A few days ago Daze Reader joined in the media frenzy over the discovery of new Brazilian bug species in which the females wield a “penetrating erectile organ” during sex. Most pop science headlines used variations of “the females have the penises!” This blog was no different: Females With Penises Mount and Penetrate Males.
Annalee Newitz splashes cold water on this headline boner over at io9. Your Penis Is Getting in the Way of My Science. The Neotrogla female sex organs are called “gynosomes” and calling them “female penises” is inaccurate.
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.
Newitz avoids the cliched “male journalists are obsessed with their dicks” route this could have gone. Instead she makes excellent points about the value of science and intellectual curiosity.
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.
Mea culpa. I fell into the anthropomorphizing trap for the sake of a fun headline. Plus I’m totally obsessed with penises and like to use the word “penis” as much as possible.
At National Geographic, Ed Yong responds to Newitz and defends the term “female penis” to describe the Neotrogla sex organ. Yong also makes good points. I’m not a scientist and take no side in this debate. I was an English major in college and fulfilled my science requirement with those bogus astronomy-without-math courses. Read them both, decide for yourself.