Content warning: mention of r*pe, abortion
Emily Martin’s article “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed A Romance Based On Stereotypical Male-Female Roles“ explores the influence cultural language has in reproductive science — a realm we often believe transcends personal influence. Martin’s central argument is that our cultural images are being integrated into our understanding of natural phenomenon, which feeds into the social perception of cultural beliefs and incorrect stereotypes as having a “natural explanation.” The author seeks to challenge the use of metaphors and the personification of the egg and sperm by delving into the language of major pre-medical and medical textbooks and examining the social implications of the language within the text.
Martin first establishes the abundance of metaphors used in these reputable scientific textbooks framing the male reproductive system as a biological marvel contrasted to denigrating descriptions of the female reproductive system. Sperm are regarded as multitudinous and persisting, whereas eggs are few and limited. The male reproductive process is extolled for its supposed executive ability to accomplish its “mission,” whereas menstruation is framed as wasteful, ovaries are merely present, and ova are depreciating assets.
These descriptors work hand-in-hand with common sex and gender stereotypes. The sperm is seen as the active member of the reproductive process, contrary to the “passive role” of the egg. The sperm is seen as a valiant aggressor in its quest to either trounce or rescue whereas the egg is either the conquest or the damsel in distress.
In revised scientific literature, new stereotypes emerge even as researchers sought to pursue more egalitarian terms. The portrayal of the female reproductive system as a damsel was exchanged for that of a black widow figure, trading in a demure role for one of an aggressor made to “trap” the sperm. Rather than researchers merely appreciating the active role of the egg in the reproductive process, Martin notes that these new accounts deviate from one damaging stereotype to another. The implication, then, is that these cultural stereotypes are then regarded as scientific “truth,” and a fixed part of our natural understanding.
What is surprising is how far reaching the consequences can be. This linguistic impact goes beyond a deceitful belief a biased experiment might have — such as claiming . The use of these metaphors as scientific fact as real world implications. For example, the incident where American politician Todd Akin claimed that victims of rape seldom become pregnant because women’s bodies have natural solutions to prevent unwanted pregnancy. When we essentialize aspects of female and male reproduction processes we say more than just what’s said. Our language has power, and to naturalize what our culture’s stereotypes can hurt women’s political power in a world where we aren’t beyond sexual/gender inequality. Martin addresses this problem as well, mentioning that allowing these sexual organs personhood can directly impact women’s autonomy in exchange for stricter legislation regarding their rights to abortion, for example (Martin, 500).
Martin, Emily. (1991). “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed A Romance Based On Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.” Signs, Vol. 16(3), 485-501.