Gender narratives are obscuring biological facts

Image Credit: Francis C. Franklin

Gender is perceived to emerge from the need for a reliable division of work for food production and social reproduction. However, religious and cultural rules have ensured that the arbitrary lines of gender categories are not crossed, paving way for inequality to arise between the gender categories. Justifications for gender inequality have been around since the time of Aristotle from his Natural Laws and even in modern times, gender inequality is evident in areas of Biology, from anatomical differences, to the cellular level of the sperm and egg.

In Biology textbooks, there is a double standard in the use of language to describe sperm and egg production.  Sperm production is celebrated because it is continuous from puberty to senescence, whilst egg production is portrayed as inferior because it is in finite supply given at birth. Texts often portray the female in an unproductive light, where some texts will go to depths insisting that it is she who is wasteful, such as a section heading for Molecular Biology of the Cell, stating that “Oogenesis is wasteful“. The text goes on to emphasize that of the seven million oogonia (eggs) in the female embryo, most degenerate in the ovary, sparing only an average of two million eggs at birth. Degeneration continues throughout a woman’s life: “During the 40 or so years of a woman’s reproductive life, only 400 to 500 eggs will have been released,” the authors of Molecular Biology of the Cell write. “All the rest will have degenerated. It is still a mystery why so many eggs are formed only to die in the ovaries” (Bruce Alberts et al. 1983).

The real mystery is why the male’s vast production of sperm is not seen as wasteful, especially as the word “waste” implies an excess, too much produced. Assuming that a man produces 100 million sperm per day during an average reproductive life of sixty years, he would produce well over two trillion sperm in his lifetime. Assuming that a woman releases one egg per lunar month, over the course of her forty-year reproductive life, she would have totalled five hundred eggs in her lifetime. Assuming for every two or three offspring a woman produces in her lifetime, she is perceived to “waste” around two hundred eggs. However what is understated in this context is that for every single baby a man produces, he “wastes” more than one trillion sperm. How is it that this double standard exists? 

Moreover, the common image of fertilization in our culture is that of the “sperm overcoming the barrier surrounding the egg by mechanically burrowing through, thrashing their tails”. This was a popular way to imagine sperm-egg fertilization in the 70s and 80s, even amongst scientists. However, in more recent investigations, the researchers began to ask questions about the mechanical force of the sperm’s tail. This distinction is important because the development of contraceptives that target the mechanical motion of the penetrating sperm, would not work if the sperm enters the egg by other means. This was indeed found to be the case. They discovered that the forward thrust of sperm is extremely weak, which contradicts the assumption that sperm are forceful penetrators. Instead, the sideways motion of the sperm’s tail makes the head move sideways with a force that is ten times stronger than its forward movement. J. F. Hartman’s research in reproductive biology demonstrated in 1972 that if an egg is killed by being pricked with a needle, live sperm cannot get through the zona. Clearly, this evidence shows that the egg and sperm do interact on more mutual terms.

Although this new version of the fertilisation mechanism of the egg and the sperm contested cultural expectations and was known since the late 70s, the researchers who made the discovery continued to write papers and abstracts as if the sperm were the active party who attacks, binds, penetrates, and enters the egg. An example of where cultural narratives of gender obscured the data and descriptions in Biology. See Jay Baltz and Richard A. Cone with their 1985 publication “What Force Is Needed to Tether a Sperm?” and “Flagellar Torque on the Head Determines the Force Needed to Tether a Sperm” which is from an abstract for the Biophysical Society in 1986. Not until August 1987, more than three years after the findings described above, did these researchers reconceptualize the process to give the egg a more active role.

This portrayal of the sperm as the active party-the one that penetrates and fertilizes the egg and produces the embryo – is an example of how an earlier, now outdated model in Science maintains its currency simply because it has cultural resonance. It is a narrative that is concordant with the gender ideology of that time: The sperm as the forceful actor who initiates and penetrates the passive egg. The cost of this cultural narrative are contraceptives that better target factors other than the sperm’s “forceful” motility. 

Sex and gender are therefore, intimately connected. There are certain aspects of gender that are biological but there are certain aspects of sex that are socially constructed. Gender is a cultural overlay that modifies physiological sex differences. Bodies (both in their anatomy and their biochemistry) differ in many ways physiologically, but they are completely transformed by social practices to fit into the salient categories of a society, the most pervasive of which are “female” and “male”.