Category Archives: animal sexuality

A Lesson in Couple Stability From Homosexual Zebra Finches

Is it possible for male couples to form lifelong, stable and faithful relationships?
Well, we know that some do – just look at the pics of couples lining up to tie the knot every time a new state or country introduces same-sex marriage or civil unions. These always show a high proportion of male and female couples who have been in stable relationships for several decades, eager to demonstrate to the world what they already know: that to all intents and purposes, they are really married de facto, and need to make that de jure as well.
We also know that as a group, gay men are statistically less likely than heterosexual married couples to form these life-long, stable and faithful partnerships. To confirm that, all we need to do is to consider the number of gay seniors who live alone, with the numbers who live with the same partner they have been with all their lives. The proportions are quite different to those applicable to straight men.
This is often used as a argument against gay relationships and LGBT equality. For example, in a nasty piece at the NOM sponsored Ruth institute, Jennifer Morse has this to say:
We already know that in terms of economic behavior, male couples are different from female couples, and both are different from married couples. We also know that separation rates (ie divorces) are different for male couples and for female couples and both are different (higher, like way higher) than for married couples.
(In a breathakingly inappropriate headline, Morse her article as “Intelligent Replies to Idiotic Comments“, but I let that pass. Rob Tisinai at Box Turtle Bulletin does a great job of showing her “intelligent” replies are made to demolish straw men -supposed that the proponents of marriage do not, in fact, advance. Read it).
I want to respond only to the one part of Morse’s piece which is not just a straw man response, but one which is dangerous and deceitful sleight-of-hand, the quote above. Let’s look more closely at what she is doing, and then provide a response which, be great serendipity, comes to us from – the world of birds: homosexual zebra finches.
The problem with Morse’s argument is that she is not comparing like with like.
“male couples are different from female couples, and both are different from married couples”
Not so. What she should have introduced into this statement, but could not do for her ideological bias, are the qualifiers “unmarried” (before “male couples”), and “heterosexual” (before “married). Then we would have the fairly obvious truism:
“unmarried male couples are different from female couples, and both are different from heterosexual married couples”,
Conversely, we could also say,
“married male couples are different from female couples, and both are different from unmarried heterosexual  couples”
Would that statement be true? We don’t know: married same-sex couples have not yet been around long enough to have produced compelling long-term evidence one way or the other. We do however have evidence to support another statement that Morse could have made – but did not:
“unmarried heterosexual couples are different from heterosexual married couples”,
One of the arguments against cohabitation before marriage is the abundant evidence that these relationship dissolve more easily and more frequently than formal marriages, with the attendant problems that can ensue for all parties involved – particularly the children. All relationships take work to make them endure. The stresses that contribute to relationship breakdown can be hard to resist at any time without reinforcement. The public visibility of a formal marriage, the vows that the parties have made and the legal obstacles in the way of divorce, all provide those reinforcements. It is no wonder that cohabiting relationships (gay or straight) break down more rapidly than married ones (gay or straight).
In addition to the standard difficulties in maintaining any long term relationship, gay couples have additional stresses unique to them, which arise from public prejudice and homophobia. (Things like the challenges of dealing with being fully out, or negotiating partial closets, problems for some couples with family acceptance, for instance). The apparent instability of gay couples may have more to do with their social circumstances, than anything inherent in the homoerotic orientation. To get a meaningful like for like comparison, we should be comparing  unmarried gay couples with unmarried straights, in a context where neither is handicapped by homophobia or public pressure. In the human context, this possibility simply does not exist.
In the natural world it does. Many animal species exhibit same-sex bonding and long-term couple formation. The animal kingdom  shows even greater sexual and gender diversity than the human one – and anything comparable to homophobia appears to be unknown. Published studies of individual species have shown that these same-sex couples are as stable as the mixed-sex counterparts. By great serendipity, the BBC has reported on another of these, a recent report of research into homosexual zebra finches, which corroborates my hypothesis above: that in the absence of homophobia, male couples can endure every are every but as stable as any others.
Male pair of Zebra finches
Same-sex pairs of monogamous birds are just as attached and faithful to each other as those paired with a member of the opposite sex.
The insight comes from a study of zebra finches – highly vocal, colourful birds that sing to their mates, a performance thought to strengthen the pair’s bond.
Scientists found that same-sex pairs of finches sang to and preened each other just like heterosexual pairs.
The study is reported in the journal Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology.

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Breaking Up Is Hard To Do….. Also For Vultures

Same sex pair bonding is widespread, throughout the natural world. Zoos are not exactly the natural world. The animals live in unnaturally confined conditions, and are often maintained there for the specific purpose of boosting numbers, in formal breeding programs. Unless you have an objection in principle to the mere existence of zoos (I’m neutral on that one), it’s difficult to get seriously dogmatic about the story Guido and Detlef, the male vultures of Munster zoo – but it does raise some questions:
The drama began in March when Guido and Detlef set up home together at the Allwetterzoo, in the British Army garrison town of Munster, northwest Germany.
The griffon vultures, Gyps fulvus, showed no interest in female company. They were happy in their own world, grooming one another with tender sweeps of their savage beaks between rearranging the sticks that made up their nest, although the other vultures kept stealing materials as if to spite their arrangement.
Dirk Wewers, the zoo’s curator, said: “They always sat so closely together. They defended their nest from the other vultures. A suitable female was missing and in such a case vultures look for companionship from the next best thing, even if it is a male. Detlef looked for a bird of the opposite sex but settled with Guido.”

 

As a professional zookeeper, Herr Wewers really should know better. It is perfectly true that in some cases, animals deprived of access to opposite sex partners my make do with their own sex a substitute, but this is not a “cause” of animal same sex behaviour in general. Animals frequently choose same sex partners in the wild, either exclusively, or alongside opposite sex dalliances as well. In some species, same sex coupling is in fact the norm, interrupted only by a handful of individuals at specific times, for the sole purpose of making babies. In Detlef’s case, the problem was not an absence of females – it was a communal, mixed sex birdcage. The simple fact is that Guido declined the virtues of opposite sex attraction, and chose to settle down instead with Guido.
Public reaction was also questionable. On the one hand, there is the dubious chortling at the “outrage” of the gay community, who got worked up about the fate of these birds rather than the much more important questions threatening the world?
In a world of cholera outbreaks, terrorism threats, imploding banks and decreasing fortunes and species, certain German gay rights campaigners have found the time to express solidarity and sympathy for the birds’ plight.
-Daily Telegraph (Australia)
Here, I have to ask the Telegraph: If the only issues worth paying any attention to are the big global issues, why are you paying any attention at all to the concerns of a few gay activists? We all have a range of concerns, from the global to the local, from the general to the particular. There is no justification at all for ridiculing the expressed concerns of this group. On another day, collectively or separately, they could well turn their attention and outrage to more serious questions (one of which might turn out to be homophobic journalism).
Last month (November), eight months after the pair first made a home together, the zoo decided that they could no longer tolerate this affront to their procreative obsession, and separated them.
Guido was removed last week, however, to be replaced by a flighty female from the Czech Republic who, it is hoped, will tickle Detlef’s fancy and eventually produce little vultures…
.. Guido (was) transferred 400 miles (650km) east to a zoo in Ostrava, in the Czech Republic.
-AOL News
But the best-laid plans of mice and men gang oft awry. You can take a male attracted vulture to a female, but you can’t force him to do the necessary.
So far, Detlef and the un-named Czech bird have yet to do the wild thing. Guido, transferred 400 miles east to a zoo in Ostrava, Czech Republic, is also reportedly not too enamoured with the heterosexual lifestyle now being forced upon him.
Will it be too late to teach an old vulture new tricks? Both Detlef and Guido are 14 and it is uncertain that the libido of either can live up to the expectations of keepers.
So why on earth was this enforced separation even attempted? If the breeding programme was of such importance to the zoo (griffon vultures are not endangered), why wait eight months before doing something about it.
But some of the gay activists’ reaction is also over the top.
“This is like in the dark middle ages, forcibly making a creature sexually re-orient itself by tearing its partner from its side,“ wrote one angry gay vulture lover.

“While the Roman-catholic church in the arch-conservative area of Muensterland is jubilant, homosexual federations and animal protection organizations from the whole world over are indignant.”

Five years ago a public petition saved the gay penguins of Bremerhaven Zoo from being split up.

The sequel to the Bremerhaven penguin saga was not the gay fairytale happy ending. The zoo left the two males together – but they later separated voluntarily, and found female mates.
It is definitely incorrect to assume that animals are naturally “heterosexual” (not even humans are), but it is equally misleading to think of a same sex bonded pair as “gay”, or even “homosexual”. The truth is that in the animal kingdom, as in human societies and individuals, there is an astonishing a range possibilities for erotic coupling, with no single one normative.
The really important lesson we should take from animal sexuality is this observation by Dr Gloria Brane, at Bilerico Project:
Female/male bonding pairs don’t point at the same-sex sweethearts and gossip; they don’t chase them from feeding stations; they don’t give them a hard time about nesting in the neighborhood. Humans invented the concept of separating individuals according to their sexual preferences. These are just birds doing what birds do without the repressive labels we humans believe are so necessary.
Recommended Books:
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The Real Mama Grizzlies: Lesbian Moms?

Sarah Palin, With Bear
Sarah Palin’s understanding of wildlife appears to be no better than her tenuous grasp of social history.  Mrs Palin has been very much in the news over her enthusiastic promotion of a band of crazies  thoughtful, conservative candidates who agree with her own views on education and “traditional family values”.   The women in this band she likes to describe as “mamma grizzlies”, most recntly Christina O’Donnell in Delaware.
The problem with the conservative view of the “traditional” family and its values is that has little relation to history, and is in fact a relatively modern invention. The problem with her adoption of mamma grizzlies as her model is that they too scarcely embody the “family values” she claims to support.  Real life mamma grizzlies do not live or mate in the nuclear families she so admires. Rather, they mate in promiscuous, polygamous groups, then raise their young as single mothers – or in collaboration with other females, as family units headed by two women.  The closest human counterparts to real-life “mamma grizzlies” are lesbian couples, with kids – not exactly Christian O’Donnell.
Bruce Bagemihl in Biological Exuberance describes the family structure of grizzly bears, based on an analysis of 18 published, peer-reviewed academic papers. He notes that while grizzlies (and Black bears) are largely solitary creatures, they do sometimes form short-term social groups around specific food sources. Mating is indiscriminate and polygamous, with both males and females mating with multiple opposite sex partners for conception. After mating, the males have no further part in child-rearing.
Consequently, many grizzly mammas raise their young as single parents – unless (as many do) they team up with another female for co-operative parenting.

The two mothers become inseparable companions, travelling and feeding together throughout the summer and fall seasons as they share in the parenting of their cubs.. ……. A bonded pair jointly defends their food, and the two females also protect one another and their offspring (including protecting them from attack by grizzly males). The cubs regard both females as their parents, following and responding to either mother equally; bonded females occasionally also nurse each other’s cubs. If one female dies, her companion usually adopts her cubs and rears them as her own.

Sexual activity is not always exclusively for procreation and not always between opposite-sex partners; the partners in procreation are usually opposite-sex (not always – some lizards reproduce from female pairs), but the parties in biological parenting and child-rearing are not always the same; and there are instances where same-sex parents have clear advantages over the alternatives, especially where the alternative is not “one mom and one pop”, but a single mother, as in the case of the Grizzlies.
 
There are thousands of animal species that are known to have homosexual relationships, some even more frequently than heterosexual relationships (for example bighorn rams, female bonobo chimps and male giraffe). Many other animal species, especially birds, form same-sex parenting couples, by adoption or surrogacy. In human societies, there are likewise numerous examples where standard practices include same-sex relationships in addition to opposite sex-marriage – and the evidence from research is that just as in the animal kingdom, same-sex couples are at least as capable of good parenting, and sometimes even better, than opposite – sex couples.

 

Related Posts on Animal Sexuality:

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Books:

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

Crompton, Louis: Homosexuality and Civilization

Naphy, William GBorn to be Gay: A History of Homosexuality (Revealing History)

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

Our Queer Primate Cousins

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. (But then, when did the Vatican, or the wingnuts, ever consider the trifling matter of evidence to interfere with their convictions?)

 

In the lively comments thread after an earlier post in this series, reader CS in AZ reminded me of a famous exchange with Anita Bryant:

This reminds me of Anita Bryant, back when she was on her anti-homosexul crusade … she said that homosexuality was unnatural and so repulsive that “even barn yard animals don’t do it” — then someone pointed out to her that barnyard animals in fact DO do that, with some frequency, as anyone who grew up around farm animals knows very well! LOL… well, she was only momentarily flustered, then she just pivoted 180 degrees and said, “well, that doesn’t make it right!”

 

Well no, but it sure as hell don’t make it wrong, either. On the subject of sexual ethics, “Nature” is entirely neutral. However, as so many self-righteous bigots attempt to introduce nature into ethical and political discussions, it is worth knowing just what “natural” sex really is (it’s also just fun to know.)

 

 

 

Bonobo females, with onlookers

 

In all the animal kingdom, those closest to us humans are the primates, who are generally divided into three classes – apes, old world monkeys, and new world monkeys. In all three of these groups, and in other mammals, birds, reptiles, birds, fish and even insects, homosexual and non-reproductive sexual activities have been widely reported in formal scientific studies. It is striking though, as Joan Roughgarden notes in “Evolution’s Rainbow”, that these supposedly “unnatural” sexual activities have been most widely reported among the primates, and especially among the apes, who are closest to us on the evolutionary scale.
 
So, in today’s lesson from nature, I want to consider just these. What do they tell us about “natural” sexual behaviour? Do they in fact indulge in what the theologians call “sins against nature”? Do they have sex which cannot produce babies? You betcha!
In some species, same sex encounters are actually more common than heterosexual activity. Among Bonobo Chimps, the most common form of sexual activity is between females, in a unique form of genital rubbing. Some evolutionary biologists have even speculated that the particular shape of their genitals has evolved to facilitate this.(Male same sex activities are also commonplace, but not to the same extent as females).

 

For Orang-Utans, Bruce Bagemihl describes homosexual activity as “characteristic” of younger males, but less common as they age. Gorillas live in small groups, some of which are “cosexual”, with a dominant mature male, younger males, and females, and some of which are all-male. In the all-male groups, homosexual encounters occur daily, and may exceed the frequency of heterosexual encounters in the cosexual groups.

 

What about “orientation”? Can we learn anything that might contribute to the vexed essentialist / constructivist debate for human sexuality? Without getting into a formal analysis, I was interested in Bagemihl’s accounts by two features: that in many of the species he describes, most individual animals practice both same-sex and opposite-sex activities, resembling the human descriptor “bisexual” – but individuals vary in the balance between them. Some are more primarily hetero, some more homo, which reminded me inevitably of Kinsey’s well-known thesis that we all sit somewhere along a bisexual scale. The other striking feature is that in many species (found among other primates as well as the apes), there are substantial variations between specific local troops. In some species where overall, same sex activity is commonplace, there are specific troops where it is much less so – and others where it is almost mandatory, immediately prompting parallels in my mind with human ideas about the social construction of homosexuality.

 

What about the specific sexual activities? Are they (at least the heterosexual ones)”geared to procreation”? Hell, no. For both same-sex and between sex activities, there is an extraordinary range of activities that have been observed. For full details, read Bagemihl’s book, but in summary these include the obvious opposite-sex copulation supposedly demanded by the “plumbing”, but also a great deal more. These include fairly conventional-seeming mounting, but without penetration or ejaculation, fellatio and cunnilingus, solitary and mutual masturbation, stimulation by a finger inserted into an anus or vagina, and activities less familiar or impossible for humans: anus to anus rubbing, clitoral penetration by females, and “penile fencing” by male Bonobos – while suspended from tree branches. I also bet you can’t do this: one female was described as masturbating herself with a foot, while using her hands to do the same to her partner. Many animals also use, or even make their own, “sex toys” – dildos and other objects for insertion into available orifices, and masturbation aids from leaves and fruits.

 

In another notable departure from Vatican descriptions, I was also impressed by the number of species where researchers observed more displays of simple affection between same sex couples than for opposite sex couples, and more frequent incidents of violence used to force submission (i.e. “rape”) in opposite sex couples. So much for the Vatican’s dismissal of “homosexual acts” as mere gratuitous self-indulgence, to be contrasted with (heterosexual) “loving conjugal relationships”. Onlookers are also less likely to disrupt or attack homosexual interactions than heterosexual ones: “homophobic” violence is less of a problem than violence directed at opposite sex mating.

 

Even where sex is of the standard, male-female variety including penetration and ejaculation,it is emphatically not exclusively directed at procreation. Heterosexual intercourse often continues almost right through pregnancy, and resumes soon after birth. In some species, young females reach sexual maturity, and begin sexual intercourse, several years before reaching full maturity and fertility – a period (known as adolescent sterility)where their completely “conventional” sexual activity cannot possibly lead to pregnancy. What then, is the “purpose” of sex?

 

Joan Roughgarden puts it neatly, in describing “at least six” situations that lead to sex among bonobos:

 

1. Sex facilitates sharing for example, reducing conflicts over food supplies) 2. Sex is used for reconciliation after a dispute 3. Sex helps to integrate new arrivals into a group 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”

 

There’s something else she forgot – sex is fun.

 



Books:

Bagemihl, Bruce: Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (Stonewall Inn Editions)
Roughgarden, Joan: Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People
Sommer, Volker and Vasey, Paul: Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective

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 dispute
    3. Sex helps to integrate new arrivals into a group
    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:

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

              Crompton, Louis: Homosexuality and Civilization

              Naphy, William G: Born to be Gay: A History of Homosexuality (Revealing History)

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

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

              Albatross Same- sex Parents

              A key part of the argument against homoerotic relationships, fundamental to the Catholic Magisterium, to the religious opposition more generally, and to the supporters of so-called “traditional” marriage, is that same sex relationships are somehow “unnatural”, “against natural law”. This claim is entirely without foundation. What these groups have in common, apart from their conclusion, is a total disregard for the evidence.  Some research into the Laysan albatross neatly illustrates this.  The disregard of the need for evidence does not only apply to claims for natural law: exactly the same charge can be made against Vatican claims that “homosexuals” are motivated solely by  -indulgence, and that homosexual “acts” lead one away from God – claims that likewise do not stand up to scrutiny. For now, though, I am concerned only about the problem as it applies to the argument from natural law
              All albatrosses are large birds nesting in isolated colonies free from natural predators, which makes them easy to study (the birds are trusting and allow researchers to get up real close and personal). Much of their behaviour is well-known. For instance, in one colony at Kaena Point, Hawaii, there are about 120 breeding pairs, who gather for mating every November. They form long-term partnerships, and after copulation, lay a single egg, which they incubate in shifts, taking turns to leave the nests for weeks at a time to feed at sea. They form long-lasting, often life- long pairs, and were praised by former US first lady Laura Bush for their commitment to each other, and the example they offered as icons of monogamy. The obvious assumption that these monogamous pairs represent one male and one female in a neat nuclear family, though, turns out to be false. One third of the pairs are female couples, some of whom had nested together every year since right back to the start of data collection – 19 years.
              Ornithologist Lindsay C Young  has been studying this albatross colony since 2003, as part of her doctoral dissertation.  She says that the discovery of so many female pairs forced her to question assumptions she didn’t even know she was making.  This in itself was something of a breakthrough: observations of same sex behaviour or relationships in the animal world are not new, but too often in the past, biologists have simply ignored them, or attempted to explain these observations as aberrations.
              Joan Roughgarden quotes one notable scholar who claimed in 2000, at the end of a long and distinguished career,  that  “When animals have access to members of the the opposite sex, homosexuality is virtually unknown in nature, with some rare exceptions in primates”.
              But just the previous year, Bruce Bagemihl had published a book reviewing published academic research into over three hundred vertebrate species which engage in same-sex courtship and genital contact. In some of these, homosexual activity is even more frequent than heterosexual intercourse.
              In the case of the albatrosses though, the female pairs Young studied displayed same-sex relationships – not same-sex activity. They were female couples, conscientious parents, and engaged in just about all the activities together that other couples do – except for physical sexual intercourse. Instead, they would find a male albatross purely for copulation so that they could produce a fertilized egg.
              As female pairs, these couples were physically capable of producing twice the number of eggs that other pairs could. Each bird is capable of producing only one egg each year, and so most nests hold only one egg. Yet obrsevers have frequently noted  that some nests contain two eggs, in what the biologists call a “supernormal clutch”. Early attempts at explanations speculated that perhaps some individual brds were after all capable of laying two eggs, or that some inexperienced younger females were inadvertently “dumping” their eggs in the wrong nests.. Harvey Fisher, he researcher who proposed this dumping hypothesis in 1968, after seven years of daily observations, justified his conclusion in part with the observation that “after all, promiscuity, polygamy and polyandry are unknown in this species”.
              It simply had not occurred to anyone to consider that the nest might hold two females.
              That was until Brenda Zaun, a biologist studying Laysan albatrosses forty years later, observed that year after year, it was the same nests which yielded double eggs. When she sent feathers from a sample of the two-egg breeding pairs and sent them to Lindsay Young  for laboratory DNA sex testing, Young simply disbelieved the finding that every brd was female, and assumed she had erred in the testing procedure.
              She repeated the tests, and got the same result.. To be sure, she then went back to the field and sexed every bird in the colony, and found that 39 of 125 nests were of female – female couples: 19 where double eggs ahd been seen, and an additional 20 with single eggs.
              This example is not about “lesbian” birds, or about avian “homosexual” intercourse. However, it does illustrate how easily even professional observers have in the past mistakenly applied heterosexist assumptions to their observations, which have led to completely false assumptions. Testing these assumptions against evidence leads to  very different conclusions.
              The albatross female couples also illustrate how in the natural world, procreation and pair –bonding can be quite distinct. Albatross pairs, including female couples are monogamous, mutually devoted couples and careful parents: but in some cases, the physical act of copulation is only about fertilizing an egg and nothing more.
              Although these albatrosses do not show signs of sexual activity by the female couples, many other species do. Bagemihl listed over three hundred such species in 1999, Joan Roughgarden and, Vasey and Sommer, have since listed many more, across all branches of the animal kingdom.  The evidence is clear: in the animal kingdom, same sex relationships and homoerotic sexual activity are no less “natural” than left-handedness.
              This does not in itself make homosexuality morally “right”, but it does show that “natural law” cannot be used to argue that they are wrong. On sexual ethics, the “law of nature” is simply neutral.
              Sources:
              Can Animals be Gay?” (New York Times)
              Books:

              Related Posts on Animal Sexuality:

              Bisexual Snails

              There is a widespread myth out there that homoeroticism is somehow “against nature” because “animals don’t do it”.  The argument is deeply flawed on numerous counts:  Are we to model our behaviour on the animal kingdom? If so, why was the church for so long opposed to the male -behind heterosexual sexual position as (“animal like”), insisting instead on the completely unnatural missionary position? Why argue  that animals “Don’t” do it”, and simultaneously that it should be avoided because animals (the hare, the weasel, the hyena) DO “do it”?
              The whole idea of “against nature” is a key part of the Christian church’s development of opposition to same sex relationships, but is full of weaknesses in logic as well as empirically verifiable evidence.
              I am in the midst of preparing a lengthy post demonstrating how flawed the argument is. In the meantime, by serendipity I have come across the following story in New Scientist magazine, on the omnisexual appetite of the rough snail. Remember, that logically a single counterexample is enough to demolish an argument such as “all animals avoid same sex activity.” This counterexample eliminates that claim at a stroke. Other counterexamples, which I will present shortly, will demonstrate the more modest claim that exclusive heterosexuality is somehow “normal”. What is abnormal, in the global context, is exclusive, compulsory heterosexuality .

              Males track females by following their mucus trails, and will attempt to mate with pretty much any snail they encounter, regardless of whether it is the correct sex or even the same species. They mate with males just as often as they do with females – though they do give up such copulations sooner.

              Same-Sex Parents, Furred and Feathered.

              There have been an increasing number of research studies which show that as parents,  same sex couples are at least as good as opposite sex- couples. As a gay father and grandfather myself, I don’t really need to be told this by modern research: I first learnt of the evidence decades ago, from a family friend who was then a child welfare social worker, and is today a top authority on the subject. I also have the best of all possible authority, the experience of my own family. My daughter is very clear on the subject: she is on record as saying “Gay Parents? I recommend them”. She has told me that when she says a young child with two dads, her immediate response is – “Lucky child”. Still, it’s good to see the evidence getting a more public hearing. and reaching the mainstream.
              I was interested though, to find that in this, as in so many other areas, of human sexuality, the same pattern is found in many species of animals and birds.
              Two Dads, with Kids

              Homosexuality in animals has been known since ancient times, but still fails to penetrate the public consciousness. Nevertheless, researchers are now starting to publicize the abundant evidence for same sex coupling, pair bonding, and parenting. (And contrary to the protestations of Focus on the Family, NOM, et al, these do not always go together, not in humans, not in animals.) The nature and variety of the forms that animal parenting can take is breathtaking, with all the variations found in human society, and more (some of the animal practices would land humans in jail. “Nature” is not all sweet and lovable).
              How do same sex couples find their next generation? In many of the same ways humans do, but excluding the turkey baster and in vitro fertilization. Quite often, they were in the same position I was – offspring resulted from an earlier, opposite-sex partnership. For females, Laysan’s Albatross and many other birds may use sperm donors, finding an obliging male to copulate with, for the sole purpose of fertilizing their eggs. Male couples may find surrogate mothers: Black Swan male couples may hook up with a female in a menage a trois – then boot her out after the eggs have been laid. Adoption is also common: many species have same sex couples that take on orphaned or lost youngsters. Some couples are rather more cavalier though, and simply kidnap their youngsters – quite literally, in this case. (Don’t try this if you’re human, though.) Just as in human society, some youngsters biological parents who either can’t or won’t raise them themselves – and they may dump them on same sex couples to raise, in nest parasitism.
              Are they good parents? Quite often, not only as good, but better. There are many reasons for this. In birds, quite often it is not true that children “need” a mom and a pop. Many species (such as Warthogs, Red foxes and Sage Grouse) are raised by just one parent. When they get two parents, even of the same sex, that is immediately a bonus – they get double the parenting right off. Often, they get better, more spacious homes. Some female bird couples (Greater Rheas, Canada Geese) build what amount to double nests to hold two clutches – but where only one clutch has been fertilized, bingo: a double size home for a standard size family. Some male couples get bigger nests because only the male does the nest-building. Two males = two builders, and again, a bigger home. Other male couples get not so much a bigger home, as a bigger lot. Black Swans use their superior combined size and strength as two males to grab bigger or better territories – and thus better feeding grounds. Mammal youngsters sometimes get better feeding, simply by having to moms to nurse them: some females will suckle their partners’ young – grizzly bear mamma pairs may both nurse and protect each other’s young. Then there are the family variations not usually seen in humans. If two parents are better than one, how about three, or even four? Grizzly bears are often raised by female pairs – and sometimes by female trio (The familiar term “gay bears” takes on a whole new meaning).
              When sexual activity between males, or between females has been professionally observed, it has too frequently been dismissed or explained away as “deviant”, or the result of “accident”, or even as “immoral” behaviour (as in “A Note on an Apparent Lowering of Moral Standards in Lepidoptera”, the title of a published scientific paper. I kid you not.) In many parts of modern Western culture, there has arisen a deeply held assumption, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that the only “natural” form of sexuality and family is “one man, one woman”. Even when faced with evidence to the contrary,from the animal world or from human anthropology and history, these people dismiss such evidence as “freakish”, or unnatural. In their own observations, their hetero normative assumptions distort the evidence. When one animal is observed mounting another, it is simply assumed that the one on top is male, the other female. And so the myth is perpetuated that only opposite sex mounting occurs.
              The plain truth is that in nature, sexual diversity is the norm. (It may well be that what is truly “unnatural” is exclusive heterosexuality . Fortunately, several writers over the last decade have begun to expose the way in which these biases have been distorting scientific research and its dissemination. We will be hearing a lot more about animal same sex relationships and parenting in future – which will help to counter the lies and ignorance propagated by the sexual morality brigade.
              Also See:
              Previous Posts at “Queering the Church”

              Books:

              Queer Bonobos: Sex As Conflict Resolution

              In trying to understand “natural” sexuality, a look at the world of the bonobo is intriguing. Often loosely described as “chimps”, bonobos are in fact a quite distinct species, closely allied to both chimps and to humans, and may in fact be the closest of all primates to humans in evolutionary development. In addition to physiological and genetic similarities, they also show some features of sexual behaviour that are unusual in animals – but familiar to humans. For example, females remain sexually receptive for far longer than other species. Instead of being physically ready for sex for just a few days in her cycle, the female bonobo is almost continuously sexually attractive and willing for sex. Intercourse is more frequent than in other primates, although the reproduction rate is similar: there is a partial separation between sex and reproduction. Mating is more often face to face, like humans, than in other animals, where the dog-like position is almost universal. Both males and females become sexually aroused remarkably easily. Oh, and there’s a great deal of same sex activity. Frans De Waal, on whose research I base my notes,  says that the most typical sexual pattern is genital rubbing between females:
              One female facing another clings with arms and legs to a partner that, standing on both hands and feet, lifts her off the ground. The two females then rub their genital swellings laterally together, emitting grins and squeals that probably reflect orgasmic experiences.
              Males also engage in genital contact, including “penis- fencing”, and rubbing the scrotum of one against the buttocks of another.
              De Waal first became interested in bonobo behaviour not for its sexual component, but as part of a study into primate aggression. In continuous observations of bonobos in a zoo, he found that a standard feature of the behaviour was sexual arousal and intercourse immediately before feeding. As soon as a caretaker approached with food, the males would develop erections, and the animals would invite each other for sex. (This is not just an aberration of captivity. Other researchers have observed the same association between food and sex in the wild: after a group had entered trees with ripe fruit, or after they had killed a young prey animal, there would be a flurry of sexual contacts before settling down to eat.)

              De Waal later found that it is not just food that leads to sexual arousal, but anything that gets the interest of more than one animal at a time – in other words, anything that could lead to competition. In the zoo environment, when two bonobos share an interest in a cardboard box thrown into the enclosure, they briefly mount each other before playing with the box.
              In some aggressive contexts related to conflicts between animals, there will often be genital contact to follow. Where one male drives another away from a female, the two males may later reunite for some mutual genital rubbing. Or if one female strikes a juvenile, its mother may lunge at the other female – but as with the males, this brief conflict will be followed by the two rubbing their genitals together.
              De Waal thus concludes that sexual behaviour among bonobos is a mechanism to reduce conflict:

              During reconciliations, bonobos use the same sexual repertoire as they do during feeding time. Based on an analysis of many such incidents, my study yielded the first solid evidence for sexual behavior as a mechanism to overcome aggression. Not that this function is absent in other animals–or in humans, for that matter–but the art of sexual reconciliation may well have reached its evolutionary peak in the bonobo. For these animals, sexual behavior is indistinguishable from social behaviour.

              Sexual relationships are also used in a more positive way, to forge social bonds, particularly between the females. As with many animal species, bonobos live in clan groups. In their case, the males remain for life in their birth clans, so they will know all the other individuals. It is the female bonobos who leave, and start a new life as adults in a new clan, where they are strangers. They routinely approach one or two senior females, and attempt to establish a sexual relationship. If this is reciprocated, the association becomes permanent, with the older females acting as guardians to the younger. Later, as the newcomers themselves become established seniors within the clan, they may likewise accept sexual approaches from new female arrivals, and take on their guardianship.
              Here we can point out that this use of sexual relationships to promote social bonding and avoid conflict has clear parallels in human society.  At the domestic level, the “kiss and make-up scenario” is well known, in which a quarrel between partners may be followed by particularly intense love-making. At a grander level, for many centuries of European history, formal marriage was usual only for the wealthy classes, to protect property and inheritance rights. At the highest social levels, dynastic marriages were frequently arranged to ensure political alliances between royal houses – and to reduce the risk of war. Elsewhere, other societies have used homosexual relationships between men in the same dynastic way, to promote cordial relationships between clans. This has been noted in medieval Egypt, and in China.
              There is one other feature of bonobo sexuality that I found has a remarkable resemblance to some human practice. Freed from the tight connection between intercourse and reproduction,young and attractive bonobo females are able to use their charms for material gain.   Some females have been observed to approach males with an enticing food supply with clear a clearly sexual offer. After intercourse, the male will share his food with the female, who then leaves.
              Females offering males sexual favours for profit: sound familiar?
              Source:
              de Waal, Frans B.M. : Bonobo Sex & Society, Scientific American, arch 1995, which I found on-line here
              Books:

              Animals Use Sex Toys, Too

              The more I explore the nature of sexuality in the animal world, the more amazed I am at the extraordinary number of ways in which animals show all the diversity of human sexuality, and more. Male dolphins and whales have an extra orifice to penetrate (their partners’ blowholes); some primate male couples can indulge in “penis fencing” while hanging from a tree branch (I bet you’ve never tried that); and female spotted hyenas have a pseudo- phallus that they can (and do) use for penetration. More familiar activities are the usual mounting and penetration, either vaginal or anal, usually from the rear but sometimes from the front, or even the side; masturbation, using hands if they have them, but also flippers or just the ground; oral sex – forms of both fellatio and cunnilingus are known; and just plain cuddling and caressing.
              Squirrel Threesome

              Relationships are equally diverse, including long term pair bonds, in both between-sex and same-sex couples, one-off copulation, strictly monogamous and non-monogamous relationships, polygamy, polyandry and group orgies.

              Families and child rearing are diverse. There’s male and female pederasty, incest, and likewise butch/femme female relationships. There are single parents, between- sex parent couples, and same-sex parent couples, who may acquire kids by finding sperm donors (if female), surrogate mothers (if male), or by adoption. (In some species, male couples turn out to be more successful parents than between-sex parents, just like research suggests for humans).

              As in humans, there are a range of “purposes” of sex, from the obvious one of simple pleasure, to asserting domination and status, to procreation. Bonobos even use it as a form of social peacekeeping. There’s also a negative side: rape and sexual violence also occur. I confess I’ve not yet come across the wildlife equivalent of consensual S/M, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I did. Just about everything else is there, including transgender (routine in some species), transvestism, and the use of sex toys.

              Yes, sex toys, as in dildos and masturbation aids, but instead of visiting a sex store or going on-line, they just make their requirements themselves. Bruce Bagemihl, in “Biological Exuberance” describes numerous examples among the primates, including female Orang-utans and Bonnet Macaques who manufacture their own dildos from plant materials, males who make masturbation aids by forcing a hole in a leaf, and others who simply use natural materials as they find them, twigs, stones, or fruit, for rubbing against their genitals or for inserting into a vagina. (There are not yet reports of male use of dildos, but no doubt that too will be observed some day.)

              The use and manufacture of tools by primates is considered an important example of cultural behaviour in animals, and a forerunner of the activities that are so widespread among human beings.although many different forms and functions are evident in animal tool use, these examples show that nonreproductive sexual activities are part of the overall behavioral pattern: the primate capacity for object manipulation extends seamlessly into the sexual sphere.

              Similar types of activities occur among people too, of course, and sexual implements of various sorts have a long and distinguished history in human culture. …Examples have been found from as far back as the Palaeolithic through to medieval times – including some Biblical references – as well as in the ongoing traditions of many indigenous peoples throughout the world.
              -Bagemihl, Bruce, Biological Exuberance.

              Related Posts:

              Related Posts on Animal Sexuality:

              Gay (Wild) -Life

               

              At Seed Magazine:

              Sex At Dawn The effeminate sheep and other problems with natural selection


              Books:

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

              Long, John A: Hung Like an Argentine Duck: A Journey Back in Time to the Origins of Sexual Intimacy

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

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