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The Straight Dope


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How come flies, after landing on someone or something, start rubbing their "hands" together? Planning something? --John Oliveros, Montreal

The truth is even stranger than you suspect, John. The flies most likely are ... washing up. Heartwarming, no? Here is a creature notorious for its filthy habits, yet it finds time for good grooming. An example Cecil must set before his research assistants, particularly the four-year-old.

Research on fly washing is a bit sparse. The best I could come up with, with the aid of Straight Dope friend of science Ed Lisowski, was a couple of papers on preening behavior in Drosophila melanogaster, a fruit fly, rather than Musca domestica, the common housefly. But the way I figure, a fly is a fly.

We know that flies are cleaning themselves (as opposed to plotting) because when they get dirty they clean themselves more, starting first with the dirty part and concluding by dusting off their forelegs. The smart fly--granted there isn't a vast difference between a smart fly and a dumb one--keeps its legs clean because they contain an abundance of taste and tactile receptors, the better to savor the flavor of whatever rank thing the fly lights on next. Interestingly, flies clean more when in the presence of other flies, no doubt in an effort to get lucky. Girl flies, perhaps predictably, spend more time preening than boy flies.

Additional quantity of words that have been written about fly cleaning: 5,000. Additional quantity of said words that are even remotely interesting: 0. Additional quantity of words to be vouchsafed here: Guess. Thank God you've got a guy like me to filter the dull facts of life.


Re your column about getting pregnant without vaginal penetration [November 19], you said the 15-year-old African girl was without a vagina due to a congenital defect. This is incorrect. She had been circumcised. Her clitoris, labia majora, and labia minora had been surgically removed as part of a tribal ritual. This is a common procedure done to young girls to welcome them to "womanhood." They are cut and then sewn back together, leaving a hole just big enough for their menstrual fluid to come out. The husband's "duty" over a period of time is to make a woman "fit" him. Childbirth can be fatal; unless she is "opened" surgically she risks being literally torn apart. Afterwards she is resewn. --Sarah M. Evans, Chicago

Cecil is familiar with female infibulation, having written about it more than a decade ago, but this was not a case of it. The medical-journal report (British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, September 1988) described the girl as having "an aplastic distal vagina," i.e., an undeveloped lower vagina, a congenital defect. That's why the doctors wrote the report in the first place--the girl had become pregnant even though it was seemingly impossible for her to do so. She could not be "opened" for childbirth, but required a cesarean section. Later attempts to create a vagina met with little success. I did err in describing the girl as a citizen of Lesotho, South Africa; though surrounded by South Africa, Lesotho in fact is an independent country.

In other surprise-birth news, reader Billie Grey has sent me a copy of an old story from the Civil War. Supposedly a young soldier was shot through the scrotum; at the same time a woman a short distance away was wounded in the abdomen. The same doctor attended both. Nine months later the woman gave birth to a boy who looked just like the young soldier. The doctor surmised that a bullet had carried sperm from the soldier to the woman's uterus. The sensible Billie opines that maybe the doctor just failed to wash his hands in between doctoring the soldier's gonads and sewing up the woman. Lot of fun you are, Billie.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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