August 16, 2011

Female to male crossdressing among red deer

Another look at the lives of animals, and how biology may influence sex identity and sexual orientation.

I found this photo in a wonderful book called The Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure.

It depicts a female red deer mounting a male stag in a frenzy of sexual rut.

The caption in the book reads:

"Red deer (Cervus elaphus), Richmond Park, London, England. As members of harem species -- in which the strongest and the fittest males amass a herd of does and try to prevent other bucks from mating with them -- deer are often portrayed as sexually agressive males and passive females. This amorous hind mounting a stag shows that the females are not as passive or indifferent as we are often led to believe. Photo: Elliot Neep."

My point is actually not that this is an example of a female to male crossdreaming deer (an "autoandrocervophiliac". You have to excuse me - the headline was just to tempting to write). I have, of course,  no way of knowing whether this female is dreaming about being the male  boss of her own harem.

But this instance show that there are no absolute clear cut boundaries between male and female sexuality and behavior among red deer, so maybe we should be a little bit more careful about what we call natural and unnatural among us humans.

Strange animals

As I noted in my series on Roughgarden, animals display a wide variety of sexual behavior -- behavior that seriously deviate from the "male conquers female to secure the survival of his genes" kind of narrative.

This week BBC presented new research on zebra finches, which shows that same-sex pairs of monogamous birds are just as attached and faithful to each other as those paired with a member of the opposite sex.

Same-sex relationships does not necessarily indicate transgenderism in our human sense of the word, but it does prove that some of the fundamental beliefs about what is "natural" and what is not is wrong both among many biologist and religious fanatics.

Lead researcher Julie Elie from the University of California Berkeley says that the research shows that "relationships in animals can be more complicated than just a male and a female who meet and reproduce, even in birds".

For me it is interesting to see that males and females may take over the copulatory behavior that is normally considered unique to the opposite sex. Given that many male to female crossdreamers dream of being the receptive "bottom" and many female to male crossdreamers would lke to be the active penetrator, this may indicate that instincts play an important role here.

Bisexual lab rats

In her book Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, Professor of biology and gender studies Anne Fausto-Sterling presents research showing that there is a lot of individual differences between the sexes of animals as regards mating behavior.

This also applies to laboratory rats, where females also mount males, and quite often actually, but the researchers seem to look at this as uninteresting and random noise in the data.

She follows up on this in her book Myths Of Gender: Biological Theories About Women And Men, Revised Edition.

Nurture vs. nature
Fausto-Sterling is not denying that there are behavioral differences between male and female mammals or male and female humans, but she makes two important points:

The differences in behavior between male and female animals are not as distinct as biology text books would like you to believe. Females routinely engage in "male" behavior, and  vise versa. In this respect she is in line with Roughgarden, whose alterative version of evoluton I have presented earlier.

But that is not all. She argues that biologists and psychologist routinely make the mistake of projecting their own cultural prejudices onto their research (by choice of definitions, methodology, selection of observations and intepretation of results), "proving" differences that are not really there. Most of what we intepret as "natural" male and female behavior is the result of our upbringing and conditioning.

If a boy is routinely punished for liking barbie dolls, he is likely to stop doing so. And if a little girl hears the adults praise her for being a sweet little princess, she soon figures out how to get the much needed love and attention.

This also applies to the understanding of what is proper sexual behavior.

Simon LeVay

In a critique of the sex researcher Simon LeVay she says:

"The LeVay study confounds sex and gender. First the built-in assumption is that the male/female difference (for example, in the hypothalamus) ought to be mirrored in the gay/straight dichotomy. Thus gay men are likely to resemble women physiologically and lesbians are more likely to resemble men."

She correctly points out that "LeVay's framework makes the intricacies of gender disappear."

Fausto-Sterling argues that human behavior, as well as animal behavior, is much more complex than LeVay admits:

"How can he explain the football hero -- masculine to the core -- who is nevertheless gay? And what about the highly feminine lesbian, the straight man who fantasizes about having sex with a man while making love to his wife or who experiences sexual excitement from anal penetration, the lesbian who fantasizes about penile penetration while making love to her lady friend, or the well-known phenomenon of situational homosexuality that occurs in institutions such as prisons?"

For Fausto-Sterling these examples reiterate that human sexuality is not an either/or or on/off  position. Nor do sex roles necessarily mirror sexual orientation.

This applies to humans as well as many other animals.

I am not an animal

Some have asked me why I have written posts about gay animals and gender-crossing animals at this blog.

"What has that to do with me! I am not an animal!" one reader wrote me in an email.

There are two possible answers to this.

The first is the obvious one:

"Yes, you are an animal. You share some 98 percent of your genes with chimps and bonobos. You have cells, like them, the same bodily organs, similar basic instinctual reactions to danger and opportunities. You eat, you shit, copulate,  and die like them."

Given that most of what we do (breathe, digest, grow cells) are unconscious processes, it is unthinkable that we should have no instincts or inborn personality traits. Given that the instinct for procreation is found among all animals, we should at least explore the possibility of there being a connection between nature and crossdreaming.

The other answer is the more constructive one:

"Yes, we are different from other animals. Our use of language and cognitive thinking set us apart from most animals, and the animals that do have forms of language and culture (like, presumably, bonobos, gorillas, dolphins and elephants) are quite different from us. Language and social conditioning play a very important role in the development of our personalities and it is quite feasible that crossdreaming is an effect of upbringing and culture rather than biology."

Or, it could be due to a mix of both.

Hunger and sex

A discussion over at Crossdream Life made me think of the following parallell:

Taste and hunger is a great example, because it shows us the complexity of it all.

All animals seem to experience hunger. If they stop eating they die. The basis for hunger is clearly instinctual.

Some basic taste preferences seem to be common in all humans (a craving for sweet and salt food, for instance), so I guess these are part of an inborn basis as well.

People bringing up kids report that they have different preferences for food from an early age, in spite of them being brought up in the same environment. This indicates that there is an element of inborn personality preferences also when it comes to food.

But these preferences are clearly strongly influenced by the surrounding culture and its cuisine. Until recently Scandinavians did not eat much chilli. The favorite dishes now are pizza and sushi, none of which were part of Nordic cooking 50 years ago.

The true appreciation of coffee, wine, whiskey and good raw materials requires enculturation and training. Adapting your palate to foreign dishes is, at least for some, a challenging process. Food, like clothing and manners, is also used to exclude people from social groups.

Then again: some may develop the taste for a favorite dish due to personal association. 'I love sashimi, because my husband introduced me to it!' Fetishes are most likely of this kind, i.e. they represent arousal by association.

I would guess that we would find a similar complexity when it comes to both sexuality and and sex identity. For instance: The basis for a male bodied person's urge to dress up as a woman could be inborn, while her preferences for nylon stockings would be personal.

Pleasure in the animal kingdom

Jonathan Balcombe has set out to document joy and pleasure in the animal kingdom. This is actually quite controversial, since most biologists consciously or unconsciously avoid talking about feelings and consciousness among animals.

There are many reasons for this: It cannot be observed, therefore you cannot prove that it is there. Then there is the well founded fear of projecting human feelings onto the animal, and reading something into the scene that isn't there. Given the natural scientists' problem with understanding men and women, the idea of understanding the mental life of  red deer admittedly becomes daunting.

On the social science side, the scholars  have become so obsessed with the role of language in the development of consciousness, that it becomes hard for them to fathom the feelings of an animal that does not have a language similar to ours (with a large vocabulary and a complex syntax).

This again leads them to dismiss pre-language factors in the development of -- let's say -- sexuality and sex identity. It is not that they do not accept that we have a body. They just do not have the tools needed to understand the role of that body, so they either ignore it, or they focus on our conceptualization of the body rather than the role of biology  in itself.

This is understandable: From a philosophical point of view it is impossible to put oneself outside of language. Pure objective observation of nature is a naive fantasy. And, indeed, as I have shown natural scientists are finding it very hard i to critizise the basic beliefs of their own paradigms and belief systems. To me the banal stereotypes found in the research of scientists like Ray Blanchard show that his research is not based on objective findings, but a well developed abiity to use the methodology of natural science to strengthen cultural prejudices.

But this lack of interest in biology among philosophers and social scientists  makes it hard for us all to understand what we have in common with other animals, in particular mammals. Yes, natural science is flawed, but it has a toolbox that at least makes it possible to critizise habitual thinking, and that is far better than nothing.

Welcome to the Pleasure Dome

Jonathan Balcombe points to the fact that scientists rarely look at pleasure when studying animals:

""Part of the reason is that science, by and large, has held and continues to hold a narrow perspective in its scholarly interpretation of animal existence. Published studies of animal behavior are presented almost exclusively in an ultimate, evolutionary context, without discussion of the animal's more proximate mental and emotional experiences. "

I would add that this might also be the case for studies of human pleasure, in particular among the kind of researchers that look at "autogynephilia" and "autoandrophilia".

So what is your point, Jack?

My point is simply this: An important part of being a sexual being is pleasure (and when I say "sexual" I refer both to arousal and the fact that we have some kind of sex identity). This is more than the copulatory desire for the body of another male or female. It is also the desire for companionship and affirmation. 

Anyone who have had a cat or a dog, have reveled in their capacity to feel joy from just being together. Add grooming to this togetherness and they are in heaven. 

The roots of pleasure is not found in language alone, nor is it only a function of evolutionary fitness (the urge to spread ones genes) only.

Because of this it should be quite uncontroversial to imagine male bodied persons with "feminine" instincts; in the same way it is now common to accept same-sex sexual attraction as both "normal" and "natural".

Discuss crossdreamer and transgender issues!