Pop-Science’s Penis Fixation
Your Penis Is Getting in the Way of My Science
Earlier today [4/17/14], scientists announced they’d discovered an insect with a new kind of female sex organ. It looks a bit like a penis, and is called a gynosome. But almost every news outlet covered the story by describing the insects as “females with penises.” This isn’t just painfully wrong — it’s bad for science.
From reading the science news today, you’d assume that we’d found female bugs with penises, or organs that penetrate and inseminate their partners during sex. “In this group of insects, females wear the penises!” Discover magazine trumpeted. “In this insect, females have penises and males have vaginas,” National Geographic elaborated. The Verge declared that scientists had found a “female penis,” while Scientific American informed us that this female insect uses her “spiky penis” to “take charge.” Even the original scientific article’s headline included the phrase “female penis, male vagina.”
Except the gynosome isn’t a penis. As Jason Goldman explains in an article about the gynosome, this is a hitherto unknown form of sexual organ in the animal kingdom. When female members of the Brazilian bug species Neotroglamate with males, they insert their gynosomes into the male’s sexual organ. Once inside the male’s body, the gynosome inflates and grows spines, then absorbs both sperm and nutrients from the male for several days.
I’m sorry, but does this sound like a penis to you? When was the last time you found a penis that grew spines, absorbed nutrients, remained erect for 75 hours, or allowed its owner to get pregnant? Pretty much the only thing this organ has in common with a penis is that it’s used to penetrate a partner during sex. (continue reading)
* I highly suggest you all read the entire article I linked above as it is a splendidly executed editorial piece, the like which I have not seen in quite some time. *
I’ve seen a number of posts on this topic going around. All proclaiming the awesomeness of this female penis. The thing is, Neotrogla has a gynosome and not a penis. So why should you care?
- New things don’t always fit into the old boxes, and that’s ok.
The gynosome is new. We’ve never seen anything like this before and that is a BIG FRICKING DEAL! So when we change the language from gynosome to penis, we essentially strip this discovery of its fascinating new-ness. Instead of encouraging readers to learn more about this new type of sex organ, this penis talk allows readers to cling to their preconceived notions regarding sexual selection and sexual behavior.
One penis to one vagina.
Safe. Familiar. Normal.
Science is all about understanding the world around us and sharing that knowledge with others. Science isn’t about encouraging (inadvertently or not) misconceptions because new language / discoveries might make some people a bit uncomfortable.
- Chicks with dicks. How original.
You’re making a dick joke. I get it, but I’m not laughing.
The whole basis of this joke is that it is funny because it is different. I mean, why on earth would a female animal have a protruding genital organ?
It’s not like spotted hyenas have an enlarged clitoris and fused labia to produce what is commonly referred to as a pseudo-penis. Oh wait…
Geoffory’s spider monkeys have enlarged labia which form a pendulous, which is larger than the male’s flaccid penis.
And let’s not forget the seahorse females who use an ovipositor to deposit her eggs into the male’s brood pouch for fertilization and gestation.
The animal kingdom is filled with structures that may look and function differently than our own. If you’re stuck snickering over a penis joke you won’t find out what natural and sexual selection forces lead to this astounding variety.
- Stop trying to qualify animal behavior along human-centric perspectives.
Sexual selection is a weird branch of Ethology. An awesome one, but a weird one, and courtship behaviors/ mating systems/ sex organs you find in the animal world rarely line up with human textbook notions of reproductive sex.
Now this isn’t any surprise to those of us in the scientific community, but what about the average person? Are they going to want to conduct some further research or will they simply take the pop-sci version as fact? These are the same type of people who believe in domineering and aggressive alpha males, in timid females, and in animals that are strictly business when it comes to sex. (HAH! Tell that to the bonobo!).
With so many media sources jumping on this ‘female penis’ train (snicker), why would the average person have any reason to doubt this claim. After all, the internet never lies.
Sexual “roles” (which may also be referred to as gender roles in humans) are incredibly complicated when we’re discussing our own species… So why would we ever try to apply such binary logic to EVERY ANIMAL IN THE WORLD? It just doesn’t make sense. I’m not saying that every article that used the penis terminology is guilty of this, but a lot of them are.
Of course, not everyone agrees with this perspective. Ed Yong of National Geographic wrote a response to the article above defending his use of the term “female penis”. What do you guys think? Is this this just a metaphor used for simple explanation, or a penis game that has gone too far? I’d love to hear your thoughts.