How we talk about fertilisation

// 4 February 2009

You may have read about feminist critiques of the story of fertilisation before, but if not Discover Magazine has a great overview in its archives.

They interview Emily Martin, an antropologist, and talk about her 1987 book ‘The Woman in the Body’. Although these critiques have been around for over two decades, the basic image of active sperm versus passive egg is still a familiar one, as the badge on the right demonstrates.

Ah, fertilization–that miraculous process to which we all owe our existence. Let’s review: First, a wastefully huge swarm of sperm weakly flops along, its members bumping into walls and flailing aimlessly through thick strands of mucus. Eventually, through sheer odds of pinball-like bouncing more than anything else, a few sperm end up close to an egg. As they mill around, the egg selects one and reels it in, pinning it down in spite of its efforts to escape. It’s no contest, really. The gigantic, hardy egg yanks this tiny sperm inside, distills out the chromosomes, and sets out to become an embryo.

Or would you have put it differently? Until very recently, so would most biologists. For decades they’ve been portraying sperm as intrepid warriors battling their way to an aging, passive egg that can do little but await the sturdy victor’s final, bold plunge. But the first description is closer to the truth, insists Emily Martin, a 47-year-old researcher at Johns Hopkins who has spent the past seven years examining the metaphors used to describe fertilization. Martin is not a biologist; she’s a cultural anthropologist. But her efforts to spotlight the male- skewed imagery that permeates our views of reproduction have placed her at the center of a growing debate about how cultural myths can turn into scientific myths, and vice versa.

It’s a fascinating case study in how gender stereotyping and sexism has hampered science:

Martin doesn’t suggest that these researchers willfully distorted their imagery. In fact, she notes that one of the investigators at Johns Hopkins was her politically correct husband, Richard Cone. What’s more, Martin concedes that she herself was slow to recognize the disparity between the discoveries at Johns Hopkins and the way the findings were written up. It didn’t strike me for a few years, she says. But innocent or not, she adds, the cultural conditioning these biologists had absorbed early in their careers influenced more than their writing: it skewed their research. I believe, and my husband believes, and the lab believes, that they would have seen these results sooner if they hadn’t had these male- oriented images of sperm. In fact, biologists could have figured out a hundred years ago that sperm are weak forward-propulsion units, but it’s hard for men to accept the idea that sperm are best at escaping. The imagery you employ guides you to ask certain questions and to not ask certain others.

Via Shut Up, Sit Down

Image shared by ntr23, on Flickr using a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Cara // Posted 4 February 2009 at 8:45 pm

Cool, thanks for this; I had no idea the egg was not in fact passive.

Anyone else thinking of the beginning of ‘Look Who’s Talking’?!

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 4 February 2009 at 8:56 pm

Emily Martin is spot-on. It is all down to how imagery is used. Given male supposedly equals aggression, assertiveness (and yes I know the difference between aggression and assertiveness) it is no wonder the puny sperm becomes ‘the mighty sperm.’

Likewise all foetuses begin as female and only when certain biological aspects occur does the foetus begin to develop male sexual organs. If it does not happen the foetus remains female. So, effectively life begins as female not male, with penises being an offshoot of clitorises not the reverse as textbooks on reproduction still claim.

There are numerous other examples of how male-centered science still governs and the language used is still one of postive aspects in respect of male biology and negative assumptions with regards to female anatomy and biology. Menstruation is a prime example.

Anne Onne // Posted 4 February 2009 at 9:07 pm

I’d also like to point out that contrary to popular belief, there’s really nothing that special about the sperm that fertilises the egg in the end. It wasn’t ‘the fastest swimmer’, since many, many sperm cells play a part in eroding the outer covering of the egg in the first place, so the one that gets pulled in and fertilises the egg ends up at the right place at the right time, nothing more. I don’t think anyone has really put foward exactly how the fertilising sperm cell ends up being chosen to be taken in, though I guess it would be just the right kind of cell signalling at the right time. Either way, fertilisation is really about a whole lot of luck. Sure, really deformed sperm cells won’t get anywhere, but of the rest the fastest aren’t really going to benefit, so the rest is random selection, or selection on much more complicated and local factors.

And of course that the egg travels down the fallopian tube from the ovary just as sperm cells travel up from the cervix, so this idea of eggs passively hanging around waiting to be fertilised is a bit of a myth.

It’s really interesting (and sad) that male/female imagery gets read into everything, down to the very gametes. Egg cells are not less interesting or important in reproduction than sperm cells, yet from the way we view the act of fertilisation, you’d think they were just incidental scenery or a prize to be won. Yet ‘preying mantis’ is more like it, since they’re GIANT compared to sperm cells, and fertilisation destroys nearly all the sperm cell but the genetic material. Not to mention all the sperm cells that perish on the way…

My guess is that the same part of patriarchy that likes to see being male as being about not being a woman, killing things and being competitive and seeing women as a prize are exactly what is at work here. The idea that eggs are a prize to be won by the most macho sperm is just the way the patriarchy likes to see fertilisation.

Catherine Redfern // Posted 4 February 2009 at 10:39 pm

If I remember correctly, Natalie Angier’s book Woman: An Intimate Geography has a lot about this and makes the same point (which definitely bears repeating often!).

Lizzie // Posted 5 February 2009 at 10:18 am

Anyone who’s interested in this should also check out Thomas Laqueur’s ‘Orgasm, Generation and the Politics of Reproductive Biology’ (which is on JSTOR for anyone who has access: )

He has some really interesting observations on the socialisation of so-called objective science in terms of both reproduction and sexual pleasure, and the way in which biological descriptions of the male and females bodies have been used to support the gendered binary structure of masculine activity and feminine passivity. It also has a brilliant story from the seventeenth-century – before the development of the two-sex model when they believed that women and men were essentially identical, but that woman’s ‘penis’ was inverted to form the vagina – in which a woman jumps over a wall and she stretched her legs so far that her vagina was ‘thrust out’ and she became a man!

Amity // Posted 5 February 2009 at 11:54 am

Very interesting, thanks for posting this. I hadn’t ever thought about the language we use in fertilisation before and now I am intrigued.

EBaezaChavez // Posted 5 February 2009 at 12:13 pm

Catherine you are right, Angier’s book is brilliant. There are numerous revelations regarding female strength, aggression and anatomy. I would recommend it to anyone.

There also the interesting fact that when your grandmother was pregnant with your mother, half of you (in the form of the egg/ovum) was already in existence. Its a literal “Russian doll”, as all female babies are born will all the eggs/ovum they will ever have. I find that awesome.

Alex T // Posted 5 February 2009 at 8:01 pm


Ha ha ha, yes, me too! I discovered I was pregnant a few months ago and it crossed my mind all the time!

Xiroth // Posted 7 February 2009 at 9:56 am

Hmm, this is very interesting. I’d read that the female participant (in every species) had more active a role than had been anticipated as they found that the gender of the child can change depending on the condition of the female in which the fertilisation is taking place (E.g. in humans, when the woman has low fat reserves then she is more likely to have a daughter, as daughters more reliably pass along their genes in times of scarcity). I’d assumed that this was due to the use of some sort of selective spermicide, but the idea that the egg itself selects its DNA donor now seems much more sensible. Interesting read :)

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