Homosexuality healthy in humans, animals alike


Photo Credit: Ploy Buraparate | Daily Texan Staff

Despite the persistent myth, men don’t think about sex every seven seconds: The truth isn’t that simple. The median number of times men think about sex in a given day, according to a study from last year, is 18.6, but the responses ranged from one to nearly 400. In short, human sexuality is too complicated to be reduced to averages and there certainly isn’t any such thing as a “normal.”

Yet we live in a black and white culture where we want to think that there is, which is why psychologists considered homosexuality a mental illness as recently as 1973.

Today, we acknowledge that homosexuality is a healthy practice, as valid as heterosexuality, but there is still something of a mystery to it. We’ve done some interesting research on the subject, discovering through twin studies that though there’s a genetic component to sexual orientation, it cannot be the full story. Also, having several older brothers makes it more likely that a male will identify as gay, but we’re not really sure why.

Still, our research is very preliminary at this stage and there are many unanswered questions. However, one thing is clear: Homosexuality is by no means a strictly human activity — it’s very common throughout the animal kingdom. A review from 2009 determined that homosexuality pretty much exists anywhere there’s sex.

Perhaps the strongest examples of this (at least in the wild) can be seen in our close cousins, the bonobos. Among living animals, no species is closer to us genetically, but while we humans —more often than not (again, there is no “normal”) — consider sex to be a private affair between two people, the bonobos live their lives in a perpetual orgy. When two humans first encounter each other, they say “Nice to meet you” and shake hands. When bonobos introduce themselves, they have sex.

It doesn’t just stop there, either: Sex plays a major role in nearly every aspect of the apes’ lives. Fighting with another ape? Solve it with sex. And then have more sex afterwards, to make amends.

Naturally, these encounters aren’t limited to opposite genders. Males will “penis-fence” (yes, that is the scientific term) with other males and females use sex to form social bonds with each other and establish dominance through numbers.

But bonobos aren’t humans and that’s where the trouble lies. We use the term “homosexual” as a linguistic shortcut to describe some of their behaviors (which may more accurately be described as bisexual), but is it really appropriate to apply a human concept to non-human animals? An experiment from 2007, for example, induced homosexual behavior in fruit flies by mutating a specific gene. In doing that, the scientists made the male flies unable to distinguish between genders and start mounting other male flies. That’s not how homosexuality works in humans.

Science can observe and make predictions. It can also inform our ethical decisions, though the consensus opinion is that it can’t in and of itself make them for us. The flip side, however, is that bad science has provided an excuse for morally reprehensible actions in the past. 

Alan Turing was among the greatest mathematicians of modern times. He played a major role in the development of the modern computer and also made significant contributions to breaking the Enigma code during World War II, which led to the Allied victory.

In 1952, he was charged with homosexuality, then a crime in Britain. As punishment, Turing underwent a hormonal treatment that left him chemically castrated until he took his own life at the age of 41, two years later.

We lost a brilliant man, who was by all rights a hero, in our effort to “cure” him — and he’s just one example of many who have had to live believing there was something wrong with their sexuality. We humans have mighty brains, capable of unlocking the secrets of the atom and discovering black holes at the edge of the observable universe, but, in at least one area, it looks like the bonobos have us beat.

Published on March 7, 2013 as "No normal exists in wide realm of sex".