You'd think if you were a scary black widow spider who devours her mates after absorbing their precious seed, you could at least get some goddamn respect from scientists. According to a new study, you'd be wrong.
Nature's News Blog reports on research by Swedish ecologists, which found that in papers on "sexual conflict" — that is, animals attacking or harming each other during mating — scientists used totally different language to describe female and male behavior. They described male animals as engaging in "harassment," "manipulation," and "coercion," while females got more passive terms like "resistance" or "avoidance." Even literal emasculation was somehow recast as powerful — a male spider whose severed genitals remain inside its mate's body after sex was described as "manipulating" her. According to the blog, the study authors "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."
It's kind of amazing that sexism goes so deep that it even affects descriptions of spiders — and male spiders whose dicks fall off, no less. And while arachnid gender roles may seem a little silly, it's important to consider what this study might say about how easy it is for unconscious biases to slip into science. If scientists routinely describe male spiders as active and females as passive, might they apply these prejudices even more strongly when dealing with human subjects? And might this taint human behavioral research? Laypeople often cite psychological or neurological research as evidence that men and women are "wired" differently — but if the people who study this supposed wiring are hampered by gender stereotypes, their findings may be compromised from the get go. This is not to say that research on gender — animal or human — is useless. Rather, researchers need to be especially aware of the preconceived notions they bring to their projects. The Swedish study is a step in the right direction.
The Sexual Politics Of Sexual Conflict [Nature News Blog]
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