Spiders, Sex, and Slippages

Ashton Wesner
04/08/2024 | Reflections

This blog post welcomes Ashton Wesner as a new assistant editor to the Global North team. Ashton is an assistant professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Colby College.
Below, Ashton shares findings from one of her research projects: Through participatory ethnography with critical natural scientists, she explores how the “song and dance” of jumping spiders offers a generative entry point for staging broader disruptions in the misogyny and cisheterosexism that have long underwritten scientific studies of animal behavior.

Spiders, Sex, and Slippages

Jumping spiders have recently garnered the attention of a wide set of audiences. In addition to publications in leading scientific journals, you can find jumping spiders in exhibitions at world-class museums, documentary series, and animated shorts. They have giant eyes, fuzzy round butts, and courtship rituals that include complex movements and vibrations. The way they “sing” and “dance” offer natural scientists an entry point into larger questions about vibratory communication, complex vision, and sexual selection.

In my research on gender, sexuality, and human-animal relations across popular culture and formal scientific knowledge production, I’ve found that representations of jumping spider-mating behavior are valuable sites of analysis for examining articulations of misogyny and cisheterosexism. Titles in National Geographic and Popular Science make for a quick demonstration of this point:

Male Spiders Risk Death By Courting the Wrong Females

These male jumping spiders evolved dance moves because the ladies ignore them: this is the cutest that spider mating has ever been

A survey of popular science journalism, click-bait new articles, and documentary TV series reveals a pattern: dancing male spiders risk their lives for love. They work hard to earn female spider’s attention through complex (and cute) dance moves, and we are invited to empathize with them. Female spiders, on the other hand, are heartless. They are maliciously coy and cannibalistic. Take, for example, an exemplary excerpt:

“You don’t often feel bad for spiders. But when a fuzzy, black-eyed jumping spider raises his green forearms into the air, wiggles his butt, and flashes his orange knees, only to have a lady spider literally turn around in the middle of his dance...what kind of monster doesn’t feel a pang of empathy?” (Chodosh, 2017)

Anthropomorphization is never neutral. Configurations of the human are shaped by formations of gender, sexuality, race, ability, and more (Alaimo, 2016; Hird 2006; Wynter, 2003). Even spiders—predominantly imagined as so distant from the human, so Other, as to often be frightening—reveal how our stories about animals are also stories about ourselves. Stories about spider sex reflect and reentrench a masculinist entitlement to the feminine provisioning of sexual pleasure. Insofar as spider behavior might be perceived as exemplar of “natural order,” such stories appear to evidence a biological basis of rape culture tenants (Wesner, 2019).

A jumping spider (Habronattus pugillis) held in a plastic vial appears to be gazing directly into the camera in the Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona.
A jumping spider (Habronattus pugillis) held in a plastic vial appears to be gazing directly into the camera in the Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona. [Image credit: Author]

I collaborate with behavioral ecologists and evolutionary biologists in a Lab1 at an R1 university to understand how the gendered rhetoric I analyze above is not simply a problem of translating scientific findings for popular audiences. I’ve learned that while Lab members are excited to share their work with the public, they squirm at hyper-sexualized and stereotypically gendered renderings of spider behavior in popular venues. Yet, together, we have also tracked the ways that Lab members also tell these types of stories in their classrooms, lab meetings, field notes, and publications. They call this sloppy shorthand: rhetorical moves, like terms and framings, that have a veneer of simplicity yet fail to account for the diversity and complexity of what they are observing in their animals. 

When scientists say spiders “sing” for example, they don’t mean they vocalize. Spiders can’t actually do that. Rather, it’s the patterned seismic signals they produce by vibrating their legs and abdomen that, when detected and recorded with a laser vibrometer, sound song-like to a hearing humans’ sensibilities (Elias et al., 2005). Or, when Lab members see two males “singing and dancing” at each other, they say it’s “aggression” even though it could be investigated as another instance of “courtship.” Such sloppy shorthand shows up in their funding proposals, peer-reviewed publications, and quotidian practices of field and lab-work. 

Such findings articulate with queer feminist STS scholar Angela Willey’s work in Undoing Monogamy: The Politics of Science and the Possibilities of Biology (2016). Willey analyzes observations, engagements, and interviews with researchers in a neuroscience lab to show how their slippages between the languages of “monogamy,” “love,” “attachment,” and “social interaction,” generate research on vole behavior that, ultimately, naturalize both monogamy as well as ableist notions of normal social interaction. Building on Willey’s study, I wanted to know if Lab members might find her theorization of slippages useful, and more importantly, whether they might want to do something with it: How could we work together to leverage the Lab members’ self-reflexive critique of their own rhetorical practices? How could we integrate queer feminist STS modes of attention into their scientific habitus?

After reading and discussing Willey’s Undoing Monogamy together, we used ab meetings and focus groups to discuss a shared hypothesis: defaulting to descriptions of “male” and “female” behavior in research, labwork, and teaching was inadequate for interpreting spider behavior and reinforced cultural assumptions about gender. For example, when the Lab observed a male spider “singing and dancing” with another male spider, the impulse to slot this behavior as “territorial aggression” began with expectations for how male-sexed spiders should behave, not necessarily how they actually were behaving. This starting point foreclosed exploring a multiplicity of descriptions, understandings, and explanations for how and why two spiders danced before one another while simultaneously naturalizing same-sex mating behavior as uninteresting for a research agenda at best, and aberrant in theoretical terms at worst (Monk et. al., 2019).

How could our findings enable new practices, we asked? In cross-pollinating our disciplines, we forged resonance with another cornerstone text, Gil Rosenthal’s Mate Choice: The Evolution of Sexual Decision Making from Microbes to Humans (2017). Rosenthal makes a theoretical and practical case for using what he calls gender-neutral terms when describing organisms engaged in mating behavior.

Rosenthal suggests using “courter” and “chooser,” rather than the shorthand “male” and “female,” to enable more relational and situational–rather than fixed and sex-determined–descriptions of animal behavior: 

“I use the terms chooser and courter. [...] In addition to being sex- (and gender-) neutral, these terms refer to behavioral roles rather than permanent aspects of the phenotype. Ecological circumstances like the availability of suitable territories can determine which sex chooses. In monogamous or hermaphroditic animals, the roles of courter and chooser can even reverse over the course of a single social interaction. It is therefore more productive to think about mate choice in terms of the roles that individuals are playing over the course of a given interaction” (Rosenthal, 2017, p11).

Lab members thus made the case for reading Willey and Rosenthal together, and articulating their critiques. If a dancing spider is called a courter, rather than always already and most importantly “male,” might that have potential to disrupt reductive scientific interpretations and gender-stereotypical translations of mating behavior? Another hypothesis that Lab members began to test with new practices. For example, one member explained:

“I went back and changed all the female and male assignments in my lecture slides for class. I am trying really hard not to shorthand things as male and female. I also tried to flip the gender of them every now and then” (Wesner, 2019, p326).

Integrating “courter” and “chooser” into the everyday practices of scientific knowledge production enable Lab members to disrupt their gendered slippages. Such disruption, they intend, might enable more situated and rigorous observation while also disrupting the cisheteronormative science from which misogynistic stories about animals risk naturalizing misogyny in us. 

A digital publication with broad readership, like 4S Backchannels, is a generative venue for staging cross-disciplinary critique, methods exchange, and relationship building. As a new editor, I look forward to collaborating with queer, feminist, and anti-colonial scholars working across/against the boundaries of STS, the natural sciences, and other fields. Please reach out to me with pitches, and if you are writing as an interdisciplinary team, as a scientist cross-training in critical science studies, or as a scholar, practitioner, or artist engaging with the politics of settler colonialism and imperialism, I’d be especially thrilled to support your publication on our platform.


1. I use “Lab” throughout to reference the specific lab group with whom I collaborate.

Ashton Wesner is an Assistant Professor in Science, Technology & Society at Colby College. This blog post is based on an article that presents findings from her collaborative research on gender, sexuality, coloniality, and animal behavior with laboratory scientists.

Published: 03/25/2024