The Illustrated Insectopedia - Hugh Raffles (2010)
The Quality of Queerness Is Not Strange Enough
Have a look at this photograph. It was taken in Rondônia in the southwest Brazilian Amazon on March 15, 1991, by George O. Krizek, a psychiatrist and amateur entomologist from Florida. On the left is a butterfly of the genus Dynamine; on the right, a rove beetle.1
Dr. Krizek was observing the beetle when the butterfly showed up. He or she (the article doesn’t specify) landed on the left-hand leaf, extended its proboscis, and right away began exploring the beetle’s raised anus.
Krizek whipped out his camera. But by the time he’d adjusted the focus, the sheepish-looking butterfly—maybe not wanting to be caught at such an intimate moment—had withdrawn. Still, it’s not hard to imagine what this picture would have looked like had the doctor moved a bit faster.
Who knows what Dr. Krizek witnessed that day in Rondônia? Let’s suppose it really was some casual interspecies ass play (I’m sorry, I can’t think of a more polite term). And let’s suppose, as Krizek suggests, that the two animals had no ulterior motives: the beetle wasn’t a mantis trying to lure the butterfly for a next meal; the butterfly wasn’t an ant tailing an aphid for sugary anal exudates. Let’s suppose, instead—as Dr. Krizek supposes—that these were just two little animals enjoying a little action, getting to know each other, and feeling pretty good about it.
Krizek had no doubt about what he saw. Both insects were “calm” throughout their six or seven seconds of intimacy. (Calmer than he was, in fact.) All signs were that their interaction was consensual. If this cross-species “orogenital contact” had occurred between a human and another mammal, he said—and as a practitioner in the field, he spoke with some authority—it would have been instantly recognized as a “sexual paraphilia,” that is, a fetish.
But, Krizek adds, international psychiatric terminology is restricted to humans, so this interaction needs another name. He suggests zoophilia. He must know that this is the current term for the activities of people who enjoy sex with animals of other species, the term that even the animal lovers themselves now use for what was once bestiality. Could his just-too-late photo be an open invitation to sexual explorers of all species to launch their brave new world of truly diverse diversity?
In “Beasts Are Rational,” one of the liveliest of his famous Moralia, Plutarch, writing in the early second century A.D., pointed to the absence of homosexuality among animals—as opposed to among “your high and mighty nobility, to say nothing of the baser sort”—as definitive proof of the superior virtue of animals compared with people.2 Ever since, researchers seem to have had difficulty recognizing carnality in male-male, female-female, and mixed-group animal encounters. Even so, there’s now simply too much evidence to ignore. As the neuroscientist Paul Vasey and the evolutionary anthropologist Volker Sommer recently wrote, it’s “increasingly difficult to discount all sexual interactions in animals among members of the same sex as exceptions, as idiosyncrasies, or as pathologies.”3
It’s not just the famously flexible bonobos. A diverse sexual repertoire has been documented among a large number of species, from geese (male-male pair bonding) to dolphins (solo and mutual masturbation, oral sex, and “petting”), lizards (voyeurism and exhibitionism), American bison (male-male and female-female coupling), and plenty in between. As long ago as 1909, the Italian entomologist Antonio Berlese reported that the silkworm Bombyx mori was only one of many insects prone to what he described as “homosexual perversion.”4
For a long time, animal scientists simply explained away the queerness (homosexual and otherwise) they stumbled onto, not thinking to take it seriously. At first, as if it were gay sex in prison, they dismissed it as the corrupting effect of domestication or of confinement in laboratory cages. Later it became apparent that animals “in nature” often choose same-sex partners even when opposite-sex ones are available. These creatures, the scientists decided, were either deviant or, more commonly, mistaken. They simply didn’t realize they were fooling around with a partner of the same sex.
By the 1970s, there was increasing acceptance among biologists that despite its apparent transgression of the fundamental evolutionary imperative to procreate, homosexual and other nonreproductive behavior could make evolutionary sense. Rather than denying its significance, researchers (particularly those influenced by sociobiology and evolutionary psychology) started to develop explanations that brought this superficially anomalous activity within the frame of natural selection. If queer sex existed, they reasoned, it must, like all behavior, have an adaptive function. They identified nonreproductive sexual interactions such as butterfly-beetle ass play as “sociosexual behaviors”—social in function, sexual in form.
Yet even before biologists observed the behavior, even before they saw what it was, even before they had even recorded its existence, they believed they already knew its purpose. Like all behaviors, they maintained, same-sex sex functioned to make possible “some sort of fitness-enhancing social goal or breeding strategy” for the parties involved.5 Understood like that, it resembled a crossword puzzle in which the answers are known but the questions are blank—only, unlike a puzzle, there is no guarantee (beyond the faith of the researchers) that the answers and questions are connected by the same rules. In more orthodox analytical procedures, wouldn’t the theory be open to revision by the data?
Not surprisingly, explanations derived in this way could be tortuous. Male-male sex among adolescent fruit flies is commonly understood as training or practice for future heterosexual adventures.6 The “feminine” behavior of male rove beetles—which avoid bigger and more aggressive males by doing the things that females do, such as foraging dung and having sex with males—is a strategy of these weak males to gain access to otherwise unavailable food and females.7 The bisexual “promiscuity” of male creeping water bugs, who forgo courtship and jump on any other water bug they encounter, makes sense because “the costs of time and energy expended in copulatory attempts with other males are exceeded by the benefits of never failing to inseminate every potential mate.”8 The two-hour postcoital embrace of male and female Japanese beetles, Popillia japonica, is a result of the polygamous and homosexually inclined male beetle’s determination to protect its “genetic investment” from other males who might want to impregnate the female before she deposits her eggs. On the other hand, the same-sex mountings of both male and female P. japonica are the “misdirected behavior” of “sexually aroused individuals.”9 Bisexual female grape borer weevils mount females three times more often than male grape borers mount other males. Nobody knows why, but researchers are confident that this behavior has a “biological function” that will be discovered soon.10
All function and no fun. So much for the joy of sex. Predictably, I have my own unscientific hunch: I suspect that if good sex hasn’t been found among the insects, it’s because no one—except perhaps George Krizek—has been out there looking for it.
Because the fact is that biologists studying other animals have found that sex—“nonreproductive” and otherwise—is often all about pleasure. And inevitably, they’ve moved swiftly to assign a function to that, too. Good sex, many say, is a social lubricant. The enjoyment and affection it generates ease group tensions. It is a tool of reconciliation. It is part of the intimacy that enables social bonding.11 We could, of course, make that same argument about the function of sex among humans. And who knows; it might even be true. Even if it were, though, it would also be the case that it explained very little, that it was just the tiniest raggedy edge of one of life’s most complicated stories.
Must queer animal sex always have an evolutionary function? It seems too obvious a point, but just as it is for people, might not sex itself be reason enough for animals to get together?
In some species, at least, the answer is clear. Among the female Japanese macaques studied by Paul Vasey, relationships are based on “mutual sexual attraction.”12 Vasey and his co-workers have spent years watching female macaques stroking themselves with their tails and rubbing each others’ clitorises. In Vasey’s opinion, none of this female-female sex play has any adaptive function. Rather, he says, it originated as a by-product of heterosexual sex and now has a lively and pleasurable existence all of its own.
In arguing that pleasure and desire are sufficient explanation for same-sex encounters, Vasey and others have drawn on work by the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould that dates back almost thirty years. In a series of groundbreaking and controversial papers, Gould argued that adaptation was drastically overemphasized in U.S. evolutionary theory. Instead, he pointed to traits that were not directly selected but were instead functionless by-products (“biological spandrels”) of other adaptations.13 Such traits were often evolutionarily neutral, causing no disadvantage to those involved and so not subject to negative selective pressure. Lesbianism among Japanese macaques is one example. Vasey speculates that it originated when females mounted apathetic males in an effort to rouse them to intercourse. Once the females discovered they enjoyed rubbing up against male bodies, it was a short step to finding out that it was even better with their girlfriends. The originary hetero sex had an evolutionary function; the queer sex was just more fun.
Who knows if Vasey is right about these gay monkeys. At the very least, he’s got a good story, a better story than the one that says they’re doing it because they can’t tell the difference.
We need better stories about queer insects too. Entomologists, start writing! It’s so frustrating to have to deal with mechanistic models all these centuries after Descartes. We need to bring back pleasure and desire. Even deep, dark, complicated paraphilic praying mantis pleasure-desire. Especially deep, dark, paraphilic praying mantis pleasure-desire.
We need more queerness! We should remember the bees. The supposedly sexless sisterhood of the bees. Sipping and sucking in the darkness of the hive. Touching and taking, rubbing and writhing. That liquid world of intimate intensities.
Who knows what George Krizek witnessed that day in Rondônia? It’s nice to think it really was a little interspecies ass play. Two little animals enjoying a little action and feeling good about it. But it doesn’t matter if it wasn’t. It could have been. And if not at that moment, then at some other time. The possibilities are vast. We should be paying attention. Who knows what we’ll find? Who knows what we’ll learn? Who knows how much more interesting this world could be?