A “reality check” for the Regnerus study on gay parenting

Three years ago, against the strong consensus of social scientists and professional child-welfare groups, University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus concluded that children of gay parents fare worse than children raised by married opposite-sex parents. In the face of intense criticism and a scorching assessment from a federal judge (“not worthy of serious consideration”), Regnerus doubled down on his conclusions and filed an amicus brief against gay marriage in federal court.

But a new critique of Regnerus’ work by Professors Simon Cheng (University of Connecticut) and Brian Powell (Indiana University), published in the same journal as his original study, Social Science Research (available free to most academics and for a $35.95 fee to the general public), suggests that Regnerus misclassified a significant number of children as being raised in same-sex households. Based on a re-evaluation of the data, it concludes there are minimal differences in outcome for children raised by same-sex parents and married opposite-sex parents.

Source: The Washington Post

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 ‘not un-African’: report undermines anti-gay laws

A step forward for equal LGBT rights in Africa. Last week, the influential Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) published a study on the science of human sexual diversity.

A comprehensive review of recent scientific papers on the subject, it concluded that sexual behaviour is naturally varied, and discrimination unjustified. It stated that there is no evidence that orientation can be altered by therapy or that being gay is contagious.

The report also sets straight the idea that homosexuality is a Western malaise: “There is no basis for the view that homosexuality is ‘un-African’ either in the sense of it being a ‘colonial import’, or on the basis that prevalence of people with same-sex or bisexual orientations is any different in African countries compared to countries on any other continent.”

Going further, the report asserted not only that tolerance of sexual diversity benefits communities but it positively affects public health, civil society and long-term economic growth.

 

More: New Scientist

“Unnatural” Nature, Immoral Butterflies: The Great Cover-Up of Animal Homosexuality

Back in 2000, an eminent and otherwise respectable biologist declared that except for a few instances observed among primates, there was no evidence of homosexuality among animals:

This was breathtakingly inaccurate. Just the previous year another biologist, Bruce Bagemihl,had published a book summarizing previously published scientific papers which described homosexual behaviour in over 300 species of animals and birds (listing dozens of papers for each), and also listing additional species of reptiles, amphibians, fish and even insects – over a thousand species in all, and tens of thousands of peer-reviewed articles. The first recorded observations of animal homosexuality were two millenia ago, by the ancient Greeks. In modern times, the first formal publication of scientific observations go back over 150 years. Photographic evidence of male swan couples has existed since the mid-nineteenth century.

How could there be so much scientific ignorance- especially as same -sex mountings are so well known among domestic livestock, that serious research efforts have been underway for years to try to prevent activities which are so uneconomic (to the farmer)?

Such wilful blindness by a professional would be ludicrous, if it were not also a sign of the ignorance shared by many others, in the scientific community as well as the wider population. It typifies the widespread assumption that underlies the popular pseudo-religious belief that homosexual relationships are unnatural, that biological “plumbing” dictates only one form of legitimate sexual expression, and (for the Vatican) that the “purpose” of sex is procreation, and so sexual activity not geared to making babies must be rejected. How does this ignorance persevere? In addition to Bagemihl’s book, two more major works of the last decade (Roughgarden, Sommer and Vasey) have atempted to explain this widepread ignorance. All three reach similar conclusions.

First, please note that the number of species where such behaviour has been described is certainly an underestimate. Detailed, close-up observation of any animal sex is difficult and rare. Frequently, where sexual activity is observed, there has been a simple assumption that this is between two different sexes – unless there is specific evidence to the contrary. One scientist after observing whales had the grace to publish his mistaken assumptions:

…..after about twenty minutes I realized that what I was watching was three males involved in most erotic activities! Then one, two, and eventually three pene appeared as three males rolled at the same time. Obviously, all three were males! It was almost two hours after the first sighting …. and up to that point I was convinced I was watching mating behaviour.

In many other cases, observers mistakenly identify biological sex and gender behaviour. Where one animal is observed mounting another, it is simply assumed that the mounter is male, the one being mounted female – even in the complete absence of corroborating evidence. More detailed observations have recorded how frequently this assumption can be wrong: males also mount other males, females mount females.

Mistakes in observation are understandable, even if the observers should take more care assessing their assumptions. Other factors are less excusable. One of these is a deliberate avoidance by some researchers of any attempt to publish their observations, out of a fear that they will be assumed by colleagues to be gay themselves – a form of academic closet keeps their observation hidden. Even after publication, a form of closet keeps the facts hidden – the anthologies and text books that usually introduce specialist papers to a wider scientific audience routinely ignore references to homosexual behaviour.

Although the first reports of homosexual behaviour among primates were first published >75 years ago, virtually every major introductory text on primatology fails to even mention its existence.

(Vasey, 1995)

More serious than mere burying of the evidence, is the attempt to deny its nature, in contorted attempts to explain it away as something other than it plainly is. Some researchers for example, attempt to explain their observations of two male birds involved in intercourse as “mistaken identity”. Do they really suppose that although they as human observers are able to correctly identify the sex of the chosen partner, the poor ignorant bird can not, and has chosen an “inappropriate” partner by mistake?

They also attempt to explain it away as a result of numerical imbalance, suggesting that males do it themselves when there are not enough females to go around – quite ignoring the observations that show the same phenomenon where females are abundant.

Others recognize what they are seeing, but simply deny that the bahaviour is sexual. Perhaps the most risible is this explanation of Orang-utan oral sex:

Two males regularly mouthed the penis of the other on a reciprocal basis. This behaviour, however, may be nutrively rather sexually motivated.

Got that? An Orang-utan blow-job is for – nutrition?

Other explanations attempted to explain sexual behaviour as aggression or dominance displays, rather than what it plainly was – pleasurable sex. Here’s another researcher, writing about bighorn rams, who eventually had to face the facts with honesty:

I still cringe at the memory of seeing old D-ram mount S- ram repeatedly. ..True to form, and incapable of absorbing this realization at once, I called these actions of the rams aggrosexual behaviour, for to state the males had evolved a homosexual society was beyond me To conceive of these magnificent beasts as “queers” – Oh God! I argued for two years that, in wild mountain sheep, aggressive and sexual behaviour could not be separated. I never published that drivel and am glad of it. Eventually I called a spade a spade and admitted that rams lived in an essentially homosexual society.

Here is the key point – heterosexual assumptions are so deeply embedded in some people that they cannot believe the evidence of their own eyes that homosexuality is entirely natural, and must instead explain it away. There is extraordinary circular reasoning here: the starting point is an assumption that only heterosexual behaviour is natural, and that becomes drummed into us as a moral imperative. That assumption then colours our perspective, so that what we see is assumed to be heterosexual – unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. When it is acknowledged to be not heterosexual, it is explained away as not actually sexual, but something else – aggression, or pseudo-sexual, or mistaken identity, or some such. Anything, in fact, that allows to continue with our insistence that only heterosexual, procreative intercourse is natural. And so the conventional widom continues to tell us, in the face of all evidence, that only opposite sex interaction in the animal world is natural … and that humans homosexuality is “contrary to nature”.

But the most ludicrous of all comes from those observers who cannot avoid acknowledging that what they are seeing is clearly sexual behaviour, and clearly between individuals of the same sex – and then describe it, in anthropomorphic terms, as “immoral”, degenerate, or – “unnatural”!

In these snippets, note the adjectives – “perverted”, “unnatural”, “aberrant” – my italics.

This might be mistaken for fighting, but perverted sexuality is he real keynote.

Three unnatural tending bonds were observed a two-year old bull closely tended a yearling bull .. with penis unsheathed.

Among aberrant sexual behaviours, anoestrous does were very occasionally seen to mount each other.

That’s right, folks. If we accept the assumption that homosexuality is unnatural, then any evidence to the contrary must be – unnatural, or immoral.

I close with the priceless words of W J Tennant, who as late as 1987 published the classic paper

A Note on the Apparent Lowering of Moral Standards in the Lepidoptera.”

It is a sad sign of our times that the National newspapers are all too often packed with the lurid details of declining moral standards and of horrific sexual offences committed by our fellow Homo sapiens; perhaps it is a sign of the times that the entomological literature appears to be heading in the same direction.

So: we dare not publish reports of animal homosexuality – because we should not draw attention to the poor moral standards of butterfles?

See also:

Our Queer Primate Cousins

Animals Use Sex Toys, Too

Same Sex Parents, Furred and Feathered

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

Queer Bonobos: Sex As Conflict Resolution

Is Exclusive Heterosexuality Unnatural?

Bighorn Rams: Macho Homos, Wimpish Heteros

Books:

Bagemihl, BruceBiological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (Stonewall Inn Editions)

Roughgarden, JoanEvolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People

Sommer, Volker and Vasey, Paul: Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective

PoaniAldo:Animal Homosexuality: A Biosocial Perspective