Motherhood by theft? We investigate the disturbing phenomenon of ‘spurgling’

‘Accidental’ pregnancies are nothing new – but the business of ‘baby-trapping’ has gone up a gear. Sophia Money-Coutts investigates the disturbing 21st-century phenomenon of ‘spurgling’.

spurgling
Josh McKenna

‘At the beginning, I felt as if I’d been raped. That may sound unreasonable, but having someone steal your DNA then use it for something you never consented to feels like a violation on such a deep level.’

These are the words of a man we shall call Jonathan, an insurance broker in his mid 30s who last year dated a 39-year-old accountant for two months before he called it off. She was nice enough, but Jonathan decided it wasn’t the relationship for him, and he and his ex went their separate ways. Or so he thought. A few days after they broke up, she rang to tell him she was two months pregnant. She’d been taking the pill, she claimed, but somehow it hadn’t worked and now she was carrying his baby.

Of course, women have been ‘baby-trapping’ men by getting pregnant without their consent – either for marriage, money or simply to become a mother – for decades. But in this internet era, the game has changed.

Today, a woman desperate to get pregnant without her boyfriend/one-night stand/lover finding out has an arsenal of high-tech gadgetry at her disposal. There are ovulation tests, plus phone apps to monitor fertile days. There are the DIY insemination kits for around £20 on Amazon, which – shocking as it sounds – can be used for the unsavoury purpose of impregnating herself with the contents of a used condom. And to make sure a would-be mum’s doing it properly, there are insemination tutorial videos on YouTube. There’s even a new name for the practice: ‘spurgling’, a slightly repulsive portmanteau of ‘sperm burgling’.

Warning: this story will contain graphic content that, for any men reading, may put you off casual sex for life.

I’ve read online threads of would-be spurglers debating how big a hole has to be in a condom for sperm to get through it. I’ve discovered that Silastic condoms are better for spurgling than normal ones, because they are made from a material which isn’t toxic to sperm. I’ve also learnt that plastic syringes or ‘turkey basters’, used to inject sperm as high as possible inside a woman’s vagina, are preferable to metal ones because, according to one woman who tried to baby-trap a wealthy man she was dating, ‘the plastic ones are so much warmer!’ Baby-trapping, in other words, has gone up a gear.

You only have to look at news headlines to see that there has been a recent rash of cases around the world. Earlier this year, a man’s post on the website Reddit went viral when he asked for legal advice after finding his girlfriend trying to impregnate herself with the contents of their condom. An eyebrow-raising post on the website Mumsnet detailed how one woman became pregnant after inseminating herself with sperm that her partner had deposited on her belly, in an attempt at the withdrawal method of contraception. In May, Singapore even passed a law against ‘stealthing’ – where a person removes a condom during sex without the other’s consent.

spurgling
Josh McKenna

But could a woman really get pregnant from a used condom? ‘You could, if you’re very quick,’ says fertility nurse consultant Kate Davies, who warns that women thinking about getting pregnant without a man’s consent need to consider the serious ethical and legal ramifications. Issues range from the STD risk and lack of information about the father’s genetic history, to the worry that he won’t want to be involved, or the opposite: that the father – a man she might barely know – has the right to sue for 50/50 custody of the child.

I first came across the term spurgling when I worked for society magazine Tatler and one of the editorial team announced that she knew a future peer who’d found himself in the same situation as Jonathan. (If you’re a single posh chap set to inherit millions  and a big house, you’re excellent baby-trapping material.)

We recalled that tennis player Boris Becker alleged he may have been spurgled by Angela Ermakova, the mother of his daughter Anna, after their encounter at the Nobu restaurant in 1999. Although Becker denied he was the father at first, a paternity test later proved otherwise. Two years ago, New York urologists reported a spike in wealthy men coming to them for vasectomies, so worried were they about being pursued by ‘gold-diggers’.

Baby-trapping, sperm stealing, spurgling – whatever you call it, it’s a tricky issue to write about without sounding misogynistic, almost Victorian: ‘Oh, these cunning women and their manipulative ways!’ But aren’t men equally responsible for taking precautions? And no form of contraception is guaranteed, right?

Absolutely. But it was a personal brush with this situation that gave me a more specific interest in it, and which partly inspired my new novel, What Happens Now? In the book, my heroine becomes pregnant after a first date (this is no spoiler: in the prologue we find Lil doing a pregnancy test in her mother’s bathroom). In real life, I dated a man who had a one-year-old with his ex after she supposedly lied about being on the pill. I saw first-hand how brutal this scenario can be – the resentment on both sides, the bitterness over finances, the shouting and recriminations – all while a small child is caught in the middle.

Almost everyone I explained the word spurgling to knew someone’s brother/cousin/ uncle who’d had a ‘surprise baby’ – another grim euphemism. I can count five male friends who have children who weren’t planned with women they dated for a matter of weeks or months. None of them married the mothers but all are involved with their children, although it took some time for them each to work out how to navigate the situation. ‘More than once, I heard the pregnancy referred to as a “bombshell” by friends and family,’ says one of these men, ‘then my mother started using her own phrase to describe the situation: “the elephant in the womb”.’

‘Did this happen much among your generation?’ I asked my 64-year-old mother while researching the phenomenon. ‘Of course,’ she replied, ‘but in my day, the pair would have been expected to marry.’

These days, if two people suddenly find themselves expecting a baby together, they don’t have to resort to a shotgun wedding (literally derived from the idea that the father of the pregnant woman would use a shotgun to force the man in question to marry his daughter). But in 2019, while I’m no apologist for women who become pregnant having deliberately misled a man, I can see why the conditions are ripe for it.

It’s not news that we’re delaying major milestones such as marriage and childbirth (the average bride is now 35; in the early 1970s she was 25). But while more women over 40 do give birth, biology hasn’t quite caught up with societal changes and if you’re a single woman in your 30s and your biological clock has kicked in, what do you do? Especially since men can have children well into old age (hello, the Rolling Stones), so can remain carefree for longer than us – and potentially reluctant to commit.

As a single, childless 34-year-old myself, I feel the pressure to have a baby mounting daily. ‘I’d think about it sooner rather than later,’ my gynaecologist advised after a routine check-up last summer. Meanwhile, headlines bombard women in their 30s with alarming messages: ‘The infertility timebomb ticking inside you!’ Technically there are more baby-making options than ever. One can brave parenthood solo via a sperm bank (with its price tag of around £2,000 for the sperm and insemination), or, like another girlfriend of mine who has a child with a gay man, co-parent with someone you’re not romantically involved with. You could adopt. Or you could simply download a period-tracking app such as Flo, and aim to have sex with someone at the right time without any protection. ‘Getting a sperm donor in the UK is difficult,’ says Kate Davies. ‘It’s an expensive process to do through clinics, and I’ve come across women who are trying to conceive naturally on their own saying, “Actually, it would be easier to have a one-night stand”.’

I read a long list of anonymous baby-trapping confessions online. ‘I got pregnant on purpose in order to keep him from leaving,’ says one. ‘We’ve been together for five years.’ ‘I’ve been trying to get pregnant by my married boyfriend for a year,’ says another. ‘I think if I have a baby he will leave his wife for me.’ ‘He told me he’d never leave me if we found out I was pregnant, so I did it on purpose to make sure,’ admits yet another. They’ve spurgled these men, yes, but if the surprised fathers fall in love with their babies once they’re in their arms, is that such a disaster?

It’s what fertility therapist Helena Tubridy refers to as ‘the semi-accidental pregnancy. A rarely voiced issue is a 30-something woman subtly trying to extract a ring from a long-term partner,’ she says. ‘He is blissfully unaware of the biological clock but she risks being dubbed needy and dumped for a younger model if she talks about this, so then come these “accidents” which speed things along.’

As for Jonathan and his ex, it took him most of the pregnancy to get his head around the situation. ‘At the beginning, I feared for the baby’s future, my family’s feelings, my professional reputation and my financial security. I dreaded the awkward confessions I would have to make to friends, colleagues, lovers and curious strangers for years to come.’ He felt, he adds, as though he’d been robbed of the chance to become the sort of father he’d envisaged being – a full-time dad living under the same roof as his child. ‘But if you have sex, that’s the risk you take. How you work out this kind of scenario afterwards is up to you.’

Jonathan saw a therapist throughout the pregnancy to try to master his own feelings. ‘I had to come to terms with the idea that I wasn’t going to be there all the time, and my intense feelings of guilt. You have to forgive yourself for the situation; it’s really important to get over the imperfection of it all.’ He also says he understands – and respects the feelings of – those spurgled fathers who chose not to be involved: ‘If you resent the child, the last place you should be is around them. They’re going to grow up and sense that.’

A year on, Jonathan can’t imagine his life any differently. He sees his son every weekend – taking him to Monkey Music classes like many a devoted-if-sleep-deprived dad – and has a good relationship with his ex, with whom he splits all financial costs. Instead of feeling trapped, he’s grateful to his ex for shouldering the majority of the childcare. ‘I feel like I’m lucky. I unfairly benefited because she deals with so much of the day-to-day stuff. She’s a great mum and there’s so much to be thankful for. It’s not a perfect story, but I only see it in a positive light.’ Happily, in this case at least, both parents understand that however their son came into the world, he is now all that matters.

What Happens Now? by Sophia Money-Coutts will be published on 22 August (HQ, price £12.99).