Rethinking the Ova, the Sperm and the Metaphors of Reproduction

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All the way back in 1992 Discover published a story called The Aggressive Egg, which discussed the work of anthropologist Emily Martin. Below is an excerpt:

…As she began her background studies, Martin was surprised to find that popular literature, textbooks, and even medical journals were crammed with descriptions of warrior sperm and damsel-in-distress eggs. Martin found that classic biology texts, for example, enthused about the human male’s amazing productivity–some 200 million sperm every hour–while practically complaining over the waste of the 2 million immature eggs present in the human female at birth, only some 400 of which the ovaries ever shed for possible fertilization, with the rest destined to degenerate over the woman’s lifetime. The real mystery, says Martin, is why the male’s vast production of sperm is not seen as wasteful.

Less mysterious, in Martin’s opinion, was the motivation for such biased language. Men link potency to strong sperm, she says. You’d like your sperm to be like you; no wonder everyone believed sperm were torpedoes. In all her searching, Martin came up with only a single depiction of less-than-mighty sperm: Woody Allen’s portrayal of a neurotic sperm nervous about his imminent ejaculation in the movie Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask.

Woody Allen aside, the durability of the masterful-sperm imagery astonished Martin. It continued to dominate the contemporary technical and popular literature despite a growing body of evidence that the egg plays anything but a passive role. From the early 1970s on, studies of the sperm and eggs of many species have revealed that molecules released by the egg are critical to guiding and activating the sperm–that is, triggering the sperm to release proteins that help it adhere to the egg. In fact, the egg might just as well be called eager as passive. Among many species of lizards, insects, some crustaceans, and even turkeys, the egg doesn’t always wait for the sperm’s arrival. It can begin dividing without fertilization, and females can reproduce without sperm at all.

“Yet none of this had made a dent in biologists’ language. When I asked them about it, they told me I had a point, says Martin. They claimed the imagery came up only when they needed to explain their research, and not in the lab. But I wanted to know what was really going on.”

By 1986 Martin had begun hanging out with a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins who were observing sperm mobility in hopes of coming up with a strategy for a new contraceptive. They had started the year before with a simple experiment–measuring human sperm’s ability to escape and swim away from a tiny suction pipet placed against the side of the sperm cell’s head. To the team’s great surprise, the sperm turned out to be feeble swimmers; their heads thrashed from side to side ten times more vigorously than their bodies pushed forward. It makes sense, says Martin. The last thing you’d want a sperm to be is a highly effective burrower, because it would end up burrowing into the first obstacle it encountered. You want a sperm that’s good at getting away from things.

The team went on to determine that the sperm tries to pull its getaway act even on the egg itself, but is held down against its struggles by molecules on the surface of the egg that hook together with counterparts on the sperm’s surface, fastening the sperm until the egg can absorb it. Yet even after having revealed the sperm to be an escape artist and the egg to be a chemically active sperm catcher, even after discussing the egg’s role in tethering the sperm, the research team continued for another three years to describe the sperm’s role as actively penetrating the egg. …

Here is another snippet that helps explain the importance of her work analyzing how medical language about women’s bodies not only reveals gender based cultural assumptions, but effects the quality of scientific research itself:

“…the cultural conditioning these biologists had absorbed early in their careers influenced more than their writing: it skewed their research. I believe, and my husband believes, and the lab believes, that they would have seen these results sooner if they hadn’t had these male-oriented images of sperm. In fact, biologists could have figured out a hundred years ago that sperm are weak forward-propulsion units, but it’s hard for men to accept the idea that sperm are best at escaping. The imagery you employ guides you to ask certain questions and to not ask certain others.”

Article via Amananta at Screaming Into the Void. Emily Martin published a book on this topic called The Woman in the Body in 1987. It was reissued in 2001 with a new cover and preface:

woman body.jpg

In 2006, websites like “WebMD” are still describing fertilization as follows: “If sperm does meet and penetrate a mature egg after ovulation, it will fertilize it. When the sperm penetrates the egg, changes occur in the protein coating around it to prevent other sperm from entering.”

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