Saturday, April 16, 2005

Sex mysterious--and not mysterious

In recent years sex researchers have focused on a number of apparent anomalies having to do with sex. The search for anomalies, and the attempt at their resolution, is a central aspect of the scientific enterprise. Some gay writers have said that the etiology of heterosexuality needs explanation just as much as the etiology of homosexuality. Not so.

Current sex research, informed by ethology and evolutionary psychology, has a much broader scope than that of Alfred Kinsey a century ago. Kinsey and his team deal only with human males and females--with a further limitation to white people in the United States during the twentieth century). A fuller understanding requires broadening the range of inquiry from human beings to the mammalian sphere, with special attention to our close relatives in the order of primates. A number of questions are outstanding. Among them are these:

1) Why is it that, unlike most primates, human females do not experience estrus?

2) Of some 270 primate species, thirty-one (including ours) menstruate. Why this difference?
3) Why is it that in most species women are in the aggregate 10-20% smaller than males? In view of childbearing, shouldn’t the ratio be the opposite?

4) What are the reasons why monogamy prevails in some primates, polygyny in others?

5) In what species is it appropriate to speak of animal homosexuality?

6) Why is the Y chromosome disintegrating among humans? Are we destined to become an all-females species?

7) In humans, why do women live long past the child bearing age? Why are some men still able to procreate as they near the end of their life cycle? These men will not be able to care for the child they procreate.

8) What is the role of flagellation, urolagnia and other paraphilias?

9) Why do men have nipples?

10) Why are a few human men and women given to exclusive same-sex relations? Do any animal species reveal this pattern?

As is evident, there is much to be learned about sexuality. And much is being learned. Against a comparative cross-species perspective, the profile of human sexuality emerges with greater clarity.

Some matters have been long established. In all of the species there is no need to explain penile-vaginal intromission and the attraction that leads to it. Oddly, some gay writers insist that there is such a mystery. The reasons for this insistence do not appear to lie within the sphere of scientific inquiry.

It was the cry of Harry Hay, the founder of the American gay rights movement 55 years ago that "We are a people!" This concept of gay separatism has been useful in the political sphere as an organizing tool. Yet it should not intrude into our ongoing effort to understand mammalian sexuality. To allow this intrusion is, if I may say so, a form of self-gratification.