Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Short Diversion into the Sex Life of Animals

by Elizabeth Winkler

Last weekend, I visited the small but highly amusing and intriguing “Museum of Sex” in New York City, which declares itself “dedicated to the exploration of the history, evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality.” In providing a larger and more complete context for understanding human sexuality, the museum maintains an extensive exhibit on animal sexuality, which I actually found more interesting and relevant to understanding humans than the exhibits on porn, Hollywood sex symbols, sex machines and the like.

Animal sexuality seems extremely pertinent first and foremost because of animal associations with nature and the frequent invocation of what is ‘natural’ when talking about sexual identity, orientation, practices etc. Many arguments against homosexuality, transsexual or transgender identities, masturbation and even generally non-procreative sex have hinged on the insistence that it is not ‘natural’ and therefore not normal, not right, not good, not acceptable…

Pictures, videos and information clips about animal sexuality, however, revealed that all of these frequently rejected forms of sexuality not only exist among animals, but are shockingly prevalent. In the animal kingdom, it seems that all conceivable sex acts and sexual partnerships exist: animals engage in foreplay behaviors such as kissing, hugging, mutual and self-stimulation, oral sex and every kind of penetrative intercourse imaginable (literally!).

Here are a few examples that struck me: the male bonobo (the type of chimpanzee said to be most closely related to humans) has been known to solicit sex in exchange for sugar cane…ostensibly a form of prostitution. Affectionate male penguins sometimes steal an egg from a male-female couple and care for it themselves, bringing up the baby penguin as their own. Female bonobos have maintained power and a matriarchal structure in their clans by engaging in what can only be termed lesbian sex. As video footage showed, it clearly upset the male bonobos, who seemed to want to intervene in the girl-on-girl action, and according to scientists, has allowed for a powerful sisterhood of sorts to develop within the clan because of the intimacy it creates between the females. Similarly, male anal sex in a variety of animals (zebras, elephants, lions, horses) is said to be integral to the development of bonds and alliances within the pride, herd, what-have-you.

What is ‘natural’ takes on a whole new meaning in light of an informed understanding of what actually takes place within the sexual world of animals. It becomes nothing short of ludicrous for anyone to claim that heterosexual relationships and procreative sex are the only viable forms of human sexuality.


At January 28, 2009 at 1:14 AM , Blogger Roscoe said...

Eh, though another understanding of 'natural' is also 'common'. One could still argue that what they are doing is unnatural I suppose, if nature is not defined by like 'mother earth' nature, but a more metaphysical sense of nature. I mean, it's imperfect information, but it serves enough to point out that

"It becomes nothing short of ludicrous for anyone to claim that heterosexual relationships and procreative sex are the only viable forms of human sexuality."

does not necessarily follow from bonobos engaging in homosexual behavior if you have a different definition/explanation of what is natural. Though, you are right, if someone were to have been defending themselves with the reason that it doesn't happen out there in nature then this evidence suffices.

Thanks for the post.

At January 28, 2009 at 1:36 AM , Blogger LSG said...

Great post, Elizabeth! You do a very good job showing how animal's sexual behavior undermines attempts to paint homosexuality and other forms of nonprocreative sex as "unnatural" and therefore morally contemptible or deviant. I think it's also worth emphasizing again that we can't necessarily look to the animal world for determinations on ethical questions concerning human sexuality -- that is, critics of homosexuality (ect...) are wrong to say it is "unnatural," but even if it was that would not necessarily mean it is morally objectionable. On the flip side, the "naturalness" of any kind of sex judged by its popularity in the animal kingdom doesn't necessarily render it morally acceptable for humans. For instance, "rape" is common among many species of animals, including chimpanzees and orangutans. I put rape in quotation marks because it's unclear if the concept is a relevant one between great apes -- we only know (well, judge) that consent is an ethically necessary part of a human sexual encounter.

I think you're right that honest observation of animals destroys many of our assumptions about sex, and also want to encourage us all to consider what bearing the "naturalness" or "unnaturalness" of a sexual act has on our ethical evaluation of that action.

At January 28, 2009 at 8:16 PM , Anonymous Dan said...

Human beings, endowed as they are with the ability to reason, are capable of doing better than merely following the law of the jungle.

Elizabeth seems to be confusing "nature" and "natural law".

At January 29, 2009 at 11:19 AM , Blogger LSG said...

Roscoe, A different definition of "natural" than what is observed in nature? This argument that non-heterosexual/non-procreative sex could violate some kind of "metaphysical natural" seems to be based on the story of Eden and the Fall as interpreted by some theologians and biblical commentators. (If I'm misrepresenting your position, I apologize, but in that case the argument doesn't make sense to me at all, so please explain more.)

The story goes like this: God designs the world and humankind with a specific, deliberate purpose and creates them according to this purposeful pattern. This design is the world's/mankind's original, pure, supernaturally- determined state of being, and the ultimate "natural." Then humans disobey God, sin and death enter the world, the earth and everything on it is sucked down with humanity, and everything on the planet becomes corrupt. Thus, we can't trust any of our observations about nature to determine what is "truly" natural. Critics of non-procreative/non-heterosexual sex would argue on this basis that God designed sex for a specific purpose, according to a male-female cleaving together, go-forth-and-multiply plan, and that any sexual behavior deviating from that original design is therefore "unnatural" no matter how often it is observed in nature.

That story, and the positing of an "original natural," is suspect on every front, including biblically and theologically. But more to the point, Elizabeth's assertion is that criticism of non-heterosexual/non-procreative sex as "unnatural" (which is usually an attempt at giving a NON-religious argument against homosexuality) is wrong. Suggesting that there is a fundamental metaphysical "natural" just brings the argument back to whether or not God exists, whether God has a procreative/heterosexual design for sex, and if politicians should care that some people think so.


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