Genital evolution: why are females still understudied?

PLoS Biol. 2014 May 6;12(5):e1001851. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001851. eCollection 2014 May.


The diversity, variability, and apparent rapid evolution of animal genitalia are a vivid focus of research in evolutionary biology, and studies exploring genitalia have dramatically increased over the past decade. These studies, however, exhibit a strong male bias, which has worsened since 2000, despite the fact that this bias has been explicitly pointed out in the past. Early critics argued that previous investigators too often considered only males and their genitalia, while overlooking female genitalia or physiology. Our analysis of the literature shows that overall this male bias has worsened with time. The degree of bias is not consistent between subdisciplines: studies of the lock-and-key hypothesis have been the most male focused, while studies of cryptic female choice usually consider both sexes. The degree of bias also differed across taxonomic groups, but did not associate with the ease of study of male and female genital characteristics. We argue that the persisting male bias in this field cannot solely be explained by anatomical sex differences influencing accessibility. Rather the bias reflects enduring assumptions about the dominant role of males in sex, and invariant female genitalia. New research highlights how rapidly female genital traits can evolve, and how complex coevolutionary dynamics between males and females can shape genital structures. We argue that understanding genital evolution is hampered by an outdated single-sex bias.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Biomedical Research / trends*
  • Female
  • Genitalia, Female / anatomy & histology
  • Genitalia, Female / physiology*
  • Genitalia, Male / anatomy & histology
  • Genitalia, Male / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Sexism / psychology*
  • Sexism / statistics & numerical data
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal / physiology*

Grant support

MA was supported by a grant from the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education ( The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.