Google the term “dolphin rape” and you’ll find countless references to male dolphins raping female dolphins, males raping other males, gang rape, and even dolphins raping humans. You might even find this hoax webpage claiming that dolphins regularly kidnap swimmers and take them to a “rape cave.” Head over to Google Scholar, however, and you will find exactly zero references to “dolphin rape” in the scientific peer-reviewed literature.
The reason for this discrepancy is quite simple: the term rape cannot be used to describe the kinds of behavior scientists have observed in dolphins. The central problem is that the legal definitions of rape include a lack of consent on the part of the victim, and we simply cannot know the extent to which dolphins or other animals are able to give consent. A non-consensual act like rape has “moral and legal implications” that are only relevant in the human world, which is why animal scientists (pretty much) stopped using the term altogether in the early 1980s. The correct scientific term to describe when a male aggressively restrains a female in order to mate is forced copulation. Forced copulation has been observed in ducks, lizards, monkeys, fruit flies, crickets, orangutans, chimpanzees, and countless other species.
But not dolphins.
Despite the media frenzy around the idea of dolphin rape, it’s primates, birds and insects that are the forced copulation aficionados, not dolphins. What follows is a brief rundown of all of the aggressive sexual behaviors that scientists have observed in dolphins that often find their way into popular reports discussing dolphin rape:
Sexual Coercion: Sexual Coercion is a term describing a suite of behaviors observed most frequently in the bottlenose dolphins of Shark Bay Australia and Sarasota Bay Florida. Individuals or groups of males use a variety of coercive tactics to increase their chances of mating with females. In Shark Bay, groups of male dolphins are often seen in the company of an individual female for extended periods of time (referred to as a consortship). Sometimes these males begin the consortship by herding (i.e., chasing and corralling) the female, although other times the female appears to enter the consortship willingly. These males sometimes use aggressive behavior to keep the female close to them and to fend off rival males, and it’s during these consortships that mating takes place.
In Sarasota, males also follow females around when it’s time to mate (a form of mate guarding), but rarely engage in aggressive behavior directed at the female like in Shark Bay. Dolphins might use other tactics to persuade a female to mate with them, including committing infanticide (i.e., killing calves) so that the females will come into estrus and be more receptive.
But here’s the thing: even in the clearly aggressive coercion scenarios witnessed in Shark Bay, researchers have never witnessed forced copulation. The kind of coercion being described here is indirect in that these tactics ultimately result in males persuading females to mate with them, but not directly forcing themselves on the females. The scientific experts studying the Shark Bay dolphins had this to say about forced copulation in a recent book:
We have no evidence of direct sexual coercion in dolphins, including forced copulation or other behaviors directly associated with male attempts to mate.
In other words, if forced copulation should be considered the non-human animal equivalent to rape insofar as it appears (to the human observer) as if the female has not given consent, then this still has never been observed in dolphins. This fact alone is a strong argument against the use of the word rape to describe any dolphin mating strategies.
The below video has been mislabeled as “Dolphins Mating,” and purportedly shows two males and one female dolphin. In fact, there are three male dolphins in this video. This group of young males is engaging in what scientists call socio-sexual behavior. This is a blanket term that describes any social behavior involving penises that does not involve a male trying to impregnate a female. Sometimes the dolphins simply rub all over each other while brandishing erections, and sometimes they actually insert their penises in each other’s anuses or genital slits. Unlike true mating, which usually take the form of the male swimming belly-to-belly underneath a female, socio-sexual behavior often involves the male approaching the other dolphin (male or female) from behind or the side. Sometimes it looks rather brutal and aggressive, and sometimes, like in the below video, the animals seem pretty chill. There are a variety of reasons dolphins engage in these behaviors, ranging from establishing or maintaining social bonds and friendships, to blowing off steam, punishing rivals, or simply having a grand old time. It’s difficult to know exactly what is going through the dolphins’ minds when watching socio-sexual behavior unfold, and whether or not any of the observed penile penetration is consensual. Regardless, it does not resemble forced copulation.
Mounting: You can easily find examples online of dolphins with erections and thrusting behavior directed at human swimmers (like here, and here). It’s impossible to know if penetration is their intention (i.e., some form of penetration being another criterion in the definition of human rape), or if it’s the dolphin equivalent of a dog humping your leg. Mounting behavior (which does not always involve penetration, especially since females sometime do the mounting) has been studied in a number of animal species, and the list of proposed functions for this behavior is diverse: play behavior, solidifying maternal bonds, dominance, aggression, establishment and maintenance of social bonds, conflict resolution, and of course sexual gratification. Mounting behavior in dolphins is widespread and is a form of socio-sexual behavior. It involves dolphins of all ages and both sexes. Juveniles and calves will sometimes mount their mothers (and vice versa) and females will mount males. Despite documented mounting attempts involving dolphins and humans, I have found no verified accounts of a male dolphin having ever penetrated a human orifice with his penis (against their will or otherwise).
So here’s the bottom line: calling any of this behavior rape trivializes the word rape. It either downplays the horrific human behavior of rape by jokingly misapplying it to quirky animal behavior, or unnecessarily vilifies what is, for dolphins, a diverse catalog of behaviors that might not cause the dolphins involved very much stress, and might even be consensual 100% of the time. In most cases involving male dolphins using aggressive strategies to mate with females, the correct term is sexual coercion, which is NOT synonymous with rape. Unlike rape, sexual coercion might involve consent on the part of the female, and involves many indirect coercive behaviors (e.g., herding, infanticide), and not just forced copulation. In any event, forced copulation as a sexual coercion technique has never been observed in dolphins. In cases where males are directing their penises at the bodies and orifices of other dolphins where reproduction is not the goal, or engage in mounting behavior, the correct term is probably socio-sexual behavior. Again, socio-sexual behavior might involve consent, and does not always involve penetration or forced copulation.
The dolphins are rapists meme easily lends itself to being a trendy t-shirt, or link-bait headline, but rape is undoubtedly the wrong term to apply to dolphin behavior. It is a loaded term that really should be used solely to describe the fundamentally horrific, and uniquely human crime of rape as defined by the law. There is no dolphin equivalent.
Further reading on sexual coercion and socio-sexual behavior in dolphins:
Connor R.C., Vollmer N. 2009. Sexual coercion in dolphin consortships: a comparison with chimpanzees. In Sexual coercion in primates: an evolutionary perspective on male aggression against females (eds Muller M. N., Wrangham R. W.), pp. 218–243. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Connor, R.C., Wells, R., Mann, J. & A. Read. 2000. The bottlenose dolphin: social relationships in a fission-fusion society. In: Mann J., Connor R., Tyack P. and H. Whitehead (eds.), Cetacean Societies: Field studies of whales and dolphins. University of Chicago Press.