“Animals don’t do sexual identity. They just do sex.”

As a way of adding my own contribution to the week of posts on “sex and marriage” over at Faith and Theology, here is a selection from a new article on bisexuality in animals:
Two penguins native to Antarctica met one spring day in 1998 in a tank at the Central Park Zoo in midtown Manhattan. They perched atop stones and took turns diving in and out of the clear water below. They entwined necks, called to each other and mated. They then built a nest together to prepare for an egg. But no egg was forthcoming: Roy and Silo were both male. . . .

Unlike most humans . . . individual animals generally cannot be classified as gay or straight: an animal that engages in a same-sex flirtation or partnership does not necessarily shun heterosexual encounters. Rather many species seem to have ingrained homosexual tendencies that are a regular part of their society. That is, there are probably no strictly gay critters, just bisexual ones. “Animals don’t do sexual identity. They just do sex,” says sociologist Eric Anderson of the University of Bath in England.

Nevertheless, the study of homosexual activity in diverse species may elucidate the evolutionary origins of such behavior. Researchers are now revealing, for example, that animals may engage in same-sex couplings to diffuse social tensions, to better protect their young or to maintain fecundity when opposite-sex partners are unavailable—or simply because it is fun. These observations suggest to some that bisexuality is a natural state among animals, perhaps Homo sapiens included, despite the sexual-orientation boundaries most people take for granted. “[In humans] the categories of gay and straight are socially constructed,” Anderson says.

What is more, homosexuality among some species, including penguins, appears to be far more common in captivity than in the wild. Captivity, scientists say, may bring out gay behaviors in part because of a scarcity of opposite-sex mates. In addition, an enclosed environment boosts an animal’s stress levels, leading to a greater urge to relieve the stress. Some of the same influences may encourage what some researchers call “situational homosexuality” in humans in same-sex settings such as prisons or sports teams.

—Emily V. Driscoll, Scientific American

Comments

Shane said…
What happens in the zoo, stays in the zoo.
Ben Myers said…
"What is more, homosexuality among some species, including penguins, appears to be far more common in captivity than in the wild."

Ah yes, reminds of the time me and Shane were in prison together. Great times, so many memories...
Did he "probe" you with some "deep" philosophical questions? :)

(Or did I just go too far?)
steph said…
If God lets penguins do it then what's so wrong with humans (not many humans live in the wild) doing it? Nothing.
JM said…
“[In humans] the categories of gay and straight are socially constructed.”

Isn't this the opposite of what we're supposed to believe right now?
steph said…
yes and it carries the old fashioned assumption that homosexuality can be "healed" - and I'm skeptical that bisexuality in penguins is more frequent in captivity.
When the article says that "the categories of gay and straight are socially constructed," I think the author means that our concerns over who is gay and who is straight is a cultural concern. The point is, we shouldn't care. A person might prefer homosexual sex or heterosexual sex, but that doesn't mean we have to label such a person "homosexual" or "heterosexual."

The article can probably be taken to mean a couple different things:

(1) The categories "gay" and "straight" are a forced attempt to categorize and compartmentalize human beings.

(2) Humans are just like other animals: they are basically bisexual, and social concerns orient us toward more homosexual or more heterosexual behavior. As a result, there is no such thing as true heterosexuality and homosexuality.

I think the article intends to emphasize point 1, but I suppose it could be arguing implicitly for point 2. The question is whether that would be taken as offensive or liberating for the gay community. On the one hand, it relativizes all sexual activity. On the other hand, it also relativizes sexual identity.

What do you think?
JM said…
I think your assessment of the article's position is probably about right.

I also think that I'm right in pointing out that this assertion contradicts the narrative which is currently acceptable: namely that sexual orientation is an inborn feature of our humanity.

The article asserts that "bisexuality is a natural state among animals." I find this an unlikely claim, or perhaps simply a misguided one. It might be better to say that we're all endowed with a sexuality, and that this sexuality is shaped by a large number of environmental factors.

I think that you're right to say that 'gay' and 'strait' are fairly unhelpful terms. I've noticed that we use these terms in the same way we use male and female. In fact, I think we have socially speaking, created two new genders. One is no longer male or female, one is a strait male, or a gay female - and this orientation is as fundamental to your humanity as your gender.

I think this is a deeply secular notion, and one that's effected the church's response to homosexuals. It does so in two ways. First, for those sympathetic to homosexuals, they find it impossible to rationalize the biblical/traditional teachings. Second, traditionalists have also internalized this view of orientation, and therefore see homosexuality as a special kind of sin, something that goes down to the root of the person, and they fear it.

I think this goes to the heart of what's crippling the church's response to homosexuality.

Dr. Anderson's reflections on 'Faith and Theology' have made me think about the use of the terms like 'sin' and 'repentance.' He's saying these terms are unhelpful, essentially. What I've noticed is that in fact these terms have almost been totally excised from the church - except for realm of homosexuality, where we use them liberally.
Evan said…
I never understood why social construction = "mere" cultural concern. It seems that one would have to assume a radical individualism to justify this. The only reason why a social basis for something should lead us to not care about it is if we assume that some non-social reality is not only more basic than the social, but also refutes it. In some instances this may be the case, but I don't see why, in matters such as sexuality, it is.
JM:

I'm not sure I agree with you. I say "not sure," because I'm not entirely clear what you are arguing.

While I think terms like "gay" and "straight" are often used in unhelpful ways, I am also convinced by the scientific evidence that these are biological factors, not merely socially constructed ones. That is, I took the article only to mean that our society's way of thinking that people are either gay or straight is quite possibly a social construction, in that it does not always accord with the diversity and complexity of animal sexuality.

I myself do think that many people are indeed homosexual by nature, and that it is perfectly legitimate to distinguish such people from those who are straight in their orientation. I also don't think it's all that difficult to deal with the biblical material. But biblical issues aside, what I think this article intends to show is that the conservative reaction to homosexuality as something "unnatural" fails to conform to what we actually see in nature. Homosexuality and bisexuality are, in fact, quite natural, with the important qualification that animals have no interest in "sexual identity." As the quote says, they are only interested in sex.

I think this raises an interesting issue: can the Christian focus less on sexual identity and more on sex? In other words, I would like to see Christians get over their hang-ups about whether a person is straight or gay and focus on whether the sexual acts are in conformity with what the church seeks to embody: mutual self-giving love for the neighbor within committed marital relationships. Can this occur in homosexual relations? Of course.

So let's deal with the biblical material (which comes down to Rom. 1 alone), then affirm gay marriage and gay ordination, and start talking about sexuality rather than sexual identity.
Evan said…
"I think this raises an interesting issue: can the Christian focus less on sexual identity and more on sex? In other words, I would like to see Christians get over their hang-ups about whether a person is straight or gay and focus on whether the sexual acts are in conformity with what the church seeks to embody: mutual self-giving love for the neighbor within committed marital relationships. Can this occur in homosexual relations? Of course."

I can agree to all of this. But are you really getting any closer to talking about "sex" here? You've avoided the hang up of "sexual identity", I agree, but there's nothing inherently sexual about mutual self-giving love and commitment. I think this is where conservatives make the stronger argument- because they actually offer a consideration of what God intends with sex, rather than discussing human relationality more generally (an important thing, to be sure) and then assuming that all that needs to be said about sex can be said on that level.
JM said…
Hi David,

"I'm not entirely clear what you are arguing"

Sorry that I've not articulated my points as well as I'd like. I'm essentially saying that orientation is a cultural construction: a fairly recent one, not found in the past - or even in other contemporary cultures.

"I am also convinced by the scientific evidence that these are biological factors, not merely socially constructed ones. That is, I took the article only to mean that our society's way of thinking that people are either gay or straight is quite possibly a social construction, in that it does not always accord with the diversity and complexity of animal sexuality."

I'm having a little trouble parsing this bit. You're affirming that you think there are biological factors determining orientation, but then seconding the articles implicit argument that orientation is itself a social construct. But if homosexual orientation is a biologically determined feature then orientation is merely the recognition of that feature.

Now we're really into it. I'm arguing that there is a degree of biological input, but that the modern conception of orientation is a construct. But, that because of the degree to which our sexuality is a malleable and socially constructed thing itself, it's a bit of a self fulfilling concept.


"In other words, I would like to see Christians get over their hang-ups about whether a person is straight or gay and focus on whether the sexual acts are in conformity with what the church seeks to embody."

In the early church there was no concept of orientation. Homosexuality was something that you did, not something that you were. In fact, it was really sodomy which they were really concerned with, to put it bluntly.

For this reason biblical and early church material doesn't quite answer the questions that we'd like it to answer. Nevertheless, I fail to find the liberal readings of the texts you allude to compelling.

"mutual self-giving love for the neighbor within committed marital relationships. Can this occur in homosexual relations?"

I guess that's cutting to another issue: whether marriage is possible between two people of the same gender. To my mind this is ontologically impossible. I think we're confused on three issues: the nature of gender, the nature of sex, and the sacramental character of marriage.

On the issue of nature...I grew in cattle country, and it's true: animals do display a pretty wide range of sexual behaviors, but I don't think that the animal world is a helpful place to look for models for our own ethical conduct. Not everything that happens in nature is 'natural' or normal, and even that which is, is not necessarily anything we'd want to emulate.
dan said…
On bisexuality and same-sex relationships while in captivity --

I can't speak for penguins but I have known, and known of, many extremely macho, beer-swilling, t'n'a, men who would engage in same-sex relationships while in prison (even though, on the outside, they would beat the hell out of anybody who called them a 'fag' or something like that).

Personally, I am of the belief that sexuality is a mix of nature and nuture. More importantly, I also believe that it doesn't really matter if one's sexual orientation is genetic or learned -- findings in this area won't solve the debate. Either way, we should be welcoming homosexuals into the Christian community (and creating a safe place for the ones who are already there!), allowing them to work in the same positions of authority as heterosexuals, and blessing gay unions.
Anonymous said…
The question is going to get very complex when in utero hormonal therapies or genetic treatments become available to suppress the strange animal variation of homosexual tendency that tends to keep popping up in the species. Would those who promote openness and toleration argue against 'fixing' this 'problem' or suddenly become for as a common sense medical treatment like fixing a cleft palate or deafness or infertility. Some deaf people use the 'social construction' line of argument to argue against treating them.

And of course it is not Christians alone who are intolerant. Even the most tolerant-acting secular folk would likely abort a gay child in the womb as quick as they do a Down's child (90% rate). Hopefully the Christian right would (however ironically) come to the rescue of the unborn gays at that point.

James
steph said…
"..secular folk would likely abort a gay child in the womb as they do a Down's child..." ????!!!!

(An outraged secular folk)
Anonymous said…
Not sure if you are outraged at me or the sad truth of the statistic, Steph. But if it makes you feel better the rate is likely nearly as high among most Christian folk as well. It's just that if you see a Down's child these days it's a near certainty the parents are Christians (most likely even fundamentalists).
I think it's not too difficult to extrapolate that to gays if in utero confirmation was available. Just like they do with schools for their kids and good real estate, 'diversity' advocates will likely draw the line at grandchildren.

Maybe I'm wrong, but parents don't hope for their children to be gay but they do dream up hetero futures, why is that? I think it's evolution and a simple acknowledgment that homosexuality even if tolerable when it occurs is an undesirable variation like infertility rather than like left-handedness .

James
steph said…
I am outraged at you and I don't believe the unidentified statistic. I am agnostic and I would never abort a child, just do everything in my power to protect that child of mine. I don't have any ambition for my children other than they be happy and gay or Down's syndrome, they will be happy.
James,

Just so we don't forget, left-handedness was viewed to be just as abnormal and undesirable as homosexuality and infertility still are. My mother-in-law was born left-handed but was disciplined by her parents until she learned to be right-handed. I think we forget how quickly cultural values change. You may be right on certain aspects of our culture today, but I would be willing to bet that the likelihood of people even considering the abortion of gay children is dropping with every passing year. Assuming we could ever discover whether a child would be gay, I doubt that hardly anyone would consider doing such a thing.
Anonymous said…
Steph just to be clear I am a nearly pro-life liberal Christian who attends a church that is open to homosexuals. I am just comfortable with non-PC discussions and trying to anticipate the next moral quandary. I'm sorry about accusing "secular folk" of an atrocity that as I said runs through the whole lot of us (Down's births have plummeted, a widely known but rarely discussed fact which coincided with the triple test).

I think you are correct, David, that aborting gay babies would be a bit extreme since being gay is not debilitating like Down's. I do think though that therapies would not be far behind. Unlike left-handedness being gay is somewhat life altering. If being gay could be changed in the way infertility can often be cured by popping a pill (like Clomid), I bet we would have a lot of parents taking you up on the deal, whether they are generally tolerant of gays or not. I do think though that it is probably so complex that it could probably only be reduced overall not eliminated. We may have to be pro-gay while at the same time supporting those who pursue therapies eventually. But we can cross that bridge when we come to it I suppose.

James
steph said…
I don't think homosexuality needs a cure. Simply super that you're "open" to homosexuals. I hope that they aren't made to feel they need to be healed. Just to set the record straight, I would never take a pill to dictate the sexuality, sex or particular nature of my unborn child. Having worked for a time with Down's syndrome children, I find the idea that it is dehabilitating for the child, quite tragic. These children were the happiest children I have met.
James,

For further proof of my thesis that homosexuality is gradually becoming accepted within our society, such that abortion or genetic alteration would be (for most) unthinkable, see this post.