Insects can’t be virgins and you should stop calling them that

Content warning: sexual violence.

I am a graduate student studying pest management. Initially, most people think I just learn how to spray insecticides on everything, which is absolutely not true. I mainly study animal communication, specifically in polygynous ant colonies.  I have spent the last six years of my life studying animal behavior. I feel very lucky to participate in a field that I believe is the most interesting subject on earth.

I remember early in my undergraduate career watching an interview with Jane Goodall, a hero to many animal biologists — particularly those of us who are women. In it, she states that she believes scientists need to embrace their empathy with their study organisms, as she did with her chimpanzees. As scientists, we are often instructed to remain objective and distant from our subjects, but Dr. Goodall believes empathy can be a powerful scientific tool.

This idea stuck with me as I progressed into more advanced animal behavior courses in my undergrad: I thought about it when non-monogamous fish were described as “promiscuous.” When penguins were described as “cheating” on their mates. I also thought about when forced copulation in insects was described as “rape.”

I thought about it when non-monogamous fish were described as “promiscuous.” When penguins were described as “cheating” on their mates. When forced copulation in insects was described as “rape.”

I entered entomology because it was an accessible way to study animal behavior. It was just luck that I also loved it. As a biology student, I experienced a fairly even gender ratio. However, as I focused on entomology, I saw that balance swing backwards.

Towards the end of my undergrad, I was invited to an annual dinner for entomologists. I was only an undergraduate researcher, so I was extremely excited to attend. I got to talk to grad students and professors like they were peers. It was an amazing night for me.

Unfortunately, the thing I remember most from that night was not so amazing. I had a brief conversation with a former grad student in the department. He was visibly drunk. He asked me about myself. I told him that I was starting graduate school soon. He said to me “Ah, that’s too bad. You’re too cute for grad school. You’ll probably get raped.”

Like one in five college educated women, I have experienced sexual assault. At the time of this conversation, I had already been raped. When this drunk person brought the subject up so casually, I entered a fog. This is a common response for people who have PTSD, like myself. He went on to explain that he meant I would be raped either metaphorically, by the difficulty of grad school, or literally, by my PI.

He went on to explain that he meant I would be raped either metaphorically, by the difficulty of grad school, or literally, by my PI.

I was standing in a circle with several people I knew. Yet, no one reacted to this implication. On the way home, I told my friends what had happened. One (a woman) said dismissively, “He is like that when he drinks. Don’t think too much of it.” The other (a man) said with a laugh, “Wow that’s messed up.”

That same year, I was taking a higher-level entomology course. The professor was enthusiastic, often going off on impassioned speeches on the wonders of entomology. It was fun, but unnecessary: it was a 4th year course with 11 students, all bug-loving weirdos. We didn’t need to be further convinced.

One class, the professor was rattling off a long list of things that make entomology exciting, and in the list, he included rape. He said “…amazing things happen in the world of insects! Moths even rape each other!” Again, I entered that familiar fog. It was the beginning of class, so I was effectively gone for the entire lecture.

The professor was rattling off a long list of things that make entomology exciting, and in the list, he included rape.

Later, the professor noticed a sour look on my face and asked me if there was something I needed to tell him. So I did:

“You used the word ‘rape’ in class to talk about moths. That is a human word. When you talk about animals killing each other, you don’t call it ‘murder,’ because it’s not the same thing. Forced copulation is about increasing offspring. Rape is about violence and power. It’s inaccurate and you shouldn’t use it.” Then I walked straight to the bathroom and ugly-cried.

Forced copulation is about increasing offspring. Rape is about violence and power.

I still believe that empathy is a good approach to animal biology. I think when you spend a lot of time with an organism, you can understand it and even relate to it in ways that elude science and data. I feel empathy and compassion for my study organism now, even though they are invasive stinging ants.

But I also apply that empathy to myself. I too, am an animal. I am also a person living in human society. I am a woman in science, and that is, objectively, sometimes challenging. 

I’m currently writing my thesis. In my introductory chapter, I write about the mating behavior of my ants. Once a year, new queens and males all emerge with wings. They take flight and mate in the air. Then the queens land somewhere new to start their nests. They remove their wings and never fly again. It’s amazing and weird and beautiful. 

In revisions, my PI corrected my language to: “virgin queens and males take flight.” Referring to unmated female animals as “virgins” is common in entomology, but I did not accept this edit. 

“Virgin” is another human word to describe an exclusively human experience. It conjures a huge number of complicated feelings for many people, including myself. It is an unscientific word. The emphasis of the word is gendered, and the weight is placed mainly on women and people with hymens. I went to Catholic school, where I was taught that preserving my virginity was an important gift I would give to my future husband. The ways I was taught about my body when I was a child created a world of anxieties for me, especially when my body experienced sexual violence.

Ants will never know the weight of a word like “virgin,” and I am jealous of that.

I will not put the word “virgin” on my ants. I know these ants, and I know myself. In some ways, we are the same. In many ways, we are not. Ants will never know the weight of a word like “virgin,” and I am jealous of that. I will not undermine both of us by trying to use the word on them. 

“Unmated” will do. 

Feature image by Sean McCann (Twitter: @Ibycter).

Danielle Hoefele
Danielle Hoefele

Danielle Hoefele is a student in the Masters of Pest Management program at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. She studies the foraging and communication of an invasive pest, the European Fire Ant. She creates and runs insect outreach programs for children part-time. She is a queer woman in science, hoping to someday work in science communication, writing, or outreach. Check out her website, www.dhoefele.com, or twitter, @dhoefele. (Photo by Jen Cook)

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