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Do Porcupines Practice Safe Sex?

Consultant Debunking Unit

Here’s a ticklish subject, one with ample opportunities for double entendres and bad puns: the sex life of porcupines. Hey, it wasn’t our idea–honest! The challenge came from Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) reader Jeffrey Cufaude, who sent us this email: “After hearing the following analogy used by three speakers in the past month, I decided it merits your scrutiny. Each speaker was addressing organizational change efforts, usually involving the bringing together of two departments. The metaphor used for meeting this challenge was always ‘like porcupines making love…very carefully.’ So inquiring minds want to know: Do porcupines making love really act this gingerly?”

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The CDU sprang into action and found two cases of consultants referring, very publicly, to porcupine sex. In the Forum section of InfoWorld Electric, Bob Lewis, a consultant with Perot Systems, wrote, “Direct marketers recognize five great marketing motivators–fear, greed, guilt, need for approval, and exclusivity….As a manager, you can motivate employees through…these same motivators. How? The same way porcupines mate: very carefully.” And John Whitney, professor of management at Columbia Business School, was heard talking about porcupine sex at the 1998 Strategic Management Forum for the American Society of Association Executives. The process of bringing companies together, Whitney suggested, has to be approached in the same way that porcupines make love–very carefully.

The CDU’s next step: to talk with people who have actually gotten close to porcupines–very close. In 1997, Rick Sweitzer, then a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, completed a five-year study of the North American porcupine. According to Sweitzer’s research, the safest part of porcupine sex is, well, the sex. “The actual mating isn’t dangerous,” Sweitzer, now a professor in the University of North Dakota’s biology department, told the CDU. “What is dangerous is what happens beforehand. Males fight it out to see who gets to mate with a given female. And when the males fight, they’re anything but careful.”

One reason for the intensity of this male prickfest may be that female porcupines are interested in sex only once a year. While the males try to dominate each other, the female waits up a tree. After she climbs down to join the victorious male, Sweitzer says, “They go at it, just like anybody else would.”

All of which begs a more clinical question: How do porcupines really, um, do it? The CDU turned to Professor Uldis Roze, a 35-year veteran of the biology department at Queens College in New York, who has been studying porcupines since 1978.

According to Roze, it works like this: The female lets the winning male know that she’s ready to mate by arching her tail over her back. Because there aren’t any quills on the underside of her tail, she can’t wound her suitor. And because the male doesn’t have quills on his underbelly, he can’t hurt her. Says Roze: “The erection of quills is a sign of fear, anger, or fight–that doesn’t happen during porcupine sex.”

There you have it: the facts of life,* porcupine-style.

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* But not all the facts: The CDU turned up some porcupine sexual practices that even the experts term “kinky.” If you are 18 or over, you may read those details elsewhere on the Fast Company Web site www.fastcompany.com/online/17/porcuporn.html .