On the “female penis” and why reproductive biologists (and everyone else!) need philosophy of sex

Last week, with the publication of Yoshizawa et al’s “Female Penis, Male Vagina, and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect,” the media and the intertubes obediently leaped on the phrase “female penis,” with outlet after outlet reproducing the phrase, often with predictable jokes about penis envy and who wears the pants in the relationship.

Yoshizawa et al’s article detailed the authors’ discovery of four species of tiny Brazilian cave insects in which sexual congress involves the female inserting a long, spiny member (a gynosome) into the male’s sexual orifice and using that gynosome to slowly extract sperm and other nutrients from the male, a phenomenon the authors describe as “coupling role reversal.”

The trouble is, of course, that the described phenomenon is not a reversal of the usual sexual roles, for two main reasons: (1) in familiar penis-in-vagina intercourse, the bearer of the penis does not typically extract sperm from its partner; rather, it ejaculates sperm into its partner; and (2) while there are indeed usual sexual roles within species, it is an exaggeration to say that there are usual sex roles across species. In some species, females leave their eggs on riverbeds to be fertilized by partners who arrive later; in some species, one partner impales the other in order to transfer ejaculate into them; some species require more than two mating types. I could go on. Parthenogenesis, exploding genitals… the natural world has it all! …and that’s just the animal kingdom. Don’t get me started on plants.

Given this amazing complexity, why would Yoshizawa et al (and all of the journalists and bloggers) adopt the (arguably) oversimplified, reductivist approach to cave insect sex that they have? In her smart, trenchant take on the story, Annalee Newitz attributes the approach to anthropocentrism. In an equally thoughtful piece (although one that I don’t happen to agree with, in the main), Ed Yong replies that “penis” is used for the female cave insects’ sex organs in the same (more or less) metaphorical way that “foot” is used in “snail’s foot.” For Newitz, treating any sexual appendage as a penis disregards the rich variety of sexual phenomena. Yong disagrees, arguing that extending the term “penis” to include organs with a broad range of sexual functions properly embraces sexual variety.

Yong’s point is an interesting one, and I’m happy to know that there are folks like Yong who know their biology and who adopt thoughtful, pluralistic approaches to sexual function. However, it is implausible in the extreme to suppose that the herd of bloggers and science journalists who piled on to the “female penis” moniker did so for the principled reasons Yong elaborates. Rather, what we see in both Yoshizawa et al’s choice of descriptions, and in the swiftness with which that terminology was taken up by journalists and bloggers, is an inability to conceive of sexual phenomena as escaping the Adam/Eve, Noah’s Ark two-by-two paradigm.

One sees this over and over in biologists’ descriptions of mating behaviour among hermaphroditic species (like flatworms) and species with more than two mating types (like fire ants) — a shoe-horning of non-human sexual phenomena into a familiar human binary. Even today, and even after the revolutionary work of such feminist biologists as Joan Roughgarden and Anne Fausto-Sterling (to name just two), traditional reproductive biology still can’t get past the idea that the magical number for sex is “2”, and that every sexual function/organ is reducible to two paradigmatic ones.

Presumably, the source of all this trouble in the history of ideas is indeed religious/mythological. However, reading the gender biases of one species of evolutionarily recent bipeds onto all of the other species is bad science. It is, moreover, science that ignores what recent developments both sexual reproduction and two-sex sexual reproduction are in the history of life on Earth. Put simply, regardless of what our Sunday school tales and the aisles of our toy stores might encourage us to believe, in the world of reproduction, male and female are not axioms of the system; nor are any particular sexual organs or functions indispensable.

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