Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Rape culture comes to the briny deep

It's official: the toxic effects of patriarchy extend not only to the ends of the earth, but to the vast, murky recesses of the Seven Seas.  A recent study examined the mating habits of Trinidadian guppies to find ways for females to "cope with sexual harassment" of "lusty males."

If "sexual harassment" isn't a term you'd expect to see applied to the mindless world of fresh-water fish, I suspect you're not alone. But, you see, the study is intended to teach humans a lesson about their own gender relations. The lead paragraph in the news article about the study asks: "What do you do if you're being showered with attention by someone you're not really that interested in, but who just will not give up?" 

The article about the study proceeds to describe male guppies in rather human, somewhat pejorative terms; female guppies, in contrast, are made out to be put-upon victims. For example, "male guppies," the article explains, "have a bad reputation for being serial stalkers."

Can you say "anthropomorphism"?  If it strikes you that talking about inch-long fish as "serial stalkers" might be trivializing serious criminality, I'd suspect you'd be right, but any such concern seems lost both on the researchers and the news reporter. The article continues: "They [the bad males] pursue, court and repeatedly attempt to mate with females, even if the latter show no interest whatsoever." Garden variety sexual harassment, wouldn't you say?

And if you think the females aren't victimized by it, that just shows you don't know your poeciliidae. The "hound[ing]" and "unwanted attention"--the "continual advances" and "pester[ing] by over-enthusiastic males" are "particularly stressful" for the females.  "It can get so bad for females that spending so much time avoiding males makes them miss their meals, and makes them vulnerable to predators."

Cue the violin.

OK, we get it, we get it: male guppies are typical men; female guppies are typical women. So, what's the solution for the put-upon women, er, females? Why, good, old fashioned victim blaming, of course!  The researchers found that female guppies can actively avoid being harassed by the serial stalking, lusty, pestering, hounding, harassing males -- by changing their behavior; specifically, by hanging out with more attractive females who would, instead, become the targets of the serial stalking, lusty, pestering, hounding, harassing males. (The article doesn't explain how guppy female attractiveness is determined -- but I am sure it is just a social construct. Nor does it explain how the more attractive females, themselves, can avoid being harassed if there are no females more attractive than them to hang out with.)

"Our findings provide direct support for the hypothesis that females can reduce levels of sexual harassment by actively selecting partners that are relatively more attractive to males," write the authors in their report.

So what is the lesson for the human race? That people who teach in universities would have great difficulty justifying how they spend their time in the real world, of course. 

Based on this study, we can fairly conclude that the guppy world holds no clues whatsoever for the gender relations of human beings. Here, in the human world -- as opposed to either the guppy world or the rarefied halls of academia -- the vast majority of men are motivated not just by sexual attraction to women but by the ability, indeed the desire, to respect the wishes of women. It's what separates the men from the guppies.

I know, I know: it's more fun to reduce human beings to mindless animals whose only motivations are to eat, sleep, and mate.

Until this morning, if I wanted a good chuckle, I'd turn to one of the extremist feminist blogs. Now I know I can just head to PlanetEarth Online.