The Frontal Cortex

Nature and Homosexuality

First of all, anyone who argues that homosexuality isn’t “natural,” and that being gay is just a strange human perversion, is clearly wrong. As I wrote in my article on Joan Roughgarden:

Having homosexual sex is the biological equivalent of apple pie: Everybody likes it. At last count, over 450 different vertebrate species could be beheaded in Saudi Arabia. You name it, there’s a vertebrate out there that does it.

But a crucial distinction has to be made, at least from a biological perspective, between homosexual behavior and homosexual identity. There is very little evidence of gay animals only engaging in gay sex. For the most part, the homosexual behavior observed by scientists in the wild is done in addition to heterosexual sex. When bonobos penis fence, or big horn sheep engage in anal licking, or dolphins have all-male orgies, it’s just a little extra-curriciular activity.

What does this mean? That being bi-sexual is the most “natural” sexual orientation of all. Here is Roughgarden:

“In our culture, we assume that there is a straight-gay binary, and that you are either one or the other. But if you look at vertebrates, that just isn’t the case. You will almost never find animals or primates that are exclusively gay. Other human cultures show the same thing.” Since Roughgarden believes that the hetero/homo distinction is a purely cultural creation, and not a fact of biology, she thinks it is only a matter of time before we return to the standard primate model. “I’m convinced that in 50 years, the gay-straight dichotomy will dissolve. I think it just takes too much social energy to preserve. All this campy, flamboyant behavior: It’s just such hard work.”

Obviously, that’s a controversial statement, and I’m not convinced that the sexual habits of sheep have any bearing on human sexual identity. But if we are going to discuss the biology of homosexuality, it’s important that we get the biology right. In that case, both of our modern sexual orientations – being strictly hetero or homo – are not very natural.


  1. #1 coturnix
    July 15, 2006


    Also, if you insert the word “essentialism” somewhere in there, this will show up on The Buzz together with other related posts.

  2. #2 DavidD
    July 15, 2006

    Someday I hope to find a biologist who is very aware that human sexuality is not entirely about sex, and therefore making parallels with other species has limited value. Yes, heterosexual men in prison have sex with other men, but I wouldn’t take that to mean that the gay-straight dichotomy is artificial. The only gay man I’ve known well enough to talk about such things tells me his homosexuality is much like my heterosexuaity. It’s about love objects even more than sex objects. I don’t know data to guide speculation about why that should be gender specific, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that is something more important than what sheep do and something that is quite natural, not imposed on biology as you seem to imply by saying modern sexual orientations are not natural.

  3. #3 razib
    July 15, 2006

    dude, you said anal licking, heh.

  4. #4 Rachel
    July 17, 2006

    And I thought the strange behavior was the penis fencing….

  5. #5 Hope
    November 2, 2009

    I’m glad to see this point made somewhere. There does seem to be a distinction between the homosexual behavior we see in animals (and in many heterosexual/bisexual humans) and having a homosexual identity. It doesn’t seem like you ever see animals show preference for the same sex the way you see in humans. These animals may engage in homosexual behavior, but it seems to be on species level, rather than an individual level (all animals in the species engaging in about the same amount of homosexual behavior). Whereas in many humans who identify as heterosexual or homosexual there is a clear and consistent sexual preference from an early age (even if they are open to either sex). I find it hard to believe that the dichotomy is cultural – particularly since it sort of implies that individuals who identify as homosexual have a choice and could be happy with the opposite sex. Does it imply that?

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    November 2, 2009

    Congratulations on getting banned!!!! WTG!!!

    At some point I want to discuss your article in more detail. … soon I hope.

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