A couple of days ago, I came across a news item on the BBC that made me feel perversely proud of coming from a part of the world that has the ability to single-handedly keep absurd humor alive. Here’s the story, summed up in a line: cops doing the night shift at the house of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have been suspended, because a cat ate one of his peacocks.
Yes, the Pakistani Prime Minister has peacocks.
Yes, a cat ate one of them.
Yes, this is obviously the responsibility of the cops on duty. (Did you really think they were stationed outside the residence to protect the Prime Minister? From the media, or from potential assassins, or from, oh, I don’t know… the Taliban? Pffht!)
Amused, I shared the news story with Boyfriend, who received it with typical nonchalance, but then followed it up with this:
“Speaking of peacocks, did you know that male peafowl fake orgasms?”
Obviously, I forgot all about the Prime Minister’s dead peacock at that point. I mean, cat-eaten peacocks are interesting, but orgasm-faking ones kinda blow them out of the water.
As anyone who had ever spent hours perfecting the details of an OKCupid profile, attempted to strike up a conversation with someone attractive at a bar, or sat in a corner at a party all evening, drink in hand, hoping a soul mate will somehow miraculously emerge from the frenzied crowd knows, mating is a tricky game. People who love cliches – let’s admit, that’s most of us – will tell you after a breakup that there are “many fish in the ocean.” There may be, but to continue this rather crude metaphor, there are also many a fishing line, quietly waiting to bait and hook.
In this bleak scenario, we all know that the best way to maximize our chances of acquiring a mate is to present empirical and possibly quantifiable evidence of our qualifications as a partner. (Look at me, talking like a social scientist. Urgh.) And what better evidence than experience, yes?
Well, apparently we aren’t the only species who seek this kind of evidentiary support when weighing our options for companionship. Females among peafowl – “peahens” – base their willingness to partner with males not just on how glorious their tails look, or how well they dance (so much for all that vanity), but on how many other females they have successfully mated with.
Ergo, the fake orgasms.
A recent study conducted at the University of British Columbia and published in The American Naturalist was the first to disclose that male peafowl will often walk around faking orgasms. Specifically, peacocks, who emit a hooting sound distinct from all the other cries in their repertoire when they do the deed, sometimes make exactly that sound when they’re hanging around by themselves, distractedly pecking at something, taking a solitary walk, or whatever it is that peacocks do alone. (See the video here.) The study also notes that these fake orgasm sounds, or “copulatory calls,” as the researchers call them, are far louder than they need to be in order to attract females in the immediate vicinity, because the purpose of these fake orgasms isn’t just to attract females at that moment, but also to send a message to the larger community that this guy gets around. Get in line, ladies. This bird’s in demand.
How or why has this mating ritual come to be? Well, for one, because Evolution, quite like my great-aunt, has a very limited understanding of sex. And for another, because the straightforward principles of demand and supply can make liars of the best of us.
By tricking females into thinking them promiscuous, males actually lead them to believe they are genetically sturdy, and therefore desirable candidates to sire future generations. Ordinarily, they wouldn’t have to resort to totally shady tactics like faking orgasms to get females to mate with them. But given the large supply of seemingly virile males, the females can afford to be choosy, and the males are reduced to competing with one another. So they put on a pretense of getting action even when they aren’t, just so they can brag, so they can show off a false notch on the proverbial bedpost.
Of course, if the peacock – the Elizabeth Taylor of the animal kingdom, the Jon Hamm of birds – feels this level of insecurity, humans don’t stand a chance. Quick to adapt (and to lie), humans too inflate the number of sexual partners they’ve had because they believe it makes them more attractive and desirable. According to this study, some among our delightfully flawed species will even pay up to $250 a month to buy fake FaceBook relationships. You know, to increase their chances of getting into real relationships. By leading people with whom they want to have relationships into believing they are already in a relationship and therefore not available in the first place…? I don’t understand our species.
And just like that, the ridiculously problematic vision of American Pie now seems to me like a brilliant insight into the slightly laughable state of the human (and peafowl) mating mind.