[SMH Home | Text-only index]

Even educated fleas do it

Date: 09/09/2000

Dave Hill on animal instincts

You get an awful lot of talk these days about the ways that sex and nature go together. Often it pops up in everyday conversation, in nudge-nudge euphemisms such as "doing what comes naturally" or "letting nature take its course". Frequently it features in the media, especially in relation to the etiquette of attraction or the psychology of desire. Barely a week goes by without some newspaper or magazine assuring us that "experts" on evolution have discovered that male promiscuity or female hair-flicking are part of "nature's way".

We like to think of sex as a force from deep within, a drive derived directly from the wild. The most august institution of soft-porn publishing was inspired by the perception that sex is the expression of nature in the raw. In the launch issue of Playboy in 1954, Hugh Hefner described his ideal reader as a sophisticated guy who mixed cocktails, played mood music and could talk about Picasso while seducing a girl. He spent a lot of time indoors: "We like our apartments," Hefner wrote.

But Hefner's interest in sex had first been fired by the great, untamed outdoors. In 1934 he watched Johnny Weissmuller starring in Tarzan and His Mate, in which Maureen O'Sullivan swims naked underwater with the ape man at her side. "That connection between man, woman, animals, nature had tremendous meaning for me as a kid," Hefner recently recalled.

Notions about nature have also long loomed large in debates about sexual morality, especially with regard to male homosexuality and the law. The decades following the prosecution of Oscar Wilde in 1895 saw an intensification of legal sanctions in Britain against gay solicitation. During the year to October 1912, a deputy chairman of the London Sessions sentenced 23 men to 15 strokes of the birch, such was his outrage over an upsurge actual or imagined on the capital's streets in cases of "unnatural crime". He enjoyed the support of the Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna, who declared that flogging was a deterrent which would help bring about "the absolute suppression of this particular class of unnatural vice in our midst".

In this usage, "natural" is equated with heterosexual propriety. Today, though, it is common for supporters of equality for gay men to bounce the argument back. British MP Glenda Jackson recently argued that homosexuality deserves legal parity with heterosexuality because it is equally natural: the erotic longing of one man for another should be seen not as a malaise, mental or spiritual, but as part of humanity's infinite richness. This line has great appeal. By itself invoking nature it can put agitators against "inversion" in a difficult position: if no less an authority than Mother Nature has made gays the way they are, then surely gays ought to be seen as blameless.

Nature has proved a flexible friend to many in their efforts to describe, proscribe or justify sexual practices and preferences. When sex is on the agenda, nature usually gets in on the debate. But why should that be so? What are we saying about our attitudes to sex when our discourse on the subject is so routinely set about with judgments about what is natural and what is not? When we think of something as being natural, what do we really mean?

The late Raymond Williams, a cultural historian, traced the contemporary use of naturalism back to the Enlightenment and 17th-century quarrels over political power. Supporters of democracy deployed it in their challenge to the established authority of monarchs and religious leaders. They argued for a scientific approach to knowledge and social organisation, one rooted in men's rational actions and understandings, rather than one wholly dependent on unseen cosmic entities like God, or those elevated mortals kings and pontiffs who claimed to be the agents of His will. As Williams saw it, nature became identified from this time with human qualities seen as fixed, inherent. The ideology of nature became a new commonsense for a revolutionary era which helped to form our own. Today "the laws of nature" are still routinely regarded as the highest and most righteous laws of all.

This valorisation of nature gave authority to those who knew the most about it: scientists. It is no accident, then, that the sex-nature link is also a staple of the language of sexology; the science of sex. Not that sex experts of any kind achieved legitimacy easily. European pioneers Havelock Ellis, Theodor Van de Velde, Marie Stopes were well known and often popular authors, but polite society still disapproved. Alfred Kinsey's famous reports of the '40s and '50s were US bestsellers, yet had to contend with McCarthyite obsessions about not only "pinks" and "punks", but also "perverts". In Britain, where the Government considered prosecuting Kinsey for obscenity, one of the first people to own Sexual Behaviour In The Human Male was the gay traitor-diplomat Guy Burgess. He kept it hidden where he was sure no-one would find it: in the Foreign Secretary's in-tray.

For sex research and sexology to finally join the mainstream, scientific talk of nature had to be right to the fore. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the celebrated '60s sexology team, were very big on it. In Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970), they wrote: "The whole of sexual experience for both the human male and female is constituted in two separate systems that coexist naturally. The biophysically and psychosocially based systems of influence that naturally coexist in any woman [can] function in mutual support ... Based on the manner in which an individual woman internalises the prevailing psychosocial influence, her sexual value system may or may not reinforce her natural capacity to function sexually."

Here we see nature pressed into rhetorical service, providing justification for peering into places normally kept firmly out of view. Before Masters and Johnson, biological inquiry into sex among the mammals had restricted itself to randy rats and rabbits: watching humans doing "it" would have been thought dirty and weird. But times were achanging, and it also helped that Masters and Johnson looked like proper scientists. They wore white coats and did their research in a lab. In other circumstances, staring earnestly at complete strangers masturbating, or at couples coupling, might have landed you in jail. But if you did it holding a clipboard, that made it OK.

But did it make the world a better place? Presenting the study of sex among humans as part of the wider quest to comprehend the natural world had clear advantages. A case can certainly be made that Masters and Johnson's work contributed to greater candour about sex and a wider acknowledgment of sexual anxieties. Some women's liberationists welcomed their findings at the time for stressing both the potential for women to experience as much sexual pleasure as men something previously denied and the importance of men helping to see that they did so. Yet the findings were flawed in many ways: partial, contradictory and crashingly reductive. Sexual pleasure was straightforwardly equated with the efficient achievement of orgasms. Charts and graphs documented what was called the Human Sexual Response Cycle (HSRC), presented as universal biological fact. But the human samples studied were not representative either socially or in terms of the range of sexual responses that might have been exhibited. Those deemed not to fit the predetermined HSRC model were screened out in advance, including those who weren't that bothered about sex in the first place.

The definition of what constituted sex was also very narrow, focusing on genital stimulation and vaginal intercourse. And Masters and Johnson's measurements were overwhelmingly of bodily performance. The emotions and psychological interactions of those who turned up to do the business in such scrupulously sterilised conditions were of secondary interest. In this, Masters and Johnson may ultimately have succeeded in concealing more about heterosexual engagements than they revealed. As feminist critics would point out, by avoiding these components the whole question of men's and women's differing attitudes to sex was overlooked. The social component of sexual response was thus largely ignored. Such are the limits of biology and the whole bio-medical model of sex-as-act-of-nature which still dominates today.

Indeed, the more science insists that sex is natural, the less it teaches us about how sex actually works, and the more I am persuaded that sex is never truly natural at all.

Let me elucidate by sharing some personal experience. When I was 21, I decided I would try out having sex with other men. This was not the consequence of a personal epiphany or a great coming-to-terms with some part of myself I had formerly been desperate to suppress or deny. It was not a turning point, not a "coming out". In fact it was all extremely simple: there was this bloke and there was me and we really got along. Our friendship was founded on our mutual passions for pop music, indolence and substance abuse. We would sit around together, heroically stoned, and play records all day long: punk records, soul records, horny disco records like Hot Stuff by Donna Summer and really stupid ones like a particular favourite The Village People's strutting, adulatory Macho Man, which made us roll on the floor laughing, even though we had a feeling that the Villagers themselves were deadly serious.

My friend identified as gay. I identified as really cool and daring. I had a girlfriend at the time, but that was quite a loose arrangement. Eventually my friend and I explored the rudiments of the homosexual repertoire. Did this come to me naturally? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I was pretty keen: his eyelashes were long, his body, smooth and lean. No, in the sense that I took a while adjusting. Confronting a familiar anatomy is one thing, getting to grips with it is something else. You may possess the same components, but they're all the wrong way round. Remember the first time you knotted someone else's tie?

Well, let's not get bogged down in details. Making sense of that period in my life requires recognising that I was exercising choice, and doing so within a certain set of historical and cultural circumstances. A conventional wisdom about homosexuality is that it is a fateful urge, a forbidden lust in need of firm policing. Another is that minor outbreaks of it in your youth can be dismissed as "just a phase" a natural phase, even to be gone through before normal heterosexual service is resumed.

Neither of these explanations fits my experience. I flashed a gay blade for reasons that had nothing to do with a compulsion to "go the other way", and everything to do with the exotic cultural corner I then inhabited. My immersion in music was vital to all this. Since my early teens, pop songs and pop stars had pointed up to me the contradictions of masculine orthodoxy, contradictions that same orthodoxy forbade all recognition of. David Bowie generated excellent examples. He was the glam icon that boys were allowed to like. Their enthusiasm centred on his electric riffing, his albums' science fiction "concepts" and his lyrics about "mellow-thighed chicks" who put his "spine out of place", on a track called Suffragette City (students of feminist history might note that, back in 1973, the vigour of a woman's heterosexual congress might be seen as the measure of her emancipation).

But then there was the business of what he did to his guitar player on stage. One week there was a photograph of it in Melody Maker: Mick Ronson, legs-akimbo, brandishing his instrument, Bowie on his knees before him. The symbolism requires no elaboration, but the pulling power of the picture is well worth dwelling on. I looked over the shoulders of the other boys crowding around it, all of them enthralled and all of them agreed that it was quite disgusting. My fellow men-in-the-making were replicating one of the enduring paradoxes of Western sexual conventions: on the one hand we condemn all homosexual manifestations; on the other we just can't get enough.

Pop offered many more alluring inconsistencies: girls swooned for David Cassidy who looked exactly like ... a girl; Al Green sang devotional love songs to women, but posed for photographs sporting a poofy shoulder bag; Marvin Gaye wrote a whole album about getting it on with his sexy mama, but how he pleaded, how he begged, how he implored! Far from being the dominant predator, Gaye was the aching supplicant, his heavenly voice sometimes howling, sometimes floating disembodied in the ether.

Pop presented endless versions of sexual maleness that differed from loud teenage talk of getting it "straight up and no messing". It provided a primer into the subsequent school of thought that views gender not as an essence or a concrete identity, but as a performance, an enactment, a form of display. Your sexuality was flexible, transformable. You had options. And once you'd realised that, you could make your sexuality up as you went along.

My receptivity to alternative versions of maleness probably prepared me for my subsequent encounters with the sexual politics that had begun in the late '60s. Although I'd always fancied girls (and these days only fancy my wife) I had no trouble accepting that all of us were capable of feeling the love that dare not speak its name. Question: why did I sleep with my man friend with long lashes? Answer: why ever not? The feminism of the time began to speak to me as well, albeit after years of chronic deafness. Here was a politics that took fundamental issue with the notion of masculinity and femininity as opposite poles in a binary gender system of which productive sex was the ultimate expression. We all know how that part of the story goes: man active, female passive; man enters, woman surrenders; man grunts, woman yawns; man snores. The End.

Second-wave feminists took issue with that narrative, perhaps the most basic of all naturalistic thinking, the one that says the ultimate purpose of sex is the production of a baby. Women began seeking sexual pleasure as an end in itself. The clitoris resurfaced after one of its many periods of maidenly obscurity. Famously, not every man noticed. Many, though, rethought intercourse, with rather mixed results.

Kinsey's survey of white American men after the war found that the average length of time they spent upon this task was about two minutes. In 1978 sexologist Bernard Zilbergeld wrote about a patient who fretted that he was unable to delay ejaculation for more than 40 minutes: he felt sure if he could work out how to hang on for an hour he would finally induce an orgasm in his wife. The wife, though, told a different story. She could live without an orgasm, but she could not live without sleep.

Here was a tale of simultaneous continuity and change, which revealed the tenacity of the naturalistic perspective. The difference between the male patient's approach to coition and that of most of Kinsey's guys just 30 years before was absolutely vast: the 40-minute man had added a new dimension to a husband's trad-itional duty to be a good provider. For all his efforts, though, he knew that he was failing. And where did he turn for help? To a sex scientist, an expert who could show him how to improve his performance. Being a good lover was characterised in his mind as a question of sheer stamina and superior technique. Inducing orgasms through intercourse was his duty as a Good Man. A shame he never thought to discuss it with his wife.

One of the cleverest critics of naturalism in sex is the Bronx-based psychologist and writer Leonore Tiefer, author of Sex Is Not A Natural Act (Westview). In it, she makes a neat contrast between textbooks about sex and textbooks about music. Books about sex, she notes, almost always start with a chapter on anatomy and physiology; setting the stage for "the biological bedrock" generally the genitals which must be understood before getting on to nebulous stuff such as what people want from sex. Open books about music, though, Tiefer writes, "and you will not find chapters on the bones, nerves, blood vessels and muscles of the fingers for playing the piano." Her point is: "By privileging biology within the discourse of sexuality, and often by reducing sexuality to the biological, I think we've got the cart before the horse."

I think Tiefer is right: there's more to Rachmaninov than plumbing. I also think there's lots and lots of biological privilege about, busily perpetuating ageless "laws of (human) nature" to explain men's and women's differing sexual behaviours. Sociobiology, once laughed out of town, is again delighting the media in its latest incarnation, evolutionary psychology. Men are hard-wired for promiscuity! Women are hard-wired to flirt, to be prudent and to choose mates with the best genes! Let the sex war wage! Part of the elaborate defensive strategy built around a recent evolutionist analysis of rape was to make use of the word "natural" in the title. Biological privilege also underpins medical science's domination of sexual problem cures. Viagra is an excellent example. Effective, for sure. But not for everybody. And not necessarily the solution to a couple's sexual worries, even if the chemicals do their job.

It's all very depressing, and a big recommendation for a new humanism governing our sexual values; a way of thinking about sex that transcends gender categories and prescriptive response cycles; which views the pleasures of the body as resources, not as masters, and sees human sexuality as a fabulous and infinite mosaic. In other words, forget nature. Let's make love instead.

This material is subject to copyright and any unauthorised use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.

[SMH Home | Text-only index]