The Egg and the Sperm: How Science has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles
by Emily Martin
[ Martin, Emily. 1991. “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles,” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 16, no. 3]
Points & Quotes:
“As an anthropologist, I am intrigued by the possibility that culture shapes how biological scientists describe what they discover about the natural world.” (485)
Egg and sperm: A scientific fairy tale
“Part of my goal in writing this article is to shine a bright light on the gender stereotypes hidden within the scientific language of biology.
“In the case of women, the monthly cycle is described as being designed to produce eggs and prepare a suitable place for them to be fertilized and grown—all to the end of making babies. But the enthusiasm ends there. By extolling the female cycle as a productive enterprise, menstruation must necessarily be viewed as a failure.
Male reproductive physiology is evaluated quite differently. One of the texts that sees menstruation as failed production employs a sort of breathless prose when it describes the maturation of sperm:
“The mechanisms which guide the remarkable cellular transformation from spermatid to mature sperm remain uncertain …. Perhaps the most amazing characteristic of spermatogenesis is its sheer magnitude: the normal human male may manufacture several hundred million sperm per day.”—Arthur J. Vander, James H. Sherman, and Dorothy S. Luciano, Human Physiology: The Mechanisms of Body Function, 3d ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1980), 483-84. (Martin 486)
“In the classic text Medical Physiology, edited by Vernon Mountcastle, the male/female, productive/destructive comparison is more explicit: “Whereas the female sheds only a single gamete each month, the seminiferous tubules produces hundreds of millions of sperm each day” (emphasis mine [Martin’s]).” (486)
“Textbook descriptions stress that all of the ovarian follicles containing ova are already present at birth. Far from being produced, as sperm are, they merely sit on the shelf, slowly degenerating and aging like overstocked inventory:
“At birth, normal human ovaries contain an estimated one million follicles [each], and no new ones appear after birth. Thus, in marked contrast to the male, the newborn female already has all the germ cells she will ever have. Only a few, perhaps 400, are destined to reach full maturity during her active productive life. All the others degenerate at some point in their development so that few, if any, remain by the time she reaches menopause at approximately 50 years of age.”—Vander, Sherman, and Luciano, 568 (Martin 487)
“Scientists could begin to describe male and female processes as homologous. They might credit females with “producing” mature ova one at a time, as they’re needed each month, and describe males as having to face problems of degenerating germ cells.” (487-488)
“How is it that positive images are denied to the bodies of women? A look at language-in this case, scientific language-provides the first clue. Take the egg and the sperm. It is remarkable how “femininely” the egg behaves and how “masculinely” the sperm. The egg is seen as large and passive. It does not move or journey, but passively “is transported;’ “is swept;’ or even “drifts” along the fallopian tube. In utter contrast, sperm are small, “streamlined;’ and invariably active. They “deliver” their genes to the egg, “activate the developmental program of the egg;’ and have a “velocity” that is often remarked upon. Their tails are “strong” and efficiently powered. Together with the forces of ejaculation, they can ”propel the semen into the deepest recesses of the vagina:’ For this they need “energy;’ “fuel;’ so that with a “whiplashlike motion and strong lurches” they can “burrow through the egg coat” and “penetrate” it” (489-see original for the many citations)
“In a collection of scientific papers, an electron micrograph of an enormous egg and tiny sperm is titled “A Portrait of the Sperm.” This is a little like showing a photo of a dog and calling it a picture of the fleas.” (491)
New research, old imagery
“Work which Paul Wassarman conducted on the sperm and eggs of mice, focuses on identifying the specific molecules in the egg coat (the zona pellucida) that are involved in egg-sperm interaction.
“The imagery of sperm as aggressor is particularly startling in this case: the main discovery being reported is isolation of a particular molecule on the egg coat that plays an important role in fertilization! … He calls the molecule that has been isolated, ZP3, a “sperm receptor.” By allocating the passive, waiting role to the egg, Wassarman can continue to describe the sperm as the actor, the one that makes it all happen.
“It is as if Wassarman were determined to make the egg the receiving partner. Usually in biological research, the protein member of the pair of binding molecules is called the receptor, and physically it has a pocket in it rather like a lock. As the diagrams that illustrate Wassarman’ s article show, the molecules on the sperm are proteins and have “pockets.” The small, mobile molecules that fit into these pockets are called ligands. As shown in the diagrams, ZP3 on the egg is a polymer of “keys”; many small knobs stick out. Typically, molecules on the sperm would be called receptors and molecules on the egg would be called ligands. But Wassarman chose to name ZP3 on the egg the receptor and to create a new term, “the egg-binding protein,” for the molecule on the sperm that otherwise would have been called the receptor.” (495-496)
Social implications: Thinking beyond
Even though each new account gives the egg a larger and more active role, taken together they bring into play another cultural stereo- type: woman as a dangerous and aggressive threat.
These images grant the egg an active role but at the cost of appearing disturbingly aggressive. Images of woman as dangerous and aggressive, the femme fatale who victimizes men, are wide spread in Western literature and culture. More specific is the connection of spider imagery with the idea of an engulfing, devouring mother. New data did not lead scientists to eliminate gender stereotypes in their descriptions of egg and sperm. Instead, scientists simply began to describe egg and sperm in different, but no less damaging, terms. (498-499)
“Biology itself provides another model that could be applied to the egg and the sperm. The cybernetic model-with its feedback loops, flexible adaptation to change, coordination of the parts within a whole, evolution over time, and changing response to the environment-is common in genetics, endocrinology, and ecology and has a growing influence in medicine in general.” (499)
“The models that biologists use to describe their data can have important social effects. During the nineteenth century, the social and natural sciences strongly influenced each other: the social ideas of Malthus about how to avoid the natural increase of the poor inspired Darwin’s Origin of Species. Once the Origin stood as a description of the natural world, complete with competition and market struggles, it could be reimported into social science as social Darwinism, in order to justify the social order of the time. What we are seeing now is similar: the importation of cultural ideas about passive females and heroic males into the “personalities” of gametes. This amounts to the “im- planting of social imagery on representations of nature so as to lay a firm basis for reimporting exactly that same imagery as natural explanations of social phenomena.
Further research would show us exactly what social effects are being wrought from the biological imagery of egg and sperm. At the very least, the imagery keeps alive some of the hoariest old stereotypes about weak damsels in distress and their strong male rescuers. That these stereotypes are now being written in at the level of the cell constitutes a powerful move to make them seem so natural as to be beyond alteration.” (500)
“Even if we succeed in substituting more egalitarian, interactive metaphors to describe the activities of egg and sperm, and manage to avoid the pitfalls of cybernetic models, we would still be guilty of endowing cellular entities with personhood. More crucial, then, than what kinds of personalities we bestow on cells is the very fact that we are doing it at all. This process could ultimately have the most disturbing social consequences.
One clear feminist challenge is to wake up sleeping metaphors in science, particularly those involved in descriptions of the egg and the sperm. … Waking up such metaphors, by becoming aware of their implications, will rob them of their power to naturalize our social conventions about gender.” (501)