Today’s article addresses a question I see from time to time, posed in one form or another, regarding whether vegans can swallow semen after oral sex. Did Monty Python get it right? Is every sperm sacred and great?
It probably seems like a silly or downright crazy question to outsiders (and to many in the vegan community), but the issue really gets to the heart of some of the core suppositions underlying the vegan movement in terms of ethics and animal welfare. So, we’ll tackle it here.
In short, can vegans swallow? Vegans can swallow semen because—for purposes of ingestion—semen is considered vegan-friendly. While sperm are alive in a crude biological sense, they are not conscious or sentient. Sperm are single cells and should be given the same ethical considerations extended to microorganisms.
Here we’ll look at some of the reasons why sperm cells shouldn’t be thought of as having moral worth.
As I’ll touch on below, I think that the emphasis on swallowing almost indicates a health rather than ethical concern. Any ejaculation resulting from non-procreative sexual activity would result in the death of all sperm involved. So the issue of swallowing kinda points to a concern about what should be eaten instead of what should be used.
For example, a health vegan avoids consuming animal products but some (at least some health vegans I know) are okay with using leather.
Vegans are known, above all, for not eating non-vegan food. So, the concern is that swallowing sperm would be equivalent to consuming a non-vegan substance.
However, it seems less likely that the same vegans inquire whether it’s okay to use a condom (resulting in semen being dispose of in the waste bin) or practice anal sex where the sperm have essentially no chance of reaching the egg (though it’s theoretically possible I suppose).
But for the purposes of this article, I’ll assume the reader is inquiring about the ethics of semen swallowing in terms of animal welfare.
Anyway, I digress. On to the discussion.
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Life Does Not Equal Consciousness
Consciousness and sentience are often used interchangeably.
Conscious beings can experience and be aware of something.1 Experiences result from thoughts, environmental stimuli, feelings, and internal bodily sensations.
Experiences can be positive, negative, or neutral. If the subject enjoys an experience, it is positive. When the experience is negative, then it involves some form of suffering.
The word “sentience” refers to the capacity to have positive and negative experiences caused by the environment or sensations within the body. Thus, all sentient beings are conscious and if an organism is conscious, but not sentient, it can only experience thought.2
For our purposes, the two terms are the same, so I’ll be using them interchangeably from here on out.
Yes, sperm are alive. After all, they’re gametes which are sex cells, so, they’re alive like any other cell in your body—and the cells of plants for that matter as mentioned in the intro.
Consciousness, the ability to have experiences, is the real standard.
We’ve all encountered the know-it-all meat eater who proudly presents the gotcha question saying something along the lines of “Well what about plants? They’re alive”. As if we hadn’t thought of that and should be caught off guard.
Yes, plants are alive, but they’re not worthy of ethical consideration as they lack true conscious experience.
I think the confusion on this issue stems from the fact that sperm are so lifelike. They swim after all. Animations of sperm moving about make them look like any other waterborne critter. It’s as if something swims must have an experience of some sort.
This is an important distinction because something can respond to stimuli without being conscious. In some sense, a tree chooses to grow towards light and not towards a shade, but trees are not considered sentient.
Similarly, sperm motility is affected by stimuli—e.g. chemical gradients influence a sperm cell’s velocity and direction of travel.3
Viruses even respond to stimuli. The list goes on.
Central Nervous System: The True Determinant Of Consciousness
A central nervous system is needed for consciousness and sentience. Absent a CNS, consciousness will not arise in a structure.
For classification as sentient, this rules out bacteria, archaea, fungi, protists, and plants. Sperm would also be ruled out here. Sperm cells respond to stimuli but lack the nervous system needed for conscious experience.
While sperm seem lifelike by being able to swim, they’re actually less of a life form compared to microorganisms as they contain only half the genetic info of the parent cell and can’t reproduce.
The CNS requirement also rules out some animals, not just plants and single cells.
Some animals have a non-centralized nervous system that transmits information within the organism, but the transmitted info doesn’t result in conscious experience because there is no bodily structure having enough interaction between nerve cells to process an experience.
For this reason, some self-proclaimed vegans—including Peter Singer of Animal Liberation—have taken to consuming bivalves like oysters and clams which have very basic nervous systems.
In that vein, keep in mind that there is some disagreement as to which structures in an organism might be able to result in consciousness. I.e. some CNS’s are very basic.
An oyster does have a very rudimentary nervous system which some believe to be capable of giving rise to consciousness—which is why Singer has admitted to waffling back and forth on the issue over the years.4
A Thought Experiment: Even if Sperm Were Sentient…
For the sake of argument, here we’ll assume sperm are sentient and worthy of being granted moral worth. Even then, it’s far from obvious that swallowing would pose a unique ethical problem.
Questions surrounding what’s considered vegan vs. non-vegan often need to take into account one’s motivation behind adopting a vegan diet.
Vegans are often divided into ethical, health, and eco vegans. While the domains of health and ecology definitely have ethical dimensions, the term ethical vegan is usually used to describe someone who adopts a 100% plant-based diet due to concerns regarding the ethical treatment of animals.
At first glance, the issue of whether vegans should swallow would seem to fall under the domain of animal welfare. It seems unlikely that someone would be concerned about the health implications of consuming sperm.
But, if that’s true, why the emphasis on swallowing? Why not inquire about the use of condoms or the practice of masturbation?
As a single-cell incapable of experiencing pain, we’d need only consider the right to life—i.e. without a nervous system, there would be no need to consider pain and suffering.
Without the capacity to suffer, it’s not obvious why denaturing in stomach acid would be any worse than being shot into a condom to be disposed of in a trashcan. After all, sperm die quickly outside of the body after being exposed to the air and allowed to dry.5
If swallowing sperm were non-vegan, then male masturbation would certainly be off-limits.
And why draw the line there? Sexual intercourse with the goal of conception would also pose problems.
A fertile human male ejaculates anywhere between 2 to 5 milliliters of semen (about a teaspoon) each ml containing around one hundred million sperm.6
Of the many contestants, only one will be the lucky winner. The hundreds of millions of sperm that don’t fertilize the egg get destroyed by the woman’s immune system.7
I’m sure you could argue that there is a difference between killing and allowing to be killed. I.e. releasing an animal into the wild with the likelihood of being killed by predators is far different from killing one intentionally. Fair enough.
But, any non-procreative sexual activity would still be an issue if it involved ejaculation. Whether you’re masturbating or ejaculating into a condom, the sperm would have zero chance of survival, unlike with procreative sex.
This would rule out sex on birth control, all oral and anal sex, and by extension any sexual activity between male partners.
Perhaps all of the above would only constitute a reason to avoid non-procreative sexual activity, instead of exonerating the act of swallowing specifically.
But interestingly, no one ever asks if vegans can masturbate or engage in Onanism (coitus interruptus or the act of pulling out).
I have encountered questions as to whether vegans can use certain types of birth control, like the copper IUD, that are toxic to sperm.
But, for some reason, other methods of birth control seem to avoid scrutiny.
Vegans Are Not Characteristically Pro-Life
I bring this up because if a vegan can be pro-choice and willing to terminate a fetus, then it only follows that sperm cells prior to fertilizing an egg should be considered expendable.
Interestingly, while ethical concerns regarding animal welfare are among the main reasons folks switch to a vegan diet, not all ethical vegans—namely, those identifying as “vegan for the animals” converge on the issue of abortion.
I know both pro-life and pro-choice vegans.
While those in the vegan community might disagree on the issue of abortion, this lack of consensus indicates that being pro-choice doesn’t render you non-vegan. You’d just belong to one school of thought in the broader community.
Many Vegans Do Kill Lower Sentient Beings (Read: Insects)
Why is this relevant? Because the welfare of insects that possess a central nervous system (and thus consciousness) is still weighed against other interests, and sometimes other interests such as safety and sanitation win out.
Unlike sperm, it’s believed that insects do have conscious experiences. They have wants, needs, and it is thought that they experience pain and are capable of suffering.
Hence, even if sperm were conscious, it’s highly likely that the welfare of sperm would take a back seat to the sexual needs of humans.
As discussed in the article on vegan pest control, this is a controversial subject. While many vegans try to avoid insect-derived substances (beeswax, honey, confectioner’s glaze, etc.), there’s much less consensus in the community as to whether killing insects and other “pests” should be permissible.
As PETA points out in their article on the subject, methods to control insects and other animals can range from benign to harmful and decisions as to which measures to take are based on the threat posed by the “pests” and the effectiveness of any cruelty-free alternatives to eradication.
In their official statement on the issue, PETA writes, “As with our dealings with our fellow humans, the determination of when lethal defense against insects and animals is acceptable must be judged on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the level of the threat and the alternatives that are available.”8
Is Semen Vegan, And Can Vegans Swallow? Conclusion
That’s it for today. Just know that while a single cell can respond to stimuli, a centralized nervous system is needed for the conscious experience needed to be granted moral worth.
Non-sentient structures can seem ultra-lifelike and it can even be said that they have goals and make decisions in a primitive way. But these “decisions” that are made by plants, microbes, and structures that engage in locomotion (sperm, sea sponges, etc.) are not due to conscious thought.
Think of it this way: the human body contains more bacterial cells than human cells. Like sex cells, single-celled organisms respond to various stimuli. If life (and not consciousness) were the standard, then you’d be committing genocide every time you made bowel movement.
Anyway, I hope that sheds some light on the issue.
- Nagel, T. (1974) “What is it like to be a bat?”, Philosophical Review, 83, pp. 435-450. https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~cavitch/pdf-library/Nagel_Bat.pdf
- Animal Ethics: The Problem of Consciousness. https://www.animal-ethics.org/sentience-section/introduction-to-sentience/problem-consciousness/#fn1
- Eisenbach, M. Sperm Chemotaxis. Rev Reprod. 1999 Jan;4(1):56-66. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10051103/
- Eating Bivalves. Medium. https://medium.com/@TheAnimalist/those-pesky-bivalves-790e8cfb2793
- How Long Can Sperm Survive After Ejaculation? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/how-long-can-sperm-live-outside-the-body
- Mechanisms of Sperm Motility, Doctor Charles Lindemann. Oakland University. https://files.oakland.edu/users/lindeman/web/spermfacts.htm
- What Happens to Sperm Once They’re Inside a Woman? https://gizmodo.com/what-happens-to-sperm-once-theyre-inside-a-woman-1716992251
- What About Insects and Other “pests”? https://www.peta.org/about-peta/faq/what-about-insects-and-other-”pest”s/