Natural Law, Natural Sex, Natural Families.

A favourite argument used by the religious right against homoerotic relationships, and by the Vatican theologians against any form of sexual expression outside of marriage and not open to making babies, is that such sexual activities are “against nature”, and that the “purpose” of sex is procreation. Well, the people making these claims have never considered the actual evidence from, well, you know – “Nature” itself, which shows the exact opposite.  In a famous exchange, Anita Bryant once remarked that the things that homosexuals do were so disgusting that “even barnyard animals wouldn’t do it.” When it was pointed out to her that actually, barnyard and other animals do “do it”,  as is well known to farmers, she simply replied, “Well that still don’t make it right”. No, and it don’t make it wrong, either.  On sexual ethics, “Nature” is morally neutral.

“Anita Bryant, Reality Denier”

Some time ago I embarked on an investigation (which still continues) into just what we can learn from “nature” about sexuality and natural sex, reading up on sexual practices as observed in the animal kingdom, and also in non-Western and pre-industrial human societies from different periods and geographic regions. The results have been truly bewildering, and the time has come to share with you some of my findings and conclusions. In particular, there is clearly no single pattern of sexuality that can possibly be described as “natural” in all societies, human or animal.  What is “natural” depends entirely on culturally determined social practices, which vary extraordinarily.
In modern Western debates about gay marriage, we often hear arguments about “traditional” marriage, as based on the Bible, or on “Judaeo-Christian values”. The Biblical family was headed by a male patriarch, who controlled an assortment of wives, concubines, children and slaves, as well as his adult sons and their wives.
We commonly assume that most people are either “heterosexual” (the majority) or “homosexual” in orientation. But in many societies, men may be engage in sex with both men and women, either sequentially, at different phases of their lives, or at the same time. (In Chinese culture, there has always been powerful social expectations that men should marry and raise children – but that in no way prevents them taking male lovers as well. In a famous Chinese painting, two men are engaged in erotic play, while the wife of one watches from behind a screen. )


We assume that in a “traditional” family, the husband is male, the “wife” is female. In many traditional African cultures, numerous ethnographic studies have shown that the “husband” is the one with the wealth and the power. Where a woman was able to acquire sufficient wealth and could pay the bride-price, it was entirely acceptable for her  to marry wives, and take on the role of “husband”. (In these families, procreation and child-bearing were necessarily arranged outside of the family – but were raised inside it, and recognised the female head of the family as “father”. In one remarkable instance, Nzinga was a woman who came to the throne by military skill – but only men could be kings, so necessarily she was accepted as male. As king, she required a harem of wives – but as she was entirely heterosexual in orientation, she had no need of female wives, and instead kept a harem of male wives.(“Africa’s Female Kings and husbands”). Elsewhere in Africa, some wealthy men also included a male or two among their wives, valuing their strength for certain household tasks.
Nor do all cultures think only in terms of two genders. Commonly in South Asia, North America, and in some parts of Africa, societies accepted as a distinctive third gender biological males who took on female roles, or females who took on male roles (possibly but not necessarily included the corresponding sexual roles.) In the animal kingdom, especially among fish, there are many species with more than one gender, or where the physical appearances of some biologically male individual males resembles that of females or vice versa, or where individuals quite literally change biological sex, in an animal counterpart to human cross-dressers and transsexuals.
We also tend to assume that same sex interactions, where they occur, apply to a minority of individuals, or to a relatively brief period in their youths, before settling down to “normal” married life. But in some New Guinea societies, “natural” sex requires that as young boys, they first go through a period whereby they act as recipient partners in sex with older boys, because it is believed that the essence of manly virtue is contained in the semen – which they need ingest in regular doses before they can become real men. As they grow older, they adopt the active role in sex with younger boys, completely avoiding heterosexual intercourse until they are strong and manly enough to withstand the “debilitating” effects of women that they will be exposed to in marriage. In one specific group, the combined period of partnership with males typically lasts about thirty years, before he marries at around forty. In this culture, homosexual sex is certainly a far greater portion of a man’s life-long sexual experience than heterosexual experiences. For them, it is homosexual actions that are “natural”.
The Vatican claims that homosexual “act” lead people away from God.  Many
societies take the exact opposite view, believing that “homosexuals” generally, and the third gender exemplars in particular, have extraordinary spiritual gifts. Frequently, it is they who will take on the roles of religious leaders or spiritual guides. (Is it any surprise that a disproportionately high proportion of Catholic and Anglican priests are believed to be gay?) In some places, this association of spirituality and male-male sex combines with a variant of the New Guinea practice – young men become  sexual partners of religious leaders in order to ingest their spiritual wisdom.
We also often equate “masculine”, macho virtues with heterosexuality, and homosexuality with effeminacy. Among both humans and animals, this is not always so. For the ancient Greeks, the Japanese samurai, and many others, homosexuality was especially associated with the military. There have been times even in European history where “effeminate” dandyism was characteristic of rampant heterosexuality. Among bighorn sheep, most rams are exclusively homosexual in their activities, and the few that have heterosexual intercourse display remarkable submissive, behaviour – that in humans we might describe as “wimpish”.
It is also simply not true that in the natural world, even heterosexual sex is exclusively directed at procreation. Non procreative sexual activity is commonplace, including full intercourse during pregnancy, immediately after giving birth, or outside fertile periods Some primates females reaching sexual maturity, and begin sexual activities, several years before becoming fertile and capable of giving birth. Also common are  mounting behaviour without penetration or ejaculation, oral sex and masturbation (alone or with another). Some animals even make dildos and masturbation aids – or use natural objects for the purpose.
So what is the “purpose” of sex in nature?
Writing about Bonobo Chimps, Joan Roughgarden puts it neatly, in describing “at least six” situations that lead to sex
  1. Sex facilitates sharing (for example, reducing conflicts over food supplies)
  2. Sex is used for reconciliation after a disput
  3. Sex helps to integrate new arrivals into a grou
  4. Sex helps to form coalitions
  5. Sex is candy – females sometimes barter sexual favours to obtain gifts of food from males
  6. “Oh, I almost forgot – sex is used for reproduction”

Recognising the diversity of sexual and gender expressions in “nature” is not a licence for a code of “anything goes”. There still remains a need for a coherent system of sexual ethics, but the study of “nature” does not help us to find one. There simply is no sexual “law of nature”. To construct sexual ethics, we must look elsewhere.

See Also:

Gay Soldiers? Role Models, at the Foundation of Democracy.

Gays in the Military: Japan

Animals Use Sex Toys, Too

Same Sex Parents, Furred and Feathered

Natural Law, Laysan’s Albatross,  and the Question of Evidence

The Wildlife Rainbow

Queer Bonobos: Sex As Conflict Resolution

Exclusive Heterosexuality Unnatural?

Bighorn Rams: Macho Homos, Wimpish Heteros


Books:

Homosexuality in the animal Kingdom

Well, OK – not so much GOD, as Her/His creation:

“Just ask the animals. As soon as they stop having all that homosexual sex”

but for what that says about the Divinity, there may not be too much of a distinction.

Mark Morton writes in his column on SFGate about new research in the animal kingdom which shows that some homosexuality occurs in virtually every animal species.  It has long been known  that some animals engage in homosex, but the new research shows that this is in fact far more widespread than previously recognised.  I saw the news reports that Morford refers to when they first appeared, but he writes about them with humour, style and verve, producing a piece which is irreverent but fun, as well as important.

“I am sitting here right now smiling just a little, fondly recalling that famously controversial children’s book, the one about the gay penguins.

Remember? That positively adorable pair of them, at the Central Park Zoo, who had adopted an abandoned egg and then hatched it themselves and were raising the chick together as a couple, even though the chick was clearly not theirs — though of course how penguins can actually tell whose kid is whose is still a question. Never mind that now.

The best part: the story was absolutely true. The book, “And Tango Makes Three,” was beautiful and sweet and touching in all the right ways — except, of course, for the fact that it was also totally evil.

For indeed, the penguins in question, named Roy and Silo, were both males. This meant they were clearly in some sort of ungodly, aberrant homosexual relationship, mocking natural laws and defying God’s will that all creatures only cohabitate with the opposite sex and buy microfiber sofas from Pottery Barn and eat their meals in silent resentment and never have sex.

Worst of all, the book depicted this relationship, this “family,” as perfectly OK, as no big deal, as even (shudder) normal. After all, Roy and Silo didn’t seem to give much of a damn. Tango sure seemed happy, what with not being left for dead and all. As of this writing, the Central Park Zoo has yet to be swallowed into a gaping maw of sinful doom. Unless you count those parents.

I am right now amused at this because it turns out Roy and Silo were not really so much of an anomaly at all. Nor were they some sort of unholy freakshow, an immoral mistake in the eyes of a wrathful hetero God. Far from it. Turns out they were, in fact, far more the norm than many humans, even to this day, want to let on.

Behold, the ongoing, increasingly startling research: homosexual and bisexual behavior, it turns out, is rampant in the animal kingdom. And by rampant, I mean proving to be damn near universal, commonplace across all species everywhere, existing for myriad reasons ranging from pure survival and procreative influence, right on over to pure pleasure, co-parenting, giddy screeching multiple monkey orgasm, even love, and a few dozen other potential explanations science hasn’t quite figured out yet. Imagine.

Are you thinking, why sure, everyone knows about those sex-crazed dolphins and those superslut bonobo monkeys and the few other godless creatures like them, the sea turtles and the weird sheep and such, creatures who obviously haven’t read Leviticus. But that’s about it, right? Most animals are devoutly hetero and straight and damn happy about it, right?

Wrong.

New research is revealing so many creatures and species that exhibit homosexual/bisexual behavior of some kind, scientists are now saying there are actually very few, if any, species in existence thatdon’t exhibit it in some way. It’s everywhere: Bison. Giraffes. Ducks. Hyenas. Lions and lambs, lizards and dragonflies, polecats and elephants. Hetero sex. Anal sex. Partner swapping. The works.

Let’s flip that around. Here’s the shocking new truism: In the wilds of nature, to not have some level of homosexual/bisexual behavior in a given species is turning out to be the exception, not the rule. Would you like to read that statement again? Aloud? Through a megaphone? To the Mormon and Catholic churches? And the rest of them, as well? Repeatedly?

Would you like to inform them that such behavior is definitely not, as so many hard-line Christian literalists want to believe, some sort of poison that snuck into God’s perfect cake mix, nor is it all due to some sort of toxic chemical that leeched into the animal’s water supply, suddenly causing all creature to occasionally feel the urge wear glitter and listen to techno and work on their abs?

And so we extend the idea just a little bit. Because if homosexual/bisexual behavior is universal and by design, if gender mutability is actually deeply woven into the very fabric of nature itself, and if you understand that nature is merely another word for God, well, you can only surmise that God is, to put it mildly, much more than just a little bit gay. I mean, obviously.

But let’s be fair. That’s not exactly true. God is not really gay, per se. God is more… pansexual. Omnisexual. Gender neutral. Gender indeterminate. It would appear that God, this all-knowing and all-creating and all-seeing divine energy that infuses and empowers all things at all times everywhere, does not give a flying leather whip about gender.

Or rather, She very much does, but not in the simpleminded, hetero-only way 2,000 years of confused religious dogma would have us all believe.

God’s motto: Look, life is a wicked inscrutable orgy of love and compassion and survival instinct, shot through with pain and longing and death and suffering and far, far too many arguments about who did or did not pay the goddamn mortgage.Life on Earth is messy and bloody and constantly evolving and transmuting and guess what? So is sexuality, and love, and connection, and what it means to exist. And if you uptight, hairless bipeds don’t soon acknowledge this in a very profound way, well, it ain’t the damn penguins who will suffer for it. You feel me?

This, then, is what science appears to be trying to tell us, has been telling us, over and over again: Nature abides no narrow, simplistic interpretation of its ways. Nature will defy your childish fears and laughable behavioral laws at nearly every turn. God does not do shrill homophobia

Of course, until very recently, science was also beaten with the stick of right-wing fear for many, many years, told to keep quiet about those damnable facts, or else. Homosexuality is a lifestyle! A choice! And you can be lured into it! Seduced by the evil rainbow! Just like those poor penguins! Right.

Let us be perfectly clear. Not every individual animal necessarily displays homosexual traits. But in every sexually active species on the planet, at least some of them do, for all sorts of reasons, and it’s common and obvious and as normal as a warm spring rain falling on a pod of giddy bottlenose dolphins having group sex off the coast of Fiji.

And either humankind is part of nature and the wanton animal kingdom, a full participant in the messy inexplicable glories of the flesh and spirit and gender play, or we are the aberrant mistake, the ones who are lagging far behind the rest of the kingdom, sad and lost in the eyes of a very, very fluid and increasingly disappointed God.”

This discovery in the animal kingdom ties in well with the simple fact, wilfully ignored by so many, that in human societies too, some degree of homosexuality is commonplace.  It is not homosexuality that is perverse and “against nature”, but exclusive heterosexuality.

Read the full article here.