Semen

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Some semen on a piece of glass. Semen is a sticky white or yellowish fluid that contains sperm.

Semen (pronounced SEE-men or SEE-mən) is the fluid that comes out from the end of a man's penis when he has an orgasm (the height of sexual excitement) and ejaculates. It is usually a white or yellowish, sticky substance made up of sperm (male cells for sexual reproduction) floating in a fluid called seminal plasma that has water and different chemicals in it. Normally, an ejaculation makes between 1.5 and 5 millilitres (up to one teaspoonful) of semen.

Some scientists think that semen that is taken into a woman's body causes her not to feel depressed or sad. On the other hand, if semen touches another person's body, it can pass on sexually transmitted infections (STIs). In a few cases, it can also make the other person's immune system weaker, or cause the person to have an allergic reaction. The risks of these health problems happening can be reduced if the man wears a condom when having sex.

Many cultures around the world once thought or still think that semen has special or even magical qualities. Showing semen in forms of popular culture such as art and movies has for a long time been taboo, that is, not generally accepted by society. However, since the late 20th century, artists and moviemakers have done so more often.

Words[change | change source]

The English word semen comes from the Latin word sēmen, which means "seed".[1] In fact, seed was an old-fashioned name for semen.[2] The Latin word sēmen itself came from another Latin word, serěre, which means "to plant (a plant into the ground) or to sow (seeds in the earth)".[1] It was once thought that semen was like a seed that grew into a baby after being "planted" inside a woman's body.

Another name for semen is ejaculate. Some slang words for semen are cream, cum, jism, jizz, load, spooge, spunk,nut,wad.

The way it looks and its nature[change | change source]

Semen is the fluid that comes out from the end of a man's penis when he has an orgasm (the height of sexual excitement) and ejaculates. It is usually white, but may also be slightly grey or yellow.[3] If there is blood in the semen, it can look pink or reddish. This is a condition called hematospermia, and may be because of some blockage, inflammation, infection or injury to some part of the male sex organs, such as the urethra, epididymis, prostate or testicles. A doctor should be seen if the pink or reddish colour does not go away after a few days.[4]

Men ejaculate different amounts of semen. Normally, an ejaculation makes between 1.5 and 5 millilitres (up to one teaspoonful) of semen.[5] More semen usually comes out if a man has not ejaculated for many days, or if he has been stimulated (made sexually excited) for a long time. Older men make less semen. If a man ejaculates an unusually small amount of semen, this is a medical condition called hypospermia.

After a man has ejaculated, semen first becomes slightly thick and sticky, and may feel a bit like jelly and clump together in globs. Scientists think that semen does this so that if the man has had sex with a woman and has ejaculated inside her vagina, the semen stays in her vagina for longer and does not leak out. Between five and 40 minutes after this, semen becomes more liquid and watery. This probably allows the sperm in the semen to move through the vagina and into the woman's uterus and Fallopian tubes to try and fertilize an ovum (egg cell). If semen is ejaculated outside the body, after becoming watery it eventually dries up.[3]

What it is made up of[change | change source]

Semen is made up of sperm (male cells for sexual reproduction) floating in a fluid called seminal plasma. Sperm, also called spermatozoa, are made by a man's testicles and mature (grow up) in the epididymis. The fluids in seminal plasma come from different glands in the man's body: the seminal vesicles, prostate and bulbourethral glands (also called the Cowper's glands). (Glands are special organs in the body that make chemicals.) The table below shows the substances that make up semen and the glands that produce them:[3]

Glands Rough amount Substances
Testicles and epididymis 5%
  • Sperm – in each ejaculation, there are between 40 million and 600 million sperm.
Seminal vesicles 40–60%
Prostate 13–33%
  • Zinc – this stops the parts of the sperm containing DNA from breaking up. If a man does not have enough zinc in his food, he will have lower fertility and be less able to make a woman pregnant as his body will not be able to make sperm well, and the sperm will be weaker.
  • Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) – this is an enzyme (a chemical that speeds up chemical reactions) which causes the semen to become watery so sperm can move easily inside a woman's body.
  • Other substances such as acid phosphatase, citric acid, fibrinolysin, and proteolytic enzymes.
Bulbourethral (Cowper's) glands 5%
  • Mucus – this is a slippery fluid that gives semen its jelly-like texture. It helps sperm to move through the man's urethra and inside the woman's vagina and cervix, and also stops them from spreading out too much from the semen when it is inside the woman's body.
  • Other substances such as galactose (another kind of sugar), pre-ejaculate and sialic acid.

Seminal plasma protects and provides food for sperm as they travel inside a woman's body. The inside of a woman'a vagina does not suit sperm cells as it is acidic. To protect the sperm from the acid, seminal plasma is alkaline. A woman's immune system also tries to kill organisms (living things) that are not part of her body. Seminal plasma has chemicals called prostaglandins in it to stop the woman's body from killing the sperm.

Semen that does not have any germs in it (see below) is not harmful if it is swallowed, for example after a person has had oral sex with a man and the man ejaculates in that person's mouth.

Semen quality[change | change source]

A photograph of human sperm. Sperm are not really red and green in colour; the colours were added to the photograph to make the sperm stand out more clearly.

Semen quality refers to how well the sperm in a man's semen can fertilize a woman's ova. The better a man's semen quality is, the better chances he has to make a woman pregnant. A 1992 World Health Organization book said that an ejaculation of normal human semen has:[6]

  • a volume of 2 millilitres or more;
  • a pH of 7.2 to 8.0, which means that it is alkaline;
  • 40 million or more sperm (20 million sperm in each millilitre of semen);
  • 50% or more of the sperm alive; and
  • 50% or more of the sperm able to move, or 25% or more of the sperm able to move forwards quickly within 60 minutes from the time of ejaculation.

The number of sperm in an ejaculation of semen depends on many things. There may be more sperm if:

  • the man is younger,
  • his body produces more of the hormone testosterone, which makes a person look and feel like a man,
  • his testicles are not too warm,
  • he produces more semen,
  • he has not ejaculated for some time, and
  • he has been stimulated for a longer time before ejaculation.

If there are an unusually low number of sperm in an ejaculation, this is called oligospermia. If there are no sperm at all, this is called azoospermia. A man with oligospermia or azoospermia is usually infertile, and cannot or finds it very hard to make a woman pregnant by having sex with her.

Health[change | change source]

Benefits[change | change source]

Semen ejaculated by a man inside a condom. The end of a condom has a small pouch called a reservoir, which is a space for the semen. Wearing a condom helps to stop the spread of sexually transmitted infections.

Studies seem to say that semen is an anti-depressant. This means that it causes women not to feel depressed or sad. The studies found that when men had sex with women without using condoms, and the men's semen was taken into the women's vaginas, the women had better moods and felt happier. Scientists do not yet know if the same thing happens when semen is swallowed after oral sex, but some of them think it may.[7]

Risks[change | change source]

Passing on disease[change | change source]

If a man has a sexually transmitted infection or STI (an infection that is passed from one person to another by sex), the germs that cause the disease can appear in his semen. If the person that the man has sex with touches the semen, he or she can become infected by the germs and pick up the disease. AIDS, chlamydia, gonorrhea, hepatitis B, herpes and syphillis are examples of STIs. One of the ways for a man to lower the chance of passing on an STI to his sexual partner is to wear a condom on his penis when having sex.

Making the immune system weaker[change | change source]

Some scientists think that parts of semen, such as sperm and seminal plasma, can make another person's immune system weaker. Experiments show that when substances in a man's semen enter another person's body, that person's body makes antibodies. Antibodies are large Y-shaped proteins used by the body's immune system to stop foreign objects from harming the body. However, the antibodies made in response to substances in semen attack one of the body's own cells, called T lymphocytes.[8] This weakens the body's immune system.

Allergy[change | change source]

In a very small number of cases, people have experienced allergic reactions when they touched semen. This is called human seminal plasma hypersensitivity. The symptoms (signs of the medical problem) can either be near the part of the body which touched the semen, or all over the body. They may include itching of the vagina, redness, swelling or blisters within 30 minutes of contact. They may also include itching and hives (large, red, itchy patches) all over the body, and even difficulty breathing.[9]

The best way to test for human seminal plasma hypersensitivity is for a man to use a condom when having sex. When a condom is used, after ejaculation the man's semen stays inside the condom and does not touch the body of the person he is having sex with. If the man's sexual partner usually has allergic symptoms to semen but does not have any when a condom is used, this may show that his partner's body is extra-sensitive to semen. A person can often get over a mild semen allergy by coming into contact with semen often.[10] If the allergic reaction is very bad, the person should see a doctor, especially if she is a woman trying to get pregnant. In such cases, it may be necessary for the woman to have a baby through artificial insemination. This is a medical way of fertilizing a woman's ova using a man's sperm without the man and the woman having sexual intercourse.

Culture[change | change source]

An orchid plant (Orchis lactea) with two underground tubers. In Ancient Rome it was thought that these special roots looked like testicles. The 1 coin in front shows that this plant is quite small.
A statue of a satyr in the Athens Archaeological Museum

Many cultures around the world once thought or still think that semen has special or even magical qualities. Some examples are set out below:

  • Ancient Greece. In Ancient Greece, the philosopher Aristotle thought that if men started to take part in sexual activity when they were too young, this would cause their bodies to stop growing normally. This was because food that would otherwise make the body grow would instead be used to make semen. However, this would not happen if the body was already fully grown.[11]
  • Ancient Rome. The orchid is a type of plant with flowers. Some orchids have underground tubers, which are swollen roots used by plants for storing food. The word orchid comes from the Greek word όρχις (orchis) meaning "testicle". Ancient Romans thought that the tubers of the orchid looked like testicles, and believed the plant grew from the semen of satyrs that had fallen on the ground.[12] A satyr was thought to be a creature with the upper body of a man and the lower body of a goat, and goat's horns on its head. Satyrs were said to love drinking wine and having sex.
  • China. In Ancient China, it was believed that the precious stone jade was the dried semen of a dragon that lived in the sky.[12] Today, in traditional Chinese medicine and in qìgōng (Chinese exercises that work with or "energy" in the body), it is believed that a man's body contains sexual energy called jīng (written 精 in the Chinese language), and that he should try to make more of it and save it.[13] It is said that jīng moves into a man's sex organs when he is sexually excited, and when he ejaculates semen the energy leaves his body, which is not good for him.
  • Indonesia. In the traditions of Bali in Indonesia, when a man ejaculates semen into a woman's body, he is considered to be repaying his mother's kindness in giving him breast milk when he was a baby.[14]
  • Near Middle East. In Biblical times, the early Jews believed that when a man ejaculated semen this made him ritually unclean until evening. Any object that semen touched also became unclean, and if the man had sex with a woman she became unclean until evening.[15] People who practise certain types of Judaism still have this belief today.
  • Papua New Guinea. Among the Etoro people of Papua New Guinea it is believed that to become sexually mature men, young boys must perform oral sex on older men and swallow their semen.[16]

Popular culture[change | change source]

Displaying semen in forms of popular culture such as art and movies has for a long time been taboo, that is, not generally accepted by society. However, since the late 20th century artists and moviemakers have done so more often.

Visual arts[change | change source]

The American photographer Andres Serrano sometimes takes photographs of body fluids and displays them as artworks. One example is Blood and Semen II (1990), which is a picture of blood and semen mixed together. Some people are shocked by such pictures and think it is wrong of him to make them, while others think that as an artist he is free to create such works.[17] Another of Serrano's pictures, Blood and Semen III, was featured on the cover of the 1996 music album Load by the American heavy metal band Metallica.[18]

The United Kingdom-based artists Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore, better known as Gilbert and George, have also used semen and other body fluids to create artworks.[19]

Movies[change | change source]

Apart from pornographic movies showing people having sex, semen is usually not shown in movies as many people think that doing so is obscene (not decent). However, some movies that have shown semen are the American comedy movies There's Something about Mary (1998),[20] American Pie (1999),[21] Scary Movie (2000)[22] and Scary Movie 2 (2001).[23] In the Spanish movie Y tu mamá también (And Your Mother Too, 2001), there is a scene where two high-school boys who are friends lie on diving boards over a swimming pool and masturbate (make themselves sexually excited). Semen is later shown floating on the water.[24] Such movies are usually not thought to be suitable for children to watch.

Notes[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 "semen". OED Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1989. http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50219367. Retrieved 2008-06-16.
  2. "seed, n.". OED Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1989. http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50218302. Retrieved 2008-06-16.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 John Dean (4 October 2005). "Semen and sperm quality". NetDoctor.co.uk. http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/menshealth/facts/semenandsperm.htm. Retrieved 2008-06-16.
  4. "Blood in semen". ProstateCommons.com. 2006. http://www.healthcentral.com/prostate/question-answer-27466-63.html. Retrieved 2008-06-16.
  5. "Swimming toward conception: The semen analysis". American Fertility Association. http://www.theafa.org/library/article/swimming_toward_conception_the_semen_analysis. Retrieved 2008-06-13.
  6. World Health Organization (2003). WHO Laboratory Manual for the Examination of Human Semen and Semen–Cervical Mucus Interaction (4th ed. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 60–61. ISBN 0-521-64599-9. http://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN0521645999&id=QBW1LBr-gpUC&pg=PP1&lpg=PP1&ots=Mwcsq3yj_K&dq=Laboratory+Manual+for+the+Examination+of+Human+Semen+and+Semen%E2%80%93Cervical+Mucus+Interaction&sig=wbD72bHCyOoy-mwUXrffxqkmKk4#PPP1,M1.
  7. Raj Persaud (26 June 2002). "Semen acts as an anti-depressant". New Scientist. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn2457-semen-acts-as-an-antidepressant.html. Retrieved 2008-07-07.
  8. S. Mathur; J.M. Goust, H.O. Williamson, H.H. Fudenberg (1981). "Cross-reactivity of Sperm and T Lymphocyte Antigens". American Journal of Reproductive Immunology 1 (3): 113–118. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6175235.
  9. G. Guillet; G. Dagregorio, M.H. Guillet (2005). "[Vulvar Contact Dermatitis due to Seminal Allergy: 3 Cases]". Ann. Dermatol. Venereol. 132 (2): 123–125. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15798560. (In French.)
  10. S. Weidinger; J. Ring, F.M. Köhn (2005). "IgE-mediated Allergy against Human Seminal Plasma". Chem. Immunol. Allergy 88: 128–138. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16129942.
  11. Aristotle; Richard Kraut (transl.) (1997). Politics: Books VII and VIII. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 152–153. ISBN 0198751133. http://books.google.com/books?id=TxCYKEtShewC&pg=PA152&vq=semen&sig=HH_ds5KLE5fDC6z6DIFuIrPt2_U#PPA152,M1.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Barbara G. Walker (1988). The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco. pp. 576. ISBN 0-06-250923-3.
  13. Gary J. Clyman. "Sexual Kung Fu [ch. 8]". The Chi Kung Bible: Mastering Personal Power. http://www.chikung.com/chapter8.html. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
  14. Laura J. Bellows (2003). Personhood, Procreative Fluids, and Power: Re-thinking Hierarchy in Bali [Working Paper No. 9]. Canberra: Gender Relations Centre, RSPAS, Australian National University. ISSN 1447–5952 (online). http://rspas.anu.edu.au/grc/publications/pdfs/BellowsL_2003.pdf.
  15. The Bible, Leviticus 15:16–18.
  16. Gilbert H. Herdt (ed.) (1984). Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-08096-3.
  17. Andrew Moscrop (December 2001). "Andres Serrano, Barbican Art Gallery, London. Until 23 December 2001". studentBMJ 9: 443–486. ISSN 0966-6494. http://www.studentbmj.com/issues/01/12/reviews/481.php.
  18. "A–Z of Metallica terms and names". Metallicaworld. http://www.metallicaworld.co.uk/a-z.htm. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
  19. Germaine Greer (26 February 2007). "There is only one way Gilbert and George can complete the work – by dying, in unison". The Guardian. http://arts.guardian.co.uk/art/visualart/story/0,,2021470,00.html. "Gilbert and George". ArtandCulture.com. http://www.artandculture.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/ACLive.woa/wa/artist?id=897. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
  20. "There's Something about Mary". Rolling Stone. 8 December 2000. http://www.rollingstone.com/reviews/movie/5947951/review/5947952/theres_something_about_mary. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
  21. "American Pie". Plugged In Online. http://www.pluggedinonline.com/movies/movies/a0000453.cfm. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
  22. Beth Pratt. "Scary Movie". CommonSenseMedia. http://www.commonsensemedia.org/movie-reviews/Scary-Movie.html. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
  23. Dutin Putman (4 July 2001). "Scary Movie 2 (2001)". TheMovieBoy.com. http://www.themovieboy.com/reviews/s/01_scarymovie2.htm. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
  24. Aaron Beltz (2002–2003). "Beavis y Butthead". Metaphilm. http://metaphilm.com/philms/ytumamatambien.html. Retrieved 2008-07-08.