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Just the facts

Agustín Fuentes | Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Editors note: This is the first installment in a series of columns by Notre Dame faculty members exploring current scholarly research in sexuality concentrating on sexual orientation and related issues.

To discuss sexuality and sexual orientation we need to have the basics of what is known about sexual behavior; we must establish a comparative context. This information is not about judging right or wrong, but rather it forms a baseline of what occurs in the world. The information presented here is from research in biology and anthropology, and is readily available in peer-reviewed journals, scholarly books published by University presses, and textbooks used at Universities.

Our first level of comparative context: homosexual behavior is common in social mammals.

Humans are mammals, and in mammals, the more complex the social lives of a species the higher the frequency of sexual activity outside of reproductive contexts (we call this social sex). Social sex occurs both hetero- and homosexually. Examples of species with complex social lives and frequent social sex are whales, dolphins, wild dogs and primates. Humans belong to the order of mammals called primates. Social sex is very common in many monkey and ape species. In all apes (our closest relatives), and in many monkey species, homosexual activity is common. However, preferential homosexuality is rare in non-human primate species. Interestingly, humans are the only species that occasionally responds with specific aggression to individuals who are engaged in homosexual activity.

Our second level of comparative context: Homosexuality is a ubiquitous feature of humankind.

Between three to eight percent of individuals in all human populations are homosexually oriented (regardless of the culture’s stance on homosexuality), but the frequency of homosexual sexual activity in a given culture can be much higher than that. There are nearly seven billion humans on the planet and thousands of cultures. Humans are highly variable in many facets of behavior (for example, what and how people eat across the planet). Humans have complex and variable sexualities. Some of the factors that affect this variation are: age, gender, culture, ethnicity, individual experience, biology, religion, health, etc. The most common patterns of sexual behavior in humans are: General physical contact, Genital-genital contact, Manual-genital contact, Oral-genital contact and Oral-oral contact. While heterosexual sexual interactions are the most common type of sexual behavior, homosexual behavior is found in all human populations.

There is a wide range of what human cultures consider “normal” in regards to homosexuality. This information comes from ethnographic research (in-depth studies of what people in a given culture actually do). We have much more information about male homosexuality than we do about female homosexuality. Most cultures have a degree of inclusion (from high to moderate) where homosexually oriented individuals are part of normative society and daily social lives. Some cultures recognize homosexual individuals as a third gender (not male, not female) and integrate them into their society as such. Other cultures define a male as a homosexual only if he is the submissive partner in the sexual act. There are also cultures that have very strong restrictions against homosexual behavior, with a few of these cultures having a penalty of death for engaging in homosexual sexual activity.

In most cultures there is a distinction regarding sexuality before and after marriage. In many cultures, the years of adolescence and young adulthood are seen as times of sexual experimentation with marriage being the transition to adult sexuality. In these cases there is often no differentiation made between homo- and heterosexual activity in pre-marriage sexuality. However, it is usually expected that once married, men and women will engage in heterosexual interactions only with their spouse. In other cultures we see strong prohibitions on sexual behavior prior to marriage, and this is usually associated with a reduced tolerance of homosexuality in the society. In many of these cases the prohibition on sexual activity is stronger for females than males. At the other end of this spectrum are a few societies where heterosexual interactions between spouses are rare and for reproductive purposes only, and the preferred type of sexual interactions are homosexual, and usually between males. There are also few societies where male homosexual sex is not considered sexual activity but rather a core part of masculinity and male development.

A baseline from biology and anthropology demonstrates that homosexual behavior is common in complex animals and that homosexuality is a ubiquitous feature of humankind, but that different cultures view and engage with homosexual individuals in widely varying manners.

This column is meant as one of the many informational contributions to enhance our ability, as a University, to move forward with the important discussion about sexuality and sexual orientation in an informed and scholarly manner. Keep thinking and talking, the creation, assessment, and dissemination of knowledge is what academia is all about. Ignorance is not bliss, it is just ignorance.


Agustín Fuentes is a professor of Anthropology. He can be contacted at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.