Written by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.
I staved off malnutrition during grad school mostly by living with other people who enjoyed cooking. (Thanks Patrick.) These days, preferring to live on my own until there's someone I want to live with for reasons other than their ability in the kitchen, I depend on NPR to keep me sane as I boil water, defrost vegetables, toast bread, or perform whatever absolutely minimal task is required to keep body and soul together.
These days I've been "cooking" to Radiolab, the WNYC sciencey type show. "On a curiosity bender," they say. I fuckin' love it. If it's a choice between Radiolab and the news, I take Radiolab every time.
In 2008 they did a show on sperm, including the funniest, most thorough explanation I've ever heard of why sperm exists, and why there are so many of them. Later in the show they also explain why gametes parallel the basic structure of social life among all sexually reproducing species. No small task in under an hour.
Sperm fascinate me. They're tiny. If an egg were the size of my apartment, a sperm would be about as big as a stray Cheerio that rolled under the fridge. They're mobile, and there are millions, literally millions of them. About a thousand new ones per second for the duration of a guy's post-pubescent life. 200,000,000 in a single ejaculation.
Spare change in the slot machine of his partner's reproductive canal.
Compare that with a single giant, precious egg per month, and then only when a women is not pregnant or breastfeeding regularly, and for less than 40 years of a woman's life. The ovum is a woman's biological monthly rent.
And if the ovum is rent, then pregnancy is a mortgage, a massive, long term metabolic investment in gestation, plus opportunity cost (can't get pregnant by someone else if you're already pregnant!), followed by the most dangerous birth in the animal kingdom (see cephalopelvic disproportion) and then up to four to five years of breastfeeding in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness.
This right here, folks, this is the ultimate answer to why it's different for women. We've got the vaginas, the uteruses, the eggs, and the breasts. We've got a delicately intricate sexuality, influenced by a vast number of factors, easily tipped out of balance and sometimes complicated to return to balance, and only maybe one day out of 28 is sex even potentially reproductive. Half of all fertilized eggs never implant. 1/3 of all the eggs that implant self-terminate within the first six weeks. It's astonishing that anyone is ever born.
What have men got? Sperm. A robust, stable reproductive system wherein every act of penile-vaginal intercourse is potentially reproductive. And more sperm.
Fortunately for men, they also have arms and brains and hearts and enough sense to know that parenting is nearly always their best bet for making it into the next generation.
I can respect sperm for its capacity to delve into strange and sometimes hostile lands, to wait and adapt and collaborate when necessary, to seek out the egg and to give it just exactly what it was waiting for.