsible for fourteen successful pregnancies (and fifteen births—one mother had twins), has three more pregnancies under way, and is adding an average of three new prospective mothers to his portfolio each month. Paradoxically, the more children Trent fathers, the more his services are in demand—last month, he signed up seven aspiring mothers. “I’d think this would be a turnoff,” he says, “but that’s not how people think. It’s maybe even an attractive trait. If you look at lions, it’s like the females know to look at the ones that have demonstrated fertility.”
No one who knew Trent when he was growing up in Missouri, the second of three children, would have pegged him as a future fertility god. He was geeky and gawky and didn’t have many friends. He attended church four days a week to hear his father’s sermons, but he describes his home life as having been more “cordial” than intimate and remembers at a very young age questioning the faith in which he was raised. “It wasn’t me saying one path is better than the other, but why does the Bible say one thing but religious people do a different thing?” he says. “That’s when I drew more into technology.” At 12, he become one of the youngest people to obtain the FCC’s highest-grade ham-radio operator’s license. He later became a teen hacker, breaking into computer systems just to see if he could.
Trent also recalls hearing, in church, the prayers for women with fertility troubles. Looking back, he remembers feeling certain that some day in the future, he would help these women. But it must have been difficult to imagine how this would come about, considering his marked introversion. As he moved out of his teens, Trent had only experienced one kiss, on prom night. He then joined the Navy and attended Annapolis, where marriage and fatherhood are forbidden to cadets. After he went AWOL his first semester—he was being hazed, he says, and there was no other way to deal with it—and was discharged, he had little time for anything other than the consuming tech career to which he devoted himself. (He was also busy fielding questions from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which was looking into a computer system break-in at the academy during his AWOL week. The investigation fizzled after a couple of years.)
In his early twenties, Trent was still listing himself as “single (available)” on his web page, and his parents, hoping to find their son a wife, would arrange for women from church to contact him. One date, Jennifer, traveled from Missouri to Los Angeles to see Trent (he was working at Disney at the time), and they rang in New Year’s Eve 1999 in Death Valley. But by then he already knew that his path would not lead to an altar and a crib. “That night, she kind of said, ‘Why don’t we think about having a life together?’ ” he remembers. Trent told her he was “never going to grow up and have a traditional family. She was a very beautiful young woman, and I told her I had to deny myself certain pleasures in life. I said it elegantly enough that she knew nothing would ever change me. She was crying. And I don’t think she was crying for her. I think she was crying for me. She said, ‘When are you ever going to do something for yourself?’ ”
Trent experienced no aha moment, no sudden resolution to convert his hazy premonition of fertility philanthropy into an action plan. As he explains it, it’s just something that started to make sense: an applied version of the part of Christianity that he likes best—compassion—achieved through an ascetic, personalized life-hack of the Silicon Valley variety. Though according to his high-school friend, the reality might be more complicated: “The exact factors that motivated his behavior always eluded me, but I can confidently say that pleasing others was never one of them,” the friend says. “He was primarily interested in his own actions and whether or not they would conform to his hypothesized outcomes.”
And though Trent would never put it this way, there was clearly something appealing to the prodigal son of a Pentecostal minister about following his own messianic strain of martyrdom. After the date with Jennifer, he stopped responding to his parents’ romantic suggestions. Instead, he moved to the Bay Area, taking a job at Hewlett-Packard, and spent the next five years preparing to become not simply a sperm donor but the most effective and efficient iteration of one he could imagine.
In most ways, he had always lived clean. He never smoked or did drugs. Except for a few sips of wine and one Sex on the Beach (bought by co-workers on his 21st birthday), he had never tasted alcohol. But he had grown up on the hacker diet of Pringles, Velveeta, and Mountain Dew. He spent three years researching food, experimenting first with smoothies made of Pop-Tarts and chocolate syrup and landing, ultimately, on a healthier recipe “optimized for fertility and aesthetics.” (It includes organic fruits and raw milk, which he’d seen in the diets of some of the world’s most fertile countries.) He drank each smoothie as soon as he made it, before oxidation could erode the precious benefits, and locked in a daily diet: smoothie for breakfast, smoothie for dinner, and a salad with wild salmon for lunch. He read a book by Roy Walford, the father of calorie restriction as a route to DNA preservation and longevity, and by 2005 he had shed 70 pounds from his six-one frame, dropping to 150.
Trent’s exercise regime changed, too, from training for triathlons to a more moderate program designed to keep him maximally fit without overexercising. He took to monitoring his health and having his blood tested for biomarkers, to gauge the effects of his diet on testosterone, metabolic function, liver function, enzymes, cholesterol, and vitamin and hormone levels. Though celibate, he carefully studied up on STDs.
“Around that time is when I started becoming more of a germophobe,” he says. The house in Fremont, where Trent moved in 2005, appealed because it was far enough from highway exhaust fumes, which can lower sperm count, and sheltered by hills on three sides, blocking out 20 percent of the sky and mitigating his exposure to radiation, another threat to sperm. His Wi-Fi access point is in the garage, to keep radio signals at a remove, and he never puts a laptop on his lap. Ozone depletion is another thing that concerns him. When traveling on airplanes, he minimizes his in-flight radiation exposure by draping himself in a heavy lead blanket.
Until a year ago, when he began working from home, Trent would commute to the Oracle campus, where he was contracted by HP. Co-workers don’t remember Trent’s lifestyle as particularly conspicuous, save for his acute aversion to the sun and his smoothie diet. But Trent says he turned down promotions, lest the added stress depress his sperm count, and was transparent about his self-described weirdness in order to discourage further offers. He now works as a $120,000-a-year security-focused infrastructure specialist, helping companies protect themselves from hacker attacks.
There was one thing Trent did that all but guaranteed he’d never rise in a corporate hierarchy. His reclusive personality notwithstanding, Trent had long ago acquired a taste for being observed, starting in junior high when the local paper wrote a story about his ham-radio station WWOU. From his teenage years, he began holding on to his school papers and just about everything else that entered his possession. “I’ve kind of always known,” he says, “that people will wonder about me.”
After he moved to California, he set up a home webcam that streamed 24/7. His parents could log on anytime and see their son. Strangers, too, came across the feed, and he began to receive requests to take off his clothes. Trent was proud of his new body, and he obliged, posting pictures of himself on sites called TrentCats and TrentNude. He was excited by the feedback, and after the launch of Xtube, an amateur porn-sharing platform, he started uploading masturbation videos under the name TrentDog. Most were straightforward; occasionally he would mix things up by using a prop, such as a yellow water-polo ball or a bag of frozen blueberries. The videos gave him a sexual outlet while preserving his celibacy, and he came to view them as just another part of the process of boosting his sex drive and sperm count, which at this point, he says, was four times the average.
Having optimized his body for producing sperm, Trent turned his attention to disseminating it. Initially, he assumed he would donate through a traditional bank or an Internet version of one. This typically involves an anonymous donor, screened by the bank, receiving around $40 for each sperm specimen, which is then sold to a recipient for several hundred dollars. But any ham-radio, open-source, computer-hacking libertarian would shy away from such an arrangement. In 2005, as Trent began to educate himself, he discovered a Yahoo Group—FreeSpermDonors—that matched recipients with donors willing to provide sperm for free. And so he entered the strange, off-the-books subculture of broke, desperate women, and men of indeterminate motivation, who meet in coffee shops and hotel rooms where the man masturbates in the bathroom and hands over his semen, and the woman, using some variation on the proverbial turkey baster, inseminates herself.
Trent lurked at first, still unsure whether he was even fertile. But after a woman from his hometown posted repeatedly to say she couldn’t find a donor, Trent knew she was the one. “I thought, I’m probably not going to hurt anyone. The worst that can happen is someone will waste their time with me.” He met the woman, a 37-year-old lesbian schoolteacher, and her partner, in December 2006 at a nearby Barnes & Noble, where the couple’s 3-year-old adopted daughter played while they questioned Trent for two hours. They liked that he’d been raised Christian and worked in technology. The recipient provided a donor contract, drafted by a lesbian-run law firm, negating both his paternal rights and responsibilities. The couple gave him a box of Ziploc food containers from Wal-Mart and scheduled a first appointment. On that day, they texted Trent when they were twenty minutes from his house, and he set to work on the “recovery,” as it’s known. When they rang his bell, he handed over a Ziploc. Two weeks later, they sent Trent another text, with good news. After a year of fruitless trips to a sperm bank, the recipient had gotten pregnant on Trent’s first try. “I was grinning from ear to ear,” he says, but he stayed quiet: He was in a car with his parents on vacation when he got the text.
The next three couples were also same-sex: a pair of Wal-Mart employees from Kansas who were in their early twenties, an early-thirties couple from the North Bay Area, and a Silicon Valley professional couple in their mid-thirties. Trent’s first biological child was delivered to the Fremont couple in September 2007. The next year, two more Trent children were born, both to women who had posted in the Yahoo Group. In 2009, Trent recorded only one birth—he suspects because that was a year when he was donating almost exclusively to remote recipients via FedEx, which was probably less effective. But by then he had also created a website, trentdonor.org, where anyone could review his personal information. The e-mails poured in. Most spoke of fertility struggles and depleted savings. The recipients were from varied ethnic backgrounds, and mostly lesbian, including several couples in the military. Some had nose rings and tattoos. Many were from low-income neighborhoods in Oakland. One was a colleague at Hewlett-Packard. In 2010, six women gave birth to children fathered by Trent. Last year, four more arrived. He’s now making fifteen donations a month, spacing them out by at least 24 hours to improve sperm count. He has stopped taking personal vacations longer than a day trip, because “I feel a vacation could result in a baby not being born.”
Although sperm is neither a food nor a drug, the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research regulates those who traffic in it, enforcing frequent and comprehensive tests designed to curb the spread of communicable diseases and genetic disorders. Historically the agency has focused only on traditional sperm banks, not private donors, but Trent was unprecedentedly public about what he was doing. When the FDA first contacted him, he had naïvely signed a piece of paper confirming that he was “an establishment.” In August 2010, using that as a pretext, the FDA sent three agents to his house, where for several days they interviewed him and copied his records. Trent had by then made 340 donations to some 46 different recipients. The scrutiny was time-consuming and stressful; he didn’t have a lawyer and worried than he might land in prison.
By November, the FDA determined that Trent wasn’t screening for diseases nearly often enough, and it issued its cease-manufacture order. Trent replied that he wished to contest it. He wasn’t charging money, as he explained, and he was helping people. He knew that he was celibate, that he was disease-free, and that he took extraordinary measures to safeguard his DNA. He considered his relationship with his recipients to be “intimate.” Why should the government regulate what he was doing, when anyone, with who knew what health issues, could walk into a bar and have a one-night stand? A government-accountability public-interest group, Cause of Action, agreed, seeing the FDA action as a ringing example of regulatory overreach, and filed a brief on Trent’s behalf. “We questioned him as to the parameters of his relationship with recipients,” Amber Taylor, the chief counsel for Cause of Action, says. “We took away that he’s a very generous, helpful person who sees people in need who could not have children without some form of assistance, who are often lower income or underserved by the fertility-medicine industry.” Trent is currently awaiting a decision by the FDA on whether to grant him a hearing, and in the meantime, the cease-manufacture order has been suspended.
By now, he has perfected his donor routine. He drinks his evening smoothie precisely two hours before the recovery. He drinks spring water to hydrate, and winds down from the workday by changing into comfortable clothes. He now uses medical specimen cups rather than Ziplocs, which are hard to keep warm and possibly unsterile. He no longer accepts recipients who require shipping or who are not in a romantic relationship. This is not a family-values judgment; it’s just that single women often ask him to have sex, and though there are practical arguments for this—it may be easier to get pregnant that way—some are interested in a “boyfriend-girlfriend-type relationship.” (He also learned that in rare cases where sperm donors are pursued as deadbeat dads, California courts favor the donor if the recipient was in a couple at the time of donation.)
Trent usually schedules at least two days with a recipient. Those coming from farther away, like one couple from Alaska, stay at a nearby hotel. He has a backpack—his “baby bag”—ready to go when he meets them at a coffee shop; it contains donor-recipient contracts, a binder of materials related to the FDA cease-manufacture order, restaurant menus for people unfamiliar with the Fremont area, as well as the baby book his own mother kept, documenting when he first spoke and walked. (At 1 year: “Loves to play with our stereo—as soon as he hears it he crawls real fast into the living room & slides the levers around & pretty soon there is no music.”)
It is a streamlined process, and Trent’s recipients, to judge by the feedback he’s received, seem happy with their choice of donor. (Krista, a Bay Area financial-services professional who got pregnant three times by Trent before miscarrying each time, considers him “part of our family.”) Even when Trent’s Xtube activity was revealed in media accounts last year, only one prospective sperm recipient canceled. “I signed ten contracts that day,” Trent says, “so I just said, ‘I’ll discard your contract’ and ‘Thank you.’ ” Josh and Rebekah Ludikhuize are a young Sacramento couple who for the past six years have been on a wrenching, bank-breaking infertility odyssey, with endless medical tests and specialists and treatments for Josh (who has male-factor infertility) and sperm banks and two miscarriages and an adoption. IVF has never been an option financially, and even less-expensive methods, such as for-profit sperm banks, became prohibitive. Josh works for a pest-control company, and Rebekah, who has an administrative job in the neurophysiology department at UC Davis Medical Center, reached their lifetime insurance cap on infertility treatments long ago. “It was $1,600 if not more for the cryobank for one cycle,” Josh says.
Then, last year, Josh was reading a Fox News item on his phone about the FDA action against Trent. He went to Trent’s site. “I was still a little skeptical,” Josh remembers, but after talking to Trent on the phone, “I just had this feeling that he was completely legitimate.” Both Rebekah and Josh were tired of dealing with doctors, and of the years of invasive medical procedures. “It brought us back to a more intimate, romantic way of Rebekah being able to get pregnant,” Josh says. “So when Rebekah and I did the procedure with Trent, it was just the two of us.” They completed their first cycle with Trent on December 30, and their second last week.
At 6 a.m., a few weeks ago, Trent is in the Borg, standing at his sink in a Raiders hoodie, picking out moldy blueberries as he goes through his twenty-minute smoothie-concocting process. When he has drunk his, he pours what remains of the purple liquid into a lid on the floor for Matrix, a stray calico who sleeps on a heating pad on his porch. Then Trent disappears into the bathroom for one of his twice-daily bowel movements. When he emerges, he is holding a digital camera with a picture. For the last several years, he has photographed every stool and every ejaculation, scanning them for noteworthy variations and amassing material for his archives. Today’s snapshot shows nothing out of the ordinary.
It is still dark when he leaves the house and begins his morning hike into the town of Niles, where California’s film industry was born and where Trent will buy vegetables for his lunch salad. He walks briskly, clucking and tossing peanuts when he sees birds. He wears a floppy safari hat and photochromic glasses that darken as the sun rises. When a car passes, he pulls a microfiber scarf over his nose and mouth until the exhaust has dissipated in the wind. Later that morning, Trent has his twice-yearly physical. He dreads going—there will be people coughing in the waiting room, and he carries alcohol wipes and his own pen to sign the register—but it is important to refresh the health information on his website. When he gets home, he tosses his scarf into a laundry pile, cleans his hands with rubbing alcohol, and changes into new pants, “ ’cause the next place I sit is going to be my bed.”
He checks in on a couple of ongoing conference calls; there is a situation involving websites under attack by a botnet. FedEx delivers a signed contract from one of his recipients. At one point, Trent wands a sensor back and forth near his forehead, taking his core temperature; as usual, he is running low, a typical biomarker of calorie restrictors. He takes his blood pressure with a digital Omron device. He wipes his face with salicylic acid.
With his expanding, very modern sort of family, Trent says he doesn’t find himself wishing he had a more conventionally intimate connection of his own. But if he did, it’s hard not to wonder, what sort of person would he want to raise a child with? I bring up, gently, the question of his sexual orientation.
The subject is cloudy. He describes himself as a “donorsexual,” with all of his libidinal energy channeled in service of others. His Xtube videos have been viewed more than 3.3 million times, and he frequently receives notes from viewers. Some are polite, lauding him for his donor work. Some are complimentary, of his “egg-size balls” in one instance. Many include offers to buy his sperm for non-donation purposes. Trent tries to respond to even the most salacious Xtube correspondents, thanking them for watching and usually ending with a smiley emoticon or two. Even in speaking of Xtube’s explicit content, he uses G-rated language like “effing the heck out of each other.”
He won’t be pinned down on what turns him on, saying only that “it’s more about serving people, male or female, if they ask, so maybe bisexual, because I’m serving both.” He insists that he feels orgasmic pleasure for only “a couple milliseconds.” This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. The videos are strikingly joyless and mechanical. If a fetish is playing out, it’s a fetish of purposeful efficiency, of erotic self-abnegation.
A few months after his father’s visit last March, Trent, haunted by his own silent reaction, took time off from work “to just churn through it mentally.” Now he pulls out a file in which he has saved all of his parents’ letters and reads from one his father sent him recently. Amid all the personal news and biblical disapproval—“Obey the authorities, as God’s will will not go against the authorities of the land”—and practical concerns for Trent’s legal and career jeopardy and for the family reputation (“please remove all family connections … from your website and shut it down”) was a father’s pain. “Trent, I love you and you are my son,” his father wrote. “It breaks my heart that my son will not speak to me … If there is anything that we have done to hurt you please tell me so we can make it right and ask for your forgiveness.”
“I think I’m doing a good thing,” Trent says, looking up. “Helping people. It’s compassion, which is a tenet of religion. The official Assemblies of God view on it is that the seed of a man is between a man and a woman, and if God wants you to have a child, you will, and otherwise you don’t have a child. And if you believe that, it shuts out quite a large group of people wanting to have children. What do you think Jesus would do?”
At this point, Trent suspects his family is helping the FDA case against him. “I think there might be some jealousy,” he says. “They’ve ridiculed me over the years. They’ve spent their whole life trying to help people. And now it’s panning out for dozens and dozens of people that I’ve helped.” He thinks too much has taken place to bridge their differences, at least for a while. “I know that my biggest asset is time. I can just keep letting time go by. They have less of it. I’ve calculated it out. It goes back into the social-engineering thing. Time heals all wounds. That’s how I’m going to attack it.”
In the meantime, he has a new family to think about. Many of the recipients who have successfully become pregnant have maintained contact with Trent; the lack of anonymity has always been part of his appeal. They send him ultrasounds and arrange to have Trent meet the child. He has a bag ready to go containing his own old toys, which he gives away, and items he uses to observe childhood development, such as little oval magnets from China and a Bluetooth keyboard with a laser pointer. He recently gave one of the oldest of his offspring, a 4-year-old girl, mini-tractors, an animal-sounds clock, and two Palm devices. “She just loved them, went nuts,” he says.
Trent sits at his desk and pulls up Facebook, where he clicks through photographs of many of his biological children. “Of all the babies, I think, she looks the least like me,” he says of one little girl, “but she seems the most personally like me; she’s a tech lover.” He beams. “She’s not even 2. She’s in the 99th percentile in her growth.”
Even if he were to stop donating—which he would do immediately if, for instance, he learned that one of his children was autistic or had another genetic problem—Trent says he would stick with his extreme health regimen. “I want to be alive for the children. They will want to know about me. It may not be until they turn 18, or later in life, that they decide they want to meet me, so I want to be in a good capacity to meet them.”