I’m sure that most of us have learned about fertilisation and menstruation in GCSE Biology classes. For me, it went something like this (in simple terms):
- Millions of sperm cells propel towards the egg, their strong and dynamic tails allowing them to rapidly swim towards the egg, and the winner of the race penetrates the egg’s cell membrane, fertilisation occurs. If an egg isn’t fertilised, the lining of the uterus breaks down and the woman has a period.
As a 15 year old I didn’t really question this, I simply learned it.
A few years later, I am now taking a History of Science module at university and we were assigned to read an essay by Emily Martin titled ‘The Egg and the Sperm: How Science has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles’.
I recommend this read to anyone, even if like me, you’re not a science person but just intrigued. In the article, Martin essentially argues that there is a huge imbalance in the way female biological processes are portrayed compared to male biological processes. I’ll draw upon parts of the article I found most interesting in a summary style.
Martin states that the enthusiasm regarding the female human body centres around baby-making, and ends there. All other processes are deemed irrelevant and wasteful. I was, at first, skeptical about this portrayal in actual textbooks until Martin started drawing upon real examples. In many textbooks menstruation is described as “debris”, “ceasing”, “dying”, “losing”, “denuding”, and “expelling”. Ovulation is also discussed in a way which undermines the process, stressing the fact that women are born with the ova already present inside them. It is not deemed a productive process.
“When you look through a laparoscope… at an ovary that has been through hundreds of cycles, even in a superbly healthy American female, you see a battered, scarred organ” – New York Times Magazine, 1987
In contrast, the male reproductive process is treated with much more enthusiasm. Whereas a woman is born with her eggs, the man “produces” millions of sperm cells throughout his life. The female process is described as “wasteful” due to menstruation despite a woman releasing around 200 eggs for every baby she produces compared to the man releasing 10 trillion unused sperm cells per baby.
Even while describing the process of fertilisation there are undoubtedly feminine and masculine stereotypes imposed upon it. The egg is passive, barely moving, much like a fairy-tale role of the damsel-in-distress (hence the title), whereas the sperm cells are “strong”, “powerful” and penetrate their way into the egg. The mortality and fragility of the egg is emphasised although the sperm cell also only survives for a few hours.
“…once released from the supportive environment of the ovary, an egg will die within hours unless rescued by a sperm” – Bruce Albert ‘Molecular Biology of the Cell’
However, this isn’t merely an issue of stereotypes and scientific language, it is also affecting scientific accuracy.
Martin draws upon new scientific discoveries which defy these stereotypical views. Revised science has found that:
- the sperm’s tail is extremely weak, both the tail and the head move side-to-side rather than thrusting forward. This goes against the idea of forceful penetration and the ‘strong’ sperm cell.
- The sperm actually tries to escape from the egg cell, the egg traps the sperm cell and adheres it tightly against its surface. The egg does not play a mere passive role.
Martin goes onto identify further problems despite these new discoveries, I’ll link the article at the end if anyone wants to give it a read.
I was fascinated by this all, the way the female biological processes are so undermined, and how we’re taught this inaccurate information whether it is at a simple GCSE level or higher. These ideas no doubt also add to the stigma around periods and women’s bodily processes in general.
Last month, on the 11th October the children’s charity Plan International UK carried out a survey in which 1000 girls aged between 14-21 were asked about menstruation.
- 26% didn’t know what to do when they first started their period
- 82% admitted to concealing sanitary products while 72% felt embarrassed purchasing them
- 59% has experienced negative remarks about their perceived behaviour and mood whilst on their period
Menstrual taboo is still very much prevalent in most (if not all) societies and cultures. It can affect confidence, self-perception and much more. It is important to be aware of this and to be mindful about your actions.
This is the end of this blog post! Some food for thought for all the readers. Thank you for reading
To donate: http://www.plan-uk.org
Emily Martin’s article: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3174586