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Animal behavior & gender/sexuality norms

jmorgant's picture

The video “Nature: What Females Want…and What Males Will Do” featured clichéd, even asinine commentary about animals’ reproductive behavior. The DVD showed heterosexual animal interactions punctuated with quotes from biologists and the narrator such as “Males will do anything they can do copulate with a female – we know that!” In a look a male geladas, whose ability to withstand sub-0 nighttime temperatures is demonstrated by the deep red of their chest patches, were described as “Pretty tough!” Female fireflies that mocked another species’ light patterns in order to eat the males were described as “true femme fatales.” In reference to jumping spiders, a biologist explained,  “Females are looking for complex things; they want more and more, so males have evolved these dances.” Red-sided garter snakes that were forcibly inseminated would in a day or so “have another chance at love.” This constant commentary, while meant to be entertaining, was not only distracting but often times offensive because of the way it demonstrated stereotypes about gender and sexuality.

I thought about a recent New York Times article that sheds light on the commonness of same-sex animal mating and relationships. The Octopoteuthis squid has recently been discovered to be the only species known to mate equally with males and females. One of the researchers who made the discovery, however, “was prepared for attention to the same-sex behavior and was ready for people to conflate squid and human behavior and announce the discovery of gay squid. He fended off that notion, reiterating that the squid has no discernible sexual orientation, and that a tentacled invertebrate that shoots sperm into its mate’s flesh really has nothing to do with human behavior.” Both of these viewpoints, the first relying on gender norms to conflate animal and human behavior, the second emphasizing difference, show the problems with drawing conclusions about human reproductive behavior from looking at animals.