After a visit to the Museum of Sex, New York, the writer concludes that diversity in sexual orientation is natural, and not an oddity.
With Times Square all cleaned up and New York City’s immoralities pushed to the outer fringes, the Museum of Sex may seem a bit of an oddity. Situated in the former Tenderloin district, which bumped-and grinded with dance bars and brothels in the 18th century, MoSex explores the subject within a cultural context — but that doesn’t mean that most content won’t shock a more buttoned-up visitor. From the discerningly erotic to the outlandish, the permanent collection consists of voice clippings, graphics and videos.
Two dimly lit narrow galleries beyond the museum shop lead up to the floor with the permanent works; the blacked out windows and dull red light adding to the furtiveness. It offers a studied, historical look at the history of sex in our culture: Past exhibits include ‘Action: Sex and the Moving Image’ and a collection of kinky Tijuana bibles, also known as eight-pagers or ‘bluesies’, the popularity of which peaked during the Great Depression era of early 1900s, seem to be a popular stop. Just as interesting as the exhibit itself was the experience of observing strangers watching the exhibits with you. A couple holding hands as they examined the stag films, for instance. By the time they got to Paris Hilton’s notorious sex tape, they had ended all physical contact. Another couple watched clips of films depicting oral sex while standing with their hands in each other’s pockets. Not our idea of a great date, but to each his own.
Vintage condom tins, prototype sex machines, metal and leather anti-onanism device and vibrators from the turn of the 20th century displayed along with textual contributions from evolution and biological experts. But the iridescent snippets ensure that exhibition never gets too academic.
The third floor, and the polestar of my story, had exhibits of sex lives of animals; literature exhibiting animals indulging in a staggering array of sexual behaviours. On display are courtship rituals, displays of affection including hugging, kissing and grooming. Does this sound familiar? Then try this: Documented cases of Gibbons indulging in oral sex. An audio-visual clip playing the footage of a tortoise masturbating against an elevated pathway. In exchange for sex, Bonobo monkey males offering sugarcanes. Captive female elephants stimulating each other using their trunks (The male elephants masturbate both in captivity and in the wild, whereas the females do it only in captivity). And what was I to make of the role reversal of inter-sexed deer and pouched male kangaroos? The exhibit on the floor did drive the point home (as an unforeseen perquisite, we also now know how to seduce male chimpanzees using sign language). Is there a congruity of sexual behaviour between animals and mankind, was the next question I asked myself. Does this help in making a point — that of understanding the changing sexual behaviours of mankind and sexual experiments?
Despite the eagerness of many to divide the living world like that of these animals into precise distinctive groups of male and female, the living world does not comply. Sex itself is a bleary term. Is sex determined by the chromosomal makeup of cells, so that any mammal with a Y chromosome is a man? Should sexual differentiation be made with regard to male and female characteristics and genitalia? Or should metaphors be based on conduct — that is, should some overt display be considered the mark of masculinity or femininity? “Perhaps the best choice would be to reject the consideration of these occurrences as oddities — or worse, pathologies,” says Joan Roughgarden, a leading evolutionary scientist in her book, Evolution’s Rainbow, with a personal narrative written from her perspective as a transgendered woman (more than a decade ago she was Jonathan Roughgarden). “It became clear to me that I wasn’t ever going to figure out how to do the guy thing,” Roughgarden had said in an interview earlier. She believes that gender is a matter of cognition, an innate knack and desire to learn a certain way of being. Imagine as a woman if you’d set out to be a man, to learn how to live as a man. Could you do it? I couldn’t. It’s like asking a fish to fly. Because of the diversity of sexual forms and activities, she writes, “In a post–Darwinian world, sexual diversity is not simply noise, nor is it the flawed expression of some underlying dichotomy. Instead, it is the message itself — the very stuff of evolution.”
Kees Moeliker got the Ig Nobel Prize for recording homosexual necrophilia (sex with the dead) in mallard ducks. Male giraffe rub their necks together or caress the body, loins of other males. These necking sessions have sometimes been accompanied by “liquid streaming” from their penises. Tigers are known to indulge in same sex love making as a social engagement and building networks. Same sex relationships are far from exceptional in nature. More than 500 species’ same sex relationships have been recorded already.
Over the past few years, at least in India, the bounds of acceptable normality have steadily widened, to allow for other sexual orientations; from bisexuality and homosexuality, to transgendering. Despite this new acceptance, there has been an assumption that these deviations from the norm are primarily the results of cultural impositions laid over some “natural” biology. A theme throughout Roughgarden’s book is criticism of assumptions used by biologists in their theories. Interpretations of findings often assume that all organisms are entirely heterosexual and variations from this ‘norm’ are rare and pathological. This approach can lead to blind spots in research. These limited beliefs of researchers have resulted in a view of the animal world that is based on human social systems, and how in this way the lessons animals can teach us are lost.
Roughgarden also launches a sweeping attack on the Darwinian concept of sexual selection. What Charles Darwin had roughly suggested in his book The Origin of Species back then was that males of almost all animals have stronger passion than female. Females are less eager than males and females choose males based on who is more attractive, vigorous and well armed. Like so much of his other writings, the theory of sexual selection is framed in the language of economics: Sperm is cheap, whereas eggs are expensive. Females invest more in reproduction, which forces them to be more selective; whereas males diversify their reproductive investment.
There are 300 vertebrate species in which homosexual relationships are a regular part of the natural social system. But isn’t that just a tiny proportion of the 50,000-odd vertebrate type, you may ask? But since the 1800s when this theory was proposed, research on human sexuality has exploded with the emergences of new technologies, such as brain imaging techniques that allow us to understand men and women in ways that Darwin could have only dreamed of.
Roughgarden, claiming that “sexual selection theory has now been discredited”, proposes a different, more globalised economic model of social selection, in which competition among males for access to females is replaced by cooperation, both within and between sexes. In this model, females are no longer seen as the sole resource limiting reproduction. Instead, we are urged to consider all the resources — food, nesting sites, parental care and partners — that are necessary to ensure successful reproduction. Any strategies that increase an individual’s access to and control of such resources — including, under certain ecological circumstances, same-sex mating, sex-role reversals and multi-gendered societies — will be favoured.
I don’t expect that the popular theory of sexual selection will simply ride off ignominiously into the sunset: Many of its predictions have been borne out over the past 150 years. But more importantly, the museum provides a theoretical framework into which such observations can be placed, turning abnormality into useful data. And that itself could be some evolution.