Biological Discourse and Rape Culture at Haverford College
“The sperm is inevitably characterized in a narrative of virility, aggression, and mobility. Eggs are… well, your basic egg is usually described as a combination of Sleeping Beauty and a sitting duck. Plump, round, and receptive, it waits—passive and helpless—for the sperm to throw itself upon her moist, quivering membranes. The sperm push furiously at [the] inert egg until one of them finally penetrates deep into the warm, defenseless tissue.”
-Richi Wilkins, Queer Theory Gender Theory
Does this story sound familiar? The sperm, riding like a knight and shining armor, to save/impregnate the sitting, hoping, wishing, waiting egg in her tall tower? This was certainly the narrative I was given in middle school and high school sex ed, a narrative I had never even thought to question until a few weeks ago. Even with all the postmodernist, theoretical challenging I have done as a gender and sexuality minor at Haverford, I had never even questioned the now obviously gendered narrative of sperm and egg. To me, the love story of the sperm and egg was biological fact, backed by science. It is the “obviousness” of this scientific truth, and the implications of the gendered stereotypes it promotes, that are so troubling to me now. Let me explain.
In the past few weeks in Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Sex and Gender, the core course for the gender and sexuality minor/concentration, we have been discussing the hegemonic authority of science. Science purports to lack bias, adopting this God-like absoluteness through facts that come from nowhere and just are. In truth, however, scientists are people too, and the way they conduct their research and interpret their data is subject to their cultural context. The egg and sperm narrative is a perfect example of this phenomenon.
Egg and sperm have been dogmatically imbibed with gender stereotypes that paint the egg/women as passive recipients, the gatekeepers of reproduction, while men/sperm are portrayed as active aggressors, the initiators of reproduction. The very same phenomenon—gamete movement—is described differentially between eggs and sperm. While the egg is said to be passively “transported,” or to “drift,” the sperm is seen to “burrow” and “penetrate,” with “velocity” and “strong lurches” (Martin, 489). These gendered narratives persist even in the face of strong evidence that the anthropomorphic attribution of intention to these gamete cells is misplaced. Researchers at John’s Hopkins University have found that the tail thrashing of sperm actually provides very little force forward. They demonstrated that the thrashing is far more effective in achieving side to side motion, which makes the sperm efficient at escaping contacted surfaces, rather than “penetrating” them. The egg, with the help of binder molecules, chemically traps the sperm. Further, the chemical bond that connects egg and sperm is achieved through knob-like polymer “keys” on the surface of the egg binding to pocket-like proteins on the sperm. Typically in biology, the sperm’s proteins would be called “receptors,” but in the case of gametes a special case is made, and they are instead called the “egg-binding protein” (Martin, 496). I guess the idea of eggs having phallic structures and sperm having “receptors” was a bit too unsettling. Freud would have a field day.
Here’s the kicker to all this: the research at John’s Hopkins and elsewhere suggests the egg and sperm are “mutually active partners” in the reproductive process. The original article I read summarizing this research was published in 1991. I first encountered the egg and sperm fairytale discourse in my middle school sexual education class in 2004. It took until 2011 for me to hear any challenge to this typical representation. If science is supposed to be about leaning new things, developing new ideas, and challenging existing theories, why did it take 20 years (and a humanities course) for me to hear any different? Ludwik Fleck summed up this problem well, noting “the interaction between what is already known, what remains to be learned, and those who are to apprehend it, go to ensure harmony within the system. But at the same time they also preserve the harmony of illusions, which is quite secure within a given thought style.” (Fleck, taken from Martin, 492).
So why does the revelation of this narrative bother me so much? Because biological narratives like the egg and sperm romance do not just reflect gender norms, they reinforce and perpetuate them as well. The sexual gender roles propagated by the egg and sperm narrative are particularly troubling due to their consequences for what is called “rape culture.” Rape culture, as I understand it, is the conception that elements of the gender and sexuality norms of our culture systematically act together to produce an environment that encourages sexual violence (kind of like sexual structural violence.) Sexual gender norms that posit women as the passive gatekeepers of sex and men as the active aggressors are crucial in propagating rape culture. Just as the sperm is seen as aggressively penetrating and burrowing into the egg, “sex is seen as something men do to women, instead of a mutual act between two equally powerful partners” (Filipovik, 18). When men are viewed as the sexual aggressors, it becomes women’s responsibility to say “no,” rather than both party’s responsibility to ascertain “yes.” It becomes expected that while men push, women refuse, so men push harder, until she gives in. Lawyer and feminist blogger Jill Filipovik makes clear how this facilitates sexual assault: “Men are as well versed in the sexual dance as women are, and when they are fully aware that women are expected to say no even when they mean yes, men are less likely to hear “no” and accept it at face value” (20). In this gendered sexual dance, where women are denied the agency of active enjoyment, their enthusiastic consent and mutual participation becomes abnormal and irrelevant. Not only does this narrative deny women the space to actively consent, but it also denies the voices of male survivors of sexual assault. If men are viewed as walking sperm, with the sole goal to penetrate every egg that walks their way, the idea that a man would not consent is a complete nonsequitor. Male survivors of sexual assault have no place and no voice in the context of rape culture. The female gatekeeper-male aggressor sexual paradigm precludes agency to both genders, and structurally encourages sexual violence. This is a problem, and it happens at Haverford all the time.
Haverford’s culture, in the way we view sex and sexual assault, contributes to the presence of sexual violence on this campus. Not all of this is specific to Haverford. As noted by Jill Flipovik and the many other contributing authors of Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape (an excellent book I highly recommend), rape culture is a pervasive problem all over the United States. However, I feel the role of gendered sexual narratives are particularly pervasive at Haverford, shaping everything from social life to our policy response to sexual assault. I see the social ramifications constantly at weekend parties. As a UCA I see my freshmen (male and female) “socializing,” and I wonder if they will have the social space to assert their sexual agency. I have experienced this first hand myself. I was sexually assaulted at Haverford, and in the exact way that Flipovik describes, by dissent was discounted. I hear stories like mine over and over again at SOAR, our campus sexual assault support group, and I begin to wonder if there is not something specifically about Haverford that encourages sexual violence. I even see these gendered narratives in the administration’s sexual assault policies, resources, and information. As a UCA, I was given a packet of resources and information sheets, one of which is titled “What Role Does Alcohol Play?” This document, disseminated from the Deans office to all of the UCAs (and presumably from there to the freshman class) works within and propagates the same gendered sexual narrative of the egg and sperm, that same narrative that contributes to so many sexual assaults, including my own. The handout warns women to “reduce your personal risk” by “drink[ing] less or not at all” and “drink[ing] only in safe supervised places.” Yes, these are good pieces of advice. But here’s what the handout says specifically to men: “If you are a man, reduce your risk of harming someone by reducing or stopping your drinking when you socialize. Drinking moderately or not at all will keep you more alert to when your behavior and the behavior of other men become aggressive. It is ok not to drink and not to have sex.” So women need to protect themselves so they do not become victims, while men have to be careful that their aggressive sexual urges do not overcome them and they rape someone. Oh, and men, for the few of you that don’t act like giant drunk spermatozoa blindly looking for an egg to penetrate, that’s okay. You’re not weird. It’s okay not to drink and have sex. Though aimed at prevention, this info sheet buys in to the vulnerable female-aggressive male paradigm that propagates sexual assault in the first place.
This campus needs to have a serious conversation about sexual assault. I don’t mean the prescribed panels where the deans get up and talk about “The Circle” and Martha Denney uses the agency depriving word “victim” over and over until I want to scream. I mean a real conversation. An open, honest conversation. One about gender, sexuality, social dynamics, violence, power, alcohol, culture, agency, beliefs, and policies at Haverford, because all of these elements contribute to sexual violence on this campus. One where we acknowledge that our community’s current conceptions of sexual assault work within the discourse of gendered sexuality, and thus do not work. A conversation that acknowledges and validates both female sexual power and male assault experiences. This is not a conversation about complying with federal regulations under Title IX, it is a conversation about going beyond them. Our Alcohol Policy and campus drinking culture already strive to go above and beyond traditional thinking about what students can achieve through communal goals and mutual trust, concern, and respect, so why not our sexual assault policy and social culture too? For a school so focused on social justice, I find it ironic and disturbing that this issue has been so swept under the rug in the past. We can address the root of sexual violence—rape culture—on our own campus. It all starts with a conversation.