Co-director of Laviot, Oli Davidson, puts her zoology degree to good use in this blog all about how prevalent homosexual activity is across the animal kingdom.
I love museums. Having grown up in London where so many are free and excellent, they occupy a special place in my heart (except for the art galleries). So, whenever I visit a new place, I make sure to check them out (except for the art galleries). I particularly love natural history museums. Also, sex museums. Not to brag but I’ve been to Prague’s Sex Machines Museum, Amsterdam’s Sex Museum, and most recently, New York’s Museum of Sex. That last one is basically a sex shop with a booby bouncy castle (not as fun as the real thing but would recommend), but what is great about it is that there’s a room all about animals. No, not bestiality, but the diversity of sexual behaviour across the animal kingdom. Hello! That’s literally the intersection between natural history and sex! Needless to say, I read everything.
And what I learned is very important. Homosexuality is far from unnatural.
Scientific research has been documenting “non-conservative mating practices” for centuries, yet at the point of publishing, researchers have deemed them non-significant findings or have bowed to social pressures and omitted them from press. But science is now in the [second?] age of enlightenment and there are university departments and funding bodies committed to understanding the diversity of sex in the animal kingdom.
Allow me to share with you some of the best from the museum and my own research, and prove how sexual exploration between two individuals of the same sex is not some new found human invention (which we all knew anyway).
But first, let me outline a key biological assumption. Fitness is defined at the individual level. An organism’s fitness is their ability to grow, survive and reproduce. The more offspring an individual has, the greater fitness it has. Therefore, it follows that every organism should be trying to have as many babies as possible. ALL THE BABIES. Which happens by males contributing sperm and females contributing eggs and the sperm and the egg fusing yada yada we’ve all had the birds and the bees talk. But have you had the elephants and the albatrosses talk? And they’re not the only ones doing it. In fact, as Dr Carin Bondar says in her book Wild Sex, “You would be hard pressed to find a species on this planet that does NOT engage in some kind of homosexual activity”.
But, if central dogma is correct and the sole purpose of life is to create more life (please hold back your existential crisis, there’s more to come), why is same-sex behaviour so common and widespread?
There are several possible answers. Firstly, the physical event of successful sperm and egg fusion is not independent of other processes. Animals need to be able to find shelter, forage or hunt for food, develop social skills, practise sex and courtship, and lots of other behaviours that might be benefited by same-sex activity.
Then there’s the prison effect, when sex ratios are skewed, the availability bias leads to same-sex play. This happens with female albatrosses who pair up when males are scarce, which provides a fitness benefit with regard to offspring care. That’s right. Two mums are a typical parenting combination in these seabirds. When Gouldian finches are sex-segregated, males form partnerships with each other that are so strong, they survive the introduction of a female into the community.
Separate to that, homosexual behaviour may act as a “social glue”, facilitating bonding relationships that promote teamwork later in life. In several dolphin species, males will rub their genitals against each other, and females will penetrate or nuzzle other females’ reproductive areas using their mouthparts. (Sometimes they all do it together in orgies of up to 6 or 7 individuals.) This behaviour increases group bonding which increases survival later on in life.
Female elephants use their trunks, which have tactile and olfactory sensors (i.e. they feel touch and smell), to play with other females’ genitals. And those trunks are more dextrous that you’d think! This behaviour sends signals of reassurance and facilitates bonding.
Male parrots interact with each other sexually in order to weigh up their physical health against each other to determine social ranking. Female bonobos rub each other’s genitals and kiss to reduce tension after conflict or when joining a new group.
Male homosexual behaviour can also be sabotaging. Various insect species (termites, fruit flies) adopt a “transvestite” demeanour, pretending to be females and seducing other males to have sex with them. This depletes competitive males’ sperm resources, as well as energy, which increases the seductive male’s probability of copulation with females.
I hear what you’re saying; what about sex for sex, and not as part of the larger fabric of evolutionary procreative development? Scientists love to discover reason and causation, but many will agree that lots of animals have sex simply for the sake of it as an enjoyable activity. Some gorilla species exhibit sexual behaviours between males, such as genital stimulation, pelvic thrusting and ejaculation, and there is no known social benefit. Within this there is even a degree of faithfulness to partners.
Female macaques rub genitals, grope and engage in intense eye contact during their erotic encounters, during which they like to repeatedly change positions. These behaviours do not show increased social bonding or conflict resolution; it appears that some female macaques are just attracted to other female macaques. Who’d’a thunk?
This may sound regressive, demoting queer relationships and identities to biologically evolved means of genetic survival. However, the sentiment is that these attractions are part of our biology and exist throughout the natural world. How humans implement them and relate to them may differ to the rest of the animal kingdom, but the fact remains: same sex attraction is a basic, natural characteristic. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
Wild Sex, Dr Carin Bondar (2016)