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On the use of the word ‘rape’ for non-human animals…

I wrote earlier today about a post clarifying a misinterpretation of a study which was itself misinterpreted.  A short recap:  the original post was meant to correct a furore that had arisen around a paper on dolphin social networks;  the journalists covering the story ended up playing a version of the Telephone game that turned the phrase ‘bisexual philopatry’ into ‘Flipper the bisexual rapist’.  In writing the post, I was simply trying to untangle the mess, but somehow people mis-read the correction so badly that they believed I was painting dolphins as cuddly underwater teddy bears.  In fact, I was just pointing out that the original study had nothing to do with the sexual behaviour of dolphins, not that dolphins don’t display coercive sexual behaviours.  When I found out this morning that I was being linked to – again – in the same garbled way, I decided that it was time to put a lid on it.

In doing so, I was faced with a minor dilemma.  Here’s the issue:  I don’t like the use of the word rape to describe the sexual aggression or coercion of non-human animals.  I never have, really;  I agree with people who complain that the word rape has moral connotations that don’t translate well to non-human contexts.  I also favour the side that suggests that the term ‘homosexuality’ doesn’t apply well to non-human animals, as Nathan Bailey and Marlene Zuk put well in a 2009 review:

Homosexual: in animals, this has been used to refer to same-sex behavior that is not sexual in character (e.g. ‘homosexual tandem running’ in termites), same-sex courtship or copulatory behavior occurring over a short period of time (e.g. ‘homosexual mounting’ in cockroaches and rams) or long-term pair bonds between same-sex partners that might involve any combination of courting, copulating, parenting and affectional behaviors (e.g. ‘homosexual pair bonds’ in gulls). In humans, the term is used to describe individual sexual behaviors as well as long-term relationships, but in some usages connotes a gay or lesbian social identity. Scientific writing would benefit from reserving this anthropomorphic term for humans and not using it to describe behavior in other animals, because of its deeply rooted context in human society.

On the other hand, the people showing up at these posts and misinterpreting what I’m saying don’t appreciate these distinctions.  The waters are further muddied by other scientists, all of whom describe dolphin sexual coercion as rape, like Christie Wilcox, Craig McClain of Deep Sea News, and Miriam Goldstein have.  I don’t know any of these people beyond my exposure to them on social media, but I believe them all to be scientifically literate and rational people who are probably (?) aware of the difficulties associated with the word rape to describe dolphin sexual behaviours.  But if I had to guess, I would bet that they’re using the word for the same reason that I did:  I needed to convey the point that dolphins do engage in these sorts of aggressive and coercive sexual behaviours, but an extended discussion on the merits of the terms and my personal beliefs about them didn’t fit.  In my case, I was worried that using the better terms would have left me in an infinite regression where the public showed up to my explanation of an explanation through a future Google search and promptly mis-interpreted everything all over again, forcing me to clarify ad nauseum because they have no idea what I’m talking about when I say ‘sexual coercion’.

Tonight, I got called out on Twitter by Bug Girl, who publicly chastised me for my word choice:

This isn’t something I take lightly.  I have a deep respect for Bug, and I value her opinion. I’ve also learned from perusing her blog that she has a strong opinion on this subject, and has written about the fact that she is herself a rape survivor.  Writing about that in a public forum is amazingly courageous, and I’m gutted by the prospect that I may have caused her distress.  If I did cause Bug, or any one else, pain with my previous post, I unreservedly apologize.

At the same time, I also feel stuck.  Perhaps I made the wrong choice by deciding to adopt the common usage in order to solve the problem at hand rather than trying to fight a war on two fronts.  I can accept that.  But I don’t know how to write the post the other way without inviting the same issue1.  I could also be underestimating the public;  if the response I received to the first post, and the inciting incident that inspired the second, are any guide, I don’t think I am but I admit that I might be wrong.

This is the last that I intend to write on the subject, because to be honest, I’m sick of it and I wish that I had never gotten involved in it in the first place.  I’m not a marine biologist, I don’t study sexual behaviour, and to be frank, I couldn’t care less about the whole thing.  My only goal was to correct the horrible misinterpretation of a UNSW colleague’s original paper, which I thought deserved better from the media;  if I haven’t managed to achieve that by now, then I don’t think that I ever will.  I will leave it to wiser minds than I to decide what terms should be used, and leave off with a reiteration that I am sorry if anyone was hurt by the use of the rape word in any of these posts.

  1. Which could be down to me not being a good enough writer