Sunday, November 23, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Sluts of the Animal World and the Tyranny of the Double Standard

Higgs the Cat offers an evolutionary view of the Rush Limbaugh "slut" debacle.

Sluts of the Animal World and the Tyranny of the Double Standard

If Rush Limbaugh had aimed his “slut” comments at a man who happened to be advocating the coverage of birth control, it wouldn’t have been seen as much of an insult. The guy might even have taken it as a compliment. When people accuse a woman of being a slut, the charge can damage her reputation and cause her genuine harm. This may not be simply an artifact of our culture, since surveys show that sexual double standards occur among many disparate groups of people.

I'm sensitive to this issue because a subset of the readers of the Philadelphia Inquirer used to call me a slut and worse on a daily basis. That was back when I wrote the column, "Carnal Knowledge."   

Higgs the cat was a first-order slut back in his day, and he'd like to offer his insights into comparative animal sexuality:

Higgs: There’s no excuse for Rush Limbaugh’s behavior, or for violence between cats, for that matter. I'm addressing this issue because I think understanding the evolutionary roots of our behavior may give us all the chance to reflect and improve ourselves.

What I believe we’re seeing with this Rush Limbaugh incident is an example of interspecies conflict.  Most people think evolution favors traits that are for the good of the species, but that’s a misunderstanding of natural selection. Darwinian evolution favors traits that help individuals compete in the “struggle for existence” as Charles Darwin put it.

Often what’s advantageous for members of one sex is threatening to the other. In cats, there’s plenty of conflict, which results in violent confrontations. Before my contraceptive procedure, I was a wicked slut. All healthy intact male cats are sluts. So are female cats. It’s to their evolutionary advantage. For females, it’s not so much about the quantity of offspring as it is quality – the females whose offspring are best equipped to survive and reproduce will win in the evolutionary struggle. If, say, a beautiful, smart, green-eyed yellow striped tomcat is in the vicinity, a female in heat can get some of that cat’s genetic material. She’d be out of her mind not to go for it.

Other male cats, however, feel deeply threatened because they want the female in question to bear their offspring and not mine. Male cats don’t react by calling the female a “slut” but, more often, by beating the stuffing out of me. So thanks to interspecies conflict, I was covered in scabs when I was found, and my poor ear is still torn from a thrashing I took over a female.  

Human males sometimes have similar aggressive urges, and often they take them out on human females, as Rush Limbaugh did. The tendency for human males to be sluts while chastising women for promiscuity is a worldwide phenomenon. It’s not so bad in some Northern European countries, but the double standard is more severe in Iran, China and some parts of Africa.

There are a couple of reasons why males and females find themselves at such odds. One is that males are in fierce competition with each other to pass on their genes. And we’re never sure our offspring are really ours. For animals such as humans in which both sexes often participate in parental care, males face the ever-present threat of being cuckolded, which is an evolutionary disaster.

Some species have evolved physical mechanisms for helping their genes compete.

In stick insects, the strategy is not to let go of the female for several months after mating with her. The male stays clamped onto the female’s back, and since males are usually smaller, the female can still move around and get food in this predicament. She just can’t get a new mate.  

If a male honeybee mates with the queen, it’s also in his evolutionary interest not to let her mate with another male. If he can keep subsequent males away, he hits the reproductive jackpot. But it’s in the queen’s best interest to mate with another male if one comes along. The males are not in a position to shame the queen by calling her a slut. So instead, male honeybees have a detachable penis that gets stuck in the female. What’s left of the lucky male explodes. Once you’ve mated with the queen there’s not much more to live for.

There’s only one hope for feral cats, I’m afraid. We will probably remain violent toward each other until you humans help get us off the streets and provide contraceptive procedures for us. But for humans, there’s hope that through self-reflection, enlightenment, compassion and community spirit, you can help yourselves overcome the worst aspects of your natures. Thank you for letting me express my views – Higgs.  

About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at fflam@phillynews.com. Reach Planet of the at fflam@phillynews.com.

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