A Scientist Walks into an English Blog: Language, Gender, Feminism, and the Science of Sex

I spend my day thinking about sex.

Mostly, sex between male and female fruit flies. I am curious about what happens after they finish doing the deed and sperm move through the female reproductive environment on their journey to the egg. Interested in the changes that occur within the female after sex, how her body interacts with the foreign substances contributed by the male ejaculate, and how an egg gets ready to be fertilized. Ultimately, I try to use fancy scientific techniques to figure out what happens between sex and a baby/larvae on a molecular level.

I am an evolutionary reproductive biologist. While that may not seem like it has much to do with English and the humanities, they actually intersect quite a bit. I like to think of science and culture as constantly interacting, feeding off of and into each other (in science-y jargon, they are symbiotic). For example, a lot of people, in addition to me, spend a fair amount of time thinking about sex. Usually sexier human sex as well as things related to sex such as sexuality and gender expression. These thoughts and the cultural opinions on these topics can then influence scientists.

Emily Martin, an anthropologist, exposed the problematic ways underlying cultural perceptions of sex and gender show up as gendered, sexist language in scientific texts, especially in relation to reproductive biology.[1] Sperm are often described as active and aggressive, competing and battling their way to the prize. Sperm penetrate, sperm fertilize. Eggs, on the other hand, are fertilized. They are passive and fragile, damsels in distress waiting to be rescued by the sperm. These descriptions align closely with cultural expectations of men and women’s behavior. Thus, an insidious feedback loop is formed: gender stereotypes are applied to our sex cells, which is then subconsciously picked up and perpetuated by scientists, reaffirming underlying cultural assumptions. If the gendering of sperm and eggs on its own was not problematic enough, it is also likely that preconceptions of sex cell behavior affect the science that is conducted. For example, the cultural assumption that sperm (men) do all the work may be part of the reason it took nearly a century for the active role of eggs in fertilization to receive attention.[2]

My personal pet peeve is the description of the female reproductive tract as an inhospitable environment because the acidity and mucous can be harmful to sperm.[3]  ‘Inhospitable’ makes my vagina sound like a bad bed and breakfast, not a complex reproductive organ. It is especially annoying because those same things that make the vagina a difficult place for sperm to survive also reduces infections and prevents fertilization by muliple or abnormal sperm. What from a sperm’s perspective is a dangerous environment, to me is protective. Nevertheless, it is the male viewpoint that dominates in textbooks.

Luckily, intrepid scientists are calling out the influence that preconceived ideas of gender and sex can have on science. Starting all the way back in the late 19th century, suffragettes (including one born only an hour away from Syracuse) criticized the Victorian sensibilities and male centric bias of Darwin’s theory of evolution.[4] Zoom forward to the end of the 20th century; increased representation of women in sciences and a concentration on female behavior revealed a complex, active, and often polyamourus, role of females in sexual encounters. Feminist scientists incorporated this new data and along with critiques on Darwinian theory to generate Darwinian feminism, which focuses on variation and plasticity rather than the archetypal survival of the fittest.

Feminist critiques of biology are also working in tandem with growing gender and sex fluidity theories to dismantle the dominant binary sex/gender paradigm. Scientists have drawn attention to sex difference studies that are overly biologically deterministic and do not include the effects of culture or environment. [5]  In addition, developmental biologists are reimagining gender and sexuality in terms of variable, not fixed, reproductive development and interactions between nature and nurture. Currently, scientists are even applying queer theory to critique the heternormitivity of biology.[6]

Unfortunately, feminist biology is controversial and receipt of these critiques by the scientific community at large is tepid at best. I was surprised to experience it myself when I prepared to go to a symposium on Feminist Biology. I gave a practice presentation to a group of colleagues and it was recommended that instead of calling myself a feminist, I should say I ‘apply feminist theories or methodologies’. Calling myself a feminist, they suggested, implied advocacy, biased thinking, and potentially bad science. The scientific façade of an unbiased, impartial pursuit of truth contributes to the resistance of the scientific community to critiques from the social sciences and humanities

Although I spend far too much of my time isolated, mating flies in a lab of the Life Science Center (a Syracuse approximate of the ‘ivory tower’), I would much rather take a leaf from the book of my humanities colleagues and proclaim my positionality and how it might affect my knowledge production rather than sweep it under a rug. In turn, science can then provide a different, intimate and revealing look into the nature, and sex, around us.



[1] Martin, E. 1991. The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles. Signs, 485 – 501.

[2] Schatten, G. and Schatten, H. 1983. The Energetic Egg. The Sciences, 28 – 35.


[3] Too many scientific texts and IVF websites too list, seriously, I can’t even. Google it.

[4] Fausto-Sterling, A., Gowaty, P. A., Zuk, M. 1997. Evolutionary Psychology and Darwinian Feminism. Feminist Studies, 402 – 417. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3178406?sid=21105762830683&uid=4&uid=3739256&uid=3739832&uid=2

[5] Fausto-Sterling, A. 2000. Sexing the Body.

[6] Ah-King, M. 2009. Queer Nature: Towards a Non-Normative View on Biological Diversity. In Body Claims eds Brromseth, J., Folkmarson, K., and Mattsson, K. 212- 232. http://uu.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:329592/FULLTEXT01.pdf

& Roughgarden, J. 2009. Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People.


Figure is a mashup of artificially colored egg and sperm microscopy (David M. Phillips/Science Source) found on http://www.npr.org/blogs/health and clip art from http://www.canstockphoto.com/

Caitlin McDonough is a first year biology graduate in the Center for Reproductive Evolution. When not dissecting fruit flies, she plays rugby, draws and disrupts conventional scientists by talking about feminism and queer studies. More information can be found at her website cemcdonough.com or fledgling blog ideaspermatheca.com.




  1. Great post! I always try to work in the whole egg:sperm/passive:active binary construction when I teach courses on gender and literary texts here at SU (John Barthes has a great story, “Night Sea Journey,” that chronicles a nihilist sperm’s journey to the egg and plays into the stereotypes you’re discussing here). It can be really hard for people to accept that because language is a human construction, it doesn’t always adequately reflect lived realities but rather assumptions based on dominant ideology. This would be a great post to use at the start of a class to get students thinking!

    I do think, though, that declaring a particular political position is also seen as a faux pas in various pockets of the humanities as well as the sciences. The rigor associated with a so-called unbiased, objective approach is somewhat pervasive. I know that in my first semester in my doctoral program, I was told that none of us graduate students ought to proclaim ourselves any sort of “-ist,” be it Marxist, feminist, etc., because doing so would mark us out as biased, one-dimensional, and (worst of all) stuck in the 1990s (because apparently after the 1990s, identity issues and equality were achieved and became old hat? or maybe academia became firmly situated outside of the real world and thus above anything more than a firmly theoretical treatment of real world, lived issues?).


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