It is taken as a fact that homosexual intercourse is non-reproductive. Gays and lesbians just do not make babies. It makes sense. But… There just might be some more depth to that fact. Let me suggest a simple different take, and then a much less simple exploration of the underlying assumptions.
First, two animal examples. Since a certain kind of feminist will automatically accuse you of specism upon any kind of animal mention, let me be extra-clear that i do not in any way believe humans to work anywhere like this.
So, there is a kind of lizard that reproduces asexually, the females simply giving birth to genetic copies of themselves. They also do have males and can reproduce with gene-mixing, but males are not the norm. Now if this lizard goes without lesbian sex, the lack of stimulation will make her produce less hormones and consequently she will lay fewer eggs.
Of course i know humans do not produce offspring without male gametes, but i don’t think this hurts my arguments because what i want to prove is not that lesbian sex gets anyone pregnant, instead that reproduction in humans is much more complex than blindly dropping gametes like fish do. My point is that even without sperm the reproductive system gets engaged in the lesbian sex act. Hormones flow.
A second example is male gay swans, who will form long-term pair bonds, and steal eggs or co-opt a female for the short time needed to get eggs. The surprising thing is that sometimes male-male couples can be more successful than heterosexual ones in raising kids all the way to adulthood, seemingly because they control a larger area.
Again, from one perspective the sexual act doesn’t produce offspring, but now the amount of kids at end of life per individual is raised by homosexual intercourse. Certainly it seems like the most important fact is the heterosexual egg-producing copulation, but for the male swan prioritizing homosexual sex makes it a better reproducer. In this particular (and likely rare) case the relation between homosexual sex and offspring is the opposite of what would be expected. And the point here is that we might not be able to say where sex begins and ends.
If it seems i am confusing sex with external realities that are not sexual, try putting the argument in the opposite direction: If sex is only reproductive when a kid is produced, then 90% of boring missionary hetero conservative human sex is non-reproductive. It is a hard fact that in apes the proportion of copulations to pregnancies is way above 10 to 1, more like 50 to 1. Also, no one can know exactly which copulations were “reproductive” or not before at least a few days. We’d have to say that humans are mostly non-reproductive, despite the fact that we are hastily proceeding to overpopulate this planet.
So, to sum it up, my courterpoint, my alternative view, is that:
- Sex is complicated;
- it is not only related to penetration;
- it is related to baby-making…
- …amongst other things;
- that (since humans are humans) it can be very hard to find places where sex is really really not present;
- and that saying “sex is not about reproduction” might be just as much oversimplification as saying that “sex must be only about reproduction”.
Of course the real deal with all of this is the oversimplification part. I fear it carries a trap. To tell why, i must delve into the (rather complicated) assumptions of such a view.
- Assumption of Rate, which presupposes that reproduction is always about the amount of children produced.
A quick detour into ecology shows us that there is a tension between rate of breeding and quality of offspring. Not only each individual wants to have as many infants as it can, it also wants each of those to have the maximum possible chance of breeding further. Biologists call these r and K strategies. In fact humans are so far into the quality (K) side of this scale that we at first thought it had to be an either|or proposition, when of course you can try to maximize both. In an exclusively “rate” scenario, being fast is all that matters, but with “K and r” there are a multiplicity of interesting strategies.
The gay pair of swans just barely scratches the surface of possibilities. All kinds of weird mate-selection strategies, the absurd complexity of sperm competition, pheromones, many variations of mixing food with sex, the controversial non-genetic inheritance, protracted childhood, training and so on. The play for offspring quality depends on factors like phenotype and genetic variance, immune system complementarity, geographic coverage and energy conservation, interspecies competition and others, which interact in non-linear ways, so that no single strategy is ever universally valid. Reproduction keeps changing.
In a way, the denial of reproduction is a refusal of a certain animality of sex, reflecting the feeling that sex can’t possibly be as simple as reproduction. But actually this is a misunderstanding of reproduction, which is not simple at all. To see sex as a biological process is not an oversimplification, mainly because it does not simplify anything. It doesn’t make any difference if sex is «natural» or «cultural», «innate» or «learned», if it is «instinctive» or an «act of love». Whatever it is, it is a mess. I dispute that gay sex is unreproductive not to imply that one must follow their instincts, but instead that, whatever one does with said instincts, they are very complicated.
(Of course human history is littered with people trying to force a personal view of how things ought to work based on theories supposedly taken from biology. Social Darwinism is evil, i know. But even Darwin himself knew that sexual selection leads to weird outcomes. In other words, studying the biology of sex will not automatically fill us with a closed monolithic preconception of how sex must be that we would want to prescribe to everyone else. In fact, i’d expect just the opposite, since sex is one of the hardest problems in contemporary biology.)
Actually the denial of the biology of sex probably devalues the cultural aspect of it, because it denies culture any effect outside of itself. It puts sex into an ivory tower where it does not have any consequences, it is a world disconnected from life and the rest of the planet. Surely culture is even more varied than biology, but it arrives at this complexity through biology. It uses the framework of our bodies and chemistry, instead of ignoring it.
And things get even more tangled as sex in humans gets strongly linked with group-living and sociality.
- Assumption of Monogamy, by which i mean the view that the “normal” human sexuality happens between two individuals (and this has nothing to do with a gay person’s expectation of not being cuckolded).
Once we get rid of this silly prejudice against biology, a very stark fact jumps out. Homo sapiens evolved living in bands, probably large bands, and inside these groups sex was a chaotic thing, not constrained by privacy. The anatomy of our sex organs is strongly influenced by this. Supposedly our feelings might as well.
Now the complexities of biological reproduction will be constantly managed and played and twisted by the group dynamics, by coalitions and hierarchy, by communication and politics. For example in a group where a powerful female is in charge, every partnership within the group might become an secondary association with her. The group context can foster innovation in breeding behaviour (something very rare in animals). Certainly it involves a deal of grooming, flattery, bribing, intimidation, seduction and whatever dirty tricks one can find.
The sexual behaviour of Bonobo apes is particularly instructive in that respect. They seem to be the only animal species besides us practising sex in such a varied way. In Bonobo bands male-on-female action is just a part of sexuality, together with all possible partnerings and a vast amount of group sex. Not only that, Bonobos constantly mix sex with all kinds of social interaction, from conflict resolution to friendship. They certainly do not engage in intercourse only for the sake of reproduction. On the other hand, Female estrus does increase sexual activity. It seems very unlikely that they are unaware of a relation between intercourse and pregnancy, but also unlikely is that they differentiate between “reproductive sex” and “just for fun sex”.
Put differently, if an alien was to study human behaviour (as we do study Bonobo behaviour) it would have no reason whatsoever to put reproductive sex and (so to say) non-reproductive sex in different categories.
To split sexuality from other aspects of life is a side effect of the attempt to constrain sex to heterosexual couples in private spaces. At best, a partial interpretation. Our reading of sex as being reducible to a mechanical, private, closed action has more to do with contemporary city dwelling than with the “animality” of sex. We can only make this distinction because we live in a society that spends a large amount of energy into creating those pockets of intimacy.
Even the search for privacy in moments of intimacy is a very social action, with the clear message of defiance for other’s opinions.
A denial of the biology of sex becomes then an idealization of intimacy, which again devalues what it seems to enshrine: Overprotected private lives become boring mutual captivity. The closed spaces where it is supposed to happen precludes exploration and curiosity, which are very important aspects of reproductive behaviour. Sex becomes so sacred that we must treat it as set apart from life. It becomes so important that we create stories and expectations and whole mythologies around it — and finally forget to feel it. We decorate it with sex toys, we make up elaborate plots for it, but we end up never talking about it except through jokes or curses. It becomes hard to even think about sex without tripping into all kinds of cultural prejudices.
Because we get used to this somewhat peculiar context, we take baby-making to be a different process from person-making. And this is also why we take both as unrelated to the rest of our lives. The problem is: We don’t really have a perfect awareness of everything that is in our lives.
- Assumption of Transparency, which is the presupposition that a person knows everything about herself.
Meaning that we might wish we could have a baby with that same-sex person we’re fscking. Meaning that our bodies might have plans with sex we are unaware of.
And this is a problem, because there is a visceral reaction to the argument. It feels like an indictment: “You are forfeiting control of your sex!” In other words, it is hard to accept that we don’t know exactly why we have sex. We have been conditioned to not think of sex as something beyond our grasp. If gay sex is in some way related to reproduction, then it is irresponsible to just let it happen.
The burden of responsibility over sex comes from Judeo-Christian morality. Catholicism (or your local equivalent) is a displacement of reproductive control: From the somewhat automatic homoeostatic unreflected individual self-drive → Towards a bourgeois societal control geared to financial improvement. “Build-a-family” kind of thing. And, let’s face it, pro-choice and contraceptions are not a refusal of Catholicism, but an enhancement upon it. Contemporary western approach to sex is not that we should listen to our drives, but that we should apply individually the same kind of scheming that once was the subject of group gossip. Catholicism internalized. Each new form of control gets superimposed on the previous canvas, forming a mesh of intertwined levels of control.
Part of this play comes from each person socially presenting a mask of holding their own reins. Each person’s pretence ends up being an imposition upon others to project a similar persona. That’s how the group gets conditioned to treat sex as something that should never escape our hold. But wearing such a mask involves too much of explaining and rationalizing one’s actions — as soon as you get used to it, the illusion of transparency appears. One ends up believing his own lies.
Then, of course, when we desperately want something and can’t really put into words why, we come up with all sorts of rationalizations. The biggest one when it comes to sex is «pleasure». We put this word through so much abuse that it is taken for granted.
Pleasure is supposed to be a sensation, not a little different from «red» or «hot» or «wet». Of course there is no organ to perceive pleasure like the eyes and tongue. Pleasure is a judgement superimposed over sensations, but in this stance all the complications and risks of judgement are seemingly absent — or, more likely, hidden.
There is judgement in pleasure. At the base level it’s easy to see: Pleasure from being unhurt, from being fed, from being cosy. These are all direct measures of thriving bodily function. The complications begin with pleasure from being well taken care of, from having others protect you, feed you, groom you. These are indirect forms of getting the base level. But humans are social to such an extent that having an united group is more important to future bodily function than food or cosiness. And it feels better! But it goes further, beyond being a group, reaching a better position within the group and a better position for your group within a larger ecology of other groups. At that level pleasure goes to all kinds of unpredictable directions, not because it has been emancipated from «animality» but because, with many individuals taking care of each other’s bodies, the pay-off from creativity rises. That is why sometimes pleasure seems to be at odds with “simple reproduction”, but again reproduction has no simplicity to it — even at the chemical level.
Finally, denial of biology becomes denial of something even more important, as we deny many of these intertwined levels of our sexuality. So as an example while the voice inside my head tells itself a story about “not wanting to have children just right now” if my sperm did end up anywhere near an ovulum it would try its best to become a embryo. And i am trained to call the voice a “me” but the sperm something else. I might call it «animality» or «instinct» or «biology» but never something that admits it is part of my being.
If it was just a matter of names! I’m interested in how these particular words are made relevant. This is a process underlying much of contemporary culture, and as such shaping the world we live in.
- Assumption of Mind, which is the presupposition that there is a division between experience lived and the material context where we live it.
As with all presuppositions, it might be something we use, even something we use a lot, without being aware of. That is not to say that it is wrong.
Of course gay couples have a rational understanding of the sex act which allows them the logic conclusion that no kids are coming. This is not wrong. But for this mental construction to even make sense it requires a vocabulary of concepts that is created, framed, structured and powered by social practices somewhat at odds with the values gay couples believe themselves to be championing.
To put it another way, gay sex might actually reinforce the Catholic Judeo-Christian tradition it seems to oppose.
For example, the Bible says (or is construed as saying, but whatever) that sex is to be performed for reproduction and not for pleasure. Thus gay sex which is strongly pleasurable and only indirectly reproductive looks like the very opposite of Bible-endorsed boring missionary hetero sex. An alternative interpretation is that the Bible construes out of the almost overwhelming experience of sex two opposite forces of pleasure and reproduction in order to build its social net of control over sex.
This interpretation takes Christianity as a set of techniques for controlling consciousness. So for example primitive baptism might have been a simulated drowning, so that the person literally had the sensation of being “born again”. This paints Christianity as a framework of control geared to helping the individual free himself. The whole thing with pleasure then, in “if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out” style, is just the recognition that thinking is much easier when we shelter ourselves from strong feelings, something very similar to Buddhist claim that Heaven is the absence of Desire (convergent evolution perhaps?). That is certainly not how contemporary Christianity(s) seem to behave.
But how do we get rid of the prejudices against sex? A dual framework that, exactly like Catholicism, opposes pleasure and reproduction might not be the best way. It runs the risk of being an attempt at freedom that creates only yokes on the long run, as Christianity seems to have. To the extent our understanding of gay sex uses this dualism framework it might carry most of its underlying values. Certainly other interpretations are possible:
- pleasure × pain, both equally sexual
- pleasure × attachment, opposites in counter-intuitive ways
- attachment × freedom, both required for sex but hardly mixable
- autonomy × automatism, weirdly similar to the starting concepts
- and many, many others that do not revolve around two poles
Even more important than advancing different takes on sex is unveiling the risks of the assumptions. The Pleasure × Reproduction framework not only tries to control sex, but to give this control to a kind of individual. This is exactly the same persona that generates the illusion of transparency: It is someone who’s got these dualisms internalized and therefore sees them as natural. A lot of stuff can be made to fit this distinction if you think it just simply exists.
Understanding is very clearly not on the «animal/reproduction» side of the fence. Symbols are seen as radically different from desire. That is why, from a vanilla Catholic point of view, abstinence is the only kind of pregnancy prevention that makes any sense. Everything that is not the symbol is a kind of pleasure, a compromise, and therefore a risk. Of course it is a hard fact that abstinence campaigns have the opposite impact. My intuition is that this is exactly because they reinforce the dualism framework.
A thought experiment that might make all this seem a tad less pointless goes like this: Imagine that instead of abstinence, we promoted a huge campaign for gay sex to prevent teen pregnancies. Would this work?
My point is that it wouldn’t. If we did create a huge increase in homosexual intercourse it would be accompanied by a smaller but substantial increase in heterosexual intercourse. More hormones flowing kind of thing.
As gross as it might sound, i advance teen pregnancies as an example that understanding has nothing to do with reproduction — and thus that gay couples might understand themselves to be non-reproductive and still be just as much part of the societal work of building the next generation. Neither abstinence nor condoms will prevent teen pregnancies. Parents that deal with sex as something normal just might.
But, really, inside the social practice that creates this framework, there is no solution.
There is no intention of deposing these many ways-of-thinking about sex explored above. This is not about a right idea of sex. It’s just about asking more interesting questions, ones that might be shadowed by our assumptions. For example: Is sex important? Why? And how? Neither «Pleasure» nor «Reproduction» seems to me to answer this. There are subtleties being left aside.
When i started dancing, i discovered that being out of balance could lead to very unusual kinds of movement. Purposefully putting yourself out of balance was a way to engage movement so it was not really the voice in my head telling every part of the body where to go. At the same time, it isn’t the body alone doing all the moving. There are ideas involved, perceptions, decisions. This is a very bodily experience but not a body, and it is also a very intelligent experience but is not a mind.
This embodied intelligence kind of thing is a liberating force. And in a way the only experience with it i had before was having sex. No matter how shy i am, how much blame and guilt accompany me to bed, how much fear — still sex has long been this liberating experience. I believe we must accept it like that.
I do not want to say that my reproductive system is not part of me. And so i say sex is (also) reproduction, all the time, no matter how. Even weird sex. Because if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be a transcendental thing either.