Teaching Moms and Dads to Perform the Family: Rhetoric and Assisted Reproductive Technology Websites


With over 400 fertility clinics in the United States offering a variety of ART services, it is not difficult to find websites and collect data for rhetorical investigation (Spar, 2006, p. 32). Though it is tempting to select the most dramatic/outrageous/fun ART company websites, an examination into the rhetorical architecture of my artificial selections reveals more about myself than it does about what most people find when searching ART company websites.

In order to eliminate such bias and imitate web searchers, websites were located using the three most popular search engines at the time of the study (MSN/Live Search, Yahoo! Search, and Google), which accounted for around 86% of all searches (Nielsen/NetRatings, 2008). Multiple search terms were used in order to imitate how web searchers might use a number of terms associated with ART in their navigation process (see Table 1). 

ART websites found on the first and second results pages of the search engines were analyzed. When selecting links from search engines, there is a trend occurring in which web searchers do not usually go beyond these pages (Jansen & Spink, 2006).  The top ten results for each search engine were compared.  Over forty different ART company websites were found.  In order to make the analysis more manageable, the top ten websites from each search category were randomly selected. Out of these selections, a number of distinct features for the websites appeared. 

ART company websites were broken into separate categories reflecting their distinct features or the services they offered. Websites were categorized into those offering sperm donation, egg donation, surrogacy, and egg donation and surrogacy services based on the major emphases of their websites (see Table 2). One site offers sperm and egg donation services (Northwest Andrology and Cryobank) and another offers sperm donation, egg donation, and surrogacy services (Growing Generations)1.

Because of how web searching works, the searches and information gathered in "Teaching Moms and Dads" come from web searching at a particular location in Eastern Washington State. Google, for instance, uses "location detection technology" that may influence the results so that they are biased towards the location of the web searcher (Google, n.d.). While it may be possible to get around such search bias, this was beyond the skills of the researcher at the time. In addition, if such customizations were made, the searches wouldn't be like web searches since most Internet users probably don't account for such search engine bias. "Teaching Moms and Dads," then, describes the types of rhetorical choices and narratives an audience searching for ART services in Eastern Washington may experience without customizing search engines or web browsers beyond default settings.

Pictures were collected between September and December 2008. Pictures were collected individually through screen captures and drag and drop. Since some websites were extremely large with dozens and dozens of web pages with often poorly designed and confusing navigation, it is the hope of the researcher that he located all the web pages with pictures of people interacting with children. All pictures were then categorized by the gender role being played—men or women.

ART company pictures were then analyzed for three transactional processes using three of Erving Goffman’s (1987) categories for understanding pictures in advertisements. Goffman’s the family describes how pictures of family are usually, as I interpret his work and the example pictures he includes, nuclear and heterosexual (see Figure 1).  Such pictures serve as “symbolization of the family structure” (p. 37). Fathers are usually presented as protectors either as exhibited by posture and/or proximity (p. 39). To Goffman's the family I also see his concept of relative size being displayed. Men are often presented as larger than women. The difference in size can be considered a way to mark social weight or power and authority (p. 28). In other words, to be a woman means to be presented as smaller and less physically powerful than her male partner. Finally, the family also exhibits Goffman's the ritualization of subordination and how deference is communicated. More, specifically, his observations about the "shoulder hold" and body or head canting are at play in family pictures. Goffman describes the "shoulder hold" as "an asymmetrical configuration more or less requiring the individual to be taller than the person held and that the held person accept direction and constraint"(p. 55). For the purposes of this study, when men are pictured wrapping their arms around the family and when women lean on men or cant their bodies towards men in pictures indicating a need for support, it is considered the family. In general pictures of the family were categorized as family when it appeared that men were expressing authority and power in pictures. In addition, when it appeared men were showing their strength (e.g. a picture of a man and woman shows a man carrying a child piggy-back), or observed women interacting closely with a child but did not seem as engaged in the activity be it snug/nuzzling or an activity picture, it is considered the family. Pictures of men and women as couples, regardless of the presence of children, were also considered to represent the family, a prospective or potential family.  Family was further categorized by the setting or the location of the picture.

Figure 1: Examples of the family

family where father is holding or protecting woman and child
from Xytex Corporation

family where father is holding or protecting woman and children
from Family Creations

family where father is holding or protecting woman and child
from The Surrogate Parenting Center of Texas

Of special importance to this study are two facets of Goffman’s licensed withdrawal.  For Goffman, licensed withdrawal is a term for his observation that women more than men are pictured as if they are removed psychologically from a situation and are thus dependent on others “protectiveness and good will” (p. 57).  Snuggling and nuzzling (Snug/Nuzzling) are two types of licensed withdrawal important for this study as they reflect intimacy between parent and child. Snuggling occurs when children snuggle into a parent’s (usually a mother’s) body thereby removing themselves and/or the parent from the "surrounding situation" (p. 75).  Nuzzling is similar to snuggling but instead of using the entire body, it “employs the use of faces” nuzzling other people or objects as a way to withdraw from a situation” (p. 79). For snuggling to occur in this study, I take a more liberal view and consider it important for parents to simply be holding their child or their children closely to their bodies; physical touch and intimacy rather than withdrawal is emphasized. Similarly, a picture is categorized as nuzzling if faces of a child and parent are touching or are in close proximity to each other or the parent is in close proximity to a child and nuzzles a part of the child besides the face (e.g. a woman nuzzles a child's hand and is laying down beside the child) (see Figure 2).  The importance of these situations is not what it says about licensed withdrawal as much as what it says about the relationship between women with children and men with children where snuggling and nuzzling represents protection and intimacy or affection between parent and child. It indicates accepted behaviors of physical contact for moms and dads—for women and men.

Figure 2: Examples of snuggling and nuzzling

woman snuggling child
snuggling from
Conceptual Options

Snuggling Woman
nuzzling from
The Sperm Bank of California

woman nuzzling child
nuzzling from
Northeast Assisted Fertility

Pictures were also categorized into activity pictures, which include teaching, playing, and feeding (see Figure 3). Activity in contrast to snuggling and nuzzling shows a different kind of intimacy between child and parent.  Activity represents information sharing (teaching), fun (playing), and nutrition (feeding). Unlike snuggling and nuzzling, the main goals in activity pictures are not necessarily emotional comfort or protection as in snuggling and nuzzling pictures. Teaching includes pictures where it looks as if a parent is instructing a child.  For example, reading to a child is considered teaching and encouraging or helping a child walk is also considered a teaching activity.  A parent observing a child walking or crawling, on the other hand, is not considered teaching.  Playing includes activities where it looks as if parents and children are engaged in play.  For instance, piggyback rides, lifting or throwing a child into the air, "rough housing," tickling, and the presence of parents and children with toys are considered play activities. There is overlap between teaching and playing where a child with a parent playing with a phone can be considered both playing and teaching about communication technology.  Feeding includes pictures where a child is eating or nursing.

Figure 3: Examples of activities

man reading a book to a girl
reading a book and, thus,
teaching literacy from
Ca. Cryobank

child playing with a woman's hair
playing with hair where focus is not
protection necessarily comfort or protection
Family Source

man feeding child from bottle
feeding child and,
thus, acting as
provider and enabling
feeding from
Building Families

Pictures are not mutually exclusive. In other words, pictures of the family can have snuggling, nuzzling, or activities occurring and vice versa. For instance, in a family picture, if a woman snuggles a child, it also counts as a woman and child snuggling. Finally, what are counted in pictures are behaviors. For instance, one picture of a The Family in which a mother and father each snuggle children is counted as a man snuggling a child and a woman snuggling a child.

One company is extremely unusual in that it brings together all ART services searched for in this study. Growing Generations (GG) offers sperm donation, egg donation, and surrogacy services. Since this site is unique in bringing together all ART services, it seems GG would use a variety of different rhetorical strategies to manage dramatically different audiences. And because of these unique characteristics Growing Generations serves as a foundation in this study.  The instructions this site generates are often analyzed with and against the pictures of men, women, and parents generally being used in ART company websites that offer sperm donation, egg donation, egg donation and surrogacy services, or sperm and egg donation services.

Although numbers in this study may not achieve statistical significance, they are rhetorically significant.  The repetition of types of behaviors in pictures reflects trends audiences will encounter when searching for ART services. The repetitions of certain behaviors in pictures are rhetorical decisions that inform audiences about "natural" and "normal" parenting and family behavior.

Some aspects of this study do suffer from the flaws of content analysis as described by Linda Scott (1994).  This type of analysis "counts pictures of objects as if the manner of presentation and propositional context were irrelevant" (Scott, 1994, p. 259). For instance, this study is focused on one semiotic mode. Other semiotic modes that work with the propositional context (the context creating the message) and the manner of presentation (i.e. other verbal text, font choices, colors, layout, etc.) are not considered. Similarly, other aspects of the pictures that may affect the presentation and the propositional context (i.e. placement on a web page, type of web page—home page, about page, process page, etc.—size of picture, etc.) are also not considered. One reason for this is convenience.  When analyzing a large number of pictures, it is difficult to examine multiple rhetorical aspects.  In addition, in the context of these websites, the instructions being communicated to an audience are similar and overarching: "Customers, these are the products (children) and these are the appropriate ways of interacting with these products." Though there are certainly other instructions being made (e.g. some sites have religious overtones), the overarching instructions being made by ART company websites is similar. Since the instructions are somewhat stable and one doesn't necessarily know which pictures an audience will take notice of, repetition of types of picture counts. These are rhetorical choices in which one type of visual imagery is chosen over another. The assumption is that an audience has a better chance of noticing something that occurs many times rather than a few times. And as a way to mitigate some of the flaws in content analysis, where there are circumstances where more modal information is needed, I have provided it.

Websites in this study are generally grouped together and not critiqued individually like Growing Generations. This strategy can skew the results and misrepresent how some sites communicate.  For instance, if one company website has ten pictures of women with children snuggling and no pictures of men with children snuggling and another company website has ten pictures of men snuggling with children and no pictures of women snuggling with children, then the knowledge about parenting produced by these two company websites is different. I have indicated in tables or within the main text for snuggling and nuzzling (Snug/Nuzzling) and activities, and the family that there are sites that do not exactly fit the generalizations created through the numbers. By examining the sites this way, however, one can better understand how, regardless of skewing, a web searcher browsing these sites will find more types of some representations but not others and what effects this can have on an audience. Though, again, this does not mean each ART company website conforms to generalizations made about representations.

Finally, this study is in no way unbiased.  It was performed by a heterosexual man limited to his own cultural vision at a moment in time. Because vision, websites, companies, and technologies change through time (often quickly), this piece is a snapshot of one vision and of one point in time of companies' web presences and available ART.

1 Some websites represent branches or divisions of larger companies offering more services. Fairfax Cryobank, for instance, offers services associated with sperm donation but is affiliated with the larger Genetics and IVF Institute (GIVF Institute) that offers egg donor services as well.  Since Fairfax Cryobank has its own graphic identity and the main company was not part of the random company selection, Fairfax Cryobank was considered a sperm donation company website. The Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine (CCRM), similarly, has a separate egg donation website with a unique graphic identity very different from CCRM's website; therefore, it was analyzed as a stand-alone egg donation company site.

Table 1: Search terms
Return to text

Egg Donor Websites Sperm Donor Websites Surrogacy Websites
Egg Donation Sperm Donation Gestational Surrogacy Agency
Egg Donor Sperm Donor Surrogacy
Egg Donor Agency Sperm Donor Agency Surrogacy Agency

Table 2: Services offered and companies used*
Return to text

Sperm donation Egg donation Surrogacy Egg donation and surrogacy Egg donation and sperm donation Egg donation, sperm donation and surrogacy
Ca. Cryobank, Inc. Egg Donation Inc. Building Families Conceptual Options Northwest Andrology and Cryobank** Growing Generations
Midwest Sperm Bank Co. Center for Reproductive Medicine The Gift of Surrogacy Family Source Consultants    
Cryogenic Laboratories Inc. Family Creations   New Hope Surrogacy Center
Fairfax Cryobank Heartfelt Egg Donation   Northeast Assisted Fertility Group    
Fertility Center of Ca. Pacific Fertility Center   Reproductive Assistance Incorporated    
The Sperm Bank of Ca. Tiny Treasures   Surrogate Parenting Center of Texas    
Sperm Donors Inc.     The Egg Donor and Surrogacy Program    
Xytex Corporation     The Fertility Source    
      The Select Surrogate    
      Center for Reproductive Health    

*Egg Donation Inc., Heartfelt Egg Donation, Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine, The Select Surrogate, and New Hope Surrogacy Center do not have pictures used in this study. Additionally, pictures that were read as dynamic or updated frequently and/or not major parts of a site's graphic identity (e.g. blogs, features, pictures of events, extensive lists of baby pictures) unless something indicated they were more or less stable were also not counted. While certainly part of the web presence and mediated by ART companies, donor and surrogate profiles were not always accessible for each company.  Furthermore, some companies had what seemed like hundreds of pictures of donors, which would be an awe-inspiring feat to count and assess.

**Though NAC referred to itself as a sperm bank on its homepage, it also acts as an egg donation agency in that it "recruits egg donors for The Center for Reproductive Endocrinology and Fertility." Furthermore, though it's connection and recruitment of donors was unclear, it appears to have been closely affiliated with Spokane Egg Donor (e.g. they shared an "Egg Donor Questionnaire."). For these reasons, I categorized NAC as having sperm and egg donation services and examined pictures from Spokane Egg Donor. Today, when one tries to navigate to the egg donor site linked to NAC (http://www.spokaneeggdonor.com), one is re-directed to Northwest Andrology and Cryobank's main page. The current site makes services for egg and sperm donation more explicit.