What It's Like to be Allergic to Semen
When your body rejects the jizz-bearing catalyst of life itself, what happens to your love life? We asked one allergy sufferer to explain the sticky situation.
Illustration by Tuesday Bassen
Semen allergy is real, but rare. Not as rare as you might think, but so rare that most people's first reaction is to piss themselves laughing.
Regular VICE readers will of course know this is a bona fide affliction, with a recent handful of cases of men allergic to their own spunk. Sure, being allergic to your own bodily fluid is bad, but at least you're the only person affected by that sorry affair.
For the women whose body decides to reject the jizz-bearing catalyst of life itself, a semen allergy is a whole different ball game.
Laura*, 29, was diagnosed with a semen allergy two years ago.
"It sounds crazy, but I didn't figure any of this out until I was 27. At 17, I naively assumed that the stinging, itching, and swelling I'd experienced with my first partner was... normal," Laura tells Broadly. "I was far more concerned that the pill was turning me into a fat, acne-ridden, hormonal werewolf."
"I was 25 before I met my first serious boyfriend. We endured an uncomfortable two-year stand off, where he didn't want to use condoms and I didn't want to lose my mind or have my face turn into a festering pool of pus. We settled on the pull-out method—which, by the way, is AS reliable as condoms, though no one tells you that."
"I noticed that if I didn't dash off to clean myself up after sex that within 5 minutes my skin looked like a demented toddler had been at me with a red Crayola. I assumed an STI, which left all kinds of questions hanging over our relationship. We were both checked, and nothing. Stalemate."
"Hours of Googling eventually led me to human seminal fluid hypersensitivity."
Read More: The History of Bodily Fluids in Feminist Art
Since the first case was reported in 1958, there's been around 100 confirmed cases of semen allergy in women, though recent studies show it may be far more common that previously thought. Understandably, women are hesitant to come forward lest they're sent off with a fistful of antibiotics and a patronizing smile.
Laura's experience was precisely that: "My GP did his best to keep the smirk off his face, gently pressing STI leaflets into my hand. I shoved a peer reviewed medical paper back into his, and eventually got a referral. And an apology."
According to Dr Rob Hicks, GP and author of Beat Your Allergies, an allergy to semen is unusual, but well understood by specialists: "It is an immune system reaction as with other allergies. People react to a protein within semen resulting in symptoms such as vaginal redness, itching, burning sensation and sometimes pain. Rarely it can result in anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening severe allergic reaction."
"I came out of my appointment and collapsed laughing," Laura recalls. "I realized that my diagnosis was probably related to an unexplained incident in my teens. On a handful of occasions when I was about 15 my wrists would itch and blister, and my lips swelled up so much they touched my nose. My GP put it down to [exam] stress... But looking back, it might have had more to do with my first fledgling blowjobs."
Antihistamines can help tame reactions in sufferers, but long term treatment options are somewhat limited: "Abstinence, condom use, or desensitization," according to Dr Hicks.
"'Desensitization' actually means persevering through the pain to build up a tolerance over time," notes Laura. "But the tolerance is per person. I could build it up with one guy, only to have to go through it again if we break up."
It makes dating interesting too, because when do you drop that bomb? It always feels too soon, but at the same time death by anaphylactic shock because the condom broke is not something I'd wish on any of my Tinder dates."
"My diagnosis just raised more questions," Laura sighs. "How on earth can you get pregnant when your body is treating the essence of your partner like an illegal immigrant?"
"It is possible to become pregnant with a semen allergy and women should be reassured it doesn't cause infertility," Dr Hicks says. His advice for Laura and other women? "Seek the advice of their doctor who may suggest intrauterine insemination or IVF using sperm that have been washed to remove the allergy triggering semen proteins."
Read More: Sniffing Your Way to Better Sex
Despite the uncertainty and ugly-sounding road ahead of her, Laura does actually see a benefit to her unpleasant allergy. "Whilst I'm not seeing anyone it's just an interesting fact about me that I might tell in a dull game true or false. But it's had a more profound and positive impact on my outlook on life, as a woman."
"Society, with a few exceptions, says that a woman is valuable or notable because of her looks or ability to reproduce. When you take away the latter being a guarantee, you try to define your life in other ways—through meaningful work, experiences, relationships and reminding the world at every opportunity that not all women want to follow the procreation path that we're blindly sent down.
"I definitely think there's a correlation between my liberal, feminist views and my allergy. And I'm glad. But do I wish I had a nice, normal peanut allergy like everyone else? Yeah, probably."
* Not her real name