Duck Sex and Feminism Have More In Common Than You Thought

The sex organs of ducks can teach us a lot about human sexual politics.

Yale University ornithologist Dr. Richard Prum believes parallels to reproductive choice and feminist politics exist in nature. In his latest book, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us, he proves the connection between animal sexual selection and human reproductive politics is more than metaphorical.

To understand reproductive choice in nature, Prum studied what he calls the “evolutionary arms race” between male and female ducks.

Ducks have violent sex. Males, equipped with long corkscrew penises, attempt to copulate with females — forcibly if the female is unwilling. In response, female ducks have evolved, as Prum tells BTRtoday, “anatomical means to frustrate the penis.” Their vaginas are counter-corkscrew in shape and have “dead-end cul-de-sacs” to prevent forced copulation. Females can relax these vice-like, labyrinthine vaginas to copulate with males of their choosing.

When female ducks choose their mates, they decide which male traits get passed on. Any mutation that allows the female to choose her mate is “rewarded” by other female ducks choosing her young to mate with in turn. Prum says this “solidarity,” among female ducks equates to the females choosing what is attractive in their male mates.

“It creates a leverage that allows females to advance their freedom of choice in the face of sexual violence,” says Prum.
The ducks show that reproductive choice is natural, contradicting conservative reproductive ideology. Anti-reproductive choice advocates argue that abortion and birth control are unnatural. But Prum says this is too simplistic.

“One of the things about patriarchy is that it’s not only about controlling female reproduction but about controlling both male and female choices, the options about what lives people lead,” he says. “Biology is really the science of diversity, the science of difference.” Different sexual traits, different anatomical traits, different choices regarding reproduction.

Those choices include more than avoiding sexual violence. Prum points to bowerbirds as an example of birds that select mates for pleasure rather than just reproduction. These birds coax rather than force their partners into reproducing.

Male bowerbirds build elaborate “seduction theaters,” as Prum calls them. The theaters are nests where the female judge her potential mate. The male enters through the back. If the female likes the nest and the male, she stays. If she doesn’t, she can leave out the front unscathed.

True, this nest is a physical protection against sexual violence. But female bowerbirds are driven by their sexual and aesthetic preferences, not just their desire to avoid forced copulation.

With both the ducks and the bowerbirds, females evaluate more than sexual aggression in potential mates. She chooses male feather colors, mating dances and songs. It’s about more than the most efficient route to offspring; desire and pleasure play an integral role.

This tells us that the ability of females to choose their mates, to choose how and when they reproduce, is an evolutionary reality, not only a social construct. “Sexual autonomy, freedom of sexual choice, is not an abstract idea invented by suffragettes nor feminists in the 19th century,” says Prum. “It’s an evolved feature of social sexual species in the wild.”

“Pro-life” suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.

Listen to the full interview with Dr. Prum on “Juicy Bits.”