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The sexual politics of sexual conflict

mantis mating.jpgPosted on behalf of Jo Marchant.

The emerging field of “sexual conflict” covers everything from hermaphrodite snails that digest each other’s sperm to female spiders that cannabilise their mates. So researchers in this area should have a pretty enlightened view of the sexes, right? Not according to a new study of the terminology and models used in sexual conflict research. It concludes that chauvinistic gender stereotypes permeate even here, with females seen as meekly responding to the advances of dominant, aggressive males.

The issue of stereotypes has long been discussed in the related field of sex selection. Many researchers believe for example that a biased view of aggressive males and coy females dating from Darwin’s time delayed the realisation that females often choose between the sperm of different mates internally.

The newer discipline of sexual conflict looks specifically at mating behaviours where males and females are at odds with each other. Kristina Karlsson Green and Josefin Madjidian, ecologists at Lund University in Sweden, were concerned that researchers hadn’t learned from their colleagues’ past mistakes, so they analysed the terminology used in 30 papers in the sexual conflict field.

They found almost no overlap in the terms used to describe the two sexes. Male behaviour was consistently described using active terms such as “harassment”, “manipulation” and “coercion”, whereas female behaviours were described as “resistance” or “avoidance”. For example, traits that allow male spiders to escape a cannibalistic mate – such as vigilance or long legs – were described as sexually antagonistic adaptations, rather than as a counter-adaptation to the threat of being eaten. Their analysis is published in the current issue of Animal Behaviour .

Karlsson Green and Madjidian also looked at how many sexual conflict papers investigate costs imposed on females by males, compared to the other way around. Of 145 relevant abstracts, 106 considered female costs, 30 took costs to both sexes into account and only nine considered male costs.

For example, in nephilid spider species, males castrate themselves after sex, leaving their genitals behind as a mating plug. Karlsson Green and Madjidian say that even this is discussed not as a cost to the male but as “manipulation” of the female.

The pair argue that this consistent difference in how males and females are viewed results from researchers’ unconscious biases about men and women behave. This could significantly affect research, they say, for example causing female adaptations and male costs to be overlooked, and producing a distorted view of the dynamics of sexual conflicts, with males seen as having the upper hand.

They suggest finding gender-neutral terms for behaviours being studied, and making sure that studies look equally at male and female costs. “It is easy to fall into old pitfalls, especially if the topic is not brought to light continuously,” they warn.

Image courtesy of tinyfroglet via Flickr under Creative Commons.


  1. Report this comment

    Jen Perry said:

    A minor note of correction, on the spider self-castration example.

    The authors don’t state that this phenotype is referred to in the literature as manipulation of the female (although they do state that this happens in general for some male traits, and give the example of snail love darts).

    They do state that traits that male spiders used to avoid being cannibalized by their mates are often referred to as sexually antagonistic adaptations, a more neutral term.

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