Chapter 1: The Egg and Sperm.
By: Emily Martin
• The theory of the human body is part of a world picture and part of a fantasy.
• Picture of egg and sperm relies on stereotypes central to our cultural definition of male and female.
• Stereotypes imply female biological processes are less worthy than males and women are less worthy than men.
• Goal is to shed light on gender stereotypes hidden within the scientific language of biology and hope they will lose their
power to harm us.
Egg and sperm: Ascientific fairy tale
• Fundamentally, scientific textbooks depict male and female reproductive organs as systems for the production of egg
• Woman’s monthly cycle is described as being designed to make eggs and prepare to make babies.
• The praise ends there as menstruation is viewed as a failure. Menstruation is described as “debris” of uterine
lining, result of tissue death (necrosis). Thus implying that the system makes waste.
• The maturation of sperm is seen as “a remarkable cellular transformation from spermatid to sperm”. One text says “the
female sheds only a single gamete each month, while the seminiferous tubules produce hundreds of millions of sperm a
day. One author marvels at the length of the seminiferous tubules, asking how this feat is accomplished.
• None of these texts express enthusiasm for female reproductive processes. It could be that sperm production is
“remarkable” because, in the medical view, it is valuable and menstruation is not.
• One could say menstruation is spermatogenesis is not analogous (similar), so they shouldn’t be expected to create same
responses. Ovulation is described that ovarian follicles containing ova are already present at birth, not produced like
sperm but they just sit there, slowly degenerating and aging like stock.
• The “marked contrast” is the description sets up male and female: male who continuously makes new germ cells while
females have stockpiled germ cells by birth and is faced with degeneration.
• Even female organs treated badly, saying, a woman’s ovaries become old and worn out from ripening eggs every
month, even if she is relatively young.
• Scientists should describe male and female processes as homologous (serves same function) to avoid negative
connotations. They could say females “produce” ova one at a time. They could say males face problems of degenerating
germ cells during spermatogonia.
• Texts celebrate sperm production because it’s continuous from puberty to senescence, while egg production is inferior
because it finishes at birth. This makes females seem unproductive and sometimes wasteful.And they say it’s a mystery
why so many eggs are formed only to die in ovaries.
• The real mystery is why the male’s vast production of sperm is not wasteful. Aman would make 2 trillion sperms in his
life (100 million a day), while a female would make 500 eggs in her life. So if average a woman has 2 children, she
wastes 200 eggs while a man wastes a trillion sperm.
• How are positive images denied to the bodies of women? One way is through scientific language.
• Egg behaves femininely: It’s large and passive. Does not move or journey, but it just passively
transported/swept/drifted along the fallopian tubes.
• Sperm behaves masculinely: It is streamlined and active. They deliver genes to egg and active the egg and
have a velocity. Their tales are strong and powered, thus having energy to penetrate the egg.
• At an extreme, the relationship between the egg and sperm take on a royal or religious patina.
• The egg’s coat, a protective barrier is called its vestment (sacred religious dress). It is said to have a “corona”
(crown) and to be accompanied by “attendant cells”. It is the queen to the sperms king. It is passive and needs
the sperms rescue, like of sleeping beauty: a dormant queen waiting for king.
• The sperm is on a “mission”, which is to “move through the female genital tract in quest of the ovum”. It is on
a “perilous journey” into the “warm darkness”. “Survivors” assault the egg to win the “prize”. The urgency of
this journey is that once released from the supportive environment of the ovary, an egg will die within hours
unless rescued by a sperm. Wording stresses egg as fragile and dependent even though sperm will only live for
a few hours. • One argument says that female reproductive organs are seen as biologically interdependent (rely on one another) while
male organs are autonomous, operating independently and in isolation.
• Yet the sperm is just as much dependent than the egg. Ex. There are secretions that mitigate the urine in the
urethra before ejaculation, to protect sperm. There’s a reflex shutting off of the bladder connection. the
provision of prostatic secretions and various muscular propulsions. The sperm is just as much dependent on
other organs, as the egg is to other organs.
• One article depicts the sperm making an “existential (relating to human existence) decision” to penetrate the egg. Just
like a corporate manager the sperm has to make a decisions and think about the high risk factors.
• Another way sperms are shown to have more importance than the egg is in papers, an electron micrograph of an
enormous egg and tiny sperm is titled “Aportrait of the Sperm”. Portrait= power and significance. Eggs only get
micrographs or pictures, not portraits. How can you call the picture “ a portrait of the sperm” if the egg takes up most of
• The only time an egg is treated as weak in western culture is in WoodyAllen’s movie. It’s portrayed of being scared of
coming out during ejaculation. He doesn’t know if he will end up on the wall, and afraid of contraceptive devices.
• Conclusion: The facts of biology may be constructed in cultural terms.
• Ex. There’s a lot of metaphorical content in these descriptions.
• Ex. There is a great emphasis on differentiating egg and sperm/
• Ex. There are parallels between cultural stereotypes of male/female behaviour represented.
New Research, old imagery
• The new textbooks replicate elements of textbook gender imagery in a different form. The persistence of this imagery
calls to mind a term known as “the self contained” nature of scientific thought. It means the interaction between what is
known, what remains to be known and those who are to take it, go to ensure harmony within the system and harmony of
• We need to thus understand the way in which the cultural context in scientific descriptions change as biological
discoveries unfold, and whether that context is rooted or easily changed.
• AJohn Hopkins lab shows that the egg is more active instead of passive.At first it was thought sperms use mechanical
energy to “burrow” itself through the impenetrable egg. But now it is known that they use chemical energy (digestive
enzymes) and also mechanical energy. Sperm do not really penetrate forward into an egg. They generate power by
moving tail side to said causing head to move side to side. Sperm use most energy at escaping egg= efficient at escaping
from any cell surface.