Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Manatees Mate Through Gang-Rape?

One of the most popular New York Times stories today is about manatees, and debunking the perception that the slow-moving mammals lack intelligence. According to the article, scientists have long assumed that the manatee is a simpleton based on its brain size and shape. Manatees have the lowest brain-to-body ratio of any mammal. In addition, manatees' brains have smooth surfaces and exhibit none of the folding found in other mammals. Only now are scientists coming to realize that manatees are quite clever, despite what has been perceived as a lack of complexity in their brain structure, and that their tactile sensory skills rival, and in some cases exceed, the skills of human beings.

I find articles like this - on the intelligence of animals that has gone undetected by human beings because of erroneous assumptions and biases - fascinating. Fascinating, because as a fan of the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy series (the books, not the movie), I'm partial to believing that the mice or the dolphins or some other sentient being - cats? - really have been running the show all along. Maybe it's my predisposition to root for the underdog, but I love the idea of human beings getting shown up by animals. There's so much we, as humans, have yet to discover about our world and its other inhabitants, it's nice when we make some progress towards understanding nature; it gives me some faith in our humanity, that we can see the value in other beings.

But now to the point: In the midst of reading this interesting, feel-good article, focused as I mentioned on debunking preconceived notions, I came across this jarring section: "Their social world is relatively straightforward. Males mate with females in a violent affair that resembles a gang rape; manatee calves stick close to their mothers for about two years, then head off on their own."

It's remarkable - in addition to offensive and irresponsible - how even in the midst of critiquing how past misperceptions and assumptions regarding manatees have obscured an understanding of their true nature, the author exhibits no restraint in making, or repeating, gendered assumptions when it comes to describing the sex act of manatees.

A gang rape is a violent and brutal act. It is also an unwanted violation of the being - usually a female - being raped, and in our human society it has as much, or more, to do with male entitlement, gender, and male power, as it does with sex. And, with the exception of rape as an intentional tool of genocidal war, gang rapes, in the human context, have nothing to do with mating or a desire to reproduce.

How absurd, then, that the author of this piece, or scientists if this is the general perception, would liken manatee mating to a gang rape. In the same piece discussing how until recently scientists thought manatees were sluggish, gentle, simpletons, the author readily jumps to the conclusion that male manatees are engaged in a gang rape scenario when attempting to impregnate female manatees. When interpreting the sex act, biases and assumptions of the author based on gendered notions of human interaction come into play to depict the male manatee as a violent, sexual aggressor because that's how many humans stereotype men during sex. For example, you may have heard the expression, "Men are the gas, women are the breaks" when describing human sexual interaction. Similarly, the female manatee becomes the sexual prey, a victim of a "gang rape," instead of an equal engaged in the reproduction of her species.

Scientists don't even understand the manatee brain. How can they understand the nuances of their sex act? How do scientists know that the manatee males are not performing an elaborate mating dance for the benefit of the female, as we see in other species? Manatees are large animals, and sex can be forceful, in humans and other mammals alike, but does forceful have to equal unwanted, sexual violence? Does sex between one female and multiple males have to be viewed as a non-consensual "gang rape"?

Remember for a moment, that we are talking about beings that have existed on this planet for approximately 50 million years. It's nonsensical to assume that for 50 million years manatees have been reproducing, successfully, by violently gang raping the females among their group. Gentle and slow-moving they may be, but it doesn't seem likely that any population of females would stand for that without some kind of revolt. Looking at it from a more big picture context, it doesn't make any evolutionary sense, and I am unaware of any similar examples, that a species' reproductive success would depend upon half of the species gang-raping the other half.

Creatures make infinitely more progress working with one another than they do working against one another, and I can't think of a better example of working against one another than gang-rape as a method of reproduction. Perhaps the scientists and the author disagree with me, and see gang-rape as a viable reproductive institution. Maybe that explains their odd interpretation of manatee sexual interaction.

Regardless of the exact nature of the underlying gender biases, the description of the manatee sex act as a "gang-rape" tells us far more about the nature of the scientists and the author of the article than it does about manatees. And that's unfortunate because I read the article to learn about manatees, not gender stereotyping. The New York Times should be ashamed.


Spill The Beans said...

Come the rise of the matriarchy, when all evil patriarchalists have been cast down as the evil sexual oppressors we all know they are, life will be perfect.

(eye roll).

Raj said...

yo buttercup,

"Gentle and slow-moving they may be, but it doesn't seem likely that any population of females would stand for that without some kind of revolt." What about those male spiders who get eaten by the female spiders? they haven't revolted. I don't think gender revolt is a biological possibility.

Buttercup said...

Trouble, I second that eye roll over gender stereotypes.

Raj, About those spiders (good point):

1) I don't know their story, so in order to avoid the risk of projecting any gender stereotypes upon them I will refrain from hypothesizing that POSSIBLY (a) the male spiders have no value to the reproductive process other than providing providing sperm (do that do that?) and are thus a dime a dozen, (2)killing the male spiders might be an evolutionary adaptation that allows the female spider to protect her young from males who might eat them.

2) I bet before the female spiders kills the male spiders, they are really nice to them, unlike the allegedly violent, gang-raping manatees.

3) I agree that complete gender revolt is not a likely possibility with any species. If all woman revolted against all men, we would be finished. It's tricky when you are fighting your own brothers, fathers, and sons.

4) However, revolt DOES happen, on the relationship, family and societal level. Don't tell me you don't think the woman's rights movements of the last 200 years weren't a revolt of sorts. Also, don't forget lesbian separatist communities.

Bean said...

I think the article definitely tells more about the autheor and perhaps the scientists whom had a hand in giving their "expertise". although, since som much is unknown about species in the world, I would want the author as well as the scientists to give a it a rest trying to figure out animals, and read a damn dictionary seeing that they are so ignorant to use such a phrase as gang rape referring to the manatees reproductive "style". But they should also be aware with knowing so little about so many other species on this earth, phrases used to describe human behavior in this case grotesque behavior, can't always be crossed over to other species behaviors. Like other words in languages just don't match exactly to the word in another language.

Along another line, I do wonder sometimes, if the animals are the real brains behind this world. Humans think of course that we are at "the top of the chain" so to speak. But what if we aren't?

Gypsy said...

I keep waiting for the top of the chain to show up and put us in a casserole.


Buttercup said...

Bean and Gypsy, exactly! I picture huge alien giants landing on earth and throwing us all in a stew pot. Their explanation for why they can enslave or eat us would be that THEY are the top of the food chaing (now). They also might not be able to communicate with us and they might not realize our mental complexities or that we can feel.

Can you imagine the hell we would go through if they put us in cages and separated us from our loved ones? I always think this when I see monkeys or great apes in the zoo. They look so sad, like they know they are imprisoned and helpless.

City Slicker said...

Great blog will check back
From a NYer living in London

Buttercup said...

City Slicker, Thanks! Hope to see you again!

Laura VSea said...

I found this very interesting, having witnessed a manatee mating at our local zoo. There were several manatees in the tank at the time, and the male was obviously ready to breed with the female. The two of them floated in complete symbiosis, up and down the length of the tank and often would separate, come together face to face, almost as if they were kissing, and then go at it again.

It was actually sweet to watch in some respects. I couldn't stay long because it was so obvious just how horny the male was (I didn't know they got "that" big...LOL), and my then 6 or 8 year-old daughter was hanging around, wanting to know just what they were doing.

I didnt exactly shield her, since it's nature, etc but didn't want to over expose her at the time.

The other manatees in the tank didn't seem to bother them at all.

For the record, I've read about sharks and dolphin having violent attacks on their mates in the wild. Sharks in particular can abuse the female during the mating process to the point that she can die from her injuries. A recent document on the Discovery Channel showed a particular incident where several sharks held the female down, and I had to turn the channel as it was just too sick to watch. :( I haven't yet heard of the manatees doing the same thing.

I'll go read the NY times article now. I'd like to find out just how factual their sources are. Thanks for the link!

Buttercup said...

Laura Vsea, Thanks for sharing your observations. The picture I included with my post, which said it was two manatees matting, resembles your description far more than it does a "gang rape."

The shark story is fascinating, in part because I can't imagine how the sharks would hold another shark down. I can imagine that it might be sad to watch though.