What Pets Can Teach Us About Sex
Harrowing title, no? I thought so. Especially after last week’s e-mail missive urging me to take on bestiality as an animal welfare topic. (Um ... no thanks. I think it’s self-evident why I wouldn’t, except among the ranks of those readers I’d rather not attract to this blog.)
No, this post is NOT about sex with animals (thank God!). Rather, it’s more to do with all that hand-wringing kind of anthropomorphism we humans tend to engage in whenever we’re confronted by an example of animals doing sex-y things in a way we either approve of … or not.
Confused? Thought so. No matter. We’ll blame it on the nice people over at Salon who managed to interrupt my Sunday morning tea with this eye-catching topic. I mean, who can resist animals, sex and sexual politics? Not me, that’s for sure.
So let me explain: This adventurous Salon article, titled "Can we learn from animals' sex lives?" delved into familiar — if fraught — territory, concluding succinctly (within it’s subtitle, I might add), with this pithy statement: "It's tempting to look to critters for insight on human sexuality — monogamy especially — but beware."
That’s the piece, in a nutshell. It’s an oft-raised and controversial issue, to be sure. For which the author offered a few pearls of personal insight along with some standard (if admittedly well-reasoned) fare on the subject of applying our own sexual mores to the racy behavior we observe in animals:
I'm hardly alone in turning to the animal kingdom for insight on our own sexual behavior and what is or is not "normal." "Family-values" groups hilariously cheered the monogamy and parental dedication shown in the hit documentary March of the Penguins, as though these flippered creatures served as a superior model for homo sapiens (never mind that, like doves, penguins are not as sexually "faithful" as they at first seem). Anti-gay conservatives like to use the abundance of opposite sex mating as an argument for why homosexuality is "unnatural"; liberal activists, on the other hand, point to same-sex pairings found in the wild to prove just the opposite.
The prevalence of promiscuity in the natural world is used to explain the preponderance of high-profile sex scandals or, conversely, to make the point that the purpose of modern human society is to help us evolve beyond those baser drives. The truth is that there isn't any one "natural" way: "Animal species are incredibly varied in their sexual and mating behaviors," Herbenick told me. "There is no one standard."
So too do they vary within any given species. After all, we humans alone offer an eye-poppingly diverse spectrum of variation within our sexual behavior. So why should our pets be any different?
Still, when it comes right down to it, I find that some people want to make very close connections between their pets' behavior and their own. Consider:
- "He’s such a dog."
- "She’s a slut."
- "He likes the boys."
- "He’ll hump anything."
- "But he’s neutered!"
I hear it every day from bemused owners either looking for answers on their pets’ sexual behaviors, or seeking to establish some sort of connection between what they observe and what they believe to be true. (e.g., "Is my dog gay?" = "Yeah, I thought so.") More so from those who tend to humanize their pets in lots of ways, but also from the standard, "just curious" crowd.
We humans are an interesting lot. For a crop of creatures who adores its pets so unreservedly, we’re strangely willing to go to great anthropomorphic lengths to liken pets to ourselves in sexual terms — curiously, usually, but sometimes unkindly, and occasionally, even creepily. This, despite the vast gulf between our companion animal species and ourselves — behaviorally, biologically, and otherwise.
Ultimately, I believe this jumbled conception of our pets’ sexuality is testament to our own muddled psychology on the subject of our own. Which only makes sense. After all, it’s a deeply personal and culturally convoluted topic.
But still … that doesn’t mean I always welcome the subject in my e-mail inbox … or in the exam room.
Dr. Patty Khuly