Jan 082011
 

Do you feel that talking about animals in human terms like heterosexual, homosexual, polyamorous et cetera… is dangerous and gives media the chance to misconstrue findings, or do you think it comes from homophobia in the science community

Well, heterosexual and homosexual as ADJECTIVES are not human terms; gay and lesbian are human terms, as is “homosexual” as a NOUN (as in, “He’s ‘a homosexual’”), and I do think that talking about animals in those terms is meaningless. Scientists don’t talk about animals as being gay or straight. They may, with perfect accurancy, describe animal behavior as homosexual or heterosexual. Bonobo female g-g rubbing in a homosexual behavior. But those bonobos aren’t lesbian (or queer etc).

But it has been true that scientists have felt moral judgment about homosexual behavior in non-human animals, which has impeded the progress of knowledge and understanding about evolution, animal behavior, and biology.

Journalists have done the same thing. And because historically ‘homosexual’ has been used as a noun to categorize people, its use in the scientific literature to describe the behavior of non-human animals sounds, to the lay person (which includes journalists) as though being a gay person and non-human animal homosexual behavior are closely related. In point of fact, they’re barely related at all. But this is one of the phenomena that makes evolution difficult to understand if you’re only thinking superficially: behaviors may emerge that are phylogenetically unrelated and/or environmentally unrelated, but which solve problems for different species.

Your species needs to more parenting partnerships, in the absence of enough males? Same sex female parenting. Your species needs a quick and instinctive behavior for establishing power hierarchies or calming aggression? Non-reproductive sexual behavior. Your species has a long developmental phase and needs to train its young to be sexual for adulthood? Adolescent and childhood sexual behavior among same-sex conspecifics. (This is a very rough and shallow description; I only want to illustrate the point that non-reproductive sex and same-sex partnership serves various functions in various species.)

The media’s failure to HELP people in the mainstream understand that non-human animal behavior is no measure of human behavior is grounded in the same moralizing and ignorance as exampled by the scientists who morally judged the homosexual behavior of non-human animals. They’re simply failing to distinguish between behavior and PERSONHOOD.

No animal can be a person. By definition. (Some people disagree with me; they tend to be the kind of people who feed their dogs table lasagna and leave money to their cats in their wills.) And a PERSON’S SELF, their essence, their individuality, their rights, their worth, is in no way affected by what they choose to do sexually with a consenting peer.

When you impose your morality as a measure of the behavior of non-human animals, it’s a step in the direction of using your morality as a weapon to exclude or disrespect humans who make different sexual choices than you would.

Put sexual behavior in the appropriate context; the bonobo context, the dog context, the human context. The only sexual behavior that belongs in a MORAL CONTEXT is YOUR OWN sexuality and that of your partners. Period. (Unless you’re a legislator making laws around consent and harm, or a clinician making decisions about distress and dysfunction. Then it gets way more complicated. But that’s another post.)

So I think the harm comes not from describing animal behavior (accurately) as homosexual but from humans – including lay people, scientists, and journalists and other members of the media – laying their personal sexual morality where it doesn’t belong. Where doesn’t it belong? Anywhere other than their own personal sex lives, and those of their partners.

There’s a post to be written about the role of moral outrage in the progress of society. I’ll do that later. For now, my goal is to encourage all of YOU to delimit the relevance of your sexual morality to your personal, direct experience. Okee dokee?

emily nagoski

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.