What Guppies Can Teach Us about Sexual Ethics

It’s a tricky thing to use animals as examples of behavior for humans.  The psychology of an earthworm or dragonfly has virtually no resemblance to that of a vertebrate, let alone a vertebrate with an unusually large cerebral cortex.  Arthropods in particular labor under a “sensor-heavy paradigm” that doesn’t rely on a single massive body of nerves for integrating information and determining behavior.

But here and there, we find animals whose mores and activities prove illustrative.  In light of the latest explosion of rape allegations that has rocked the atheist/skeptic community over the past several weeks, today’s example is the humble guppy.

School of fancy guppies on black background.

Yes, the guppy, Poecilia reticulata, one of the most popular aquarium fish in the world, has a great deal to tell us about rape and rape culture.

As members of the Poeciliidae, guppies are ovoviviparous, carrying their eggs inside their bodies until they hatch and then birthing live fry.  Part of the fun of owning guppies and other poeciliids (platies, swordtails, mollies, mosquitofish, etc) is watching groups of them swell with pregnancy and then double and triple in number a few weeks later, which they do abundantly.  Perhaps even more famous than the poeciliids’ live-bearing is their gonopodia, which are essentially barbed fish penises derived from their ventral fin rays.  Thanks to this feature of the guppy’s anatomy, male poeciliids do not dump their sperm on already-laid eggs in a nest, but directly into the females’ bodies, much as sharks do.

Guppies’ wanton coupling has enabled breeders to generate an enormous variety of color and finnage patterns, which occur in every combination and are judged in international competitions every bit as intense as dog and cat shows.  But every guppy-keeper knows that this sexual appetite is effectively one-sided.  Common advice holds that for every male guppy in a tank, there should be at least three females, because the natural playful nippiness of the guppy is raised to a fever pitch in amorous males.  Solitary pairs in guppydom tend to end with the female harried and eventually sexed to death.  Reducing the ratio of males to females leads him to spread out his attentions and not harass any particular female badly enough to compromise her health.  The males’ brilliant colors and mating displays may convince a female to not resist, or to resist less, but if she can’t get away after rejecting him, she will have no choice in the matter.  In captive situations, which are designed for display rather than stealth, escape is generally not feasible.

As a reminder, the male’s sexual organ has barbs along its shaft that make sure the couple stays coupling long enough for him to inseminate her.

This mating strategy is so consistently brutal that it keeps female guppies on edge, compromising their ability to distinguish members of their own all-female schools and otherwise maintain their social circles during and after harassment episodes.  Female guppies have thus evolved a suite of behavioral defenses that enable them to exercise more choice in their sex lives and protect their health enough that they can survive to breed again.

Female guppies make use of wingmen.  Or rather, the opposite of wingmen.  Non-receptive females actively seek-out the company of receptive females, using their pheromone-secreting compatriots to deflect the attention of passing males.  A lone non-receptive female guppy might face harassment sufficient to prevent her from eating or avoiding predators, but in a school of decoys, she is safe.

Female guppies also have another, equally disturbing defense mechanism against their spear counterparts.  Female guppies, being consistently less colorful than males, often spend time in high-predator parts of their habitats.  Since any males that might accost them are much more conspicuous, predators are much more likely to notice visiting males.  Whether the males stay away to avoid getting eaten, or get eaten, the females get to mate on their own terms.  As Cracked.com put it: “One night you find yourself stranded in a neighborhood notorious for its sexual assaults, so you put on a beige sweater and seek out the scariest looking murderer you can find. If any rapists come rapin’ along, you just sit real still and hope that the murderer gets all his murders out before he notices you squatting in the corner.”

So how does this relate to humans?

The guppies’ mating dynamic is, in essence, a rape culture.  Rape faces no social opprobrium, and no standard of guppy behavior exists to entice male guppies to leave non-consenting partners alone.  Indeed, rape is standard operating procedure for guppies, committed at every opportunity.  Guppies have none of the attributes or concepts—societal well-being, empathy, autonomy, and most of all consent—that would be required to regard their behavioral norms as toxic.  Indeed, it’s debatable whether they even have consciousness, by some definitions.

A human-level intelligent being from a species or culture whose mating behavior resembled the guppy’s would have an impossibly difficult time understanding the concept of rape.  This is a species whose only brush with the idea of consent is whether a female experiencing a male’s sexual display makes it easy or hard to copulate afterward, and what degree of mortal peril the male must survive to get his sought-after nookie.  The idea that it ought ultimately to be a joint decision, that they both need to want sex to have it—that is beyond their ken.  We should count ourselves lucky if males of this species are capable of imagining females to want anything, if they imagine them to have any desires at all.

Are the Guppymen starting to sound familiar?

When male guppies harry females to death in the name of carnal desire, there is nothing to forgive.  Guppies are not ethical agents, and are not capable of recognizing actions as right or wrong.

The humans who both assume and actively try to bring about a world where men are rampaging sex fiends and women are expected to do no more than put up a token chase and accept whatever outcome follows are another matter entirely.
What Guppies Can Teach Us about Sexual Ethics