Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Time to Take the Penis off Its Pedestal

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Rachel Gross writes in Scientific American:

It can taste, smell and sing. It can be a corkscrew, a crowbar or a hypodermic needle. It can stretch up to nine times your body length (if you’re a barnacle); be a detachable tentacle covered in suckers (if you’re an argonaut octopus); or even see, using light-sensing cells that guide it smoothly to its destination (if you’re a Japanese yellow swallowtail butterfly). Or, it can be a limp, fleshy tube, hardly worth writing home about, if you’re a human.

It is the penis, as you’ll know if you’ve read Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Penis, biologist and journalist Emily Willingham’s recent exploration of phallic diversity across the animal kingdom.

Meanwhile, another book argues that what we need is even more penis science. GUYnecology: The Missing Science of Men’s Reproductive Health, by Yale sociologist Rene Almeling, asks why medicine has failed to fully probe “the male gonad,” as one scientist put it, and its role in human reproduction. Almeling explains why no medical specialty exists that is devoted to male reproductive health—the guy equivalent of gynecology. When it comes to penis science, it seems, men have gotten shafted.

At first glance, these two very different books appear to point to the same enduring truth: that scientists—and readers—remain as penis-obsessed as ever. Or, as Willingham puts it, “Nothing gets clicks like a story about dicks.”

Actually, it’s the opposite. In both, the flashy focus on the male member serves as a Trojan horse (pun intended) for a very different message: that a culture of phallus-worship has slanted the science in crucial and sometimes unexpected ways. On the one hand, we’ve inflated the role of the penis in genital evolution; on the other, we’ve left the male contribution to infertility, genetic abnormalities and other reproductive consequences unexamined. The result is stunted, lopsided science that shows only one side of the story.

Consider that myriad beetle species are classified solely by their penis shape, while the true breadth of vaginal diversity has yet to be explored. This tradition has deep roots: Going back to Charles Darwin, who waxed poetic on the wonders of barnacle dongs, biologists have trained their lens on the penis while remaining largely uninterested in what vaginas were doing. Yet penises don’t evolve in a vacuum. All those traits we ooh and aah over—length, girth, bristles—are shaped by vaginal evolution, and the mutual dance between the two that plays out over generations.

Today, as more women and LGBTQ scientists enter the field, we’re finding that vaginas, far from passive tubes for ejaculate, are active organs that sort, store and reject sperm. Kangaroos have three vaginas (two for sperm reception, one for joey ejection); swallowtail butterflies see out of theirs; and duck vaginas spiral and curve in a penis-repelling labyrinth. Even for non-vagina-lovers, these facts help us understand how genitals evolve as a whole. Both are part of the same unified story—a much richer tapestry than just one body part can tell. Leaving one out, whichever one, blinds us to the fuller picture of sex and sexuality.

Similarly, leaving guys out of gynecology paints a false picture that, beyond sperm, men don’t contribute much to human reproduction. While medical messaging hits women over the head with the fact of their ticking biological clocks, men are rarely told how their health and age will affect their offspring. This incongruity gives the impression “that reproduction is women’s business—that it occurs primarily in women’s bodies and is solely women’s responsibility,” Almeling writes. In reality, sperm age and quality likely play just as large a role in rates of developmental disorders and infant survival as eggs do—to say nothing of the interactions between the two.

Both examples reflect a deeper flaw in science’s approach to sex: the assumption that . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 February 2021 at 9:27 am

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