The incredible reason spotted hyena society is ruled by females

Filmmaker and Zoologist

When the allegations against Harvey Weinstein were revealed in October 2017, an opinion writer for The New York Times likened him to a hyena, writing: “Hyenas cannot help their own nature.” Ironically, as zoologist Lucy Cooke reveals, the qualities of a hyena couldn’t be further from the nature of Weinstein’s sexual misconduct. "The truth about hyenas is that they are really, I think, more like the feminist icons of the animal kingdom," says Cooke. "The spotted hyena is an extraordinary creature... The female’s genitalia is a facsimile of the male’s. She has what is described in polite zoological circles as a “pseudo-penis”, which is actually an eight-inch clitoris. And she also has a fake scrotum." This unusual appendage often suffocates cubs during labor and causes first-time spotted hyena moms to die in childbirth, so what is the evolutionary benefit? The most favored theory posits that it's a built-in anti-rape device, as the female's unique genitalia requires her full cooperation in mating. As Cooke explains in much more detail, hyena sex is not for the faint-hearted, and it's the female's power in this domain that helps her rule the entire society. Lucy Cooke is the author of The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife.

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TRANSCRIPT

Lucy Cooke: So, very recently, during the whole Harvey Weinstein scandal, Weinstein was compared to a hyena. This is one of those instances where I just shook my head and just thought, 'Well, that is just about the most least-appropriate animal to compare Harvey Weinstein to.'

The reason why—I think it was The New York Times that was comparing Harvey Weinstein to a hyena—was because they are seen as these aggressive, unpleasant, cowardly, malicious, malevolent creatures. The truth about hyenas is that they are really, I think, more like the feminist icons of the animal kingdom.

The spotted hyena is an extraordinary creature. They are the original “chicks with dicks” because they have extraordinary genitalia. The female’s genitalia is a facsimile of the male’s. She has what is described in polite zoological circles as a “pseudo-penis”, which is actually an eight-inch clitoris. And she also has a fake scrotum.

And it’s an unusual piece of equipment for a female, because it’s a strange multitasking organ, the pseudo-penis, because the female hyena will actually copulate, urinate and give birth through it. So giving birth is a bit like squeezing a melon out of a hose pipe, and a large percentage of cubs suffocate on the way out, and a large amount of first-time moms die in childbirth.

So you’ve got to think, 'Hello evolution, what were you thinking when you evolved the pseudo-penis in the hyena? What possible reason can there be for this structure?' And there are lots of theories as to why, but the most favored theory by Kay Holekamp—who’s the Jane Goodall of spotted hyenas, an amazing scientist who has been studying them in the wild for years and years and years—when I asked her, she said that she thought that it was all to do with the war between the sexes.

So hyenas are unusual, the females; they don’t just have a pseudo-penis and a fake scrotum, but they’re also bigger than the males and they’re more aggressive. Hyena society is a strict matriarchy, with dominance passing down the female line. Males are reduced to the very outskirts of society where they are forced to beg for acceptance, food, and sex. So the females are really running the show, and they’re extremely aggressive.

Now, if a male wants to mate with a female it’s almost impossible for him to do that without her cooperation because it’s kind of like trying to have sex with a sock—because he’s got to try and insert his erect actual-penis into her half-foot floppy pseudo-penis. I mean, it’s not for the faint-hearted. You can’t really do it unless the female is on your side.

Now, amongst mammals rape is not uncommon. Dolphins—everybody loves them, look like they’re smiling—but they are not averse to boffing each other’s blowholes. There’s actually a fair amount of non-consensual sex, shall we say, that happens amongst dolphins.

But for the female hyena, there’s absolutely no way that the male can force himself on her because she has to be completely compliant in order for him to be able to mate with her.

So the idea that Harvey Weinstein was described as a hyena when this is an animal that is a strict matriarch, an aggressive female with a built-in anti-rape device, is about the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard.