It’s the week of Fourth of July. And while we appreciate you being here, we really hope it’s from some stretch of sand or some body of water relaxing enough that your problems can be put on the same kind of ice as the booze in the cooler next to you. If not, throw on your shades anyway, and join us for our weeklong package, “Life’s a Beach,” a celebration of all things sand, sun and summer. Of course, if you’re already on vacation, you’re welcome, too — just be sure to reapply another layer of sunscreen, as these pieces burn bright. Read all of them here.
Mermaids — those beautiful, nearly topless water nymphs — are obviously sexy. But given that their bottom halves are fish tails, how would one go about… What’s the deal with the, um… You know, where would you put your… How would it work?
Unfortunately, not a lot of experts respond to unsolicited mermaid sex inquiries. Cryptozoology expert and marine biologist Charles Paxton respectfully refused to answer, insisting the situation involved too many hypotheticals for science to really comment. On the r/mermaids subreddit, one user, Disney_Plus_Axolotls, who specializes in lovingly rendered mermaid versions of Disney princesses, told me, “I have no clue. I feel like they lay eggs or something.”
Turning instead to history for answers, it transpires that as a basic idea, mermaids are pretty common. Most cultures that developed next to a body of water have some version of a half-woman, half-fish. While a lot of them incorporated the idea of the resulting creature being very beautiful, some were anything but. The Japanese ningyo, for instance, is entirely monstrous, the full body of a fish with a human head, 35 feet long and utterly terrifying.
As often happens with mythical creatures, though, various stories bleed into one another, and at some point around medieval times, mermaids got hella sexy. They also got combined with the Sirens of Greek mythology — originally depicted as quite fucked-up looking things, bits of birds and fish and all kinds of shit smashed together, but with beautiful singing voices that lured sailors to their doom. Somehow over the centuries the popular idea of them shifted to that of less biologically freaky, ridiculously hot women on rocks. This absurd good-lookingness, very popular with Renaissance artists who never painted a woman wearing a top if there was an opportunity to paint a woman not wearing a top, became part of the idea of a mermaid.
If you assume a real-life mermaid would be exactly like a fictional one — human from the waist up, fish from the waist down — then having sex with one would be, well, different. Fish don’t have penises and vaginas. They have an organ called a papilla instead, with the shape slightly different in male and female fish. Either way, a papilla isn’t built to take a penis.
Or is that part of the appeal for the lonely, hungry, exhausted, salt-crazed sea-dog? The idea that you couldn’t possibly do a good job for anatomical reasons, meaning any encounter would have to be a one-sided affair where you pretty much lay there and have a bunch of hand and mouth stuff done to you. You could see how that could appeal.
But what if the human-fish divide was less of a straight line, and a mermaid was more of a hybrid creature? Let’s just say that things quickly get less sexy for everyone involved.
On multiple occasions hoaxers have built fake mermaid cadavers, and they haven’t been hot at all. Legendary huckster P.T. Barnum exhibited a “Fiji Mermaid” which was fully gross, made from half a dead monkey and half a dead fish. Other mermaid “specimens” were created by manipulating dead stingrays into certain positions before drying them out — the rays’ nostrils would end up resembling eyes, and the dried-up husks looked otherworldly and evil. These were known as “jenny hanivers,” and again, would be unlikely to really get anyone going.
In 1493, Christopher Columbus — yeah, that Christopher Columbus — reported seeing mermaids off the coast of the Dominican Republic, reporting that they were “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” He is thought to have actually spotted manatees, also known as sea cows. Manatees are interesting creatures, slow-moving gentle herbivores with complex and impressive intelligence, but they’re not what you’d call hot.
That said, there is an oft-repeated “fact” that comes up on the internet whenever mermaids are discussed, which states that — and feel very free to stop reading from here, because things are about to get real gross — manatee vaginas are scientifically the most human-like vaginas in the animal kingdom. The veracity of such a claim, however, is highly dubious given that the whole idea of science is to build knowledge and help humanity get that bit closer to making sense of the universe; it’s not sticking your fingers in a dolphin’s vagina and going, “Hmm, not quite the same.”
Anyway, all of this can’t help but bring us to the question: Were sailors in the habit of banging manatees and then claiming they banged a mermaid?
It’s not out of the question — horniness is a powerful force, and sailors famously get up to all kinds of malarkey at sea — but when you really dive into it as an idea, it doesn’t seem enormously likely. Until the 19th century, most sailors couldn’t swim, so popping into the water for a quickie with a sea cow probably wasn’t in the cards. Manatees also weigh around 1,000 pounds, so dragging one out of the water would be, at the very least, a group effort. Even with a whole load of people, it would still be incredibly difficult and time-consuming, and if you hadn’t changed your mind about the whole endeavor by the time you hauled it onto the deck, the manatee would surely die by the time everyone had had a go.
Not very sexy stuff. You’d think at least one person would pipe up and suggest they all just have sex with each other instead — pretty common at sea and hardly less transgressive than fucking a marine giant to death.
Making up a story where you had sex with a mermaid would also be drawing attention to the idea that something fairly grim had taken place. Nothing says “I’ve done messed up” like declaring “I met and had sex with a mermaid.” A much more sensible approach — not that “sensible” really enters into any conversations surrounding having sex with a manatee — would be to not say anything. Shepherds who have sex with their sheep, for instance, don’t tell tales of beautiful woolly women tempting them in the meadow; they just fuck their sheep and shut up about it.
The less-horrifying version of the manatee idea is that a lusty, rum-soaked sailor would glimpse the fleshiness of one from his ship and use his imagination — “Imagine if that gargantuan blubbery herbivore was actually a sexy lady!” — to transform the scenario into a sexy one, but the manatee is completely superfluous there. It’s just a sailor jerking off. The sea cow is irrelevant.
How sex with a mermaid would work is similarly irrelevant. Perhaps the important thing in any tale of mermaids is the tale itself. Sailors felt they had to come back from expeditions with a story. As Ollie Crimmen, fish curator at the U.K.’s Natural History Museum, writes, “When somebody went over the horizon in a ship they were more out of touch than astronauts are today. When they came back, if they came back, there was a huge expectation: ‘You must have seen something fantastic, you must have brought something back.’ There was a pressure to have seen marvelous things.”
What’s a better story to come back with than encountering mermaids? It’s exotic, erotic, otherworldly, fantastical tale of mystery, derring-do and women with no tops on. It’s the happiest of outcomes — everyone can enjoy a story about encountering a sexy mermaid, and not one manatee has to die.