Tag Archives: sex

On Metaphor (And Penis Fencing Flatworms)

I saw this footage of flatworm reproduction years ago on PBS and I was so excited when Robin H. sent it in!

Flatworms are hermaphroditic.  All flatworms can inseminate and be inseminated.  These flatworms also have two penises each. Flatworms are sexual.  That is, they reproduce sexually by finding a partner with which to trade genetic material.  (Asexual creatures do not trade genetic material, they reproduce by making copies of themselves.)

A flatworm reveals its two penises (in white):


What is interesting about this clip sociologically (in case you’re not already intrigued enough) is how the narrator describes what the flatworms are doing.

Let’s first suppose that it makes little sense to attribute human emotions and motivations to flatworms.  Let’s also suppose that narrations of animal behavior are often going to tell us a lot about how we think and only a little, if anything, about what’s going on with the  social lives of invertebrates.

As you watch the clip below, notice that they explain the behavior not descriptively, but metaphorically.  Flatworm mating behavior is like war and wars have winners and losers:

So the narrator explains that flatworm “sex is more like war than love.”  Worms are “swordsmen” who are “penis fencing.” (Mix metaphors much?)  They carry “double daggers” (penises).  And “the first one to make a successful jab, delivers its sperm.”

Notice how the narrator genders the hermaphroditic flatworms.  Because they have penises they are “swordsmen.”  Apparently their equally functional capacity to be inseminated is eclipsed by their dangerous daggers!

And notice, too, how they describe the flatworm who becomes inseminated as the “loser.”  The “losing flatworm,” the narrator explains, “bears the burden of motherhood, committing valuable resources to having offspring.”


Sperm on the “loser”:


Now it may be true that being the “mother” involves the use of resources. [Note: And this is a nod to the evolutionary logic involved.]  But even so, we would never call the females of non-hermaphroditic sexual species “losers” would we?  I mean, they both get to pass on their genetic material, and doesn’t that make them both winners from an evolutionary perspective?

No doubt it seems reasonable to call the functional female of the pair a loser in a sexist world in which childbearing is defined as a disability (according to the Americans with Disabilities Act) and childraising is defined as non-productive (it garners no wages or benefits and cannot be put on a resume).  Gosh, being non-hermaphroditic, human females are losers by default.  They don’t even get to play the game.

So sexism is one way to explain the wildly offensive characterization of the inseminated flatworm as a “loser.”  But it also may just be that, in choosing a war/sports metaphor to describe flatworm behavior, they inevitably had to characterize one or the other as a loser.  This is a great example of the folly of metaphor.  Metaphors can be used to make something unfamiliar make sense by comparing it to something familiar, but it also runs the risk of forcing the thing being explained to mirror the thing you use to explain it with.

It’s simply sloppy.  And, all too often, it results in projecting ugly realities with which we are all too familiar onto those things we don’t really understand.

For another example of the projection of socially constructed human relations onto the body, see our post on sperm, eggs, and fertilization.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Hate F@&%

Ever since it occurred to me a few years ago, I’ve been deeply disturbed the two meanings that the word “fuck” has in U.S. culture.  We use the word when we want to hurt someone really, really bad; and we use it to describe what may be the most physically intimate thing two people can do together.  The fact that the word has that double meaning, I think, speaks volumes about our fucked up relationship with sex.

Illustrating this, Caroline H. pointed me to a June 2009 Playboy slideshow of politically conservative women that readers want to “hate fuck.”  After protests, Playboy took the slideshow down, but RedState captured screen shots. You can see them all here. I post a selection below.

The first slide:



Megyn Kelly:


Amanda Carpenter:


Elisabeth Hasselbeck:


Dana Perino:



Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Coke Zero and Women’s Virginity

I borrowed this commercial from the Mongoose Chronicles, where Mar offers both a hilarious and a serious interpretation. First, the commercial:

Now, the interpretation: More than just another example of a product being marketed with hypermasculinity, this ad sends “…the message… that women’s sexuality is owned by the men with whom they interact…” The “hero” must erase all signs that he transgressed on the father’s property.  Her “daddy” must not know.  Clean and showered, the woman can greet her father in all innocence.

As Mar says it:

…with all traces of sex duly washed away, she’s free to greet her father while pretending to be a virgin. Because for women, virginity: good; sex: bad. But if you’re a man: sticking around to meet the parents: bleah; sex: rawr; Coke Zero: arooooo.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Dead-Looking Women in Fashion Imagery (Possibly NSFW)

We posted multiple times about images in which women appear brutalized, threatened, or dead: the Lady Gaga video, a Rene Russo photo shoot, the Pirelli calendar, a NYT fashion slideshow, and the “America’s Next Top Model” murdered women photos, for instance. Jamy B. sent in a set of ads Lanvin is rolling out this fall. They draw on a previous Lanvin campaign for a perfume called My Sin:


Here are the new versions:




From Project Beltway.

I have nothing new to add to our previous analyses–it’s another example of sort of dead-looking women in sexualized positions. But this time they add cats, which actually look at the camera and definitely appear to be alive, giving them more subjectivity than the women have.

My professional, well-reasoned, deeply-pondered sociological insight: ick.

NEW! (Oct. ’09) Anna W. sent in a link to a set of images at Glossed Over. The images come from the September 2009 issues of W magazine. Many of the images present women in very passive poses, many of which make them appear dead:







NEW! (Mar. ’10): Martha sent in some images from the book Who Killed Amanda Palmer? A Collection of Photographic Evidence, a collaboration between the singer Amanda Palmer and writer Neil Gaiman. The photos in the book show Palmer posed as though she’s been murdered, often in ways that are sexualized as well. Some examples:



I’m putting the next one after the jump because it’s a very realistic-looking image of her nearly naked, bloodied, and folded up into a shopping cart; it may be upsetting and/or somewhat NSFW, so be warned.


Woman Embodies The HIV Virus In Italian Ad (NSFW)

After the jump (not safe for work):


Another Collection of Gender-and-Tech-Related Images

Here’s another collection of images about gender and marketing of various techy things, particularly video games. You can see my other jumbled post of such images here (check out the links at the bottom of that post–I’m not going to reproduce them here).

Danielle F. found a post at bitmob that includes this old ad for Game Boy:


Notice that the presumed user is either a heterosexual male (or, I suppose, a lesbian…but I doubt it). And as we see, the Game Boy is so awesome it’s better than having sex with a woman tied up waiting for you. I hope the unhappy look on her face is because her partner is distracted and not because she doesn’t really want to be tied up.

NEW! Nov ’09 Another vintage example (well, 1987):


Morgan C. alerted us to an ad for DirecTV that features Peyton Manning and the following dialogue:

Manning begins “…why you need to watch football in HD: for the one handed grabs” (cue shot of scantily cheerleader’s chest as she is jumping around), “the most naked bootlegs” (kicking line semi-crotch shots), “and all the punishing hits” (don’t forget the chest and abs shots!). It’s a pretty shameless marketing scheme when you hire a professional athlete and project images of women and their body parts behind him.

Here’s the delightful ad:

A reader who prefers to remain anonymous sent in this image he was forwarded that someone created equating different browsers with women. Again we see that the assumed user is male:


The reader says,

…notice how all the women are described primarily or entirely in terms of sexual attributes, and criticized for whatever ways they fail to be ideal sex partners…Unquestioned assumptions here…that “women” means “people whose purpose in life is to provide you with sex”.  Male gaze much?

I find the Chrome image particularly icky. The equating of IE with “easy” women, who are of course the “first woman [users] tried” (because she’s not relationship material, just for getting started), and the connection to STDs is also classy.

The sender-inner continues,

Like most software companies, mine has an extremely imbalanced male-to-female ratio, maybe something around 90% male, and most of the women are in the marketing and HR departments so the balance is even further skewed among the people who engineer the software.  (Full disclosure: I’m a man.)  I have no way of knowing how prevalent e-mail forwards like this one are among engineers in the software industry, since most of them get passed around under the table.  It makes me wonder what role they might play in perpetuating or reinforcing a “boys-only-club” kind of culture that makes women feel unwelcome, or whether that has an influence on the extreme gender imbalance of my industry.

On that note, Sabriel pointed out a post at Feministing in which the author, Cat Marshall, a female animation student, expresses dismay at a video used to encourage submissions to the International Erotic Animation Festival. The video reinforces the sexualized female image and also brings up interesting questions about what is considered erotic. Although, for the record, the sexualized women do appear to be zombies:

And we got several more submissions of gendered marketing of techy items. Stephanie G. sent us a link to her post at Mother Jones about Sony Ericsson’s attempt to market cell phones to women by making them “diamond” shaped:


The company claims that “structured forms, intricate corners, hidden depths” are trendy. Stephanie points out,

…”depth” refers to a “variety of different shine and matt [sic] finishes,” not tech specs.

The phone has some features that clearly illustrate stereotypes about what women (should) care about:

“The two inch screen’s clever design means that at the touch of a button the screen becomes a mirror, offering a discreet way to make sure you look as good as your mobile phone. It is also the first Sony Ericsson to feature Walk Mate step counter, to help you stay in shape wherever you go. It also has an exclusive fashion interface which automatically updates with zodiac signs and special events throughout the year.”

Liz noted the following about Ubisoft’s series of Nintendo games aimed at girls:

…includes stuff like ‘Imagine Makeup Artist’ and ‘Imagine Wedding Planner.’ Without exception every game is about physical appearance, performance for the purpose of looking pretty, or nurturing/childrearing.

If you haven’t gotten enough yet, Kate M. sent in these examples of “time management games” (what?!?) at Shockwave:




I don’t know what to make of this one:


UPDATE: Reader Shodan says, about Virtual Families and Virtual Villagers,

…in those games, male and female characters can take on dozens of roles, with males able to take on tasks that have been often portrayed as the role of women traditionally (house cleaning, child rearing) and women taking on tasks that are often portrayed as masculine masculine (research, construction).

On the other hand, I found this tip (here):

Stay at Home Moms- Nursing mothers focus all their attention on the baby for two years of game time. They won’t do any other tasks while caring for the baby.

Also this at Codeblower:

Job: Breeder
If you want (once things are progressing and you’ve got a steady food-supply, a hut or two built, and you’re working on unplugging the lagoon) you can task a couple villagers to be “Breeders”. Be advised that this is only a good idea for females. This was another accidental-discovery. I had everybody but “The Runner” set to Breeder (to get the population moving) and shut the game down for a while. I came back to discover that one of the males had decided that Runner would be a good mate — food-production had halted. Needless to say, the two men in the village were immediately tasked with Runner’s duties while the females nursed the infants.

So maybe I’m totally offbase on those two. Or maybe not.

You can also play Create a Mall, Posh Boutique 2, Diaper Dash, or a variety of games about diners, salons, and boutiques. Kate says,

Even the ones that involve you having a successful career (and saving the community!  What a hero!  Nurturing all of us!) don’t start off with you wanting a career – you fall into it by accident, on account of your love for your family/community/cooking/fashion.

Also see: the Sony OMG Lilac Play Station Portable, mom/daughter domesticity in a Nintendo ad, targeting the new Risk to men, and Miss Bimbo.

NEW! (July ’10): Bri A. sent in another example of gendering technology. This is an image from TeamViewer, a program that lets people remotely access your computer. Notice what it says under Info: “This number identifies you. Tell your partner so he can connect to you.” Because only guys would be using this, obviously.

Lesbians Are Hot, If They’re Hot

These days it’s not unusual to see girl-on-girl action on TV and in mainstream movies. Are we tolerant of lesbianism? Let’s do a thought experiment:

Two thin, young, conventionally attractive women in stillettos with large breasts making out? Hot or not? Hot.

Two women making out? Hot or not? Hmmmm.

Sometimes in classes this comes up and a man will say “I think lesbians are hot!” And I will reply “No, you think hot lesbians are hot.” And he nods.

Much of the supposed acceptability of girls kissing girls is predicated on the idea that they are doing it not for themselves, but for an imagined male viewer. That is, they’re kissing each other to get guys off. That male viewer doesn’t even have to be present. He’s implied when the girls are, as I described above, “thin, young, conventionally attractive women in stillettos with large breasts.” Looking “hot” signifies a capitulation to the male gaze. So long as the women kissing each other conform to this standard of beauty, they aren’t breaking the rules of femininity (one of which is a desire for male sexual attention).

This may sound outlandish, but consider the disgust or outrage that is often aimed at lesbians who do not conform to this standard of beauty. When lesbians are not thin, do not wear make up, or refrain from dressing in ways that reveal and feminize their body, they are “dykes.” These women are not unacceptable simply because they are sexually attracted to other women, they are unacceptable because they are refusing to acknowledge and accept that they exist, first and foremost, to please men.

Bryan Safi discusses the fetishization of the girl-on-girl-just-for-guys trope, humorously and without the same degree of feminist ire, in this three minute video from Current TV (via):

UPDATE: MC and Matt K, in the comments, remarked on another consequence of the implicit male gaze. When lesbians are conventionally attractive, their sexual orientation gets called into question (by both straight and gay people alike).

ALSO! Giorgios typed in the analysis of girl-on-girl pornography
by D. A. Clarke (from an article callled “Prostitution for Everyone”):

The ‘kick’ of girl/girl porno lies partly in its catering to the fantasy of violating the privacy of lesbians, of making even sex between women – something very threatening to male sexual prerogative – serve a male agenda; the other, tacit element is the kick of seeing ‘normal girls’ made to emulate homosexual activity. The assumption is that homosexual activity is repulsive, and therefore the models are disgusted by it and endure it under some compulsion – whether the compulsion of money, force of personality, or physical threat. Pictures of real lesbians – at Gay Pride rallies, for example – kissing, necking, and flirting are often considered ‘disgusting’ and ‘ugly’ by the same men who enjoy girl/girl fantasy porn. Lesbians in the public world who kiss, hold hands, or otherwise behave like a sexually intimate couple (in a restaurant, in a park, at a movie) have often been subjected to abuse, threats, and violence from hetero men – the same men who constitute the market for ever-popular girl/girl porno. What is disgusting in the case of real lesbians in the real world seems to be the women’s autonomy; what is attractive in the case of commercialised, fictionalised documentary porn is the evidence of reduced autonomy, and the dissonance between what the porn consumer assumes are the real wishes of the model, and the reaction she is being bribed or forced to perform. If the model were a real lesbian, she would experience violation and humiliation due to the invasion and exploitation of her sexual privacy by men; if the model is conventionally heterosexual, she is presumed to experience a degree of humiliation in being made to commit or mime homosexual acts.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Discrediting Merkel by Focusing on Her Breasts

Etan B. sent in this ad (found Etan’s blog) that the CDU, a conservative German political party, is using to compare its candidate, Vera Lengsefeld, to Angela Merkel. The ad shows a photo of Merkel on the left and Lengsfeld on the right. Both women are in dresses that reveal cleavage (the photo of Merkel generated a lot of discussion when it first appeared about whether she was dressed too sexily):


The text on the left, across the image of Merkel, says “We have more to offer,” the implication being, of course, that the conservative party has more to rely on than cleavage. Lengsfeld explained the ad this way:

If only a tenth of them also look at the content of my policies, I will have reached many more people than I could have done with classic street canvassing.

UPDATE: Now I’m confused. Elena says,

Merkel is the chairwoman of the CDU. Both women belong to the same party, and according to the ad both have “[more] to offer”.

I apologize for the confusion about Merkel’s party–I read in two different places the account I gave above. So I guess the CDU is basically saying you should vote for it because it has candidates that are sexy? I kinda think that’s actually worse than what I originally thought it was. Elena, thanks so much for the clarification!

You can also read an article about the controversial ad at NPR.

As Etan points out, it’s reminiscent of the scrutiny Hillary Clinton received after she wore this outfit on the Senate floor:


As far as men go, in 2000 Rolling Stone was accused of airbrushing this cover photo of Al Gore to make his crotch bulge bigger (via):


So there are lots of examples of efforts to delegitimize political candidates by focusing on their looks or sexuality, but the Lengsfeld one is the most blatant I’ve seen recently.