"I think she saw it as taking matters into her own hands," says Charlotte*, 33. She is talking about a woman who, two years into her relationship, became pregnant. It was a natural conception in a heterosexual relationship and seemed, if anything, plainly conventional.
The woman in question’s partner was Charlotte’s brother, who was working away a lot at the time. "He hadn’t been happy for a while," Charlotte continues. Outwardly he was overjoyed to announce the pregnancy but "it wasn’t that simple," she says.
According to Charlotte’s brother, something was amiss. He’d noticed his girlfriend’s packets of the contraceptive pill "remained largely untouched" but didn’t think to ask, despite them not planning for a family at that time. He suspects it wasn’t an accidental pregnancy but, confirms Charlotte, "nothing was proven".
In many ways, this is a tale as old as time. 'Baby trapping', 'spermjacking' or, if you can stand it, 'spurgling' – a portmanteau of 'sperm' and 'burgling' – as it’s been dubbed more recently rears its head regularly for public debate.
Last year in the US, Drake’s hot sauce (not a joke) debacle was the catalyst. An Instagram model allegedly attempted to impregnate herself using his discarded condom after they had sex – except, minutes earlier, the rapper had poured a sachet of chilli sauce into it to kill the sperm (yes, it hurt her). In 2011, Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones famously set the internet alight with her confession that she had made multiple attempts at being a 'sperm stealer', including the used condom trick. And long before Liz Jones added her two pennies’ worth, there was the Bible.
My auntie told me a girl from our hometown came off her contraception when she found out her boyfriend was texting someone else.
There are three mentions of 'sperm stealing' in the Bible, wherein a woman is described as seducing a man in order to take his seed. It is portrayed as a 'moral crime'. Incidentally, all of the Biblical cases involve an ancestor of King David; two of them involve incest.
It’s intriguing for me as a journalist, having spent a week wading in spurgling's murky waters while researching this piece, that its roots lie in ancient fables. Many people I speak to have a story like Charlotte’s: they knew someone whose friend poked a hole in a condom once; a second cousin who secretly had her coil out; a man who was tricked, baited for cash. "My auntie told me a girl from our hometown came off her contraception when she found out her boyfriend was texting someone else," one says. But no one – including the fertility clinicians and lawyers I speak to – appears to have firsthand experience.
Spend a little time in the right section of Reddit and you’ll find an entirely different account. There, among men’s rights activists (MRA), spurgling is reportedly commonplace. So much so that last year a petition was filed to make the act a criminal issue. Petitioners claimed that it should be made a serious sexual crime, comparing it to stealthing (when a man removes a condom during sex without his partner’s consent). It was rejected on the grounds that this type of negated consent is not for the government or parliament to deal with but the courts. Still, the petition's existence and the undercurrent of MRA chatter has prompted questions: should the law deal with spurgling and if so, how? What drives the ideology around it? Just how prevalent is it, really?
"Even if you did have direct evidence that someone has deliberately deceived another person like that, it’s still not a sexual offence," explains Clare McGlynn QC (Hon), a professor of law at Durham University. "Generally, thinking about it in terms of the actual sexual activity and the harm deliberately being caused, I don’t know if you could describe [spurgling] in those terms."
Despite being morally reprehensible, spurgling is not a criminal act under UK law or any other jurisdiction. The only cases documented by courts worldwide have been brought by men largely disputing child maintenance fees and even these are rare. Not only do the women I speak to agree that deception is a quite terrible way to bring a child into the world, there’s also a (generalised) lack of surprise that men are suddenly very invested in the workings of contraception when finances and responsibility are involved.
"'But she said she was on the pill' is such a cop-out," says one friend, 37-year-old Sophie*. "If [men] don’t want the responsibility of a woman becoming pregnant, they should be more proactive about contraception themselves.
"The amount of arguments I’ve had with grown, adult men who don’t want to use a condom is too many to count. When I was single, sometimes I’d mess with people I was seeing who refused to wear something or check if I was on any other contraception afterwards… I’d say ‘Well, we’ll see what happens next month then’. They’d become panicked immediately, having assumed that I’d have taken care of contraception on their behalf, and I’d remind them that they didn’t give a sh*t about my body moments earlier.
"Blaming the woman after the fact is the oldest trick in the book. But if this debate encourages men to go and get reversible vasectomies, I’m all for it."
Another friend, feeling the societal expectation on women in their 30s to have children, goes further. "I have thought about it," she admits. "I’m 36 and single, and a friend I slept with refused to wear a condom and didn’t check anything else. Fleetingly, I thought, What if I just don’t tell him I’m not on any long-term contraception? I could have a baby, I’m financially secure. Who’s fault would that have been, really? He didn’t care to check. He was 41."
"On a very basic level, there is still such a gulf or imbalance in terms of responsibility for contraception between women and men," says Elizabeth Williamson, manager of the sperm laboratory at University College London Hospital. "And also in communication about contraception. There are also intriguing social issues at play – for instance, I often see men who freeze their sperm before having a vasectomy, despite having decided themselves and agreed with their partner that they don’t want any or more children."
Does this, perhaps, come down to gender stereotypes and the fetishisation of virility within masculinity? "Yes, maybe," Williamson agrees. "Maybe more a symbol of that rather than the active side of things."
Even if you did have direct evidence that someone has deliberately deceived another person like that, it's still not a sexual offence.
Clare McGlynn QC (Hon)
This idea hovers over the entire discussion: that sperm is somehow sacred. Couple that with a deeply ingrained stereotype of women as Jezebels and the roots of a conversation like this start to show. There’s no doubt that some women would seek to become pregnant using deception – nor is there any doubt that this is unequivocally wrong – but there is a risk that criminalising spurgling could become another way to paint women as distrustful, says Professor McGlynn.
"You could draw some analogies with domestic abuse cases [where victims are accused by their perpetrators]," she explains. "You could find that this is used as a weapon against women – reported to police to discredit them." In the context of appallingly low reporting, prosecution and conviction rates under the UK Sexual Offences Act 2003, fuelled by existing gender bias, this could have disastrous consequences. What about the rights of men who claim they’re being squeezed by women for child support? "A child is a lifelong drain on your finances," Professor McGlynn says. "A positive drain, but a lifelong one. You’re not going to do that to make any money."
Ultimately, the extent to which this may or may not be happening is not fully understood. And the act of spurgling – the private nature of it – echoes that of other, enshrined sexual crime: our learned beliefs in who we trust and the throttling grip of gender stereotypes. Are men being framed? Or are women being unfairly blamed? While the answers are still floating around in murky waters, maybe this is at the very least a wake-up call for some men: if you’re engaging in penetrative sex with a woman, take responsibility.
*Name changed to protect identity