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Animal Sex: What it can teach us about heteronormativity June 2, 2009

Posted by Onely in Food for Thought, Heteronormativity, sex.
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Last week, Christina and I posted about the wide range of sexualities/sexual drives that we experience as singles. We think it’s important to acknowledge our diversity as gendered, sexual beings because society tends to stereotype, undervalue — and oftentimes punish — single people when they have so-called “abnormal” sexual desires or lifestyles (ranging from wanting to have sex but not a relationship, for example, to feeling indifferent about sex altogether). The thing is, most of us probably grew up with our parents teaching us about the “naturalness” of sex — families more open about sex might tell us that “the birds and the bees” do it (within the confines of a monogamous relationship, of course), and the rest of us are told that babies are brought to happy, deserving (ie – married) couples by generous storks.

The thing is, nature isn’t exactly “natural” – at least not according to how we humans would define it. Indeed, looking at the truth about animal sex may help reveal the heteronormativity underlying much of what we’re taught about sex and sexuality as children. Let’s begin, as a case in point, with the female praying mantis, who eats her mate immediately after sex (hey, she needed some sugar to process all that sex!):

YIKES! That isn’t friendly post-coital behavior. But it’s perfectly acceptable in the “natural” world to eat one’s mate.

For a long time, apparently, scientists believed that most animals were monogamous (coupled for life!) — and then suddenly, in the early ’90s, they discovered that the animal kingdom is a nasty, nasty world. Birds don’t stay together (scientists once believed that nearly all bird species — 94% — do); and even when a species is socially monogamous, individuals are, more often than not, actually quite promiscuous. Some species – such as the bonobo - do not adhere to any obvious sexual code of conduct; and others, such as the sea lion, are happiest in polygamous relationships. And, according to this report, homosexuality among animals isn’t all that strange, either.

So what can animal sex teach us about contemporary culture’s heteronormative standards of “normal” sexual behavior? Basically, it’s complicated. And we should expect it to be.

– L

Comments»

1. Therese - June 3, 2009

This is so true! There are a variety of types of sexual interactions in the animal kingdom. I’m not saying that justifies being unfaithful to a trusting partner, but I think our culture is definitely due for a re-evaluation of our relationships.

I have a feeling that polyamory (not polygamy, mind you) is going to be the wave of the future…

2. Special K - June 3, 2009

I think sex isn’t really complicated….but my thoughts about it are. Oftentimes, the more I reflect about it, the more murky it gets. Not that we “shouldn’t” think about it, I just think that as women, we tend to “use” it in ways that aren’t always healthy…like how we use food, exercise, shopping, or other things….

3. Rachel - June 4, 2009

Early 1990s? Sarah Hrdy wrote about non-monogamous primates in “The Woman that Never Evolved,” first published in 1981! I guess it was in the early 1990s when others took notice… (The title is a play on the claim that women didn’t really evolve under the idea of sexual selection…).

Hrdy’s work is very interesting because she is, in her own way, taking on the heteronormative assumptions of society. She does that by documenting the many other ways primates and “primitive” humans live (she uses both to guess at how our ancestors lived). Her most recent work deals with “alloparents,” the non-biological parents who take care of children. If a clan raises kids, infant mortality goes down… So much for the efficiency of the nuclear family.

4. Rachel - June 4, 2009

An article on alloparents was in the April 2009 edition of Natural History.

onely - June 4, 2009

Rachel — thanks for all the info! I have never read the Hrdy book, but will have to check it out…

I’m assuming the early 1990s is when the myth-busting broke, if only b/c of the NYT article that I linked to (which is dated 1990). It seems to take TIME for the general public to believe anything that seems “unnatural” (especially if it comes from a woman!).

— L

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8. xxx - May 28, 2013

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