That sweaty-toothed monster in “Finding Nemo,” who lures Dory and Marlin toward her bobbing, glowing appendage?
That’s the female deep sea anglerfish.
The male deep sea anglerfish is a small lump attached to her side.
He’s about one tenth her size (for scale, imagine if the average human male were a little under six inches tall), and when he finds the female, by following a trail of pheromones she leaves behind her, like a trail of biochemical breadcrumbs, he bites into her side, and then his face dissolves and his body gradually (over weeks) becomes an appendage of the female’s, sharing a circulatory system that keeps his gonads functioning. This way, she has his sperm fresh and available whenever she is ready to spawn. She may have several males attached to her in this way.
When you hear about the deep sea anglerfish, it’s difficult not to have feelings about that, right? A guy in one audience where I described this was like, “Yup, that’s what it’s like, the woman has all the power.”
A woman in the same audience was like, “That’s what it’s like – a man just takes what he wants.”
But not once in the history of the earth has an anglerfish of either sex felt either of those things.
No anglerfish has ever wondered if polyandry was the “right” sociosexual system for them.
The leopard slug also leaves a trail of hormonal breadcrumbs for a potential partner to find and follow, and when it does, it bites its partner, but that is just the start of a long dance of hermaphroditic intercourse that culminates in each inseminating the other as they spin, tangled around each other, on a strand of mucus, dangling from a tree branch.
All leopard slugs have penises. None of them are worried about whether or not those penises are large enough.
The duck vagina is a labyrinth of channels and sphincters. It evolved this way in an arms race with the male duck’s penis. Males can force copulation, and if the female’s body doesn’t want that particular male to fertilize her eggs, it closes off the route, preventing his sperm from finding their target. And when a male her body wants to fertilize the eggs copulates with her, her vagina opens the path to the egg.
The female duck is using a reproductive strategy – which involves no intentional decision-making; it’s her biology responding to its environment.
Disa nivea is an orchid species in South Africa that looks very much like the Zaluzianskya microsiphon, a flower that grows in the same neighborhood, and which is pollinated by a highly specialized fly with a long proboscid (think of it as an extremely long tongue the fly uses to lick deep inside the flower, collecting nectar and, incidentally, pollen), which it then carries to the next flower. Disa nivea’s mimicry of Zaluzianskya microsiphon deceives the fly into serving as a pollinator, without rewarding it with nectar.
Is the Disa a lying bitch? Should we morally judge her?
What do these species have in common?
Sex. Different strategies for putting two individuals’ gametes together.
Never has a duck wondered anxiously if he or she was “doing it right.” Not even our nearest relatives, the bonobos and the standard chimpanzees, read books about how to have sex.
Humans alone worry about whether or not we’re doing it right. Humans alone – and humans universally – construct rules and moral codes around sex.
From the beginning of the written record, humanity has had rules about what “right” sex is – and those rules have been as varied as they could possibly be.
We’ve had monogamous cultures, polygynous cultures (one men, multiple women), polyandrous cultures (one woman, multiple men), polyamorous and/or ”free love” cultures, abstinent cultures like the Shakers; cultures that shamed homosexual behavior, cultures that celebrated homosexual behavior; cultures that shamed women, cultures that shamed men, cultures that shamed everyone; cultures with no gender, two genders, three gender, or more.
But which is the right one? Which set of rules are we supposed to follow? Which are we designed for? Which one is “natural”?
The answer, if you observe humans the way a biologist observes any other species:
All of them are equally right, natural, and normal.
What made Alfred Kinsey the pioneer he was is that he applied the same rules of neutral observation to human sexual behavior that he applied to other species.
There is a place for “should” in sexuality, I think. I think it’s not okay to have sex with someone without their consent. If consent is missing, you’re doing it wrong. I think it’s not okay to use sex as a weapon against anyone – we’ve got lots of other weapons to choose from, if we need to hurt someone for whatever reason. There’s no need to include sex in that repertoire.
But everyone has a different sense of where that “should” belongs – and remember that even our sense of moral judgment is a product of our nature as a species; even the “shoulds” can be witnessed from a biological point of view, noted as normal variations on the ways human do sex.
If we all thought about sex from a biological point of view – no right or wrong way to do gender, no right or wrong way to be a sexual person, just different varieties of humans doing a wide variety of human things – what would that be like?
I think that would be pretty amazing.
So the next time to hear someone instantly dismiss a biological point of view about sex as “essentialist,” remind them that it is not biology, but social moralizing about biology, that imposes “right” or “wrong,” “good” or “evil,” on human sexuality.
From this point of view, there is more equality to be gained, more justice to be created, through a biological view of sex – no two alike – than a social constructivist view.