Where Variation and Complexity Do Not Exist

On December 4, The Atlantic posted in their “health” section “Where Masturbation and Homosexuality Do Not Exist” by Alice Dreger. To be frank, there is nothing about this article I don’t hate.

Let’s start at the top. Here’s the picture The Atlantic used for the post:

Aka father carrying his daughter while out on a hunt. The Aka man is shirtless, his arm around his son, a long ponytail coming down his back and over his shoulder.

The first sentence of the post:

Barry and Bonnie Hewlett had been studying the Aka and Ngandu people of central Africa for many years before they began to specifically study the groups’ sexuality.

Not included in The Atlantic post is a picture of Barry and Bonnie Hewlett. Here’s one:

An older white man stands on the right, his arm around a middle-aged white woman. They are both smiling at the camera. He has on a buttoned up blue collar shirt, she is wearing a red dress, her hair swept up.

And I’ll just leave it at that.

[It isn’t just that these people are white, though that matters when we are talking about anthropological field work, but that this work on “homosexuality practices and behavior” was done by, what appears to be, a married, presumably heterosexual couple. Their distance from their objects and the subjects of this study is pronounced.]

Moving on.

The married couple of anthropologists from Washington State University “decided to systematically study sexual behavior after several campfire discussions with married middle-aged Aka men who mentioned in passing that they had sex three or four times during the night. At first [they] thought it was just men telling their stories, but we talked to women and they verified the men’s assertions.”…Married Aka and Ngandu men and women consistently reported having sex multiple times in a single night.

I love this story. A married couple from Washington State University is SO shocked to hear that people in a different culture have sex multiple times in a single night so they feel like they need to do an anthropological study of that behavior. Oh, Barry and Bonnie. Was it the middle of the night sex that struck you as strange or the frequency? When should these people be having sex? How much? What would they have needed to say in order not to pique your curiosity?

But then, WHOOPS!

The Hewletts also incidentally found that homosexuality and masturbation appeared to be foreign to both groups.

What is the evidence for this assertion?

In both cultures, men and women view sexual intercourse as a kind of “work of the night.” The purpose of this work is the production of children — a critical matter in an area with a very high infant mortality rate. Semen is understood by the Aka and Ngandu to be necessary not only to conception, but also to fetal development. A woman who is already pregnant will see having intercourse as contributing to the health of her fetus.

The Aka and Ngandu speak of sex as “searching for children.” That’s not to say they don’t enjoy having sex. Clearly they do. The Hewletts relay a song a group of children invented after stealthily watching two lovers having sex. In the song, the man asks, “How do you want it?” and the woman answers, “Oh, I want it big.” The man asks again, and the woman answers, “Oh, I want it long.” The song then enters a refrain with the man thrusting and asking his partner, “Did you come?”

But while the individuals the Hewletts interviewed — like the song — made it clear that sex is pleasurable for these folks, and something that brings couples closer, they also made clear that babies are the goal of sex. Said one Aka woman, “It is fun to have sex, but it is to look for a child.” Meanwhile, a Ngandu woman confessed, “after losing so many infants I lost courage to have sex.”

My VERY first question after reading this was “what about the role of contraception?” I can’t tell from this piece what access the Aka and Ngandu have to resources outside of their villages or towns. The image at the start and the fact that these two anthropologists find these people worthy of study leads me to assume the Aka and Ngandu probably don’t have access to reliable contraception. I know the dangers of assuming but Dreger’s reporting lends no other option.

In that case, if they cannot access reliable contraception, of course the Aka and Ngandu would “speak of sex as ‘searching for children.'” And when a woman says “after losing so many infants I lost courage to have sex” that serves as much better evidence of her knowledge of the connection between sex and pregnancy and her complete inability to stop pregnancy than that the ONLY reason she has had sex is to have a child.

This whole idea that because the Aka and Ngandu primarily associate sex with procreation they, therefore, cannot disassociate sex from procreation is simplistic and condescending to the Aka and Ngandu.

There is also a major conflation going on here between the Aka and Ngandu calling having pleasurable sex multiple times a night, “work of the night,” and our own Western ideas of the drudgery of work. For the Hewletts and Dreger, because the Aka and Ngandu call this some variant on “work,” it is therefore categorized as non-recreational.

Dreger then writes:

Is the strong cultural focus on sex as a reproductive tool the reason masturbation and homosexual practices seem to be virtually unknown among the Aka and Ngandu? That isn’t clear.

I know the Hewletts and Dreger very much want to believe that a strong cultural focus on sex as a reproductive tool is somehow NOT a Western idea:

Studies of small-scale, rural, non-Western cultures like the Aka and Ngandu paint a more complicated picture of human variation. The Hewletts remark that, “the Western cultural emphasis on recreational sex has … led some researchers to suggest that human sexuality is similar to bonobo apes because they have frequent non-reproductive sex, engage in sex throughout the female cycle, and use sex to reduce social tensions.” But, the Hewletts suggest, “The bonobo view may apply to Euro-Americans (plural), but from an Aka or Ngandu viewpoint, sex is linked to reproduction and building a family.” Where sex is work, sex may just work differently.

Have the Hewletts or Dreger met the conservative, anti-choice portion of our Western culture? I’d like to introduce them to Ross Douthat (I mean, I don’t ever WANT to introduce anyone to Ross Douthat but sometimes he serves as a good example so I am forced to). Douthat’s entire schtick is that sex is a reproductive tool. So glad the Hewletts have come along with evidence that if we follow Douthat’s model, we can turn sex into work and rid the world of homosexuality. Wait. What?

Finally, on that part about homosexuality:

Is the strong cultural focus on sex as a reproductive tool the reason masturbation and homosexual practices seem to be virtually unknown among the Aka and Ngandu? That isn’t clear. But the Hewletts did find that their informants — whom they knew well from years of field work — “were not aware of these practices, did not have terms for them,” and, in the case of the Aka, had a hard time even understanding about what the researchers were asking when they asked about homosexual behaviors.

The Ngandu “were familiar with the concept” of homosexual behavior, “but no word existed for it and they said they did not know of any such relationships in or around the village. Men who had traveled to the capital, Bangui, said it existed in the city and was called ‘PD’ (French for par derriere or from behind).”

Given all this, the Hewletts conclude, “Homosexuality and masturbation are rare or nonexistent [in these two cultures], not because they are frowned upon or punished, but because they are not part of the cultural models of sexuality in either ethnic group.”

The finding with regard to homosexuality is perhaps not that surprising. As the Hewletts note, other researchers have documented cultures where homosexuality appears not to exist. If homosexual orientation has a genetic component to it — and there is increasing evidence that it does, in many cases — then it would not be surprising that this complex human trait (one that involves non-procreative efforts) would be found in some populations but not others.

Where to begin?

First, anyone who uses the word “homosexual” is suspect in my book. It is clinical and most of the time used disparagingly. I get that these people are “scientists” and this is supposedly a “scientific” term but – let’s be honest – that term was used heavily by the psychiatric community beginning in the late 19th century as a term to refer to those who psychiatrists deemed deviant, perverts, etc. While maybe(?) it has lost that connotation, I hear it whenever someone uses it. I certainly hear it in this article.

Second, there is something incredibly problematic when anthropologists begin asking questions about sexuality with a hetero/homo binary as the framework within which they structure those questions. How do the Hewletts define “homosexual practice” and “homosexual behavior”? Is anal sex only a “homosexual practice” if it is two men? Is “homosexual behavior” only something that happens when sex is involved? Is it only something that happens between men? (nota bene: I always think scientists construct questions about “homosexuality” around men’s behavior since scientists construct most questions about most things around men’s behavior) How are we to take seriously any of these claims when they are forced through such a rigid filter of sexuality?

Third, “if homosexual orientation has a genetic component to it.” STOP. Relying on this type of science in order to justify the complete flattening of sexuality, sexual practices, and sociability done by these anthropologists is too much. Also this: “All of this research that is purporting to look for physiological material differences between gay bodies and straight bodies: What are they comparing it to?  Their assumption that they know magically what a heterosexual body is?  When no one has actually established what that is. That’s bad science.” (h/t to Scott Madin for the link to the amazing interview with author Hanne Blank from which I pulled this quote)

Dreger tries to patch over these problems:

Moreoever, sexual behavior — whether homosexual, heterosexual, or any other type — is never simply genetically determined in humans. Humans are born with sexual potentials that will manifest differently in different cultural settings. So, about heterosexuality, the Hewletts note that Western cultures’ valuing of sleeping through the night probably limits Western heterosexual couples’ interest in having sex multiple times between dusk and dawn. In our culture, the work we have to do by day may overtake “the work of the night.”

It’s also worth noting that Western science specifically distinguishes between three components of sexuality: desire, behavior, and identity. While the Hewletts’ research suggests that homosexual behavior and identity are foreign to the Aka and Ngandu, it’s entirely possible that homosexual desire does exist in these groups, at least for some of their members (so to speak). A culture that recognizes such desires — and especially a culture that does not condemn them — and especially one that involves large groups where homosexually-inclined people can find each other — is the type where such desires will become openly apparent.

When I put this to the Hewletts, they replied that indeed, the desire may exist in some individuals in these groups, but we simply do not know. They added that although the Aka and Ngandu live in small groups, “They travel extensively and our studies suggest each person knows about 400-500 individuals,” which means that, theoretically, a person with homosexual desires might find another person with the same. But in a culture in which the general idea of a desire doesn’t exist, such a desire might remain unarticulated, even if two people who share it find each other.

“homosexually-inclined people” – I cannot.

Again, the entire reading of the Aka and Ngandu people’s sexuality seems so simplistic in this reading. We are so much more complex than them. We are more tolerant. We recognize a larger range of sexual practices and desires (though, again, the way this entire thing is framed makes me wonder if that is, in fact, true).

In the end, what are we supposed to do with this new knowledge? It is not apolitical in the modern US to suggest that there are spaces where it is natural to never find any gay people. It’s never apolitical for white anthropologists to make sweeping claims about central African people, especially in regards to their sexuality. Dreger wants this to be about some construction of sex as work and “painting a more complicated picture of human variation.” This research and the reporting on it reads only as a flattening of variation and is devoid of complexity in ways that seem dangerous and unproductive.

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