Tag Archives: female anatomy

The Complexity and Variety of Animal Vaginas

Laurie and Debbie say:

female duck’s reproductive tract; an elaborate spring-shape that spiraled in the opposite direction as the male’s member. Art by Catherine Delphia.

We were completely delighted with Rachel Gross’s article in Smithsonian,“Why Have Female Animals Evolved Such Wild Genitals?” The article, which is adapted from Gross’s new book, Vagina Obscura, starts with ducks. Duck sex is particularly violent and nonconsensual:

Ducks tended to mate for at least a season. However, extra males lurked in the wings, ready to harass and mount any paired female they could get their hands on. This often leads to a violent struggle, in which males injure or even drown the female. In some species, up to 40 percent of all matings are forced. The tension is thought to stem from the two sexes’ competing goals: The male duck wants to sire as many offspring as possible, while the female duck wants to choose the father of her children.

Colombian biologist Patricia Brennan, featured in Gross’s piece, was watching a duck mating and started getting fascinated first with duck penises, which led her to a deep study of duck vaginas, which in some cases seem to have evolved.

… to make the male’s job harder: It was like a medieval chastity belt, built to thwart the male’s explosive aim. In some cases, the female genital tract prevented the penis from fully inflating, and was full of pockets where sperm went to die. In others, muscles surrounding the cloaca could block an unwanted male, or dilate to allow entry to a preferred suitor.  ,,, Whatever the females were doing, they were succeeding. In ducks, only 2 to 5 percent of offspring are the result of forced encounters.


Dissected duck vagina (left) and corresponding penis (right), spiraling in opposite directions.

But it’s not just ducks, and it’s not just birds.

A world opened up before Brennan’s eyes: the vast variety of animal vaginas, wonderfully varied and woefully unexplored. For centuries, biologists had praised the penis, fawning over its length, girth, and weaponry. Brennan’s contribution, simple as it may seem, was to look at both halves of the genital equation. Vaginas, she would learn, were far more complex and variable than anyone thought. Often, they play active roles in deciding whether to allow intruders in, what to do with sperm, and whether to help a male along in his quest to inseminate. The vagina is a remarkable organ in its own right, “full of glands and full of muscles and collagen, and changing constantly and fighting pathogens all the time,” she says. “It’s just a really amazing structure.”

To center females in genitalia studies, she knew she would need to go beyond ducks and start to open “the copulatory black box” of female genitalia more broadly. And, as she explored genitals, from the tiny, two-pronged snake penis to the spiraling bat vagina, she kept finding the same story: Males and females seemed to be co-evolving in a sexual arms race, resulting in elaborate sexual organs on both sides.

First, are we surprised that penises have been extensively studied and vaginas have been ignored? Spoiler warning: Nope.

Second, it gets even more complicated and intriguing. Brennan teamed up with Dara Orbach, a Canadian researcher studying dolphin genitalia. They established that porpoise vaginas function much as duck vaginas do, as control devices and rape prevention.

And then there’s pleasure:

… in the middle of their dolphin vagina dissections, the scientists stumbled across something else: a massive clitoris, partly enfolded in a wrinkled hood of skin. While the human clitoris has long been cast (erroneously) as small and hard to find, this one was virtually impossible to miss. When fully dissected out, it was larger than a tennis ball. “It was enormous,” Brennan says.


Female dolphins have been seen masturbating by rubbing their clitorises against other dolphins.

That dolphins would have a well-developed clitoris was no surprise. Brennan and Orbach both knew that these charismatic creatures engage in frequent sexual behavior for reasons like pleasure and social bonding. Females have been seen masturbating by rubbing their clitorises against sand, other dolphins’ snouts and objects on the sea floor. Yet while other scientists had guessed that the dolphin clitoris might be functional, no one had actually tried to figure out how it worked.


vaginas of cetaceans, pinnipeds and manatees.

Why don’t we know this? Well, Charles Darwin is emblematic of the problem:

when it came to genital evolution, Darwin left much to be desired. The father of evolution generally eschewed talking about genitals, considering their main function to be fitting together mechanically, as a lock fits into a key. Moreover, he characterized female animals almost universally as chaste, modest and virtually devoid of sexual urges. In his lesser known writings, he described a world in which females honored their “husbands” and kept “marriage-vows.” Although he observed a few counter-examples—i.e. females with several “husbands” or those that seemed to pursue sex for pleasure—he steered clear of them, likely out of a sense of Victorian propriety.

Working against Darwin and his generations of male disciples, evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden, author of the 2004 book Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, examines same-sex interactions and solo pleasure in various species, including bonobos, close genetic relatives of humans.

Roughgarden, a transgender woman who transitioned a few years before writing her book, could see the damage more clearly than most. Sexual selection theory “denies me my place in nature, squeezes me into a stereotype I can’t possibly live with—I’ve tried,” she writes in Evolution’s Rainbow.

Gross concludes her excerpt with a rallying cry:

“Biology need not limit our potential. Nature offers a smorgasbord of possibilities for how to live,” Roughgarden writes. Rather than chaste Victorian couples marching two by two up the ramp into Noah’s neat and tidy ark, “the living world is made of rainbows within rainbows within rainbows, in an endless progression.”



Thanks to Shayin Gottlieb for the pointer.

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Men Making Women’s Decisions: In Person, In Sport, In Politics


Laurie and Debbie say:

We started with a story we found on Twitter. Here’s Meg Elison, author of (among other books), the highly-recommended The Book of the Unnamed Midwife:

Motherfucker comes to my table, unbidden. I assume he’s a waiter; he’s not. I’m having a drink and a snack. I look up and he’s got Fake Concern Face on. Without preamble he says, “If you took better care of yourself, you’d find somebody to love you.”

She shows off her wedding ring, gives him the finger and tells him to Leave Her Alone. But he can’t.

“I didn’t mean anything offensive by it. I just think we have these moments of clarity–“

I tell him if he needs to make a fat girl cry so he can have something to jack off to, then he better pay by the minute for it because there are professionals who provide that service. I am not one of them, and this is not an appropriate place to solicit me.

We’ve heard, and made, some pretty tough comebacks in our time, but this is one of the truest ones ever.

He still can’t leave, but she finishes him off:

He has the NERVE to “Namaste” me as he slinks out of this place where I was having a peaceful moment by myself. Friends, I yelled GO FUCK YOURSELF at his cringing back.

She also makes it completely clear that she was shaking and rattled, because she was verbally assaulted with no provocation. And you just know that guy went home and felt sorry for … himself. The best part is that he may never do that to anyone again.

He’s a small-time, basically trivial, example of a man thinking he both knows what’s best for a woman he doesn’t know, and that he has the right to interrupt her life to give her the benefit of his wisdom.

He matters for two reasons: first, because there are millions of him all over the country and the world, trying to make fat girls cry. Second, because he’s an individual example of wielding toxic societal power.


Who do you think made the decision to turn down Castor Semenya’s appeal regarding women and testosterone in Olympic sports? The Court of Arbitration for Sport, which (if you can tell by names) is definitely majority male. They made this decision even though they know it’s difficult, if not impossible to implement. They also ruled that athletes who wish to compete in women’s events, but whose testosterone is over an arbitrary level, will have to take drugs to reduce those levels. The World Medical Association has urged its members in 114 countries not to cooperate with this:

We have strong reservations about the ethical validity of these regulations. They are based on weak evidence from a single study, which is currently being widely debated by the scientific community. They are also contrary to a number of key WMA ethical statements and declarations, and as such we are calling for their immediate withdrawal.

But again, men not only feel they can make decisions on women’s bodies, they are formally authorized to make those decisions, and they don’t have to respond to, for example, doctors who think their decisions are unsafe and unethical.

For some history on this controversy, read this post from about a year ago. We hoped things would get better after that.


Ohio state representative John Becker, however, has managed to outdo both random San Francisco harassers and Court of Arbitration biased judges with his proposed “anti-abortion” bill. Ohio already has one of the most restrictive laws in the country (miserably superseded in the last week or so by Georgia’s indefensible law), but it isn’t enough for Mr. Becker, who wants to eliminate rape and incest exceptions, and also (while claiming this isn’t what he means) ban most forms of birth control. But then he completely loses touch with any reality:

The bill excludes treatments for ectopic pregnancies from the insurance coverage ban, which seems like a good thing—we should try to treat ectopic pregnancies!—until you realize that Becker’s notion of treatment for an ectopic pregnancy is fucking nonsense: “Part of that treatment would be removing the embryo from the fallopian tube and then reinserting it in the uterus so that’s defined as not an abortion under this bill,” Becker said.

The bill says the term “nontherapeutic abortion” does not include a “procedure for an ectopic pregnancy, that is intended to re-implant the fertilized ovum into the pregnant woman’s uterus.” Presumably, Becker envisions a world where doctors are trying to “fix” ectopic pregnancies by reinserting wayward embryos into the pregnant person’s uterus.

Except that’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.

“That doesn’t exist in the realm of treatment for ectopic pregnancy. You can’t just re-implant. It’s not a medical thing,” said Miracle.

Mr. Becker doesn’t, it would seem, know what a woman’s anatomy looks like, let alone what can and can’t be done medically, surgically, or even magically. All he knows is that “he’s no expert” but he is willing to try to convince his fellow legislators (most of whom are almost certainly men) that they all know what’s “right” and what’s “wrong,” and are more than proud of themselves for exercising their power on the living bodies of the women they feel compelled to control.


Men aren’t going to stop tormenting women in restaurants, telling women whether or not we are women, or telling women what we can, or can’t, do with our own bodies, any time soon. So let’s all take up Meg Elison’s rallying cry and stand up against them.