Sex in the Sea, a new book by marine ecologist Marah J. Hardt out this month from St. Martin's Press, is focused on exactly what its title suggests. From shrimp-like copepods with virgin fetishes to female anglerfish that are dominatrixes by nature, the book's 234 pages explore the surprising depths of marine copulation.
And while reading about how cuttlefish cross-dress as a seduction tactic is a fun romp on its own, each section of the book—(sample heading: "The Penis Chapter")—starts off with a "sex-sea" playlist recommendation and some erotic fanfiction (fish-fiction?) that gives a brief and humorous overview of an aspect of sea sex in more human terms before diving into the more scientific details. Here's Hardt's novelization of lobster courtship, which the female initiates with a spritz of pee in order to subdue the aggressive male:
Her mind made up, she set off in the morning and sidled up his walkway and rang the bell. Showing up unannounced was risky. This guy was known for being cantankerous at best, violent at worst. But she was ready. As soon as the door opened, she let loose a stream of urine right on his doorstep… and then ran like hell. A few more days of that, she knew, and he'd be all hers.
The book continues with whales that engage in threesomes, hermaphroditic worms, sharks with multiple penises, corals that prefer group sex, the elaborate mechanisms of underwater vaginas, and much more. The deeper you go, it only gets weirder. But in addition to its entertaining exploration of aquatic fucking, Sex in the Sea also mounts a seductive argument for oceanic conservation in the face of over-fishing, pollution, and global warming. The more we understand how fish get it on, Hardt explains, "the more we can help shepherd this force toward restoring productivity in the sea rather than proving a giant block against it."
BROADLY: Why did you decide to write a book all about sea animal sex?
Marah J. Hardt: I studied coral reefs during graduate school, and in particular I was looking at human impacts on coral reefs. The truth is I saw a lot of really degraded reefs in really bad shape, and I knew that, for most of the public, oceans are just not a top priority issue. There's a lot of other things to be concerned about, so I was really trying to figure out how I could get folks to understand what's going on in the oceans, to try to engage a wider audience in some of the issues that we were struggling to solve.
One day I was at a cocktail party with some friends, and we were all sort of talking about how frustrating it was trying to understand the opposite sex. A woman said, "I just wish for one day I could live in the body of a man and understand what they're seeking, what they're feeling—like what the heck is going on in there." I very casually, as a nerdy biologist would, said, "Ugh, I know—if only we could be like parrotfish." And of of course everybody kind of stopped and looked at me and was like, "What are you talking about?" I explained that parrotfish can change sex—they go from female to male—and everybody wanted to understand more. Then I actually was able to start talking about how this could really make ocean management much more complicated because, with parrotfish, you have to not only make sure that fishers are leaving enough fish in general, but you have to make sure they're not skewing the gender ratio. I was surprised that everybody really stayed in tune when they were listening to this conversation, and then about half an hour later I heard somebody retelling the story to another group of people at the party. That's when I thought, Okay, that's it! If we talk about sex—and we can get people curious in understanding these wonderful, wild behaviors—then there's a chance to help build that bridge into the conservation messages.
Ultimately sex is the heart of sustainability. Sex is what drives reproduction. It's what drives replenishment. All the abundance that the oceans provide and that we depend upon as humans, and other animals on this planet depend upon, comes from copious amounts of sex in the sea. That's sort of where it all came together.
The ocean is so wild and inherently weird—it's still so unknown. What was your favorite chapter to write?
My love affair with sex in the sea started with corals. That's where I was first introduced to some of the completely different ways that animals have sex in the ocean. I did love getting back to writing about that, but I have to say my favorite chapter is likely the inter-chambers chapter, which is all about female reproductive systems in the ocean. So much of that research is new. For so long researchers and scientists have put females in a passive role, where they're just sort of receiving the actions of the male. With new technology, especially paternity and maternity tests and better studies on things like whale anatomy, we're starting to see that females actually have a lot more control, and often that control is happening after the sex. It was really neat to talk to some of the researchers who are lifting the veil on the female's sexual role because it's all so new.
I think over the next few years we are going to see many more studies that are focusing on either just the female or, at least, both. I think the work on whales and dolphins that Dr. Sarah Mesnick and her colleagues are doing in particular is just really, really blowing the doors open on how much more complicated and fascinating the female system is. Some of these vaginas that they've been studying are like mazes. I remember Dr. Mesnick telling me, "You look at some of these parts [of a whale's vagina], and you just think, How the hell would a sperm ever find his way through this thing without a GPS? So some really fun stuff is starting to come out as the research is progressing.
That's insane. Have they found out why the whale's vagina is so complex?
They're getting pretty close. They have their theories. What's interesting is that not all species of whale have parts that are as complicated. Some are complicated and some are simple, so they're looking at the mating strategy and the habits of these different species and trying figure out what's happening in some species that's not happening in others, and how that correlates to the anatomy. Then they're of course also looking at the male parts. You learn a lot about how species mate through male anatomy. For example, males that have to compete with other males to reproduce tend to have really, really large testes. So when a female mates with multiple males in close succession, her reproductive track is flooded with the sperm of multiple males, and it basically becomes like a battleground. They have to duke it out and figure out who's actually gonna make it to the egg. One way that males try to win this battle is by producing huge torrents of sperm that they can just flood the female with in order to flush out the other guys' product.
Some things you don't want to anthropomorphize at all because it's just too weird.
So these researchers are looking at all these different factors to find patterns: Where do we see the big testes in males? Where do we think there's lots of sperm competition going on? How does that relate to the level of complexity in the vagina? I can't say too much because they're about to publish some of this work, but the answer really sheds some light on the way that we think about who's actually in control. As Dr. Mesnick says, after sex the female has the home-field advantage. She's in control of that home stretch to the egg. It's her body, and we now know that there are likely lots of different techniques and systems in place for the female to be able to have a little more say in which suitor wins out.
I was really fascinated by the part in the book where you mentioned that female ducks are built to defend themselves against rape, which they unfortunately experience a lot. Can you talk about some of the other mechanisms that females of different species can control how they have sex?
With the ducks, and we think this could happen perhaps in some other marine life, the female's vagina is a spiral. It spirals the opposite direction to a male's penis. Unless the female is relaxed and has those muscles sort of open, the male can't get all the way up there. We see this with other animals, too. So one way [females have control over their reproductive system] is physical barriers that can be enacted through muscular contractions, for example.
There's also this really neat trick that many species do through sperm storage. We're not sure exactly how much conscious selection goes on, but in species such as sharks, females have little pouches all around the uterus area where they can store sperm. This allows them to mate with multiple males. We're not really sure what goes on after that, but we know it basically gives her a little bit of control and it means that the male she mates with isn't necessarily the one that's going to fertilize her eggs. There's a delay there.
You look at some of these parts [of a whale's vagina], and you just think, How the hell would a sperm ever find his way through this thing without a GPS?
Then you have the super-far end of the spectrum: female sharks who are able to reproduce by parthenogenesis—that's basically "virgin birth." We're finding that these females are actually able to reproduce without the import of any male DNA whatsoever. It's a really crazy technique, and ultimately it's not the best thing for the long-term survival of a species: The offspring that are produced are not as genetically diverse as they would be if a male and female had gotten together and genes had mixed from two individuals. Another thing is that the births always result in one sex: females only have females. So, again, long-term that doesn't work well, but it actually could be a really helpful stopgap to have. For species that are overfished and critically endangered to the point that they're having trouble finding a mate, producing a few offspring without needing to hook up might be a way that the population can squeak through a hard time. I think knowing that sharks can do this in the wild is actually good news, but it's also a warning that these females aren't being able to reproduce in the way that they normally would. In general, when given the option, animals will turn to sex even if they can self-reproduce.
Read More: Dinosaurs Were into Foreplay, New Study Says
Which sea creature would you say is the kinkiest?
Definitely the lobsters—they have a urine fetish. Lobsters are really kinky, but also rather romantic, I guess kind of like us. Male lobsters are extremely aggressive during mating season. They try to establish territory and take over dens to show that they're the most dominant guy on the block—and the females like this. The females kind of like the bad boys, and they want to mate with the toughest guy. But the problem is that the best time for female lobsters to mate is after she has molted, which leaves her very vulnerable. Her shell is her armor and after she molts she's so weak that she can barely stand. So she's faced with this conundrum where she needs to present herself to the male in her weakest state, and the male is this giant, clawed, and very aggressive animal. So what she does for about a week is spritz him with some of her urine.
Lobster's bladders are located right below their brains—they have these nozzles under their eye sockets—so she's basically squirting him with pee from what looks like her eyes. After a couple of days of this, the male starts to transform a bit. He becomes intoxicated with her scent, and he eventually invites her into the den where they will cohabit for a number of days. When it's time to have sex, she'll go to the back of the den, shed her shell, and the male will be really gentle with her. He strokes her with his antenna, circles her, and when she gives the signal that she's ready to go, he'll go behind her, cradling her underneath him with his legs. He rolls her onto her back and pulls her up towards him so that they're belly-to-belly in a basic missionary position. Then he will insert his male parts into her sperm receptacle, deliver the sperm—there's some thrusting that goes on—and then he very gently lays her back down. After that, she goes to the back of the den and he remains with her, almost like a guard, while her shell hardens. Eventually she'll leave and then the next female will move in, beginning the next golden shower process.
I liked was how each chapter of the book started off with sea-based erotic fanfiction. What was the process like writing those?
Some came more easily than others. For whatever reason, as soon as I began doing research on penis sensor [worms], I imagined them as cowboys coming to a showdown in a Wild West scene. So some of them just sort of popped into my head. For others, I was really thinking about what would our life would look like if this is how we had to do it. I always try and find that balance between making it accessible and hopefully a little but funny, but also not making it too creepy. Some things you don't want to anthropomorphize at all because it's just too weird. There were definitely some drafts of stories where I was like, Yeah, I can't go there, go back.
What are some things we can do in order to make sure all these different species can can continue to have sex the way they need to?
There's a lot, and that's why folks who read the book walk away optimistic. Our knowledge is exploding at such a rate that it's giving us so many more opportunities to actually put change into effect. For folks who are seafood lovers, for example, we can try to be more conscious about eating sex-friendly food. What I mean by sex-friendly food is going to your local grocery store, or when you go to a restaurant, and asking the chef where the fish came from. Who was it caught by? How was it caught? Where was it caught?
There are wonderful guides that help to advise what species are good to harvest. In general, we want to be eating lower. We want to be eating the animals that have the most reproductive potential: sardines, mackerel, all of the shellfish, shrimp, oysters, mussels, clams. Right now, though, it's really hard as a consumer to always be able to get the information that will allow you to make a good choice and allow you to actually support fishers who are doing a good job. But by simply going into a restaurant or a grocery store and asking for more information that sends a message to the industry that information is important and needs to pass through the supply chain. I encourage everyone to get to know your fish.