Call me Koryos. I study biology and psychology and I write novels. Right now my goals are to a) go to grad school and b) get published.
My blog is like 85% animal science and 15% video games with a smattering of kvetchy text posts so I hope you're ok with that. And I also like... write fiction... occasionally.
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all right guys here it is THE BIG GAY ANIMAL SEX POST
or in other words, “Why Nonhuman Homosexual and Asexual Behavior has both Survival and Reproductive Benefits” aka that lit review i’d like to write if i could ever be arsed to get around to it
yes reproductive benefits you heard correctly we’re gonna get there but first we better do a basic rundown of what I mean by homosexual/asexual behaviors
IRREVERENT DISCUSSION OF ANIMAL SEX BEHIND CUT YOU’VE BEEN WARNED
TOPIC ONE: YOU CAN’T ACTUALLY CALL GAY ANIMALS GAY ANIMALS
This one’s pretty simple. “Gay,” “lesbian,” “asexual,” etc etc etc are all labels humans can apply to themselves, because humans can make up words and use their ability to speak to assign those words to themselves. MOST ANIMALS CAN’T. I mean some prairie dogs can tell you if it’s a hawk or a coyote coming but we haven’t really heard them using their vocabulary to have frank if heated discussions of their sexuality ya dig
Furthermore, there are very rarely animals that exclusively behave in homosexual or nonsexual (oh we’ll get to this one though) ways. I hold the belief that animals probably don’t often behave in exclusively HETEROSEXUAL ways either and we’ll get to why this may be a valid thing when we talk about how screwed the reporting on these sort of things are later because whoa mannn.
Ok so say we have a hot sexy stud of a ram who spends 90% of his time mounting other male sheep but occasionally hops on an ewe. If this ram were human, he might say, “Yes, I’m gay, but I wanted kids.” Or “I just wanted to stick my chip in the other dip and boy am I more into big horns than ever.”
Pictured: a ram using that horn curl to scope out some hot man mutton (x)
BUT THAT RAM AIN’T TALKIN’. So we’ll never be able to infer what his “overall” sexual preferences are. We can only observe his behavior. So you can’t really call an animal “gay” or “lesbian” or even “asexual” because we just can’t assign identities to creatures who can’t confirm them. Seem fair? Ok.
(I’m going to end up using the terms lesbian and gay a whole lot anyway in this, but that is because I am writing this informally and for fun. Don’t get on my butt about it. You know what I mean.)
Now, what I mean by “heterosexual behavior,” “homosexual behavior,” and “asexual behavior” should seem fairly obvious. But guess what, it isn’t.
You might call two male lions boinking each other in the butt pretty homosexual behavior. Or a male songbird who never attempts to find a mate pretty asexual behavior. But what about two female terns who pair-bond for life and raise chicks together- chicks that came from brief heterosexual unions? Is the pair-bonding homosexual behavior, or is it just a cooperative partnership? Physically, there’s not much birds can do to have homosexual sex- their junk is not designed in such a way. The two females might engage in necking and occasionally mounting behaviors, but can you call that sexual behavior if there’s no junk-touching?
"Hey you know what we could try with this fish-" "Damnit Joan, that thing is not going near my cloaca!"
Long story short, there’s not an easy answer. But I am going to go out on a limb and call same-sex pair-bonding and the like homosexual behaviors. Why? Because if they are seen between heterosexual pairs, there is no question about them being considered heterosexual behaviors. That’s the crux of the matter, man. We shouldn’t have to dance around the topic, like, ~heterosexual until proven gay!~ No. If it looks gay and sounds gay and smells a little gay, it’s probably a homosexual behavior.
TOPIC TWO: ANIMALS ARE NASTY PERVERTS JUST LIKE YOU
People seem to have this misconception that animals are noble and pure, like they do what they do driven by instinct and to survive and there is none of that messy human greed or lust or selfishness and wow shouldn’t we strive to be just like them.
Pictured: exactly what it looks like.
Let me let you in on a little secret: animals are fucked up.
Here’s an antelope called the Kob. (Scientific name: Kobus kob. Succinct.) Sometimes the ladies in this species get together for, how should we say this, a good time. Like, a round of oral sex good time, sometimes a round of jamming-my-leg-against-your-vulva-yeah-you-like-that-don’t-you good time. And sometimes a pause-oral-sex-so-I-can-urinate-on-your-face good time.
That’s the grin of a lady who’s peed on someone’s face today.
Long story short, if you have a fetish, somewhere out there there is probably an animal who has it too. Congratulations.
I know you all are just waiting with bated breath for me to launch into a discussion of bonobos but you know what, EVERYONE talks about bonobos. Bonobos enjoy sex, okay? But so does every other frickin’ species out there!
(Okay, except bedbugs. And ducks. And a few others. We won’t go into those kinds of sexual evolution in this article though.)
I’m gonna throw out an idea that may seem novel here. Animals don’t have sex with the intent to reproduce. Most animals have no idea what reproduction even is; lady animals will suddenly have smaller versions of themselves popping out of their nether regions with no clue why, like wtf why do I suddenly love these so much.
Animals have sex because slappin’ genitals together feels good, dangit. That’s why sex feels great in the first place. If you didn’t get hungry, do you think you would eat? No, you’d sit there on the couch watching netflix until you starved to death. Similarly, if sex wasn’t so gosh darn enjoyable, we wouldn’t be driven to reproduce. And then no babies would be made, and that would be the end of that.
(Unless your species is parthenogenetic, like whiptail lizards, except even they mount each other in glorious lesbian dominatrix fashion to hump their partner’s eggs into fertilizing themselves.)
If animals didn’t find sex enjoyable, would they masturbate so much? And let me tell you, if an animal can figure out a way to pleasure itself, by god it will do it all the damn time. I work with monkeys. Don’t test me.
Animals don’t have sex to reproduce. Animals have sex because fuck yeah.
TOPIC THREE: EVOLVING WAYS TO GET THESE STUPID ANIMALS TO ACTUALLY HAVE BABIES
Ah yes, the crux of the specialized multicellular organism. It takes a lot of time and effort for us to grow from one cell into many cells that can work together to eat and poop and stuff. Because of this, there was a point in our evolutionary history where we said, fuck it, let’s reproduce in a manner that allows us to mix up our genes to that we can increase variability and eliminate the chances of all being wiped out by one thing. Because it takes too much freakin’ effort to grow these bodies up to risk that.
And that’s how sexual reproduction was born.
(All the unicellular animals laugh simultaneously as they divide hundreds of times in one hour.)
And then at some point, stupidly, we were like, you know what would be great? If our gametes (what we now call sperm and eggs) were different sizes. Yeah, even though it would be hella easier to have gametes that were all the same size so we could mate with EVERYBODY, this guy with these little gametes wants to have an all out flood the enemy with numbers type of gamete and this guy with this bigger gamete would like to have a wow let’s slow it down and put a lot off effort into this one thing type of gamete.
And that’s how the two sexes were born.
Gametes: the culmination of so many bad evolutionary decisions.
Yep. That’s why we exist the way we do today. Sex ‘n gametes.
Evolution works in pretty hyperspecific ways. If a thing works, we keep it. If it doesn’t work, we toss it. If it’s neutral- and by god you had better be pressed to prove that it is completely and utterly neutral- it’s left up to chance whether it stays or goes.
The reason we are driven to reproduce is just this: all animals who weren’t driven to reproduce didn’t. Where are they now? Dead, with no kids. They didn’t pass on those not-wanting-to-reroduce genes. The animals who were driven to reproduce like rabbits?
Seems simple enough, right? If ya don’t have babies, ya don’t pass on your genes, and anybody who behaves differently is either an evolutionary fluke or seriously trying to go against nature. That’s a stone cold fact of life.
I’m gonna describe in detail why this type of thinking is flawed in just a minute.
TOPIC FOUR: SHIT SCIENTISTS SAY TO DISMISS HOMOSEXUAL BEHAVIOR
First of all, we’re gonna have to debunk some notions.
The Mistake Theory
This theory’s pretty simple. Animals are dumb, right? So sometimes they just get the sex of whatever they’re humping wrong. No big deal. They’ll just get it right the next time.
A pretty popular example of this is the case of the orchid and the wasp. Orchids are flowers that want to have their own version of nasty plant sex, and to do that they like to borrow the use of wasp ass to carry the pollen around. So many species of orchid have evolved flowers that look and smell like female wasps.
Above: A wasp-imitating orchid. Below: A male wasp gradually losing his self-confidence.
Male wasps are fooled. All the frickin’ time. They will hump the daylights out of those orchids. And science has shown that it is better for the wasp NOT to evolve a way of detecting the orchids. Why? Because then they might pass up the chance to mate with an actual female wasp, and that’s much more costly in the long run than a couple embarrassing mistakes.
So we can assume that to some extent, evolution isn’t perfect, and there are always a few errors programmed into us by sheer necessity. So, ok, maybe that’s why those two male giraffes keep boning each other. The part of the male giraffe genetic code that says “only bone lady giraffes with the right-tasting pee” (yeah, giraffes are pretty fucked up too) is necessarily broad so that Mr. G won’t miss the lady giraffe when she actually passes him by.
If you know anything about giraffes or have spent any time associating with John Green know that there’s a major problem with this assertion. That being that giraffes, as a species, spend not only a lot of their time having gay sex, they spend more time having gay sex than they do straight sex. A large percentage more. Like, one study found that 94% of observed giraffe sex was between two males.
Nobody is actually sure how that baby got there. Probably an evolutionary mistake.
The kinda cute thing was that it usually happened after the males had a duel. Like, aww, they’re making up. With their penises.
My point is, if there is that much homosexual sex, there is probably a very good evolutionary reason for it. There is some advantage that male giraffes that were driven to mount other male giraffes were conferred that male giraffes who’d rather actually mount females weren’t.
This is true for many species. Giraffes are an extreme example, but then you have elephants, in which about 45% of sex is between same-sex pairs. Or many, many species of birds, where up to 25% of the time you’ve got same sex couples pair-bonding to raise chicks. Even a percentage like 8% of rams wanting to mount other rams is a little too big just to be a mistake or a one-off mutation.
Something about homosexual behavior works to these animals’ advantage.
TOPIC FIVE: OK, GET TO THE POINT, WHAT IS IT
There is no single answer as to why homosexual or asexual (I haven’t forgotten about asexuality, I promise!) behavior could confer a survival or reproductive benefit. There’s a good reason that it is found to different extents in different species: it’s a strategy that works well in some situations but not others. Sometimes the best plan is actually just to boink the opposite sex. Who knows. Seems crazy.
Ok, let’s talk a bit first about sex and how we make silly assumptions about it.
Sex: It’s not just for sex.
Like I said before, animals do not want to have sex because they want to reproduce. It just feels good, man. But animals don’t end up having sex just because it feels good, either. Take chimpanzees. Male chimpanzees often decide to go on a rampage and kill a few monkeys for a tasty treat. Female chimpanzees want that delicious protein-filled meat. So what do they do? They turn around and stick their butts in the air. The male drops that meat and flings himself into position. While he’s having a grand old time back there, the female nibbles on the treat.
Yeah, you read that right. Chimpanzee prostitution.
Obligatory back-scratching joke.
Sex, it turns out, is more than just a means to an end. It’s a means to many ends. Want to quickly form strong social bonds with someone? Why not have a round of sweaty messy sex with ‘em and bask in the oxytocin afterglow? Now you’ve got a friend who’ll help you defend territory for another taste of that sweet booty.
Elephants take it in a direction that many human lawyers would consider pretty illegal. Young bull elephants often hang out with mature bulls while they’re growing up for years at a time. The older bull’s presence often reduces the younger bull’s musth, or mating period. Instead, the younger bull gets a protector and companion who’ll also show him where the good watering hole and food resources and females are around the savannah. In exchange, sensei gets a little lovin’ now and then.
S-sensei… are you sure this is in the curriculum?
Sex, like many other behaviors, has been co-opted for social purposes. If you think about it, it’s the perfect tool to make people like you more.
And it isn’t just pure sex for sex’s sake. Sexual behaviors like courtship and pair-bonding in birds can actually be used to increase reproductive fitness.
Here are a couple of black swans.
We’ll call them Bertholdt and Reiner for no particular reason. Now, Bert and Reiner are on a mission to find a female (we’ll call her Annie, in this case.) When they find Annie, they both mate with her, wait for her to lay her eggs, then kick her the hell out of there. They sit on the eggs and defend their territory and guess what? Their chicks end up having a better survival rate than the chicks of heterosexual pairs because two males can hold a bigger territory than just one.
And Annie? She’s having a great time not having to take care of any kids. Bert and Reiner are doing great doing all the work for her. She might even engage in romantic foreplay with another female swan to blow off some steam.
Such male-male-female triads occur about 25% of the time in black swans, as well as flamingos. It is a very successful reproductive strategy for all involved.
Ok, fine, but everybody’s gotta have hetero-sex eventually to pass on their genes, right?
Let’s talk about genetics for a minute.
There’s a little thing called the relatedness coefficient, or r. We all know how sexual reproduction works, right? Half of dad’s genes are in the sperm, half of mom’s genes are in the egg. When they come together, they form a kid that is exactly 50% dad and 50% mom*.
(*technically slightly more than 50% of mom if the kid is male, because of how tiny and dinky y chromosomes are, but we won’t get into that now.)
So in this case, the kid has a relatedness coefficient of .5 to each of his parents, and vice versa. Cool. By this logic, we can see that that kid’s kids will each have 25% of their grandparents’ genes, for an r of .25.
Here’s a chart if you weren’t confused enough already. Arrows represent relatedness and not who’s having sex with whom. Each row represents one generation. At the very bottom are two cousins.
Ok. So the highest relatedness you can get to any individual is .5 (unless you are a honeybee, but WOW that’s a whole other essay.) And .5 is how related you are to your kid. So that seems like the direction to go in.
BUT WAIT A MOMENT. If each parent passes on 50% of their genes to their kid, and they have more than one kid, each sibling ALSO has an r of .5 with all other siblings. Holy shit! There’s half your genetic code, and you didn’t have to have sex with anybody! Suddenly I’m kind of invested in the survival of my sister!
This is known as kin selection, and it drives a lot of social behavior. It’s why mama bison will trample wolves to save their babies (i.e. THEIR GENES) and it’s why many species of animals will live in cooperative family groups. Helping a full sibling has the same amount of reproductive benefit that helping your offspring has. If you don’t believe me, ask SCIENCE.
People can extend Hamilton’s rule (as it’s called) to do all kinds of crazy calculations about why animals use altruistic behavior. It’s why saving seven of your cousins might sometimes make sense than saving your actual kid (0.125 x 7 = .875, which is a great deal more relatedness than your kid’s .5). Yep. They even have that down to the numbers.
So how does this relate to homosexual and, more specifically, asexual behavior?
In some species of social nesting birds, grown offspring never leave the nest to seek their own mates. Instead, they help raise their siblings. For them, this is actually a better strategy than having offspring, because not only are they just as related to the siblings they help their parents raise each year, they actually have their parents and whatever siblings decide to stay to help them! The only time these “asexual” birds lose out is when the nest starts getting too crowded.
In short, to pass on your genes, you don’t even need to have sex.
Chew on that for a bit.
CONCLUSION: GAY SEX IS GREAT FOR ALL INVOLVED
So what can all these big gay animals tell us about human homosexual and asexual behavior?
Well, pretty much nothing. We’re completely different species, after all, and what works for giraffes probably won’t work for us. Our behavior is what has evolved to be the most advantageous for us at any given moment in time.
But for everyone who has ever said, “homosexuality and asexuality are pointless! there is no future and nothing to be gained from them!” Well.
You’re wrong, and you’re also very silly.
As to the naturalness of these behaviors, yes, obviously it’s very natural. But so is all of human behavior. We don’t get to be exempt from that definition just because we’re human! If a duck does it, it’s the duck’s natural behavior. If a human does it, it must be pretty natural for that human. Fortunately or unfortunately. “Natural” is a term that, in the end, holds very little meaning.
But I think that it’s pretty obvious when we compare our own social behavior to that of these animals why around (roughly, statistics, yada yada) ten percent of the human population is interested in something other than heterosexual sex. It isn’t pointless. It doesn’t have no evolutionary meaning. There are reasons for every behavior.
Even if those reasons end up being, “sex feels good and I want to do it!” or “i would just prefer to not do it!”
Is that really such a terrible thing?
PS: Dear science, please pay more attention to asexual behavior in animals. I’ll do it myself if I have to by god.
Sources, and where to find more information
Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity by Bruce Bagemihl. This is a book that basically documents every instance of homosexual behavior observed in animals (at least up until it was published, which admittedly was in 1999). It’s got gay animal sex out the wazoo.
Out in Nature: Homosexual Behavior in the Animal Kingdom. A great, if old, documentary on same-sex animal behavior that you can watch on youtube.
Speaking of youtube videos, here’s John Green describing giraffe sex.
Comprehensive list of research on asexuality, including one study on sheep with no interest in sex (about 3% of the population).
Overview of Hamilton’s rule. Also includes a relatedness chart for honeybees if you want to terrify yourself.
To go even deeper, if you want to understand why more than one mating strategy might persist within a population of the same species, look up evolutionary game theory. And weep a little.
ALL RIGHT THAT’S IT CHRIST THIS TOOK FOREVER if you know some science and you’d like to debate me on any of this I welcome it as long as it is calm and respectful~ and I fully endorse any corrections if I got some facts wrong as long as they are similarly polite. THANK