Spider sex! Ha Ha! Gotcha!
Actually, in addition to spider sex, I’ve been thinking about all the ways that science and sex and reportage intersect and PISS ME OFF. I’ve been putting off writing this because I didn’t feel like digging up a shitload of links and “proving” my points. And I still don’t, so for the time being take my facts with a large grain of salt, and use your own google-jutsu, mmkay? I am lazy like a tarantula but may get a burst of energy and liberally pepper (heh heh who doesn’t love a good pun?) this with links at some point.
Anyway. Spider sex, yo!
Nothing demonstrates the human proclivity to project, the problem with the intense compartmentalization of the sciences, the silliness of the science and reportage of sex and our own deep love of the appeal to nature quite like the poor, much maligned black widow.
For expediencies sake I will dispell some common myths. First of all, it should be known that some spiders can in fact choose which male’s sperm they will use to fertilize their eggs ( WHY DIDNT YOU GIVE ME THIS ABILITY EVOLUTION!?!?! WHYYYYYYYYYY!?! LIFE WOULD BE SO.MUCH.SIMPLER!).
Female black widows do not in fact eat every male that they mate with. There are two classes of males that are likely to be eaten. The stupid, who persist in trying to mate with a female who is not interested in them, and those who are already dying. The first class of males is quite rare. They have a fairly elaborate set of mating behaviors worked out to avoid these situations. The second class is very common, and they give Black Widows their macabre reputation.
But! This is because male spiders go through a final molt, become sexually mature, fill their little reproductive gloves with semen, and wander around furiously looking for a mate. They have an expiration date. They live very brief lives relative to female spiders. Often, by the time they find a mate, they are very close to death. So, as a nutritional insurance policy for their offspring, and in the hopes that their sperm will actually be used, they offer themselves quite calmly as a nuptial gift. Their offspring are well fed, their fitness increases over-all, and boom, sweet mystery of love. For spiders, the tendency is toward female gigantism and longer lifespans. Because female spiders are more important to the fitness of the species as a whole, they tend toward what would be called grossly unfair matriarchy of the most extreme sort in humans. A little something like this:
Why have I regaled you with this delightful tale of sweet sweet spider love? To make a point about the many many degrees of distance between the actual facts of natural sexual behaviors and the way we read them, and project our own sexual fears on them. Black Widows and their particular sexual behaviors have come to stand in for spiders as whole (although they are in no way representative of the ridiculous diversity of sexual behaviors for all spiders, kind of like strictly hetero humans). Female Black Widows have become a popular symbol and metaphor for the “man-eater,” the sexually voracious woman, who has become, by stepping outside of prescribed social boundaries, not just monstrous, but actually dangerous.
Dudes have some anxieties, people.
Now, most people have been socialized to fear and loathe my friends the spiders. So you could argue that I have it backwards. Its not the scary power of female sexuality that we are projecting onto spiders, but the scariness of spiders that we’re projecting onto the sex-lovin’ ladies. I wish you wouldn’t bother, but you could.
So lets look at some other interesting examples of how we read sexual behavior in animals we do not loathe. Lets look at Lions, just casually. I’m an Arachnology wonk. I won’t claim to be an expert in feline behavior. This is a thought experiment not me whimsically declaring mammal behaviorists morons. Mmkay? Mmkay.
But. In Lions, you have a group of females that do the food, social and offspring rearing, and a “dominant” male that basically just lounges around fucking, and fighting off other males. I think its really interesting how this gets read. The idea that the male in these groups has lots of power, runs things and is dominant is very patriarchal, and super weird when I look at it from a spider or, hell, bee sex/sociality perspective.
Because from that perspective?
The males in these groups aren’t in charge. They are totally, and absolutely dependent for survival and fitness on the real social group, which is the females. In fact it is not proof of power and prestige that they don’t do the offspring care. Because the survival of their offspring is the measure of their genetic fitness and success (this is something I like to remind asshats who pull the women love babeeyz and are clearly biologically inferior emotional morons because they do the childcare while I am out doing real work– dude, biologically, childcare is the REAL work, its the most important thing in the world, bar nothing, full stop). Its also not a measure of being king shit that they don’t hunt their own food, because it means that they are dependent on the success of the females to continue, y’know, living.
So it’s a measure of dependency in both cases. They don’t just fight other males for sex, they are also fighting for food and safety. In fact, they are essentially sex workers in this kind of group dynamic. When you see a female that is lower in the social hierarchy of the female group approach the male and get rebuffed, it doesnt mean that the male is particularly powerful, it means the male is jockeying for more fitness (in this case fitness would equal mating privileges with the more dominant females), and that the dominant females control his reproductive life, and the reproductive lives of the females lower on the totem pole.
The tendency of these males to kill off the offspring of other males confirms this. They don’t have the “power” to cause the females in the group to maintain strict polygamous faithfulness. They rely on the estrus and generosity of the female group pretty hardcore, it seems. Fuck knows they don’t seem to be leading the group a la lion king. They get to eat well because again, reproductive workers need lots of nutrition to maintain their reproductive abilities (queen bees, ants and termites anyone?), not because they are OMG BIG MANLY DOOD LIONS RAWR!!
I’ve deliberately excluded herd animals from this analysis, because as prey animals they have a whole different set of selection pressures resulting in a different set of behaviors. Humans haven’t been prey animals for a very, very long time so it would be an even less apt comparison.
Oh and also, I am not saying, MRA/Nice Guy™ style, that women have all the power! Look Look Look a feminist said hot women are in charge of everything WHAT ABOUT THE MENZ! So don’t even go there.
Anyhow, this is how I would read these kinds of social dynamics in arachnids or eusocial insects (Sorta. Eusocial insects have some genetic weirdness that muddles things up, just google it. Whatever). I would start by looking at the relationships between female group members, assuming those to be the most important ones. It’s actually pretty easy to do this without getting confused, especially with spiders, because their sexual dimorphism tends toward female gigantism or equal size. What the hell does that have to do with anything, you ask? Oh you clever, clever reader.
Here’s what. Humans (scientists even!) tend to see male mammals as bigger, and thus stronger, and thus somehow more important to the species.
Heck, I just mentioned above that female gigantism in spiders is remarkable because it inverts the perception.
We do this. Why? Patriarchy!
But its a bias. Its kind of like the different ways that people read a text. Male size dimorphism probably doesn’t say a fucking thing about capability or biological “importance.” It says that males need to outwardly show their genetic quality, and be able to fight off other males in order to reproduce, and for their sons to reproduce ad infinitum (See the “Sexy Son hypothesis.” I love it) It also says, interestingly enough that females in these groups need to show their genetic quality socially rather than physically.
Humans aren’t Lions, and we don’t play by these rules. If we ever did, it wasn’t to any great extent, because although men are larger than women on average, its not by that much. Certainly not the difference between a female and male black widow, or a pair of peacocks. They also don’t have frills, manes, ruffs, antlers, horns, or any other extremely conspicuous male only physical attributes. We also basically flirt the same way regardless of sex, allowing for slight socially scripted variances.
But it raises some questions about our biases and perceptions in reading nature. I do think it really puts paid the idea that “I am a man, and thus stronger than you, and my strength exists to dominate you, little lady, and thats how it is all over nature so its obviously correct and true!”
So, Pepper, you may be asking, what the fuck are you talking about and what does it have to do with me? Patience.
I don’t think that human sexually is “naturally” polygamous, or polyandrous (as many spiders are!). I dont actually think that human sexuality is “naturally” oriented any which way, except that we tend to form some kind of child rearing bond, if we reproduce. Our ovulation is hidden, our chromosomal, genital and performed sexuality is incredibly diverse and for us, sexuality may actually be more about social bonding than reproduction. It seems that pleasurable sex that is practiced for more than simple reproduction has increased our over all fitness by keeping us together (Captain and Tenille were socio-biologists all along. Who knew!) in families.
For what its worth I don’t believe that a strict sex/gender binary exists now, or has ever existed. So it would make perfect sense that I also don’t think that one biological sex has a higher sex drive than the other. There is so much chromosomal variation that it just seems unlikely to be a biologically fixed reality.
But all the stuff I talked about above? Those behaviors have been read as patriarchal (or in the case of the widows, as horrifying inverted patriarchy) and natural. Boom, the patriarchy is natural and thus inevitable and thus the best possible mode of society and sexual behavior! And god damnit, we will make the science prove it!
You see, I told you I had a point. I doubt that I’m the first person evar-omg-so-genius to read group dynamics in nature this way. In fact, I think maybe LOTS of scientific observy types going back to forever have probably seen these dynamics.
But wtfox then! This conflicts with what YOU JUST WROTE, PEPPER! MAKE UP YOUR MIND, FICKLE WOMAN!
Oh no, it really makes an unfortunate sort of sense. Because If you live in a patriarchal society, and you have a shitload of dudely privilege, the last thing you want is for anyone to come swanking up questioning whether or not this is the correct natural order of things.
Humans have a stupid tendency to look outide of our species for clues about how our species should behave (I’m looking at, you fucking prairie vole assholes).
So you, mr. patriarchy, you are probably deeply uncomfortable with the idea that your big manliness may not mean that you the natural born god damned head of heaven and earth. That your natural born manliness may in fact mean that you are…a kind of reproductive/sex worker, like that is maybe your most important biological role, whilst the women do the important social engineering.
As an aside, there is nothing wrong with sex work or sex workers and this should not be read as me criticizing them. This is about how the patriarchy views sex and specifically reproductive labor as fucking awful. Presumably its like deciding that since there is no Thai food where you live, Thai food (reproductive labor) just sucks, man.
Oh, and to re-iterate: I IN NO WAY BELIEVE THAT THIS IS THE TRUE ETERNAL BIOLOGICALLY DETERMINED ROLE OF MEN.
Humans seem quite biologically equal, in terms of reproductive roles. We are equally important to the fitness of the species. The sexual dimorphism that you see in men is actually fairly minor, probably a leftover from our very ancient ancestors, and not proof that ladies can’t be in combat/drive monster trucks/fish for lobsters/whatever it is that NOT A SINGLE ONE OF US is strong enough to do this week.
But If you are looking to nature for clues about how your patriarchal society is the bomb and you find the above situation instead, well, CLEARLY the only logical conclusion is that… … …
WOMENS SEXUALITY IS TERRIFYING! IT COMPELLS THE MENZ AGAINST THEIR WILL! IT MUST.BE.STOPPED! I AM SUPER IMPORTANT AND DESERVE TO BE IN CHARGE! MY DESIRE TO HAVE LOTS OF SEX IS NATURAL AND POWERFUL AND MANLY AND CORRECT! BUT UM….WOMEN HAVE NO NATURAL DESIRE! EXCEPT FOR BABIES! OBVIOUSLY BABIES ARE AWFUL! BUT WOMEN’S DESIRES (THE ONES THEY DON’T HAVE) ARE HELLISHLY POWERFUL AND WILL DESTROY THE WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORLD! HOT CHICKS CONTROL EVERYTHING BUT I AM SUPPOSED TO CONTROL EVERYTHING BECAUSE I HAVE A PENIS WHICH EQUALS CAPABILITY BUT O MAI GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!
It sort of explains the oddly incompatible attitudes about womens sexuality that persist to this very minute, doesn’t it?
On the one hand, good girls don’t have any sexual desire. Indeed, in our patriarchy women are frigid sexual gatekeepers, and men are sexually voracious. But good girls must be engineered.
They don’t exist “naturally,” no no. Their sexuality is so powerful and fearsome that it is the thing that must never be spoken of! It must be shamed! It must be forcibly punished! They must be ignorant of sex for pleasure (fuck you, genital mutilation)! Failing this, “uppity” women become sexually voracious too, but dangerous. They must be even more tightly controlled, censured, punished and sent back to the basement of society. Men must demand virgins who fuck like whores! It’s all impossible!
And this shit seems to persist in science around sex. Oh how it persists. With a delish buttercream layer of western beauty fascism, MORE patriarchy, racism, hetero-sexism, rape apologia (my least favorite), and hand waving ignorage in re socially shaped attitudes about sex.
For example. It is rarely mentioned in the reportage or even the actual studies about sexuality themselves that the default for human and the ancestral condition of human, is a. female and b. black african.
Seriously you would think that white and male is the standard of human, and the only yardstick by which human biology can fairly be measured, because fuck you, thats why.
Please, hold the sides of the boat I just rocked for you.
All fetuses are female by default. The point of this is to say that biologically, female sexuality is the norm, not incredibly complicated MAGICAL WEIRDNESS that it is popularly treated as. Female sexual response is the standard, not the deviation. Female orgasm is the egg that came before the cock was hatched.
And our ancestors, ALL our ancestors, were Black Africans. This means that when you read some bullshit study about men’s preference for busty small waisted blondes because blondness is associated with youth or some nonsense, you should question the shit out of that. Blondness and blue eyedness are both mutations, and they are not super old mutations either. They are definitely not old enough to have deeply and profoundly, on genetic level, shaped human sexual behavior. That kind of thing is either bad science or bad journalism.
Pretty much any kind of gender essentialist science, especially evo-pych, just straight up ignores the default and ancestral conditions in which humans evolved. Instead, the preference seems to run to acting like only white people have actually “evolved,” and that you guessed it, inequality is our natural biological state. So refreshing, right? Such a brave new paradigm in the face of 30,000 years of feminist hegemony…Oh wait.
Lots of the slut shaming that isn’t argued via religion, will be argued via shit science. The fucking voles and oxytocin are an example (google-fu). Any argument that monogamy is unnatural for men but natural for women.
Any argument that women have evolved to cope with rape, or that rape is a reproductive strategy. Anytime you read about how women are attracted to rich old dudes and ITS BIOLOGY! Anytime you read that rich old dudes are attracted to women young enough to be their grand-daughters because science dammit!
Women are bad at math and science because its science damnit!
Bullshit. If human females did not already possess the innate ability, neither could males. Any science that ignores the incredible complexity with which social mores shape our sexuality in favor of shoring up the same old shit is bad science. Because patriarchy is near-ubiquitous, but not completely so. Exceptions mean that non-patriarchal human groups are either very genetically different than the rest of us, or patriarchy is not biological. Last I checked, women in non-patriarchal cultures weren’t growing feathers and taking to the sky (although that would be fucking sweet), soooo….yeah.
And even within patriarchal cultures, attitudes about sex and gender are NOT universally shared. Heck, even within genetically related populations these things are not universal. Which would lead me to believe that most of this stuff? Not actually evolutionary, or biological. Not, in fact old enough to be so. Its like arguing that corsets existed because men had a preference for big hips and tiny waists in 1899, but suddenly, because everyone knows that evolution is super fast like that, by 1920 men had a taste for boyish figures without well defined waists or hips at all, and then 20 years after that broad shoulders because shoulder pads, and then 30 years after that huge calves because bell bottoms… you see?
I am not decrying biology. I love me some biology. I’m not even saying that science should just avoid looking at human sexuality. I’m saying that scientists need to acknowledge some important core factors about what it means to be human (clue: not exclusively white and male). I’m saying that science doesn’t exist to agree with society, that science doesn’t exist to maintain misery and inequality, and promulgate stupid fallacious logic with its authority. If that is what your science is doing, it isn’t boldly telling the truth that the feminists don’t want to hear, its missing a better hypothesis. It is serving something beyond the pursuit of knowledge or better living.
I am saying that journalists need to not take a study on fucking prairie voles, and extrapolate that feminism has ruined women’s lives, ladies cannot avoid bonding with every man they sleep with, and will use up some mystery reserve of magic love juice and then die lonely and broken. Its not true. It doesn’t even make sense.
I am saying that anytime anyone makes an assertion that men’s and women’s visible physicality and modern behavior speaks to their respective eternal biologically fixed-by evolution sexual/gender roles, it is hugely questionable.
Especially if it is not in fact based off actual humans, but some other animal who doesn’t practice agriculture, build cities, or watch cartoons. I am saying that there is nothing un-natural or natural about monogamy, polyandry, polygamy, poly-hermous, monogamy, serial monogamy, bi, queer, trans, strict hetero, strict homo, or strict asexuality.
Because if these things were in any way detrimental on a species wide level, to the point of actually causing deaths ( and no, STI’s do NOT count, I’m talking about the sexual behaviors themselves not the little bastards hitching rides on them) which is really the only point where we need to worry anyway, they would have gone out long before now.
So we need to stop paying lip service to the “men’s sexualities as simple and women’s as complicated” bullshit. Everyone’s sexuality is complicated. We need to stop buying into shit that is tenuously linked from voles and bonobo’s as gospel truefax.
Actually, its more than this. We need to stop searching for the essential truth of men’s and women’s gender and sexuality (clue: it’s not binary!). If there was a great truth, it would probably be SUPER obvious (see, spiders). But it’s not. We need to read nature, even our own natures carefully. The patriarchal explanation should probably always be the throw-away hypothesis, not the go to framework.
This is the same usurpation and mis-reading of nature that has been going on since forever. And its a freaking fallacy anyway. Because what works well for one species, does not translate to another (or men would have to be suiciding themselves CONSTANTLY).
We read nature through our own prejudices, but that does not make our prejudices true, inevitable or right. It also does not mean that what is natural is right. Because we really don’t know what is natural. We don’t know how other animals perceive their own sexualities. We don’t know how social animals think and feel about their social structures.
But we do know that the patriarchy hurts every-fucking-body. It squeezes lots of us into really uncomfortable robot suits. It mocks the dignity of both men and women. It erases the identities and importance of so many people I couldn’t even begin to list them all. It ruins all our fun. Not sadistic mean spirited oppressive fun, but real fun.
Fun where you can sit down with someone and not put them in a mental box, and go deaf to half of what they say, or worry about going to a party and drinking because all men may be predatory rapists and its all your fault. It costs us happy, satisfying sexual encounters, and manufactures uncomfortable exploitative ones in their place, it tells us we should be having lots of sex, or no sex or both at the same time. It fills us with anxieties and lies and loneliness.
The antidote to bad science and bad patriarchy is to be educated and educate, to challenge, to have happy enthusiastically consensual sex and to not feel guilty or weird for not having sex, to communicate well, be respectful and ethical, and for gods sake don’t fuck anyone who thinks you are lesser.
And to question the fucking voles. They LIE. Look at this lying faux-mongamous little bastard! Poly all along. Just own it, Vole. Own it.