Earlier today, scientists announced they'd discovered an insect with a new kind of female sex organ. It looks a bit like a penis, and is called a gynosome. But almost every news outlet covered the story by describing the insects as "females with penises." This isn't just painfully wrong — it's bad for science.
Photo by Tim Masters via Shutterstock
From reading the science news today, you'd assume that we'd found female bugs with penises, or organs that penetrate and inseminate their partners during sex. "In this group of insects, females wear the penises!" Discover magazine trumpeted. "In this insect, females have penises and males have vaginas," National Geographic elaborated. The Verge declared that scientists had found a "female penis," while Scientific American informed us that this female insect uses her "spiky penis" to "take charge." Even the original scientific article's headline included the phrase "female penis, male vagina."
Except the gynosome isn't a penis. As Jason Goldman explains in an article about the gynosome, this is a hitherto unknown form of sexual organ in the animal kingdom. When female members of the Brazilian bug species Neotrogla mate with males, they insert their gynosomes into the male's sexual organ. Once inside the male's body, the gynosome inflates and grows spines, then absorbs both sperm and nutrients from the male for several days.
I'm sorry, but does this sound like a penis to you? When was the last time you found a penis that grew spines, absorbed nutrients, remained erect for 75 hours, or allowed its owner to get pregnant? Pretty much the only thing this organ has in common with a penis is that it's used to penetrate a partner during sex.
Imagine, if you will, that astronomers have discovered a new kind of object in space that emits visible light. It's not an exploding ball of hydrogen like a star, nor is it nearly as big as any star we know, but it emits light — so heck, why not just call it a star? I mean, it looks a little bit like a star. And most people know what stars are. So instead of describing this fantastic new object as something utterly new to science, we'll just say it's a star. Maybe we'll say it's a "star-like body." That'll be good enough.
That's roughly what's going on when people describe Neotrogla's gynosome as a penis. Just because this organ could, if you really squint, be described as penis-like, we'll just say it's a penis and leave it at that.
Yet none of the otherwise good sources of science news I listed above would ever describe my imaginary light-emitting object as a star. Why is that? Mostly it's because when it comes to sex, humans are still hopelessly in thrall to our anthropomorphic urges — which is to say, our urge to see every animal's behavior as a reflection of our own. We know that the cosmos is full of strange and unknown phenomena. But we can't bring ourselves to believe that the worlds of sex and sex roles could ever deviate from what we've been told is good and right among Homo sapiens.
When we deprive Neotrogla of her gynosome by calling it a penis, of course Neotrogla doesn't care. But we fail to advance the scientific project, which is above all things dedicated to expanding people's understanding of the world. Instead of learning that there are female bugs with sex organs that behave unlike anything in the human world, articles about a "female penis" reassure readers that nothing could ever exist that challenges the penis/vagina sexual system — nor the system of sexual selection that led to it.
And that makes our minds a little smaller.
I'm sure a lot of journalists and headline writers decided to go with the "females with penises" line because they thought it was a funny play on the offensive phrase "chicks with dicks." Or they simply thought it was inherently funny to say that females of any species might have penises. Everybody loves a dick joke, right?
Not so much. First of all, as I've already explained, this gets the science all wrong and thus does a disservice to the public. Second, the joke is only funny if you assume that sex roles are fixed, and somehow these female bugs with their "penises" are violating them. Even among mammals, however, sex roles are a moving target. Obviously humans transform our genitals, whether through surgery or just buying a cheap strap-on at our local sex toy shops. And our sexual "roles" are blindingly complicated.
But as evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden painstakingly chronicles in her book Evolution's Rainbow, sexual roles throughout the animal kingdom reveal far more variation than most of us realize. There are animals who change their sex, who take on different roles at different times, and who — yes — possess sexual organs that are most definitely not penises nor vaginas, even though some penetration may be involved.
By anthropomorphizing Neotrogla's sex life, we teach people the wrong lesson about nature. Even if it's meant in fun, calling every organ that gets erect a "penis" makes it appear that all animals are just like us. Not only is that almost sinister in its dishonesty, but it erases one of the most beautiful things about life, which is its awe-inspiring diversity.
So as funny as some people might find a dick joke, I'm afraid those fit better in articles about porn or on FOX television than they do in ones about biological sex. Science can be funny, but it's not a joke. And the more we make it into a joke, the more we undermine the power science has to unveil real truths about the universe.
(Note: You can see an interesting response to some of my points from Ed Yong in his story, where he defends the use of the term "female penis.")
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9.com, and this is her column. She is also the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.