Review: Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creations (Olivia Judson)

Arranged in such a way as to mimic sex advice columns, with all sorts of frustrated, confused creatures (although that would be an exaggeration —plants are hardly discussed) writing for an advice on their sexual lives, the book gives you up-to-date information on evolutionary biology of sex.The columns are grouped in thirteen chapters, each focusing on certain themes (female’s promiscuousity, wooing expenses, how to win if you’re a loser, cannibalism, violence, “sneaky” devices, homosexuality, extreme rarity of monogamy, incest, gender-bending and its variants, hermaphrodite, asexuality) to then further compiled as three parts. Each column typically begins with a question, for example:

Dear Dr. Tatiana, I’ve heard it’s going to take me three weeks to make just one sperm. Apparently this is because it’s going to need a tail twenty times longer than my body. This seems awfully unfair. I’m just a little fruit fly, Drosophila bifurca. Can’t I get a prosthesis?

Waiting for Sperm in Ohio

And Dr. Tatiana would reply chattily:

There’s no market in artificial sperm tails: you’re going to have to make them yourself. You’re right, it’s not fair. Why should a fruit fly three milimeters long—smaller than this dash—have to make sperm that measure fifty-eight milimeters? A human is far bigger than you, but gets away with sperm one thousand times smaller. Indeed, if a man were to make a sperm on your scale, it would be as long as a blue whale. Now, that I’d like to see.

But she doesn’t stop at that: Dr Tatiana would give you a tour of similar or related problems in other species (The Giant Sperm Hall of Fame contains a diverse scattering of animals), exploring detailed information on the biology of sex with entertaining wit that is never pushed at the expense of information nor enjoyment. The book doesn’t assume a background in biology, and at the end of the book, thorough notes are provided for those interested in further, (more technical) readings. Well-written, as entertaining as it is informative.

Dr Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creations – The Show

SBS has concluded the last part of Dr. Tatiana’s three-series (science musical) show. Instead of the book’s sassy sex advice columnist (who would put whatsername of that Sex and the City to shame), Olivia Judson appears in the doco as a leggy, white-leather-clad Dr Tatiana the sexpert consultant, riding along in her Mustang for her research, consoling all-dancing, all-singing, hanky-panky creatures (from frustrated fruit flies to lovelorn golden pottos).

Button beetle in Dr Tatiana''s clinic
From the documentary, button beetle in Dr Tatiana’s clinic

While the show is also divided into three parts, it does not proceed in the same order as the book. The first part of the documentary gives a sketch of the battlefield, glimpses through the weird, troubled wild world of animal sex: hermaphrodite banana slugs that chew their penises after copulation (post-coital cigarettes, anyone?), button beetles eating her son after she has sex with him, an asexual bdelloid rotifier causing a riot a la Jerry-Springer show, and a whole array of very colourful shenanigans.

The second part focuses on females, more strumpets than saints, e.g. a chastity belt in the form of exploding penis in honeybees, girls being picky, lured with gifts and physical attractions, aggression in females, while the last part shows the length boys would go to stop the females from sleeping around (penis with thistles, nobbles and spikes, aphrodisiacs, to the extent of offering oneself as a snack), what to do if you’re a poor, ugly wimp (be a sneak or join a gang).

Not as information-packed as the book (above) of course, but very entertaining nevertheless, and daring visuals as colourful as these—for a science doco—are always appreciated. The songs, like most musicals out there, can get a bit too much and draggy (some songs I wish weren’t as long), but hey, I can just imagine just for once the full, undivided attention from high school students on this doco.

(Photo credits: Joe Bondi Beach)

Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creations
by Olivia Judson
Metropolitan Books; 1st edition (August 14, 2002)
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