Flashback Friday.

I heard stories this week about dung beetles and cuttlefish.  Both made me think about the typical stories we hear in the media about evolved human mating strategies.  First, the stories:


Story #1 :The Dung Beetle

Photo from flickr by Camilo Hdo.
Photo by Camilo Hdo, retrieved from flickr.

A story on Quirks and Quarks discussed the mating strategies of the dung beetle.  The picture above is of a male beetle; only the males have those giant horns.  He uses it to defend the entrance to a tiny burrow in which he keeps a female.  He’ll violently fight off other dung beetles who try to get access to the burrow.

So far this sounds like the typical story of competitive mating that we hear all the time about all kinds of animals, right?

There’s a twist: while only male dung beetles have horns, not all males have horns.  Some are completely hornless.  But if horns help you win the fight, how is hornlessness being passed down genetically?

Well, it turns out that when a big ol’ horned male is fighting with some other big ol’ horned male, little hornless males sneak into burrows and mate with the females.  They get discovered and booted out, of course, and the horned male will re-mate with the female with the hopes of displacing his sperm.


Those little hornless males have giant testicles, way gianter than the horned males.  While the horned males are putting all of their energy into growing horns, the hornless males are making sperm.  So, even though they have limited access to females, they get as much mileage out of their access as they can.

The result: two distinct types of male dung beetles with two distinct mating strategies.


Story #2: The Giant Australian Cuttlefish

Photo by Paul Oughton, retrieved from Flickr.

The Naked Scientists podcast featured a story about Giant Australian Cuttlefish.  During mating season the male cuttlefish, much larger than the females, collect “harems” and spend their time mating and defending access.  Other males try to “muscle in,” but the bigger cuttlefish “throws his weight around” to scare him off. The biggest cuttlefish wins.

So far this sounds like the typical story of competitive mating that we hear all the time about all kinds of animals, right?

Well, according The Naked Scientists story, researchers have discovered an alternative mating strategy.  Small males, who are far too small to compete with large males, will pretend to be female, sneak into the defended territory, mate, and leave.

How do they do this?  They change their color pattern and rearrange their tentacles in a more typical female arrangement (they didn’t specify what this was) and, well, pass.  The large male thinks he’s another female. In the video below, the cuttlefish uses his ability to change the pattern on his body. He simultaneously displays a male pattern to the female and a female pattern to the large male on the other side.


So, can the crossdressing cuttlefish and dodge-y dung beetle tell us anything about evolved human mating strategies?

Probably not.

But I do think it tells us something about how we should think about evolution and the reproduction of genes. If you listen to the media cover evolutionary psychological explanations of human mating, you only hear one story about the strategies that males use to try to get sex. That story sounds a lot like the one told about the horned beetle and the large male cuttlefish.

But these species have demonstrated that there need not be only one mating strategy. In these cases, there are at least two. So, why in Darwin’s name would we assume that human beings, in all of their beautiful and incredible complexity, would only have one? Perhaps we see a diversity in types of human males (different body shapes and sizes, different intellectual gifts, etc) because there are many different ways to attract females. Maybe females see something valuable in many different kinds of males! Maybe not all females are the same!

Let’s set aside the stereotypes about men and women that media reporting on evolutionary psychology tends to reproduce and, instead, consider the possibility that human mating is at least as complex as that of dung beetles and cuttlefish.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Many are aghast at a cartoon recently released by a well-known right-leaning cartoonist, Ben Garrison. Rightly, commentators are arguing that it reproduces the racist stereotype that African American women are more masculine than white women. I’ll briefly discuss this, but I want to add a twist, too.

The block versus cursive font, the muscularity and the leanness, the strong versus swishy stance, the color and cut of their dresses, the length of their hair, the confrontational versus the compliant facial expression, and the strategically placed, transphobic bulge in Michelle Obama’s dress — you could hardly do a better job of masculinizing Michelle and feminizing Melania.

This is a racist stereotype not only because it posits that black women are unattractive, unlikable, and even dangerous, but because it has its roots in American slavery. We put middle class white women on pedestals, imagining them to be fragile and precious. But if women were fragile and precious, how could we force some of them to do the hard labor we forced on enslaved women? The answer was to defeminize black women. Thanks for keeping the stereotype alive, Ben Garrison.

What I’d like to add as a twist, though, is about Michelle’s expression, purposefully drawn as both ugly and judgmental. Michelle’s face isn’t just drawn as masculine, it’s aimed at Melania and she isn’t just sneering, she’s sneering at this other women.

The cartoon also places women in competition. It tells a sexist story of ugly (black) women who are hateful toward beautiful (white) women. It tells a story in which women are bitter and envious of each other, a ubiquitous story in which women tear each other down and can’t get along. It’s a terrible stereotype, demeaning and untrue (except insofar as patriarchal relations make it so).

And it’s especially reprehensible when it’s layered onto race.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

It can be quite difficult to describe what it feels like to be a member of a group that is widely disparaged or hated. I mean really describe it in a way that other people who are not part of that group can understand. It is powerful when it can be done and even more powerful when it is done in a way such that members of other groups, who are disparaged or hated for other reasons, can see themselves in the story.

I think this is accomplished in the 10 minute monologue below. The speech is by Rory O’Neill, a famous Irish drag queen who goes by the name Panti Bliss. She speaks of what it feels like to encounter homophobia — indeed, to have internalized homophobia — and to try to manage life with an identity that some people openly disparage and hate.

She does such a wonderful job describing it, that I suspect that the feelings that she talks about might be familiar to a wide audience: women, people of color, people with disabilities, the homeless and the poor, people who speak English as a second language, and more.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

With interest, I have been watching the resistance to the right of trans people to choose public restrooms based on their identity instead of their biology at birth. Though there is no evidence that allowing trans people to use the bathroom of their choice will put anyone in danger, one of the arguments against doing so is that women or children will be victimized. Completely tone deaf to the actual experiences of trans people, the idea is nonetheless framed as allowing men to use women’s restrooms:


I can’t help but want to draw connections to history and a recent post at Notches, a history of sexuality blog, helped me do so.

Recall that it wasn’t so long ago that black and white people weren’t allowed to use the same restrooms in public. When this practice came under attack, segregationists in the South, like anti-trans choice advocates today, claimed that it would be dangerous for white women, claiming that they would be infected with black women’s venereal diseases.


White women participated in this resistance, protesting against the integration of their bathrooms. A girl at Central High in Little Rock, AR, for example, claimed that bathroom integration functionally stole bathroom facilities from white girls. “Many of the girls won’t use the rest rooms at Central,” she said, “simply because the ‘Nigger’ girls use them.”

Several decades later, conservatives fighting the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) for women drew again on racism and the politics of the bathroom. They stoked fear in the American public by suggesting that passage of the ERA would lead to the sex integration of bathrooms. Still smarting from the loss of racial segregation, they even compared race and sex segregation, hoping that the public would be opposed to both.

In this anti-ERA flyer, the final threat is: “Do you want the sexes fully integrated like the races?”


Combining the two was a powerful tool, exploiting the longstanding racist belief that white women were uniquely vulnerable to predatory, sexually voracious black men. Both race and sex integration of bathrooms would mean that white women would be going to the bathroom not just with black women, but with black men. “I ain’t going to have my wife be in the bathroom with some big, black, buck!” said one North Carolina legislator.

This same argument, now with trans women as the target, is being made today.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Content Note: This posts discusses various forms of transmisogyny and TERFs

2Photo taken at the Napoli Pride Parade in 2010

On Tuesday, Lisa Wade posted a piece, asking some important questions about drag- Is it misogynistic? Should it be allowed in LGBT safe spaces? How can pride organizers enforce drag-free pride events, if such an idea is useful? The good news is that many of these questions are already being asked in some circles. The bad news, is that outside of these circles –where specifics are unknown and the cis experience takes centre stage– such questions can lead to some harmful conclusions.

First some basics. Wade contends that a recent Glasgow Free Pride event “’banned’ drag queens from the event, citing concerns that men dressing up like women is offensive to trans women.” The event didn’t ban drag queens, but rather decided not to have any drag acts perform on their stage, but even this decision has now been reversed. In any case, the initial decision to go without drag performances was not made because of offence caused, as Wade says, but rather because the Trans/Nonbinary Caucus of the event felt that it would “make some of those who were transgender or questioning their gender uncomfortable”. Wade’s misunderstandings seem to come from having used the Daily Beast article on the matter as a source rather than the actual press release from free pride.

The title of Wade’s essay, and the repeated references to “girlface” in the essay itself, not only misunderstood the critiques levelled at drag, but also conflated blackface and drag. This misconception is appropriative of black struggle- it stems from conflation of the two separate histories, one of which was a major tool in the subjugation of black people across America and another which grew as part of queer (then, gay) liberation in a diverse, working class environment, led by women of colour. Comparing the two of them is highly disingenuous.

It is an argument that is about as novel as it is accepting of trans people’s existence. Sheila Jeffries, among many other TERFs, is infamous for using this line of argument to capitalize on the widespread condemnation of blackface in her efforts to attack trans women. Wade is, whether she intends to or not, using this dog whistle in her essay.

Getting a few facts wrong (Which is understandable if you are not part of these conversations. The Daily Beast got it wrong too and this is why allies are usually asked to take a seat in these debates.) and using terminology that is usually reserved for deeply transphobic arguments are somewhat superficial problems that lay on the surface of a much bigger problem: the centering of cis feelings on trans issues. Wade seems to think that the biggest problem, with the Glasgow Free Pride decision is that drag parodies femininity and womanhood.

While this is true in the general sense, drag is understood in the trans community to be oppressive because of the central conceit of the parody: that the performer, while affecting womanhood, is “actually a man.”

It’s about the bulge in the dress, the errant chest hair and the deep voice from the sculpted body. The fact that they’re “always PMSing” is a joke about how they don’t have uteruses. Their stage names, often punning on genitals (“Conchita Wurst”), act to center not their femininity, but the “failure” to produce a cis femininity. This was the drag that the gay media was insisting be reinstated, and that Glasgow Free Pride allowed on their stage again when they reversed their decision.

Drag is not monolithic –both historically and sociologically, different drags have and do exist– which is why Glasgow Free Pride specifically critiques “cis drag” (drag performed by cis people) as making people uncomfortable.

Many of the drag queens of color who led S.T.A.R. and Stonewall were not people who played a woman on stage or in a bar for a few hours a week, but people who lived their lives as women, and their drag is fundamentally different from that of people who perform in televised competition today.

Maybe these drags belong on a pride. Maybe there are decolonised drags which would be welcome. But contemporary western cis drag isn’t about femininity, it’s about the drag queen’s failures to produce an impression of cis womanhood, the upshot of which, also produces a caricature of trans womanhood, seen by society as a flawed womanhood.

Given this, it is possible to see drag as an attack on transwomanhood first and foremost, and cis women more as collateral damage in a long controversy within LGBTQIA+ communities. Glasgow Free Pride understood this, and this is why the call came from their trans caucus, not their women’s caucus.

Writing a post which centers the debate on cis women while spending a minimal time on trans women derails a conversation that should be about the transmisogyny of contemporary drag. It is an issue which is actively causing damage by perpetuating stereotypes and, yes, making pride parades unwelcoming for trans women and other maab trans people.

Wade should rest assured that the “conversation” she calls for is, actually, happening. It happens in trans communities all the time. It bubbled over into the mainstream for a few days, and trans people lost a safe space in a radical pride alternative in the process. What she’s actually asking is that the conversation become permanently legible to cis women by focusing on the minor issues that effect them, rather than the transmisogyny of drag.

T.Walpole is on twitter. More info at drcabl.es/awesome/. She originally wrote this post for Cyborgology.

Organizers of Free Pride Glasgow, a Scottish gay pride parade, have “banned” drag queens from the event, citing concerns that men dressing up like women is offensive to trans women. The LGBTQ community is afire about this, citing the long tradition of drag performances in gay communities and the role drag queens have played in the Gay Liberation movement. “hello, ever heard of THE STONEWALL RIOTS?!!!” tweeted one of the stars of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The organizers of Free Pride Glasgow are standing their ground, stating that they will only allow noncisgender men — men those who do not identify as men — trans women to perform in drag. A facebook comment suggested, and rightly so, that this could get really problematic really fast in practice, asking: “How are you going to moderate who is a trans and who is a cis drag act?”

Well, that’s a can of worms.

I don’t know how this conversation is going to play out and, to be honest, I’m nervous to jump in. But I gotta say that I, for one, really hope we keep talking about this. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to worry about how drag queen performances might make trans women feel. Drag performers generally do an exaggerated performance of femininity and I think it’s okay to ask whether and when this counts as mocking femininity and the people that perform it: trans women, yes, and ciswomen, too.


Sexism matters here and anyone can be sexist, even drag queens. When drag queens trot out some of the worst stereotypes about women, for example –performing characters that are vain, bitchy, selfish, and always PMSing — I see girlface. I see men mocking femininity, not embracing their feminine sides and busting the fiction of masculinity. So, I don’t blame trans women one bit if this makes them uncomfortable; it sure makes me uncomfortable and I’m in a much safer position than they.

So, I don’t know where this conversation is going to go, but I do think we need to have it. It needs to be, though, not about whether drag queens should be banned, but what drag should look like going forward. It should be about both what drag queens bring to the movement — their value in the past and the role they can play now — but also whether and how their performances contribute to a devaluation of femininity that hurts all women, cis, trans, and other.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

I usually try to avoid posting videos that are more than five minutes long, but this commentary about trans rights from John Oliver was too great to pass up. He does a wonderful job of introducing what it means to be transgender, as well as discussing:

  • media coverage,
  • the terrible statistics on discrimination and anti-trans violence,
  • the gender binary in institutions and institutional inertia,
  • and the ridiculousness of “bathroom bills.”

Mostly, he just does a great job of talking about how easy it really is to just get over it and treat people like people.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Sociologists are interested in studying how our institutions — in addition to our ideologies and interactions — reflect social norms in ways that tend to reproduce the status quo. A great example happened recently in South Carolina. In this case, the institution is the Department of Motor Vehicles, the norm is that boys and men don’t wear makeup, and the case is Chase Culpepper, a male-bodied trans teen who wanted to wear makeup in her driver’s license photo.

The officials at the DMV told her that she wasn’t allowed to wear makeup in the photo because it would be a “disguise.” As reported by NPR:

The department… cited a 2009 rule that prohibited applicants from “purposely altering his or her appearance so that the photo would misrepresent his or her identity.”

They told Culpepper to take off her makeup or go home without a license. She did what they said. She shared these before and after photos with the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, who shared them with the public.


It’s hard to defend the idea that somehow makeup distorts a man’s identity, but not a woman’s. It has exactly the same illusory power on a female face as a male one; that’s exactly why women wear it. The DMV’s policy did nothing, then, to help it do its job, it only served to press citizens of South Carolina to conform to the gender binary, at least as far as their primary form of identification went.

With the help of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, Culpepper sued and the DMV settled. As part of the settlement,

[they] agreed to change its policy to allow people seeking drivers’ licenses to be photographed as they regularly present themselves, even if their appearance does not match the officials’ expectations of how the applicant should look. The department also promised to send Culpepper a written apology and train its employees in how to treat transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals in professional settings.

This is what institutional change looks like, at least potentially. Thanks to Culpepper and her advocates, the South Carolina DMV is a little bit less gender binary than it was before.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.