Thursday, November 27, 2014


In places where there is a mix of animals, whether domestic or wild, sometimes there are odd couples.  Racehorse thoroughbreds, inbred for speed instead of emotional stability, are noted for pairing up cross-species.  A chicken or cat may become attached, dwelling in the horse stall or even on the horse’s back.  Children have been known to nap on the quietly shifting back of their favorite horse as it grazes.  Trainers have deliberately introduced goat-buddies to sooth a high-strung racer, whose genes cry out for company.  As Sid Gustafson never tires of telling us, a horse -- to be happy -- needs grazing, other horses, and movement.  Penning them into stalls, allowing only structured movement like periodic running on a track, stationary eating, and no interaction with other horses is a highly unnatural state imposed by humans.

If we’ll do all that to control the horse races for gambling, what might we do to control sex?  Likewise, we want that to be in boxes (stalls), in competitions, in stereotypical rituals just as much as horse-racing.  How else will we commodify it, the haves selling to the have-nots?  And we pretend that love is always about sex in spite of the evidence in front of us.

If you google cross-species bonding images, the kind of thing where a predator (usually a young animal) pairs with an animal normally its prey, you’ll find many photos of dogs with cats or cats with rats or African big cats with some sort of antelope.  The strangest is a baby hippo attached to a huge Galapagos land turtle in a zoo nursery.  These odd couples are often, but not always, produced by limited access to other living creatures, so that the instinctual hormonal need for attachment does the best it can with what is available.  We’ve all been fascinated that birds just hatched will assume that any handy Horton is their mother.

Media “culture” rarely depicts sex that includes the nurturing instinct, cuddling down together protectively.  They prefer the aggressive near-adversarial striving that other animals perform only for minutes when a female is “in heat.”  These instincts are specifically sexual and make males dangerous, like elephants in musth which lasts months and fills them to overflowing with testosterone until it runs out their eyes and stains their cheeks.  Male elk, bulls, stags, also come into season which provokes sometimes lethal fights and drives the control of a harem of females.  Human males like to fancy they are as powerful.  Certainly some are that dangerous.  Like huge wallowing bull elephant seals, they crush everything smaller, even the females they are trying to inseminate.

For a human society to persist in orderly fashion, many restraints and categories are invented, some of them involving the sequestration of the weak and small, some imposing armed law-enforcers and locking the uncontrolled into prisons.  But also we turn away, blanking out the knowledge that the weak are being ground under for the ego-support of the powerful.  In Great Britain there is currently a movement opposed to this willful blindness, activists and journalists naming big shots who have even thrill-killed their prey: children.  In the US, confused as usual, we’re still trying to figure out the Cosby conundrum.  We’ve finally realized that our athletic coaches have access to funny business in the showers.

But the price we pay for losing innocence and redrawing legal categories between unequals is a terrible ambiguity and we see ghosts everywhere, even when it’s a matter of violence without sex.  Outing gays -- who were quickly accepted as a new marketing opportunity except among those who still think all intimacy is about coitus -- has challenged culturally-defined gender-assigned roles strongly enough make us rethink a lot of things. 

prairie voles

We are having to consider the “morality of the flesh,” which means that ONE GENE in a prairie vole makes the difference between whether it pairs with one other vole for life or lives with splendor in the grass, going vole-to-vole-to-vole.  Clearly a fraction of all mammals will engage in coitus (maybe only attempted) male-on-male.  Cows, dogs.  Evolution seems to tolerate the loss of potential progeny because of the gain in armamentarium, esp. among the animals who are prey.  Two kinds of “horniness,” with a certain reciprocity between them so the warrior allows the lover to succeed and the babies to survive.

Then there is the morality of economics, which means that if there are far more women than men, then it makes sense to support many wives, esp. in a time and place where pregnancy was dangerous so that spreading out the coitus among a number of women meant that there will be at least aunt/mothers to tend the infants of women who died in childbirth.  And since infants often died, it made sense to produce a lot of them.

A Mormon family.

In modern times supporting a family has become such a burden that it is no wonder two women, declaring themselves lesbian, will form a household with children.  And no one is particularly surprised that men decline to be “captured” and choose to be the wandering bee rather than the fruitful flower.  But also we realize that many men have pair-bonded, with or without sex, quietly living together for decades, maybe with one partner as the primary who is the “front” and the other supplying the extra care so the primary can shine.   

Maybe most disconcerting is the realization that gender is variable, that there are people who are “inter-gender,” even physically, and that with modern surgery and molecules, it is possible to go from male to female or the opposite.  How people know where they want to belong and why is still a mystery.

Cupid and Psyche

“Love” has always been considered a category exploder, more unaccountable than cross-gender shifts or cross-species bonding.  Forbidden, impossible, rare and sometimes toxic or fatal, our imaginations are seized by the crystalline intensity of “pure” yearning for a culturely inappropriate relationship, even that between a grown man and a child.  

The attachment that forms between a teacher and his or her student has always been conditionally accepted so long as the teacher is male, even if the student is also male.  Richard Stern made his popular reputation on one book:  “Other Men’s Daughters,” which was based on his real-life attachment fulfilled in marriage that lasted until his death.  I could name other professors who simply took advantage of their position without marriage.  A female high school teacher will not have enough power to turn away the law and is likely to sit in jail, even pregnant.  Her lover may be too young to marry legally.

By Herbert Draper

We might call this the “Tristan and Isolde” effect, when the tie is seen as a toxic enchantment that can’t be resisted and is not exactly enjoyed.  “Romeo and Juliet.”  My radio is playing “Maria” from “West Side Story.”  We prefer to see these relationships as defying unreasonable social restrictions, crossing boundary taboos like a ruffian taken in by a nun, a white man saved by an Indian maiden, a black man marrying a white woman.  If it happens often enough, the social boundaries are rearranged or become so blurred that no who is sure which person belongs to which category.

But what about the adult man who loves a boy who loves him back?  Regardless of the historical examples of knight and squire, master and apprentice, “The Persian Boy,” we resist.  Maybe because history is also full of gruesome abuses, like boys castrated to preserve their voices or to be eunuchs to guard harems.  Circumcision is controversial.  Some cultures insist on drastic, mutilating, female clitoral excision.  At the same time women voluntarily have breast implants or labia removal in order to be more sexually attractive.  The battlefield remains the body.  Is that love?

Surely we can do better if we put our hearts and minds to it.  After all, Jesus was the result of a cross-species sexual act and, as a hybrid, he had a lot of things to tell us about love, the nurturing, protective kind.

Tiger and Wolf

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