Femme fatales and sacrificial males
The female praying mantis and black widow spiders who eat their mate after sex have helped to create the femme fatale stereotype that proliferates in human culture.
But can a scientist studying nature's sexual cannibals – animals who eat their mate after or during copulation – maintain objectivity, even when these stereotypes seem so engrained?
A new study from the University of St Andrews looked at how scientists employ gender stereotyping when writing about their research, particularly in the case of sexual cannibalism.
They found that often biologists colour their data by using biased words that promote stereotypes.
Normally, when describing sexual conflict, the female is depicted as a passive participant who follows sheepishly in her partner's forceful footsteps.
But the study found, when scientists write about sexual cannibalism specifically, they describe the girls using active words. Words like voracious and predatory, which imply the female is aggressive and manipulative. These terms are just as negative as the passive ones used in other sexual conflict research and paint females in just as bad a light.
Males though are often described using words like suicide and sacrifice. These loaded terms make the males out to be noble and selfless, evoking emotions that have little to do with the research.
There would be nowhere near the same emotions attached to the statement: 'a movement made during copulation which enables the female to feed,' compared to: 'the male sacrifices himself for the sake of his offspring by bending to put his hindquarters in reach of the ravenous and predatory female's jaws.' Some even argue using these words renders the science imprecise.
Basing science on stereotypes can mean we miss vital evidence, but the study accepts seeing patterns and rules is imperative to good science, and can lead to great breakthroughs. The researchers caution that there is a difference though between finding patterns and imposing stereotypes, but only history will tell if we get the balance right.
Posted on 26 February 2013
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