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Biological Discourse and Rape Culture at Haverford College

AmyMay's picture


“The sperm is inevitably characterized in a narrative of virility, aggression, and mobility.  Eggs are… well, your basic egg is usually described as a combination of Sleeping Beauty and a sitting duck.  Plump, round, and receptive, it waits—passive and helpless—for the sperm to throw itself upon her moist, quivering membranes.  The sperm push furiously at [the] inert egg until one of them finally penetrates deep into the warm, defenseless tissue.”

-Richi Wilkins, Queer Theory Gender Theory


            Does this story sound familiar?  The sperm, riding like a knight and shining armor, to save/impregnate the sitting, hoping, wishing, waiting egg in her tall tower?  This was certainly the narrative I was given in middle school and high school sex ed, a narrative I had never even thought to question until a few weeks ago.  Even with all the postmodernist, theoretical challenging I have done as a gender and sexuality minor at Haverford, I had never even questioned the now obviously gendered narrative of sperm and egg.  To me, the love story of the sperm and egg was biological fact, backed by science.  It is the “obviousness” of this scientific truth, and the implications of the gendered stereotypes it promotes, that are so troubling to me now.  Let me explain.

            In the past few weeks in Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Sex and Gender, the core course for the gender and sexuality minor/concentration, we have been discussing the hegemonic authority of science.  Science purports to lack bias, adopting this God-like absoluteness through facts that come from nowhere and just are.  In truth, however, scientists are people too, and the way they conduct their research and interpret their data is subject to their cultural context.  The egg and sperm narrative is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

            Egg and sperm have been dogmatically imbibed with gender stereotypes that paint the egg/women as passive recipients, the gatekeepers of reproduction, while men/sperm are portrayed as active aggressors, the initiators of reproduction.  The very same phenomenon—gamete movement—is described differentially between eggs and sperm.  While the egg is said to be passively “transported,” or to “drift,” the sperm is seen to “burrow” and “penetrate,” with “velocity” and “strong lurches” (Martin, 489).  These gendered narratives persist even in the face of strong evidence that the anthropomorphic attribution of intention to these gamete cells is misplaced.  Researchers at John’s Hopkins University have found that the tail thrashing of sperm actually provides very little force forward.  They demonstrated that the thrashing is far more effective in achieving side to side motion, which makes the sperm efficient at escaping contacted surfaces, rather than “penetrating” them.  The egg, with the help of binder molecules, chemically traps the sperm.  Further, the chemical bond that connects egg and sperm is achieved through knob-like polymer “keys” on the surface of the egg binding to pocket-like proteins on the sperm.  Typically in biology, the sperm’s proteins would be called “receptors,” but in the case of gametes a special case is made, and they are instead called the “egg-binding protein” (Martin, 496).  I guess the idea of eggs having phallic structures and sperm having “receptors” was a bit too unsettling.  Freud would have a field day.

Here’s the kicker to all this: the research at John’s Hopkins and elsewhere suggests the egg and sperm are “mutually active partners” in the reproductive process.  The original article I read summarizing this research was published in 1991.  I first encountered the egg and sperm fairytale discourse in my middle school sexual education class in 2004.  It took until 2011 for me to hear any challenge to this typical representation.  If science is supposed to be about leaning new things, developing new ideas, and challenging existing theories, why did it take 20 years (and a humanities course) for me to hear any different?  Ludwik Fleck summed up this problem well, noting “the interaction between what is already known, what remains to be learned, and those who are to apprehend it, go to ensure harmony within the system.  But at the same time they also preserve the harmony of illusions, which is quite secure within a given thought style.” (Fleck, taken from Martin, 492).

So why does the revelation of this narrative bother me so much?  Because biological narratives like the egg and sperm romance do not just reflect gender norms, they reinforce and perpetuate them as well.  The sexual gender roles propagated by the egg and sperm narrative are particularly troubling due to their consequences for what is called “rape culture.”  Rape culture, as I understand it, is the conception that elements of the gender and sexuality norms of our culture systematically act together to produce an environment that encourages sexual violence (kind of like sexual structural violence.)  Sexual gender norms that posit women as the passive gatekeepers of sex and men as the active aggressors are crucial in propagating rape culture.  Just as the sperm is seen as aggressively penetrating and burrowing into the egg, “sex is seen as something men do to women, instead of a mutual act between two equally powerful partners” (Filipovik, 18).  When men are viewed as the sexual aggressors, it becomes women’s responsibility to say “no,” rather than both party’s responsibility to ascertain “yes.”  It becomes expected that while men push, women refuse, so men push harder, until she gives in.  Lawyer and feminist blogger Jill Filipovik makes clear how this facilitates sexual assault: “Men are as well versed in the sexual dance as women are, and when they are fully aware that women are expected to say no even when they mean yes, men are less likely to hear “no” and accept it at face value” (20).  In this gendered sexual dance, where women are denied the agency of active enjoyment, their enthusiastic consent and mutual participation becomes abnormal and irrelevant.  Not only does this narrative deny women the space to actively consent, but it also denies the voices of male survivors of sexual assault.  If men are viewed as walking sperm, with the sole goal to penetrate every egg that walks their way, the idea that a man would not consent is a complete nonsequitor.  Male survivors of sexual assault have no place and no voice in the context of rape culture.  The female gatekeeper-male aggressor sexual paradigm precludes agency to both genders, and structurally encourages sexual violence.  This is a problem, and it happens at Haverford all the time.

Haverford’s culture, in the way we view sex and sexual assault, contributes to the presence of sexual violence on this campus.  Not all of this is specific to Haverford.  As noted by Jill Flipovik and the many other contributing authors of Yes Means Yes!  Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape (an excellent book I highly recommend), rape culture is a pervasive problem all over the United States.  However, I feel the role of gendered sexual narratives are particularly pervasive at Haverford, shaping everything from social life to our policy response to sexual assault.  I see the social ramifications constantly at weekend parties.  As a UCA I see my freshmen (male and female) “socializing,” and I wonder if they will have the social space to assert their sexual agency.  I have experienced this first hand myself.  I was sexually assaulted at Haverford, and in the exact way that Flipovik describes, by dissent was discounted.  I hear stories like mine over and over again at SOAR, our campus sexual assault support group, and I begin to wonder if there is not something specifically about Haverford that encourages sexual violence.  I even see these gendered narratives in the administration’s sexual assault policies, resources, and information.  As a UCA, I was given a packet of resources and information sheets, one of which is titled “What Role Does Alcohol Play?”  This document, disseminated from the Deans office to all of the UCAs (and presumably from there to the freshman class) works within and propagates the same gendered sexual narrative of the egg and sperm, that same narrative that contributes to so many sexual assaults, including my own.  The handout warns women to “reduce your personal risk” by “drink[ing] less or not at all” and “drink[ing] only in safe supervised places.”  Yes, these are good pieces of advice.  But here’s what the handout says specifically to men: “If you are a man, reduce your risk of harming someone by reducing or stopping your drinking when you socialize.  Drinking moderately or not at all will keep you more alert to when your behavior and the behavior of other men become aggressive.  It is ok not to drink and not to have sex.”  So women need to protect themselves so they do not become victims, while men have to be careful that their aggressive sexual urges do not overcome them and they rape someone.  Oh, and men, for the few of you that don’t act like giant drunk spermatozoa blindly looking for an egg to penetrate, that’s okay. You’re not weird.  It’s okay not to drink and have sex.   Though aimed at prevention, this info sheet buys in to the vulnerable female-aggressive male paradigm that propagates sexual assault in the first place.

This campus needs to have a serious conversation about sexual assault.  I don’t mean the prescribed panels where the deans get up and talk about “The Circle” and Martha Denney uses the agency depriving word “victim” over and over until I want to scream.  I mean a real conversation.  An open, honest conversation.  One about gender, sexuality, social dynamics, violence, power, alcohol, culture, agency, beliefs, and policies at Haverford, because all of these elements contribute to sexual violence on this campus.  One where we acknowledge that our community’s current conceptions of sexual assault work within the discourse of gendered sexuality, and thus do not work.  A conversation that acknowledges and validates both female sexual power and male assault experiences.  This is not a conversation about complying with federal regulations under Title IX, it is a conversation about going beyond them.  Our Alcohol Policy and campus drinking culture already strive to go above and beyond traditional thinking about what students can achieve through communal goals and mutual trust, concern, and respect, so why not our sexual assault policy and social culture too?  For a school so focused on social justice, I find it ironic and disturbing that this issue has been so swept under the rug in the past.  We can address the root of sexual violence—rape culture—on our own campus.  It all starts with a conversation. 




someshine's picture

Eve Ensler Is 'Over It'

Thank you for writing this powerful web event, AmyMay. Beyond helping strengthen my understanding of the biological narratives we've been reading about, I appreciate your raising the issue of "rape culture" at Haverford.

I'd like to thank Elena Satten-Lopez, Haverford '12, for linking me to this article.

Eve Ensler writes, 

I am over the passivity of good men. Where the hell are you?

You live with us, make love with us, father us, befriend us, brother us, get nurtured and mothered and eternally supported by us, so why aren't you standing with us? Why aren't you driven to the point of madness and action by the rape and humiliation of us?

I'm wondering how the disappearnace of MASAR (Men Against Sexual Assault and Rape) at Haverford a few years ago might reflect a male student indifference to the issues surrounding rape in our community as well as on a global scale. Perhaps there isn't indifference, but then I'd be inclined to think that there are other 'more important' issues that men at Haverford invest their time/selves in. I'm thinking about how bringing back MASAR might be the foundation for building a right relationship on Haverford's campus, that could be extended to a Bi-College initiative in the future... both the Women's Center and SOAR are wonderful resources for students at Haverford that I think would also be excellent partners in rebuilding MASAR...

Butler, Barad, and a lot of our in-class conversations are heightening my annoyance with the heternormative language used in Endler's article, which, to be fair, is trying to raise awareness and encourage the men who love and cherish their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters to do something. I also recognize the importance in trying to build an alliance of this kind, here at Haverford as well as in the larger American culture. However, I can't overlook the exlcusivity of the request Endsler is making nor the language that even our pamphlets on Sexual Misconduct in the Deans' Office make. As a gay man who was sexually assaulted by another man, I am over the binary (in most cases) of women as rape survivors and men as rapists. I know this is the most common circumstance according to reported statistics, but a small and/or invisible portion of those statistics occur between and among queer men, queer women, genderqueer, transexual, and transgender individuals. We (speaking inclusively of the prior clause) need "good men" and women to stand with us too. I worry about attempts to build such a large, inclusive alliance such as this, at Haverford, given MASAR's current nonexistence. I certainly don't want to underestimate potential here because I can see us, as UCAs, being able to work with Raisa in recrafting the resources for first-year students, among other possibilities. 

What do you think?


AmyMay's picture

Forming a Plan of Action

So after tonight's difficult class, I went home and hammered out a plan of action with my roommate, another member of SOAR.  Basically, we're planning a sexual violence awareness Blitzkreig (our code name, please excuse the invocation of war/violence/militarism, it's intentionally ironic/stupid) for post-Thanksgiving.  Details to come in Web Event #3.  But one of the things were were discussing, taking inspiration from Butler, is how to build alliances.  I feel past sexual assault policy/narratives have been so "Boys, don't drink and rape girls!" that many men may be alienated by the fingerpointing (not to mention the heteronormativity).  We talked about forming natural alliances with gender-focused groups, such as QDG, SAGA, the Women's Center, Women in Action, Women of Color, Body Image Discussion Group, etc.   However, we also talked about the power of broader alliances in establishing a cultural norm of consent.  I can't even begin to imagine how powerful posters reading "Consent is sexy.  Love, the Lacrosse Team" might be.  I love your idea of ressurecting MASAR, I just don't know how to form an alliance with a group that no longer exists.  I don't feel comfortable starting MASAR (I'm not a man), but I would love to liason between such a club and SOAR (as one of its increasingly more "out" members).  I also like your idea of working with Raisa in redesigning some of the info that is distributed to Customsfolk.  She strikes me as one of the more accessible deans.  Perhaps trying to form Bi-Co alliances, and involving the women's center, might give a stronger base from which to a talk some of the less open deans.  I am very excited about the potential to build alliances and reshape some of the cultural norms I see as the problem.  I feel excited, and a strong sense of cathartic agency that I haven't experience before.  Bodies in alliance, let's goooo!!!

Anne Dalke's picture

Changing the metaphor--and the culture


I agree with your classmates who got to this web event before I did that you should send a shortened version of it to the Bi-Co News, and/or think about other ways in which you might begin to help "re-write" the culture you describe. Might you want to re-write some of the material in that packet of resources and information sheets, for example, offering a differently gendered sexual narrative than the one currently being promulgated? The "conversation" you want to start has many possible starting places, from the Bi-Co to the sorts of science articles that Emily Martin analyzes (and which you cite).

To follow up on some of that material--you might be interested in Evelyn Fox Keller's 1996 Templeton Lecture, "Gender Language and Science":

Until fifteen years ago, the experimental work done by biologists on fertilisation provided ample evidence to support chemical and mechanical accounts the sperm could penetrate and activate the mechanisms for the activity of the egg were looked for; inactivity requires no mechanism, and such mechanisms were assumed not to exist.... Today a different metaphor has come to seem more useful, and clearly more acceptable. In contemporary textbooks, fertilisation is more likely to be cast in the language of equal opportunity. My favourite definition is from a textbook widely used by molecular biologists by Alberts et al called Molecular Biology of the Cell, but it is representative: Fertilisation is defined as "The process by which egg and sperm find each other and fuse"....In fact the research goes further, as if confirming some very deep seated fears. Current research sometimes endows the egg with archetypal powers: the egg sends out microvillae which "grasp" the spermhead and "drag" it to the ovum. Other, unwanted, sperm are incapacitated, ejected, or simply destroyed.

I suggest that this story illustrates exactly the ways in which language can shape our thinking and acting. It frames our attention, our perception and the fields in which we can envision ways to move....both metaphors were manifestly productive, albeit of different effects. One led to intensive investigation of the molecular mechanisms of sperm activity while the other fostered research permitting the elucidation of mechanisms by which the egg would have to be said to be active as well....this is a story about how gender ideology shapes the ways in which all of us see the world, men and women alike.

In 2005, a student in the core course in gender studies, as angry as you are about the rape culture, wrote a piece calling for women's agency, called "Women Unite, Take Back Control of Human Development!":

An organism has already run the gamut before it enters the world. In the case of sexually reproducing organisms, the male gamete won the statistically improbable prize of fertilizing the more discriminating female gamete, and through the process of zygotic development, is not guaranteed long life anyway. Any talk of selection begins in the formulation of the genotype....

My ultimate interest in sexual selection, as it is, was, and ever shall be, is in the world of human sized things and matters of human interaction....Geoffrey Miller, the author of Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped Human Nature, believes the importance of female choice in nonrandom sexual selection (that is, the second round of elimination that take place at sexual maturity) was overlooked when Darwin first suggested it in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, and has recently been accepted with the theories of biologists like Zahavi (cited by both Mayr and Miller), who reinforce the logic of female choice- as women produce far less gametes than males, they cannot waste their genetic material as freely as males....

Not for nothing have we inherited these costly brains, and since as Darwin posited and Mayr insists, the individual and not the the object being selected, it is the responsibility of the individual, whether male or female, to decide what it requires of mates and companions. Through selection we arrive at not perfection, but opportunities to develop who we are collectively through personal agency.

I appreciate, in your piece, your claiming your own agency in this regard, as well as locating Haverford's culture within a larger cultural narrative that clearly needs revision. All this is clearly relevant as the details of the Penn State scandal are emerging....

Shlomo's picture

Thank You



Thank you for posting this.  I am becoming more and more aware this year of Haverford's shortcomings regarding sexual assault and rape.  I am also becoming more and more angry about it.  An elite liberal arts college, with a majority female population, that I am paying $50,000 a year to attend, should have far more advanced and well planned responses to sexual assault and rape than:

  1. It didn't happen (you didn't mention this in your web event, but from talking to other women on campus, my perception is that Haverford sometimes chooses to question the victim's honesty or just completely deny her story)
  2. You poor poor victim
  3. IT'S THE ALCOHOL (i.e. men, when drunk, naturally rape less?)
  4. You poor poor victim, now let's talk about something else

None of these responses are good or even okay.  So how do we change this?  I want to stand up and do something, but I don't know where to start.

So (I've gotten a little off topic since my initial thank you) thank you for posting this.  Your honesty and clarity are really refreshing and inspiring to me.  I hope you do send this in to the Bi-Co news, because I think starting this conversation is what our paper should be about (rather than silly weekly OpEds debating whether an owl or a squirrel is a better mascot), and because I think your points are incredibly valid.

I don't like getting into super long discussions online, but I would love to talk to you more about this in person.



AmyMay's picture

About this Web Event

This Web Event is intended as a letter to the Bi-College News.  Its target audience members are Haveford students, though it will likely be read by other members of the Bi-Co community.  I have not submitted this to the Bi-Co, and I'm sure if I will.  I suppose it depends on the kind of feedback I recieve.  Because the target audience is composed of my peers, I take a fairly informal tone.  I use personal pronuns and include personal information to locate myself as a narrator.  I think this is important to its effectiveness, because it places me as a fellow member of the community, and as a personal with a personal interest in the matter.  I hope that this brings a sense of honesty and solidarity to the piece.  I also hope it makes it more interesting to read.