Contents of the ‘Sex & Dating’ Category

Gay Giraffes, and Gay Dolphins, and Gay Fruit Flies–Oh, My!

Thursday, March 10th, 2011
Elephants are among many in the animal kingdom that exhibit homosexual behavior

Elephants are among many in the animal kingdom that exhibit homosexual behavior

Just last week, a public school in Texas opted to shut down all extra-curricular clubs in order to prevent the formation of a gay-straight alliance at the high school.  CNN marked early February with an opinion article on the “mixed messages” on homosexuality in the bible, which went viral, and elicited an equally controversial response.  Mike Huckabee, taking a break from criticizing Natalie Portman, went on record as saying homosexual “behavior” is “unnatural.”  In the fervor of the Gay Rights movement, it seems as if a day does not go by without a debate over homosexuality on the front page of the newspaper.  Ethan Boyles, Senior at the University of Washington, said, “A lot of people have called the student-burgeoning LGBT movement the civil rights movement of our generation.”

First and foremost, I respect others’ rights to their own moral or religious beliefs.  However, I ask that proponents on both sides of the issue respect the vernacular of science when preparing their sound-bites.  My views on homosexuality and gay marriage aside, as a scientist, I can assure you: homosexuality is not unnatural.   In fact, quite the opposite: researchers observe homosexual behavior across a wide array of phyla.

A zoo in Poznan, Poland has acquired, for instance, a gay elephant named “Nino” who refuses to mate with the females, and prefers the company of his male comrades.  Of this, the councilor of the city of Poznan, Michael Grzes, said, “We didn’t pay 37 million zlotys [$11 million] for the largest elephant house in Europe to have a gay elephant live there.”

Yet, to Grzes’s dismay, Nino is not alone.  Biologist Bruce Bagemihl, author of Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, has worked for years to catalogue gay organisms in the animal kingdom.  On his list are giraffes, dolphins, whales, and manatees.  The animal kingdom includes both gays and lesbians—sometimes within the same species.  For example, Bonobos have lesbian encounters at a frequency as high as once every two hours.  Their male counterparts, on the other hand, engage in “penis fencing,” which often culminates in ejaculation.

At the University of Illinois at Chicago, researcher David Featherstone genetically engineered fruit flies to engage in homosexual behavior.  Featherstone and his team of researchers went on to develop a genetic “switch” to turn the behavior on and off, involving a gene they deemed “genderblind,” which may have regulatory effects on neurons.

Some are quick to point out that since homosexuals do not tend to procreate, a “homosexual” gene would die out rather quickly, but most evolutionary theorists suspect the story is more complicated than that.  For instance, there could be a benefit to having some homosexual qualities without being fully homosexual in terms of sexual orientation.  Many psychologists agree that sexuality, especially in humans, functions more on a continuum than a binary gay-or-straight system.

Regardless of how they got here, the evidence is clear: there are gay animals whether Mike Huckabee likes it or not.  Said Peter Bockman, an academic adviser for the Against Nature? exhibit in Norway, “[Researchers] must realize that animals can have sex with who they will, when they will and without consideration to a researcher’s ethical principles.”

Hearkening to homosexuality being “natural” or “unnatural” undermines what is, at its heart, a political and religious issue.  Naturalness, as I’ve described before in depictions of cannibalistic spiders and cross-dressing cuttlefish, has nothing to do with the moral quality of an act.  Just because it’s natural doesn’t make it right.  So, for the last time, I beg of all the political commentators: stop bringing biology into it. 

Bower Birds Detect When They’re Being Creeps, Know When to Back Off

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011
A male Bowerbird decorates his nest with sexy blue trash

A male Bowerbird decorates his nest with sexy blue trash

Human males may still be millennia away from “getting the hint,” but researchers at University of California, Davis have demonstrated that male Bower Birds respond to female birds’ postures, and correct the intensity of their mating dances accordingly.

The attention of the behavioral ecology spotlight first turned to Bower Birds at the discovery of their peculiar nesting practices.  In order to seduce the ladies, the male Bower Bird will decorate its nest with pieces of trash, which has become a problem since the advent of plastic, because these Bower Birds find blue bottle caps especially sexy.

However, for the older and wiser females, a nest with a lot of sexy trash simply doesn’t cut it.  As a result, the Bower Birds have developed another ritual related to their seductive nest-embellishing: the notorious mating dance.  When a decorated nest isn’t enough, a female Bower Bird will wait for her potential mate to seal the deal by doing a little dance.  If he’s got the right moves, she might submit to copulation.  Incidentally, as the intensity of the dance increases, so does the probability that a female will flee.  Gail Patricelli and her colleagues discovered, using a robotic female, that a male Bower Bird can address this problem by adjusting the intensity of his dance moves in response to the posture of the females.

In her observations of the female Bower Bird, Patricelli discovered that a female will indicate her receptiveness to a mate by crouching.  So, she developed the “fembot”—a robotic Bower Bird to aid her experiments.  Patricelli detailed in Nature how she used controlled experiments to determine the effectiveness of the “fembot.”  She then manipulated the fembot’s crouch rate in order to determine whether male Bower Birds would adjust the intensity of their dancing to match the females.  Patricelli observed that a greater dance intensity yielded more mating success.  However, birds that were less likely to “startle” the females with their dance moves also showed a higher likelihood of mating success.  Her data suggests that her hypothesis was correct: male Bower Birds who modulate their dance intensity show greater numbers of copulations.  This mating strategy lends itself to a conception of natural selection in which males who understand the receptiveness of females better will be more likely to pass on their genes, which might, in turn, produce male Bower Birds who are more in tune with what a girl wants.

Now if only these Bower Birds would pass along the information to Homo sapiens.

Sex Addiction: A Real Disease

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011
Tiger Woods:  Sex Addict or entitled douche bag?

Tiger Woods: Sex Addict or entitled douche bag?

The term “sex addiction” was thrust into the public sphere yet again last year when Tiger Woods cleverly pinned his playboy lifestyle on a physical disorder.  It wasn’t the first time the media was abuzz with such references; during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, experts left and right were labeling a powerful man who was used to getting what he wanted and liked oral sex as an “addict.”  Believers aligned in a group called the Sexual Disorders Work Group to launch a campaign to get it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, to make it official.

Just over a year ago, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) announced it would release the fifth version of the DSM in May of 2013.  Because mental disorders are among the least understood medical illnesses, and have the most elusive causes and prognoses, psychiatrists update the manual periodically to include recent research and weed out stereotypes.  For instance, the DSM-III, published in 1980, included criteria for “Identity Disorder.”  If you had uncertainties about who you were, your sexuality, or your future, congratulations!  In 1980, you would have had a mental disorder.  …That, or you could have been a 20-something college student.

The push to include sex addiction in the DSM-V has sparked a good deal of controversy and posed a few questions: what makes a sexual behavior a disorder?  Does it just have to deviate from the norm, or are there other crucial components?  The current version of the DSM, the DSM-IV-TR, includes sado-masochism between two consenting actors a sexual disorder.  (The APA might consider informing Rihanna.)  As for “sex addiction,” it seems like the only criterion for diagnosis is getting caught.

Many psychologists are also skeptical.  Dr. Allen Frances wrote, in Psychology Today, “The authors [in the Sexual Disorders Work Group] have not thought through how difficult it is to distinguish between ordinary recreational sexual misbehavior (which is very common) and sexual compulsion (which is very rare).”

On one end of the spectrum, however, there is evidence that sex addiction follows normal biological addiction pathways.  As it turns out, though, there are many behaviors that can activate dopamine circuits—also known as the “reward pathway,” that, like sex, show no significant withdrawal symptoms.  And it makes sense that our brain would reward us with feel-good chemicals for having sex—why else would we have it?  If we are going off the biological definition, then every male on college grounds is addicted to sex.  Said Nate Jones, a junior at James Madison University, “People just like to have sex.”

As college students, we spend most of our times thinking about sex, but rarely do we ever think critically.   In preparations for big changes happening in the medical community, and in light of current events, it’s time we think about our sexual behaviors and the definitions of normality.