Dick, Dick, Dick, Vagina

(Photo: Daniel Wesser)

(Photo: Daniel Wesser)

The chief distinction in intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can a woman – whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.

-Charles Darwin

***

On Nov. 7, 1869, Charles Darwin was working in the comfort of his study in England. He was 60. His beard was white and his book The Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection was entering its fifth edition.

As the father of natural selection, Darwin had made two major discoveries in sexual behaviour. Males are aggressive and competitive about mates and females are coy and choosy.

While some consider Darwin’s emphasis on the power of female choice progressive for his time, his research was still biased by his culture.

In Victorian England, sexism was rampant.

Men were considered the more objective, rational sex, whereas women were far too emotional to accomplish much of anything.

In the realms of science, all a woman could do was write. Some even wrote under false, masculine names so as to not lose credibility. So when A. L. Blackwell’s book, Studies in General Science, came to Darwin that day in November, he passed the author off as a man.

Antoinette L. Blackwell, the first ordained female minister in the United States, was a female activist. She criticized sexual evolution theories for being narrowly male. Because Darwin was a man, his perspectives on sexual behaviour were made solely through a male lens. She insisted that science might benefit from the perspective of another gender.

Once she was revealed as a woman, Blackwell’s critiques were ignored. Her letter and subsequent books, commenting on sexual studies, were only the beginning of a long-standing feminist tradition of questioning gender in animal studies.

A century later, in the 1960s and ‘70s, the Women’s Liberation Movement marched and brought with them a new gender and generation to science. Stereotypes about gender changed and female professors in the natural sciences went from being mythical to making up 46 percent of the field by 2000.

And like Blackwell before them, they had questions about how human perspectives might be limiting sexual behaviour research.

“There was a shift in the views of how we perceive the importance of females in evolutionary biology,” says Dr. Malin Ah-King, an evolutionary biologist and feminist from the Stockholm University in Sweden.

“So going from being totally male biased, only interested in looking at male characteristics and how they evolve and then consensus changed somehow into including females.”

In the years to come, females would finally be getting the attention they so desperately needed, and gender stereotypes would begin to be uprooted as science focussed more on the “fairer” sex.

(Photo: Kristen Thompson)

(Photo: Kristen Thompson)

…the male is the more active member in the courtship of the sexes. The female, on the other hand, with the rarest of exceptions, is less eager than the male…she is coy, and may often be seen endeavouring for a long time to escape the male.

-Charles Darwin

***

In the ‘90s, biologists and gender scientists started declaring the term “coy” inappropriate.

“For one thing, it is plainly wrong,” writes Dr. Griet Vandermassen, a gender scientist from Ghent University. “During the past three decades, research has revealed that females of most species are anything but passive and sexually coy.”

The term was a bulldozing generalization that, while addressed in the ‘90s, is still dragging preconceived notions of gender into science today.  

A 2011 study by Dr. Kristina Green and Dr. Josefin Madjidian found that males are more often described as being the active gender in sex.

Throughout the 30 papers that the study cites, males were described as manipulative, forceful, and coercive, whereas females were described as resistant, avoidant, and counter-adaptive.

While males can be more aggressive, these kinds of characterizations drive stereotypes. Regardless of whether they represent a bias in research, they can still be harmful to the science.  

“If I went into my study with that sort of background in my head,” says Green, “maybe I would miss out on something that the female does before the male starts with all the harassment.”

Green says that because these terms are so commonplace, they can mask diversity. Scientists might spend more time trying to fit the theory, looking for male harassing behaviours where they might not be and ignoring peculiarities. While our cultural ideologies about gender are shaping science, they could also be hampering it.  

It’s important to point out that these findings aren’t saying that the science is wrong. The science might be totally legitimate. Green and Madjidian, like feminists before them, simply wanted to keep the science self-aware: especially because these gender biases have been seen in other fields.

Thirty years ago, similar characterizations were used to describe eggs and sperm.

Eggs passively moved from the ovaries to the uterus where they would be actively acted upon by sperm. Words like “assaulted” or “penetrated” described fertilization. It wasn’t until the ‘80s when a call to action sparked better molecular studies, that our little lady cell was considered an active party.

Today, genital evolution research is seeing a similar problem.

A study published in 2015 found that female bits aren’t studied to the same degree as males’ are. Of 364 studies, 46 percent were on male genitalia only; by contrast, only 7.7 percent focused on female genitalia.

Dr. Malin Ah-King, the primary researcher for the study, says that by focusing on the male and ignoring the female we lose the full picture. In order for science to capture the full play-by-play, researchers need to study both sides equally.

“Too often the female is assumed to be an invariant container within which all this presumed scooping, hooking and plunging occurs,” writes Ah-King.

Together these studies and theories show that we still see the female role in sex as passive. Our bias has shifted for the better, but there’s still inequality.