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Hip Science Media Has A Gender Essentialism Problem

Illustration of spermazoa of rabbits and dogs
Spermatozoa of rabbit (figs. 1-4) and dog (figs. 5-8). Woodcut Observationes de natis e semine genitali animalculis Philosophical Transactions Leeuwenhoek, Anthony van Published: 1677

When we conflate things like “sperm” with “men,” we erase the trans community, and perpetuate bad science.

This September, GQ ran a piece on the topic of lowering sperm counts, with the rather foreboding title “Sperm Count Zero.” Throughout the piece the author, Daniel Noah Halpern, asks scientists to take study data about sperm counts, and extrapolate on what that means for men. He starts the piece with a basic premise, which is that men are by definition people who make sperm, and that gender essentialism infects everything about the piece.

Reading it reminded me that while understanding science is deeply and profoundly important, after our schooling is done most of us are getting our scientific knowledge not from scientists, but from science journalists. And Mr. Halpern over at GQ isn’t the only journalist filling his articles with gender essentialism. In fact, science media as a whole has a massive gender essentialism problem. This problem is just as prevalent in new media as it is in old, just as likely to show up in hip publications as it is anywhere else, and it has massive implications for how we understand sex and gender as a society.

The conflation of sex and gender, and the use of gender essentialism and straight up sexism in science writing, contribute to an overall culture in which it’s easy for people to assume that sperm is what makes a man, that vaginas are what make a woman, and that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Mixing gender essentialism with science seems to give gender essentialism more weight and credibility, allowing bigoted ideas about gender to be assumed factual without being challenged.

Gender essentialism is so ingrained in the way that we talk about science, that unless you are looking for it, it can be difficult to even notice. It shows up in nature documentaries, when narrators often use heavily gendered language to describe animal behavior (I love David Attenborough, but any time he narrates animal courtship it is cringeworthy). There’s also more going on here than mere sexism.

Mixing gender essentialism with science seems to give gender essentialism more weight and credibility Click To Tweet

To understand the sex and gender issues at play in science media, it’s important to understand the terms. In general, biological sex is defined by a combination of physical traits such as chromosomes, genitals, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics (this includes stuff like whether or not you have a beard). Those traits are used to lump a person or animal into a category such as male, female, or intersex. Gender is the social and cultural stuff which is often, but not always, tied to sex. The simplified version of sex and gender that most of us learn when we start to dig into gender issues is that sex is physical, but gender is a social construct, or “sex is what’s between your legs, gender is what’s in your heart.” The truth turns out to be a little more complicated than that. For years transgender activists have been pointing out that the way we define sex is also socially constructed, and as this twitter thread from a scientist so beautifully illustrated, the two primary categories of male and female are hardly the best way to classify people.

All of this is easy to mix up with the scientific concept of sexual reproduction, which is just a form of reproduction that uses two cells in order to make a new organism. Many organisms reproduce sexually in ways that look nothing like the “two sexes” system we’ve come to expect. For instance, many slugs all carry both male and female sex cells, and during mating both fertilize each other. However, when humans look at the animal world, we seem to have a tendency to interpret in a way that makes it a little more human, and therefore a little more gendered. I can’t overstate enough that this is humans adding our own cultural biases to data that doesn’t usually conform to them. Scientists themselves are not immune to this, but science writers, in their attempt to make the data relatable and interesting to the public, take it even further. As journalists, they have a responsibility to convey the information accurately, and to attempt to check their biases at the door, but often they conflate sex and gender, fall back on sexist assumptions about sex and gender, and simplify the concept of sex so much as to make it inaccurate.

When writers (and to some extent, scientists themselves) reach for metaphors to describe scientific information, they often rest on gendered assumptions. The way we talk about sperm is a classic example of that; we tend to see sperm as aggressive and masculine when they are, in fact, just tiny cells. We also tend to assume that sperm production is for men, when in fact not all men make sperm, and not all people who make sperm are men. The popular science blog IFL Science ran an article called “Why Do Men Exist” which, no surprise here, was specifically asking about cisgender sperm producing men. Other winning IFL headlines include things like “Suffering From Man-Flu Not Attractive, Science Confirms.” As a transgender man and a science nerd, reading these articles can be anything from mildly amusing to incredibly irritating, as most of the time, I am not included in their definition of “man.”

When humans look at the animal world, we seem to have a tendency to interpret in a way that makes it a little more human, and therefore a little more gendered Click To Tweet

This gender essentialism can be found at all levels of science reporting. The WNYC show Radiolab has won a National Academies Communication Award “for their investigative use of radio to make science accessible to broad audiences,” and its unique approach to sharing scientific knowledge has made it a great way for people, myself included, to get interested in science as adults. Given its position as a cool, weird science radio show and podcast, you might expect a deeper and more accurate look at issues of biological sex, and a more progressive look at gender issues. However, in their 2008 episode about sperm, called simply Sperm, co-host Robert Krulwich referred to spermatozoa as “the wiggly cells that, along with male pattern baldness, seems to describe everything you need to know about being a man.” One would think that equating a single cell with the entire concept of manhood would be offensive not only to trans men, but to everyone, but the theme persisted throughout the entire episode.

I was cautiously optimistic when Radiolab announced a new series of episodes about reproduction and the human body, all under the heading of “Gonads.” The six episodes promised in-depth reporting by producer Molly Webster, and the name suggested some acknowledgement of the ambiguity between the sexes. The first episode, sadly, offered more of the same simplification and essentialism I’d come to expect. When describing the primordial journey of the cells of the gonads themselves, there was never any indication that there was any possible outcome other than testicles, which would make the fetus a boy, or ovaries, which would make it a girl. Even though intersex conditions are about as common as red hair, and have everything to do with how a fetus develops, they were left out of the conversation of fetal development. Later in the series, when, in all fairness, a slightly more nuanced and complex take was given, sex was still presented as a binary, and it was still taken for granted that simply having ovaries would make one identify as a girl. One episode featured a lengthy interview with Dana Zzyym, who is intersex, and that interview was handled with sensitivity… but that didn’t undo the rampant gender essentialism of the series as a whole. In a separate episode, chromosomal variations outside of XX and XY were casually referred to as “aberrations.”

Science writers often have to simplify big complex issues like sex and gender in order to explain the science to the general public. The problem is that these omissions, sexist metaphors, and gender essentialist assumptions are everywhere and they add up. And they do not happen in a vacuum. Right now transgender people are more visible than possibly ever before, but with that visibility comes a very vocal and often dangerous opposition. Transphobes want to be able to point to science and say “look, there are only two sexes!” and “having a penis makes you a boy, that’s just how it works.” Science doesn’t actually back up their bigotry at all (in fact, it confirms that both gender and sex determination are extremely varied), but science writing sure makes it look as though it does. As we’ve seen with climate change and vaccine issues in this country, what the actual science says often has less of an impact than public opinion.

But don’t just take my word for it, there’s even been a study showing that bigotry against trans people is fed by “scientific” information that seems to support that men and women are somehow wired differently.

The problem is that these omissions, sexist metaphors, and gender essentialist assumptions are everywhere and they add up. Click To Tweet

So what can be done? Well, science writers can be careful about journalistic standards, and avoid extrapolating study data based on their own gendered assumptions, for one. We could also all stand to be a bit more direct and say what we mean when discussing things like reproduction. If we’re talking about people who have testicles, we can very easily say “people with testicles” rather than “men,” for example. We need science writing that isn’t afraid to dig into that complexity, because that’s where the real story is.

Back over at GQ, Halpern fell right into the standard essentialist assumptions, even referring to cisgender men with lower testosterone as “less male.” I read the whole article with my mouth opened in not to so much shock, but amazement that a single article could so perfectly encapsulate everything I had come to hate about science writing. Through all the hand wringing about falling sperm counts runs an endless commentary about men, and he doesn’t have to say it for me to know I’m not included. At the close of the article, he offers up a few potential scenarios for the species. Either sperm counts will drop so low we’ll go extinct, we’ll become completely reliant on fertility treatments to reproduce, or we’ll figure out how to get pregnant using stem cells that have been converted into sperm with “no need for any males.”

Unsurprisingly, it’s pretty clear that Halpern thinks the final scenario would be worst of all.