One evening, out of curiosity, I decided to read some research on pheromones. Pheromones are hormones secreted by an organism that influence the behavior of other organisms of its species. As I sifted through the scientific articles, one title in particular made me stare.
Male Moth Songs Tempt Females to Accept Mating: The Role of Acoustic and Pheromonal Communication in the Reproductive Behaviour of Aphomia sociella
Male moth songs tempt females to accept mating. Hmmm, now where have I seen that ideological construction of sexual behavior before?
Here are the facts about mating behavior in the bee moth, Aphomia sociella, as presented in the article. A male sits and broadcasts his pheromones. A female notices him and comes over. He sings her a song. She walks back and forth and fans her wings. If the male sings loudly enough (greater than 82 decibels), the female adopts a posture that signals that she wants sex. If that happens, they have sex.
Those are the facts, as cut and dried as I can present them. However, the article presented them rather differently. According to the authors, the male’s song stimulated the female to perform a display showing that she is receptive to sex. But none of this follows from the actual evidence. Couldn’t we just as easily say that the female’s display stimulated the male? Why is it the female who “receives” sex instead of the male? The title becomes even more dubious. “Male Moth Songs Tempt Females to Accept Mating” implies resistance on the female’s part: by default, she doesn’t want sex with the male, so he has to tempt her into accepting it. But if we examine the facts, we could just as easily give females the active role: she seeks out displaying males and chooses to mate with the ones who sing loud enough. Then the article would have been entitled “Females Seek Out Loud Male Moth Songs for Mating Opportunities.”
You may be as appalled as I am that scientists use such loaded, gendered language to describe mating behavior in a moth, which should by rights be completely neutral with respect to human gender roles. But it’s even worse than that, because the use of this language limits our scientific thinking. The language used in this article implies that male moths always want sex, and female moths are the ones to accept or reject it. But what if that isn’t true? What if the male is targeting his displays toward certain females? What if the female’s display to the male is important? This article didn’t speculate at all on male mate choice, and experimented only with the males’ displays, not the females’. In sum, our gendered ideas about mating behavior mean that we tend to ignore female sexual displays and male mate choice, because those behaviors involve females initiating sex and males sometimes rejecting it.
I invite everyone who can to click on the graph above and examine it at full size, and for those who can’t, I’ll describe it as best I can. This graph comes from a wonderful paper called “Active males, reactive females: stereotypic sex roles in sexual conflict research?” The authors of this paper took 30 very well-known articles on sexual conflict and analyzed the words they used to describe male and female behavior. They classified the words as active, passive, or neutral. The results are telling.
Authors of papers on sexual conflict overwhelmingly use active words to describe male sexual behavior and passive words to describe female sexual behavior. The most common words used to describe male behavior were “intimidation,” “manipulation,” and “coercion” while the most common words used to describe female behavior were “resistance,” “avoidance,” and “reluctance.” To me, the part of the graph surrounded by a dotted line is particularly appalling: males have “adaptations” while females have “counteradaptations.” There’s no reason to say that females can’t adapt and males counteradapt in response.
The assumptions made by the models in these papers align with the ideology revealed by their word choice. Many papers assume that females always have greater costs associated with sex than do males, male costs never increase with mating rate, and males are more powerful than females. These assumptions may be true in some cases, but we can’t take them for granted – which means they’re bad assumptions. How many cases of female antagonism and aggression are these researchers missing? How about male costs? Sperm don’t come from thin air, nor do the tegullae of male bee moths, the organs that produce their mating songs. When will we stop taking for granted Darwin’s mistaken claim that males exhibit more variation and action in their behavior than females?
It probably won’t surprise you that we also see gendered language used in the case of sexual cannibals, species of insect in which the female eats the male before, during, or after sex. In these cases, scientists are well justified in describing females as aggressive. However, they go one step further and use loaded words like “rapacious” and “voracious” to describe the behavior of female sexual cannibals, and words like “sacrifice” and “suicide” to describe the behavior of the males they consume. In this literature, females have been painted into a different stereotype: the “black widow” or “femme fatale” that seduces noble, helpless males to their doom. There is nothing inherently noble about being eaten by a mate, even in the case of the male Australian red-backed spider, who presents himself to the female’s jaws to be eaten as they have sex. He is pursuing an evolutionary strategy, giving his body as nourishment to his mate and their offspring, just as the female is pursuing her own evolutionary strategy, getting as much food for herself and her eggs as possible. There is no moral value to be assigned here.
So what can we do about all of this? Well, as scientists, we should always examine our assumptions and take nothing for granted. The more diversity in our scientific communities, the easier that task will be. This is true of all kinds of diversity; I’m sure the field of research into assistive technology would be advanced by having more disabled scientists, for example. I would also like to quote from the article about bias in sexual cannibalism research I talked about.
We suggest that the key message that we should put across is that there are no easy lessons about how we should live or love to be learned from nonhuman animals.
This is the message I’d like to send to scientists and non-scientists alike. Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s right. Animals coerce each other into sex. They cannibalize their own offspring. They paralyze other animals and lay their eggs into their still-living bodies so their offspring can eat their way out when they hatch. All of these things are natural. That doesn’t tell us anything about how we should live our lives. That’s where science ends and ethics begins. After all, that’s what’s special about humans: we can decide to reject our instincts and forge our own paths. Science won’t tell us whether we should treat all people with dignity and respect. That conviction comes from within us.
Dougherty, L. R., Burdfield-Steel, E. R., & Shuker, D. M. (2013). Sexual stereotypes: the case of sexual cannibalism. Animal Behaviour, 85(2), 313-322. Available at http://insects.st-andrews.ac.uk/files/2012/05/Dougherty-et-al-2013-Anim-Behav.pdf.
Karlsson Green, K., & Madjidian, J. A. (2011). Active males, reactive females: stereotypic sex roles in sexual conflict research?. Animal Behaviour, 81(5), 901-907.
Kindl, J., Kalinová, B., Červenka, M., Jílek, M., & Valterová, I. (2011). Male Moth Songs Tempt Females to Accept Mating: The Role of Acoustic and Pheromonal Communication in the Reproductive Behaviour of Aphomia sociella. PloS one, 6(10), e26476. Available at http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0026476.