:: Article

Sex Colours

By Nicole Walker.

I picked Zoe up from middle school next door in the elementary school parking lot because the parent drivers at the middle school are worse than they are at the younger kids’ school. Little kids, with their two missing front teeth and too-big backpacks encourage slow vehicles and an investment in turn signals. Perhaps the DMV could offer defensive (or at least less offensive) driving courses called Driving-For-Cuteness. Zoe does not like it when I swear or when I honk, so I do the responsible thing and take myself out of the triggering situation and make her walk up the hill to the younger kid’s parking lot.

She slammed the door fast and slumped in her seat.

“There was just a fight in the hallway.”

“What happened? You saw it?”

“These guys were, like, wrestling. And you know Mr. Good? He saw them. And his face, it gets so red when he gets mad and he puts on a mad smile. He came up to the boy who pushed the other boy and said, give me your lanyard. And the kid said, I don’t have it. And Mr. Good said, what is your name. The kid didn’t tell him. So Mr. Good said stay right here. Do you know what the kid did?”


“He walked away! Mr. Good’s face got even more red. He asked his friends, what was his name. And they said, ‘Triblets’ Honour.’ We can’t tell.”

I had no idea what Triblets’ Honour was. Neither did Zoe. Some guy code. Stonewalled, what can Mr. Good do?  “I have ways of making you talk” happens only in the movies. But teenagers are equipped with special lip glue. You can scream at them until the red heat that colours your face percolates out of the top of your head. They still won’t talk.

“Then what happened?” I asked Z.

“I left. Mr. Craig was coming and he gets really mad.”

“I can’t believe the boys did that.”

But I could believe it. Middle school boys are tough. Middle school teachers are tough. It’s a wonder the disciplinary actions don’t turn to blows more often.

I needed to turn right but I looked down the hill at the buses and cars and non-signalling drivers. I turned left, speeding a little. It’s best to get out of the way when you’re surrounded by madness. But then someone pulled out in front of me.

“What the hell, jackass? Did you see that, Zoe? He pulled out right in front of me. What am I invisible?”

Zoe slid down into her seat on the off chance she knew the kid of the driver and he would associate me, the red-faced driver, with her.

Octopuses turn colours when they’re angry. It had been generally understood that octopuses—especially the Sydney Octopus, also known as the gloomy octopus—when they come in contact with another octopus, the bigger one usually eats the smaller one. After mating, the female octopus usually eats the male. But, according to Mary Bates, writing for National Geographic, researchers suspected that if octopuses ate each other every time they met, they wouldn’t get together very often[1]. Scientists found that octopuses did interact and, when they did, they seemed to talk to each other through their skin colour. An aggressive octopus looking for a fight, turns red.  If the one that feels threatened turns grey or pale, the red octopus usually leaves him alone. If the choice is between an unflattering grey and being eaten to death, why wouldn’t the octopus choose to tone down his flashiness? But, I wonder, why does the red-inflamed octopus back down? He could win this. He could have lunch. He could win new territory? If they were middle school boys, they would stand their ground. They would descend and gobble. If they were middle school teachers, they’d turn redder and redder until the kids say something truly mean, like, “what are you going to do about it?” and the colour drains from Mr. Good’s face.

I’ve been a detached observer for most of the #MeToo movement. I made a comment on Facebook that said something like: Yes, I get it. We’ve all been sexually harassed but harassment and assault don’t seem to be the same thing to me. Someone posted back, “Pretty privileged position to take.” Then, another story came out about a man hurting a woman. Aziz Ansari took a woman home. They got naked. They kissed. She hesitated. They kissed again. She pulled back. He said, come on. She said, hmm. I don’t know. OK. They kissed some more. Mouths went around and further down. She didn’t move. He kept moving. She sat up. She walked around the house, naked. She came back. They kissed some more. He lay on top of her. She wiggled. Did she wiggle away or with him? Either way, she stood up. She went to the bathroom. She came back and said to him that she felt forced and that she didn’t want to feel forced. Then, they sat on the couch and he pointed to his crotch, indicating that he wanted her to give him head. Then he bent her over a mirror and said, where do you want me to fuck you? She did not answer because it wasn’t a matter of where. It was a matter of not.

At first, I read this as just another scene of bad sex. In my mind, I told the woman to move on. That has been my response. Bad sex. It’s everywhere. Deal with it. But then I think, maybe that is the fucking problem. Someone made a meme: “women who say ‘if that’s assault, then every woman I know has been assaulted.’” Perhaps that is getting close to the point.

There have been whole years where I’ve thought, at least I’m not getting pulled by the hair by a caveman. From what I understand about sexual culture, we’re lucky not to be raped every time a man wants to have sex with us. There’s a dark place in my mind that doesn’t want to think this but sometimes the fears flash: We’ve learned to placate. Men don’t need to read the signs women’s bodies give because they are bigger, stronger. If they really want it, they’ll just take it, so we let our heads be pushed into their crotch and try to make the best of it.

But what if rape is not the natural way to have sex? What if we aren’t evolving but devolving in our sexual exploits? What if humans give off bodily cues like lying still or walking away or turning cold and grey as a reticent octopus? Prairie dogs click for danger. Chimpanzees pound the ground. Golden Eagles shrill mating calls[2], calling back and forth with a whistle until the two birds, imitating each other, come close enough to sounding like one. Eagles have to use their voices to communicate because it would be hard to rape someone in the air. Wings make consensual sex possible? But it’s not just birds that say what they mean. Whole rumps in air, a suffocation of plumage, a battery of intricate dances.

Cuttlefish have over ten million colour cells in their skin[3]. They can mimic the sand, algae, rocks. Some call their skin elastic. Some call it electric. They can even make their cells communicate two signals as the same time—similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s idea that the idea of true intelligence is being able to hold two ideas in your mind at the same time. A little male cuttlefish, swimming along in a sea, among a couple of other cuttlefish, can change the colour To the female cuttlefish on the right he will highlight dark and sexy male colours. Male cuttlefishes think it’s just two female cuttlefishes hanging out while the female, if she’s intrigued by the colours, sidles on up to the male’s right side. Before the very eyes of their cuttlefish peer group, they can mate, the surrounding male cuttlefish, captivated by the very femaleness of the colour situation, are none the wiser. 

Among species, the dynamic of a woman alone in a man’s apartment is a rare thing. There are no nearby cuttlefish that signal female colour coding. There are no nearby eagles to shrill. No octopuses to turn red. It’s a lonely place where you’ve got nothing but a body and a voice and an ancient memory of getting clubbed over the head. It is better to lie down than to be pushed down.

I have never been pushed down for sex. I’ve had my head steered in the general direction of men’s crotches. I’ve lain still, hoping the guy would take a hint. I was trained early that bad sex was what they called “sex.” Good sex—always a possibility! Truly, much good sex! But bad sex was the rule: good sex, at least until I was in my late twenties, was the exception. I fell in love with every guy with whom it was the exception. Someone who cared if I wanted to have sex or not? That must be true love.

What if that story of getting dragged by the hair into the cave and folded forward over a rock so the caveman can take us from behind isn’t the real story? What if the story is a more animalistic one? What if we, early humans danced up to our partners? Whose voice shrilled in the each other’s direction? What if paid attention to the nuance of skin? Flushed and warm, moving, electric.

My semi-feminist education reminds me that rape isn’t sex, it’s power, but the Jane’s Addiction song shrilling, “Sex is Violence” resonates in my head. Among most animals, rape is rare, but the closer you get to human-like intelligence, the more likely a few species practice forced copulation. Barbara Smutts at the University of Michigan has found that male chimpanzees harass female chimpanzees before they’re even in oestrus, biting her neck, punching her, scratching her, teaching the female chimp to fear the male so he’ll have easier access to her later. A group of male dolphins will pretend to surround a female dolphin in oestrus, only to turn and be the dolphins that force themselves upon her[4]. An article in the New York Times[5] highlighted research that dolphins may recognise themselves in the mirror earlier than babies. The mirror stage, according to Lacan, is when we develop the ability to separate from our mere sensations and recognise ourselves as entities that can act and abstract. In some ways, this may lead to the ability to understand that other humans are also entities with individual rights. In other ways, it may suggest that the more we recognise ourselves in the mirror, the more we abstract the idea that self is primary. Jacob Koshy, writing about rape in the animal kingdom in Livemint, wonders if there’s something on the flip side of empathy that allows people, and some animals, to use their capacity for abstract thought to manipulate, coerce, subjugate, and even rape the other:

Among the big outstanding questions in research endeavours that aim to explain behaviour in biological terms—as the extremely intriguing but divisive science of sociobiology tries to do—is whether the capacity for calculated violence that exists in humans is an inextricable flipside of our ability for selflessness.

I don’t know if chimpanzees or dolphins express empathy. We know elephants do when they gather in the spot a matriarch was killed and mourn for days. But that story is elephants living in a matriarchal culture—not primates or humans. For those of us who have survived the mirror stage, mourning involves both empathy and selfishness—feeling sorrow for the one who is gone, feeling sorry for yourself because they are no longer present. Is it possible to feel purely sad on behalf of the dead? No, because being connected to other humans, and their suffering, must be one of the points of a meaningful life.

After picking Zoe up from school, I drove behind a Toyota Tacoma, shade brownish-green, with a bumper sticker that read, “Standing by Our President.” It could have been an old sticker but it looked new. It looked triumphant. It looked like the guy wanted me to follow him and knock on his window, motion for him to step aside, and punch him in the face.

I have seen too many movies.

I feel too much kinship with Toyotas. How could Toyota sell a truck to someone who supports a racist xenophobe?

I did not punch him in the face.

I didn’t even flip him off. I’d learned my lesson from that long ago when I was riding  in the passenger seat in Monty’s VW Fastback and some dude pulled out in front of us. I flipped him off. Monty let go of the stick shift, grabbed my arm, pushed it down below the window-line.

“You’re not the one who will pay for that. I am.”

Monty wasn’t protecting me. He was protecting himself from having to fight the guy. Was he showing off to me or to the guy how strong his arm was as he wrestled mine into my lap? just a lynchpin in this testy fight between two testosterone filled guys?   

Some of the sex violence in the animal kingdom is committed by the female of the species. Female praying mantises bite the head’s off their male sex partners. Female octopuses, as noted above, usually eat their male mates. What makes lovers so delicious? Probably the dream of keeping all the sperm and good genes to yourself. That the violence comes after, and only after copulation and ejaculation, makes the violence seem more premeditated and methodical. But through an anthropomorphic lens, the story reads as hilarious because Hey, at least the guy got off. And, well, there isn’t a regular comparison in the human world. In our jokes about black widows and praying mantises, we analogize the joyful human element. We’re really so happy for the guy of the species. We know he died satisfied, getting most everything he wanted, plus ensuring the success of his progeny. Our empathy for orgasms and for babies is capacious.

In these female-eats-the-heads-of-the-male stories, the female are bigger than the males. It’s harder to eat a mate that’s bigger than you. Male praying mantises are tiny in comparison. Sexual dimorphism is common in the animal world. Female octopuses tend to be smaller than male too. In primates, including chimpanzees, the males are larger. Some primates, like gorillas, are often twice as big. “Patterns of size dimorphism exhibited in primates may correspond to the intensity of competition between members of the same sex for access to mates–intrasexual competition[6].” Male dolphins are usually twice as large as female dolphins. They need a bigger mirror into which they recognise themselves. The bigger the mirror, the more background is encompassed. Is everything in the mirror his own?

Roxane Gay, in her memoir Hunger, writes that after she was gang raped when she was twelve, she gained weight to protect herself. In an interview for NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Gay says, “And I just thought, well, boys don’t like fat girls. And so if I’m fat, they won’t want me. And they won’t hurt me again. But more than that, I really wanted to just be bigger so that I could fight harder.” When she was twelve, she was tiny, thin. Now she is six foot three and big. Although Hunger is about pain and shame, I also wonder if it’s advice. Grow bigger. Take yourself out of the chimpanzee, dolphin, human realm. No need to try praying mantis on for size. Just pick a species of monomorphs like vultures, maqui monkeys, neotropical frogs and become like them. Find a mate that is your size.

I, like Gay, had what I called sex “too young”. I was ten. There weren’t a lot of boys. Just one but it happened a lot of times. I had the bad rep she did. I’m short. I didn’t gain weight but the detritus of that experience expresses itself in different ways. The worst part of having sex too young is that you read the whole world as sex and/or violence. The multiple meanings of the world are invisible to you. For example, I follow people around in Toyota Tacomas, wanting to smash their windows in. I saw some kids with toy guns at Halloween and I went batshit crazy yelling at them, protecting my kids from what I thought were real guns. Then, when I found out they were toy guns, freaking out about the Latino guy.  “He’ll be the one in jail. Or dead!” Did you see what happened to the black kid with a toy gun in WalMart.?” I said to his friends. I lay on my horn in the parking lot. However, if my husband is in the car, I have been schooled to not flip anyone off.

I have not been successful in finding a mate that is exactly my size. I am sexually dimorphic. I am married to a tall man. We communicate flawlessly in that every fourteen weeks or so, we agree on what kind of dog food to feed the dogs. The rest of the time, we disagree—usually about paper towels (Can’t we just use washable rags?). But one reason I married him was because he liked to have sex, was OK when we didn’t have sex, and could read cues for sex, like “hey, let’s have sex now” or “oh my god, are you kidding me?” But, say, when we tried the Whole 30 in January diet, we were monomorphs for the month. It was awesome eating the same breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Complaining about the lack of cheese and the lack of alcohol. It was really fun, until he stepped on the scale. He lost ten pounds. I gained two. Maybe I will be bigger than him one day.

Koshy argues that species where there are female protectors to gather around, are the species where rape or coerced sex don’t happen. A circle of female friends provides a colour coding of a kind. The #MeToo movement comes highlighted in blue. But Jacob Koshy also argues that violence might not be hard-wired just because we see it in species that resemble us:

Even if it is a biological fact that we share over 90% of our genes with primates, that doesn’t imply that female coercion is permanently hardwired into us, as Edward O. Wilson might believe. The existence of a common set of genes across species that dictates the formation of the eye doesn’t explain monochromatic oxen, colour-blind snakes and our own multi-coloured visual acuity. However, an explanation for the formation of eyes will be incomplete without accounting for the role of genes and, therefore, it might well be that the elimination of rape may only lie ultimately in the elimination of violence itself.

So maybe some kinds of sex, like rape, is violence. Although, violence isn’t sex. We aren’t our genes, necessarily. And the story of the woman, dragged to the cave by her hair may not be the story. Maybe cave people were more similarly sized. Maybe women encircled each other in fat, protective rings. Maybe the culture hadn’t become so entrenched in the idea that men need to have sex as often as possible to be happy and women should spend their lives making men happy. Maybe there’s a way that men can be more like cuttlefish. Display their signals but keep the colour on their skin, positioned to the left. If they need to show off to the menfolk, sparkle fancy colours to the right.

In an effort to save the last of the two thousand remaining panda bears, conservationists have dressed up like pandas. The conservationists can then feed, observe, teach, and organise the living space for captive bears. Because these humans mimic behaviour of these pandas, the pandas are more likely to breed and their offspring more likely to succeed when they’re returned to the wild. Plus, the bears don’t tear the arms off of their conservationist friends when they think they’re pandas.

Although it’s a severely limited kind of empathy, perhaps it’s the kind of empathy we need. If we transpose the setting from conservation site to apartment, perhaps to change the success rate of sexual encounters, we need to dress like panda bears[7].

As Zoe slumps in the backseat of the car, her twelve-year-old body so tiny and thin, I hope she grows to be as big as the boys her age, maybe even as big as a panda. When she was little, we used to call her Susan Monster because Monsters Vs. Aliens was popular at the time. Susan Monster—taller than the boys, maybe even a little bit red.


[1] https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/07/150714-octopuses-fighting-ocean-science-animals/

[2] https://averagehunter.com/wild-game-downloads/hawks-eagles/?doing_wp_cron=1515792007.9922809600830078125000

[3] https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/08/080608-cuttlefish-camouflage-missions_2.html

[4] http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/jkywrmQMip9SG6QVYDoe0H/Rape-in-the-animal-kingdom.html

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/10/science/dolphins-self-recognition.html?smid=fb-share

[6] Gordon AD. 2006. Scaling of size and dimorphism in Primates II: Macroevolution. International Journal of Primatology 27(1):63-105

[7] https://www.racked.com/2018/1/11/16874500/conservation-panda-whooping-cranes-otters

NICOLE WALKER is the author of Sustainability: A Love Story and A Survival Guide for Life in the Ruins, Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 2nd, 2018.