Is it Okay to Say Female Insect has a “Penis”? Sexy News Story Sparks Language Dispute

This insect’s sex organ sparked a science writing dispute

Not long ago I’d get hate mail for merely mentioning the word penis in print. Readers regarded the publication I wrote for as a “family” newspaper, and they seemed to feel that even a biology-based discussion of genitalia would be disruptive to families.

But now, thankfully, this week’s genitally-oriented controversy surrounds the best use of language to clearly and accurately communicate science.

The story in question comes from a paper in Current Biology, in which researchers claim that in a cave-dwelling insect called neotrogla, the females have “penises” which they use to penetrate male “vaginas”. The researchers use those terms, though they clarify that the female penis–like thing is really a gynosome.

The news led to a number of headlines such as this one in the UK’s Mirror:

Meet the female insect with giant PENIS whose steamy sex sessions last 70 HOURS

(“giant” is, I supposed, meant in a relative sense.)

Tabloids will be tabloids. In the more science-oriented pubications, a couple of writers went beyond the press release and did an admirable job of using the paper as a teachable moment – an opportunity to discuss evolution. This story by Ed Yong for his National Geographic blog was particularly good at putting the finding into an evolutionary context.   

He brings up the other animal sometimes associated with female penises – the hyena – and explains that the situation is very different:

For comparison, the female spotted hyena also has what looks like a penis. Actually, it’s a severely enlarged clitoris, or ‘pseudopenis’, which can grow up to 7 inches long. She doesn’t use it to penetrate a male; in fact, the male must penetrate her pseudopenis with his actual one. Later, she gives birth through it.

This is just the kind of context that makes these stories interesting and educational, though it might have been noted that the male hyena does not in fact have a vagina.  

Moving right along….

The news also offers an opportunity to point out something most people don’t know – but should know – which is that there is one universal sex-determining factor in biology.  He who makes the smaller gamete is male and she who makes the larger one is female. As for genitalia and chromosomes, almost anything goes. Evolution has led to a dazzling variety of mechanisms for determining sex and for bringing the male and female gametes together.

Most of the news stories failed to explain this important piece of background. Ed Yong’s piece gets to it at the end. This story by Arielle Duhaime-Ross in The Verge wisely led with it.   

Annalee Newitz of Io9 apparently doesn’t approve of any of the stories. In a post titled Your Penis Is Getting In the Way of My Science, she objected to the way everyone used the word penis.  

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.

The post has sparked some interesting discussion about the always important topic of word choice in science popularization. Even though the scientists themselves used the word penis, she says it distracts from the natural world’s diversity of sexual anatomy and represents a misleading form of anthropomorphizing.

She makes an error in her critique here:

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?

Well, if you must know, 2010 or maybe 2011. What can I say? Newspaper science columnists tend to get around – in an intellectual sense of course. If biologists are to be believed, my furry four-legged room-mate has penis spines. One cool fact about penis spines is that they adorn many male mammals and it is only due to a relatively recent DNA deletion that human males lost them. The spines are sometimes compared to whiskers, and the difference may not be as trivial as it sounds. The loss of spines could have influenced our mating behavior, which in turn is likely to have influenced other aspects of our evolution.   

And in the insect world, scientists have found not just spines but barbs, hooks, and all sorts of accessories. And, yes, penetration can last for days. In honey bees, penetration lasts longer than the male does. As he ejaculates, the end of his penis dislodges from his body. It stays with the queen and he promptly expires. Again, there are some more specific terms for (male) penises in some other organisms, and there’s a lot of convergent evolution going on, but scientists tend to refer to them as penises.

Ed Yong responds here with a thoughtful defense of his use of the term penis for the penetrative organ of the female neotrogla.

The Io9 piece also criticizes the news coverage for making sex a “joke”. But then, why can’t a scientific discussion of sex be enlightening and funny?

I had a very different problem with the coverage of this story. Everyone was terribly impressed that the females have something like a penis, yet people all but ignored the equally impressive fact that the males have something like a vagina. Has Eve Ensler’s consciousness-raising been forgotten so soon? Of course vaginas are at least as noteworthy and interesting as penises. Male vaginas! Now that’s news. 

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