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Gender in Hook, Line & Sinker

G

Or, In Which We Discover Seahorse Biology

I write mpreg, rather unapologetically. I forget exactly when I first discovered the trope/genre/whatever you want to call it, but it fascinated me. In many ways, it still does. I’m not quite sure why. I could wax poetic about how it crosses gender and sex divides, subjects male characters to female roles, and so on, but that’s the fact of the matter.

One thing that has always bothered me is the tendency to explain away why or how mpreg is possible in a story. The most common explanation is “magic.” In omegaverse stories, it just is.

There’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief any reader takes into any story. Mpreg stories tend to take a lot of effort, though. “It just is” explanations usually see me closing the book, even if rather reluctantly.

As a response, I always want to make sure I’m answering the question, “But why?” when it comes to my own stories.

I think we miss world-building opportunities when we wave our hands and say, “It is what it is.”

The Flirting with the Zodiac series is an answer to that. In each book, I intend to ground the possibility of mpreg in some way with a (quasi-) scientific explanation.

In Book 1, Hook, Line & Sinker, this takes the form of the infamous “seahorse biology.”

What Is Seahorse Biology?

“Seahorse biology” is sometimes used to refer to mpreg as a whole. It’s usually derogatory—we have men who have “seahorse biology.”

A baby seahorse emerges from its father's pouch.

Seahorses—and their close relatives seadragons and pipefish—have the dubious distinction of being the only animals in which males give birth.

Seahorses are thus quite literally the only true case of “male pregnancy” on the face of the Earth. In seahorses, females develop eggs and then deposit them via ovipositor into the male’s brood pouch. The male then engages in internal fertilization. In a few weeks, he gives birth to hundreds or even thousands of baby seahorses.

Scientists aren’t quite sure why seahorses have evolved this way. It seems to have to do with energy investment by the male and female. Females still end up investing much more time and energy in developing eggs; in some species, a female seahorse can lose up to 15 percent of her body weight by offloading her eggs.

Males, by contrast, do less work and invest less energy in brooding the babies. Thus, it’s more efficient energy-wise for both than to have females develop eggs and need to brood the babies.

In Hook, Line & Sinker, I’ve quite literally adopted seahorse biology for the main character, Tydeus Metzler.

Alien Species and Evolution

The main argument here is that different species would evolve differently. We can see that’s played out on Earth itself. After all, seahorses and human beings have very different reproductive systems, clearly. Other examples abound. And, of course, that’s only taking into consideration reproductive systems—not the vast diversity that abounds in terms of abilities, digestive systems, senses, and so on.

It only stands to reason that lifeforms on another planet might evolve in ways that are different to human beings. They might not necessarily be something we’ve never encountered before.

Ty is a Piscean, the dominant species on the planet Piscea, which orbits one of the stars in the constellation Pisces.

Pisceans have a humanoid form, but they share plenty of features with terrestrial seahorses—including their mode of reproduction.

Early in the book, Ty identifies that female Pisceans have an ovipositor and males brood the young in their pouches. This is mostly certainly a case of mpreg (hang on, we’ll get to the queer stuff in a minute).

Some biologists define “male” and “female” based upon the gametes the organism produces. So, a female Pisceans produces eggs, and male Pisceans still produce sperm.

Ty is still male, despite the fact he has a genital opening, no external testicles, and a brood pouch. He produces sperm, and thus, is “male.”

However, Ty notes he also possesses a penis—something he wouldn’t necessarily need for reproduction as described. So what gives?

Squaring Circles

Male Pisceans are actually more along the lines of hermaphrodites in this case. There are a few ways I could have squared the circle here (such as requiring three partners, etc.).

Since the story is meant to be mlm, though, male Pisceans produce both eggs and sperm. That would make them hermaphroditic, using our biological definition of “male” and “female” above.

This isn’t something entirely unheard of in Earth’s own animal kingdom. It usually occurs in species where encountering another individual is fairly rare. Having separate sexes decreases the likelihood of successful reproduction. Essentially, you’d have to make sure you encounter an individual of the right sex. If it’s already hard to meet people, your chances of success go down.

So why would Pisceans still have separate females, who produce only eggs?

Dr. K gives us an answer early in the book. Some (or potentially most) male Pisceans produce eggs, but when they do, it’s usually fewer.

Here, we can see this as a species evolving to ensure maximum success in reproduction. Females only produce eggs, so they can focus all of their energy on the production of those eggs. Generally speaking, they’d likely produce more, superior eggs.

Male Pisceans, on the other hand, produce both eggs and sperm. Male Pisceans who don’t produce eggs seem to be rare, but they would focus solely on produce sperm—perhaps more of it and of superior quality than their hermaphroditic peers.

The hermaphroditic males produce fewer eggs than females and less sperm than “true” males. However, they may increase the chances of successful reproduction. Perhaps what we’re looking at is evolution in progress. Maybe all Pisceans were hermaphroditic in the past, and the species is now undergoing increasing sexual dimorphism.

Or, perhaps, at some point in the species’ history, there was a shortage of females, which favored the hermaphroditic males who could perform either role.

The book also notes that Pisceans rely heavily on their mates, so the social system may also have influenced reproduction.

In short, there are a number of ways we could have arrived at such a situation.

Is Ty Really a Guy Then?

I shouldn’t have to dignify this question with more than a “yes.” It it is worth digging in a bit here.

Genetically, yes, Ty is male, and he is a typical male for his species. He’s been raised in a human environment, however, so pregnancy and all its trappings are largely coded as “female.” This is what Ty struggles with.

His biology doesn’t match what humans typically codify as “male.” Ty remarks on his classmates helpfully pointing this out in gym class; his body doesn’t conform to human expectations or standards.

That doesn’t make him less male, nor does it make him less of “a man.” Ty identifies himself as male. After his classmates discover how “odd” he is, Ty is reassured by his parents. He is a boy, no matter what anyone else says.

So more than being male, Ty is also a man, despite the fact that his biology doesn’t fit into a neat little box.

Even among humans, biology is rarely the be-all, end-all of identity some people would like it to be.

Is Ty Just a Trans Masc Body?

In a sense, yes. Again, I’ll point to the fact that, within the story, this is couched in the fact he’s a different species. He is genetically coded as male and identifies as male, so Ty is cisgender, for all intents and purposes.

But, as with most mpreg, we can read Ty as standing in for the trans masculine. He is codified and identified in the text as male, but the text repeatedly subverts this identity by referencing the less “male” parts of Ty’s body.

This is part of what makes mpreg so fascinating, at least for me. Within it, we have bodies that break and transcend boundaries. The trope forces us to ask “what is male?” and “what is female?”

As we proceed through the story, we begin to see the categories dissolving. Ty identifies as male, although his body does things human society typically codes as “female.”

It’s been argued that all mpreg is really just a fetishization of the trans masculine. The second we introduce the possibility of male pregnancy, we’ve ceased to talk about cisgender male characters. I’d argue that stance clings too hard to the gender binary, although I do agree that we’ve entered a space where both biological sex and social gender norms begin to break down.

When that happens, we have an opportunity to tease out possibilities, ideas, to imagine how sex and gender might work outside of humanity—and within it as well.

Ty is not himself trans masc, but he certainly embodies the idea that biology might not be so rigid as some people would like us to believe.

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