Spain: The Most LGBT-Friendly Country in the World

The results might be surprising, since — compared to the likes of the Netherlands or Scandinavia — Spain rarely comes to mind as being particularly pro-LGBT. But the conclusion comes from an extensive 40-country survey conducted by the reputable Pew Research Group which asked respondents to discuss the morality of various issues, ranging from marital infidelity and divorce, to gambling, premarital sex, and abortion.

Of the Spaniards interviewed, 55 percent said homosexuality was morally acceptable, compared with six percent who said it was unacceptable and 38 percent who answered that it’s “not a moral issue” to begin with. These results actually match with another Pew study from 2013, which similarly concluded Spain to be the most LGBT-tolerant country in the world on the percentage of participants who believed homosexuality should be accepted by society.

The following graph shows the results of the top ten countries to be pro-LGBT, followed by the U.S. and Chile (courtesy of PolicyMic and the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project).

The famously LGBT-friendly nations of Northern Europe weren’t part of the survey, although I imagine they’d make up most of the top ten as well. Although a predominately Catholic country, Spain’s high ranking reflects a generally relaxed attitude towards homosexuality and other social mores, which coexists with a fairly high rate of Catholic identity (perhaps more culturally than piously nowadays). The country was among the first to legalize same-sex marriage in 2005, and hosts some of the largest pride parades in the world.

After the U.S. was Brazil, Mexico, Israel, Poland, and Greece. The fairly high ranks for Japan, Italy, and Argentina may seem surprising, given that these countries are generally viewed as being socially-conservative by developed-world standards (and of them only Argentina has legalized same-sex marriage, in 2010).

However, attitudes in these societies, as elsewhere, are changing — although viewing the rest of the countries polled would suggest they’re only high relative to the lowest-common denominators. Moreover, just because one doesn’t see homosexuality as immoral, doesn’t mean they don’t have stereotypical or negative views about it in some other sense (regarding gays as effeminate, lesbians as man-haters, etc). Of course, progress is progress even if there’s a ways to go.

The PolicyMic article makes the following assessment:

It’s important to note that the rankings are based on percentage of respondents who classified homosexuality as morally unacceptable. The United States had a surprisingly high number of respondents claim homosexuality was morally unacceptable — 37% — however, another 35% claimed it was “not a moral issue.”

Meanwhile, the Czech Republic had the highest overall percentage of respondents claim homosexuality was morally acceptable, edging out Spain with 56%. However, 14% of Czechs surveyed said it was unacceptable.

Countries with the lowest tolerance, according to the survey, included Ghana and Russia, where 98% and 72% of citizens replied that homosexuality was morally unacceptable, respectively.

The lowest-scoring countries after Ghana were Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Uganda, and Indonesia — none of which are entirely surprising, given the correlation between high rates of religiosity and negative perceptions towards LGBT people. However, relatively secular places (by global standards) such as China, South Korea, and Russia were also in the middle-to-bottom part of the list. Attitudes towards gays, lesbians, and other marginalized groups are influenced by many different factors beyond religion, some of which may be unique to the country in question.

There are many other caveats and observations that can be made, but I sadly do not have the time to offer them. As always, please weigh in at your leisure.

On Same-Sex Marriage

As I write this post, the Supreme Court is beginning to hear one of two cases regarding same-sex marriage, Hollingsworth v. Perry, No. 12-144, which will determine whether California’s referendum banning gay marriage (Proposition 8) is constitutional. As the New York Times reports:

Two California couples challenging Proposition 8, the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, say it excludes gay and lesbian couples from an institution with a deep and distinctive meaning and thus violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.

Defenders of the ban say that states should be able to work out for themselves whether to permit same-sex marriage. The Constitution is silent on the question, they say, and the court should not intervene in the vigorous debate playing out across the nation.

Nine states and the District of Columbia allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. Polls show that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, suggesting that further gains are likely in state legislatures and at the ballot box.

If the court is to establish a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, it will be in this case and not in a narrower one to be argued tomorrow, on Wednesday, about the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The latter deals with how the federal government would treat same-sex couples (namely in terms of federal benefits and obligations), which DOMA wouldn’t recognize since it defines legal unions as those between a man and a woman. If the banning of gay marriage is found unconstitutional in today’s case, chances are DOMA would get shot down. A great article in the New Yorker offers more background details, and shares that opinion that DOMA will likely get shot down.

So what might happen with respect to the comparatively more vital Prop 8 case being debated as we speak? The Times article breaks it down thusly:

 The court may say the Constitution requires all states to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. At the other extreme, the court may say the Constitution is silent on the question, leaving states free to allow or reject same-sex marriage. (There is no possibility that the court would ban same-sex marriage in places that choose to permit it.)

The court could also adopt a rationale that would apply only to California along the lines of the one endorsed by the Ninth Circuit. It could adopt the “eight-state solution” suggested by the Obama administration. Or it could dismiss the case for want of standing, which would probably effectively allow same-sex marriages in California.

Meanwhile, Slate describes how the Supreme Court could determine the validity of either side of the Proposition 8 case:

When laws treat one class of people differently from another, as Prop 8 and DOMA do, the Supreme Court has a choice. It can strike down such laws only if they have no rational basis. Or it can look more closely, and ask whether the law passes the test of “heightened scrutiny” (the standard in sex discrimination cases) or “strict scrutiny” (the standard when discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion is at issue). The justices have never applied one of these higher standards in a gay rights case. But some lower courts have used the heightened scrutiny tests in same-sex marriage cases. Will the justices move in that direction? Personally, I think there’s no rational basis for banning gay marriage. The myth that children fare worse when raised by gay parents, for example, has been shredded by social science. But if the court went for heightened scrutiny in the context of gay marriage, that would make it easier for gay people to sue over employment discrimination or mistreatment as well.

Indeed, I’m quite surprised that there is so much legal, political, and public wrangling about this issue. There is absolutely no empirical evidence that the married gay couple down the street is going to have any negative impact on your personal life. Is a gay marriage really any more disruptive than the millions of failed, abusive, unfaithful, and otherwise unhealthy heterosexual marriages that are common in our society? Is it anymore immoral or unfavorable as the dozens of other actually unsavory things that are technically legal in the private sphere — alcoholism, sexism, bad parenting, bullying, infidelity, etc? What happened to keeping government outside of our personal lives?

I’m rather amused by the arguments levied by the opposed party in the Prop 8 case, as reported in another New York Times article on the subject:

What justifications have supporters of Proposition 8 offered? They say that preserving the traditional definition of marriage will “further society’s vital interests in responsible procreation and child rearing.” Those interests would be undermined, they say, by “officially redefining marriage as a genderless institution.” It is rational, they add, to proceed with caution in changing the definition of marriage, to respect societal judgments made through the democratic process.

So are those who make this argument claiming that infertile couples shouldn’t have the right to marry? And are they really claiming that marriages exists only as an instrument of procreation, rather than of love between two people? Does that mean people should only be allowed to marry insofar as they plan to have children? Does that mean a couple can’t raise children responsibly without the label of “marriage” upon their relationship?

The point about “responsible child rearing” is especially interesting. Does anyone really think that banning gay marriage will somehow turn back centuries-old social ills like child abuse, negligent parenting, teen pregnancy, and the like? Are consenting gay adults willing to adopt children really the worst thing that can happen to the institution of marriage?

All this reminds me of the outlawing of interracial marriage that once existed in several states. It should be noted that in the 1967 landmark case Loving vs. Virginia, which was challenging just such a law, the Supreme Court made the following ruling:

Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival…To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.

Replace any reference to “race” with “sexual orientation,” and tell me if there is any appreciable difference. Also keep in mind that, like arguments against gay marriage, many of these racist laws had religious grounds, which should have no bearing on our constitutionally secular legal system.

And despite popular belief, the fact that people voted to ban gay marriage in California or else doesn’t make it legally or ethically legitimate: if people democratically chose to reinstitute racial segregation, it obviously wouldn’t be any less unconstitutional. We shouldn’t forget that slavery was once popularly supported by the people of each slave state. The 14th amendment protects freedoms regardless of who strips them (though whether gay marriage will be a legally recognized freedom will remain to be seen).

I try to imagine what it would be like if homosexuals were the dominant group in this country, and they decided by matter of personal conviction that traditional marriage is a backward and outdated practice that should be banned. In response to this, wouldn’t proponents of heterosexual marriage make the same arguments they currently reject from the gay community – that people have a right to marry who they want, and that the government shouldn’t be in the business of telling people who to marry?

Furthermore, aren’t these the same individuals who claim they want small government, and that the state shouldn’t involve itself in private matters? Clearly they will make exceptions when it’s convenient. That’s why democracies are measured by how much freedom they accord to their minorities, who could otherwise easily be oppressed by the tyranny of the majority

Why should someone’s rights be limited or looked down upon just because something is seen as unfavorable or “sinful?” Setting aside the fact that our secular government shouldn’t take into account such views with respect to the law, if it harms no one, it shouldn’t be immoral. There is no credible scientific evidence showing that gay marriage harms anyone, be it the participants, their immediate loved ones, or society at large.

Indeed, the overwhelming consensus by scientific academies the world over is the homosexuality — including homosexual parenting — has no discernible negative affect on anyone, at least not anymore than “regular” heterosexual partnerships do. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently came behind gay marriage, after an extensive scientific review of over 60 studies, finding that it was far preferable to have gay parents than none at all.

Besides, the empirical evidence is clear: of the 11 countries that currently recognize gay marriage — and the many more than at least legalize civil unions and similar alternatives — the majority rank very well in metrics of political stability, crime, poverty, and other measures of social ills. The same goes for the majority of US states. If gay marriage were really so disruptive to the social order, we’d be seeing these communities racked with all sorts of subsequent problems.

So from scientific and rational perspective, there is simply no rational basis for banning gay marriage. As long as it involves two consenting adults — which of course is all anyone is advocating for — than on the basis of liberty for autonomous persons, it should be allowed. If you don’t like it, than you don’t have to have a gay marriage, nor will your religious institution be required to perform one. You have a right to dislike or be offended by something, but not to use the legal system to act on behalf of that prejudice.

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, the trend is clear: the majority of Americans support (or at least tolerate) gay marriage, and the numbers continue to grow. In fact, it was only a decade ago that most people were opposed to gays and lesbians marrying. A complete reversal in such a short span of time suggests that sooner or later, homosexuals will have the right to marry, whether by judicial decree or popular votes.

Either way, this court case will be leaving me at the edge of my seat.


Karl Heinrich Ulrichs – The “Father of Gay Rights”

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, born in Germany in the 19th century, is considered the father of gay rights, as well as the first recorded person to publicly “come out” as a homosexual. Ulrichs recalled that as a young child he wore girls’ clothes, preferred playing with girls, and wanted to be a girl. He had his first homosexual experience at age 14 with a riding instructor, and subsequently struggled with the loneliness and guilt of his “deviancy.” Indeed, he was dismissed from his job as a legal adviser to a state court because of his homosexuality.

In 1862, a time when non-heterosexuality was very much tabooo, Ulrichs took the momentous step of telling his family and friends that he was, in his own words, an Urning, a term he coined to describe men who love other men. He began writing under the pseudonym of “Numa Numantius,” and his first five essays, “Researches on the Riddle of Male-Male Love,” explained such love as natural and biological, summed up with the Latin phrase anima muliebris virili corpore inclusa – “a female psyche confined in a male body.”

Throughout his life, Ulrichs continued to move around Germany (which was gradually unifying), continuing to write and publish, and getting into legal trouble for it. His books were confiscated and banned by police in Saxony and Berlin, and his works were eventually banned throughout Prussia.

Ulrichs stated: “Until my dying day I will look back with pride that I found the courage to come face to face in battle against the specter which for time immemorial has been injecting poison into me and into men of my nature. Many have been driven to suicide because all their happiness in life was tainted. Indeed, I am proud that I found the courage to deal the initial blow to the hydra of public contempt.”

Ain’t No Homos Going to Heaven

The following video, which has recently gone viral, is greatly disturbing: a little boy, being clearly coached, is singing a hateful litany about homosexuals – to rancorous approval and encouragement by his adult audience.

The Huffington Post reports:

The congregation in the church, which has been identified as the Apostolic Truth Tabernacle Church in Greensburg, Ind., gives a standing ovation after the child sings, “I know the Bible’s right, somebody’s wrong…ain’t no homos gonna make it to heaven.”

While this appears to be a relative small community, it’s probably not the only one that promotes this sort of hatred. Even if it’s not as explicit as song-singing, plenty of churches teach young people that homosexuals – among others – are evil enough to deserve eternal torture by their loving God. So many young minds warped into being ignorant and hateful. I almost literally weep for this child.

Thankfully, this insidious nonsense (to put it lightly) is being given the attention it deserves:

A number of high profile lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) bloggers and allies have re-posted the video, including Towleroad and Joe. My. God. All have noted that the child was undoubtedly coached by adults for his performance.

“Interview with a Vampire” author Anne Rice also posted the video to her Facebook page, noting, “In this country, Christians can teach toddlers to hate and to persecute, and we, through the automatic tax exemption for churches, foot the bill.”

It remains to be seen where this pushback will lead. Whether they apologize or not – and I’m not holding my breath on that – the fact this is just a small sample of the hate-driven indoctrination that goes on throughout this country makes me lose sleep at night.

Think of how many kids are being unwittingly manipulated, like this boy, into being bigots, when they otherwise wouldn’t be? Think of how many prejudiced adults would’ve turned out okay if they hadn’t been born and raised in this sort of ignorant environment?

My only source of solace is that each coming generation seems to be more tolerant than the previous, and that many of these children do in fact break free of this brainwashing and abuse, thanks in large part to the better organized efforts of social justice advocates – and their expert use of the internet, which has become a major force in undermining this sort of madness.

It’s a difficult battle, but the social and ideological trends are on our side. We just need to keep pushing.

I’ll end this with a song that Jerry Coyne, one of my favorite bloggers, highlighted for its astute observation. Written in 1949 for the Broadway musical South Pacific, it’s called “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Poisoning the minds of children is clearly nothing new. But thankfully, neither are efforts to counteract it.

GOP Rejects Anti-Bullying Legislation – For All the Wrong Reasons

Read the news here (fair warning, the writer’s language is a bit harsh).

Now, there are some reasonable arguments against anti-bullying laws, namely whether they could be effectively enforced, or whether a top-down approach to changing human behavior could actually work. I for one think that addressing the social and cultural factors that underpin bullying would be the better route, with laws delivering a power message at the very least.

But the Republicans weren’t raising any such respectable debate on the matter. Rather, they are their supporters were essentially defending the right of religious bigots to be religious bigots.

Opponents of the law claimed that it wasn’t actually an anti-bullying law at all, but rather a rule forcing kids to embrace homosexuality. The Illinois Family Institute (“family,” again, is code for “rally ‘round the heterosexual penis”) suggested that schools have an “opt out” provision that would have allowed religious kids to justify acting like little Romneys to other kids by saying that their religion compels it.

Bullying is pretty much acceptable if it means targeting those disordered and sinful homosexuals. With adults like these, it’s no wonder kids don’t know any better.

A Great Defense of Gay Marriage

This is probably one of the best pleas for marriage equality I’ve heard yet, and it comes from a Republican State Representative in Washington State. The video has recently gone viral, perhaps as much because it’s coming from a member of the more conservative party, than for fact her words are very compelling. Judge for yourselves.

Mrs. Walsh was one of only two Republicans to break ranks with her party and vote in favor of Washington’s marriage-equality bill, and that was her impassioned explanation. Sure enough, the state legislature passed the bill shortly after.

Despite heavy opposition, both public and political trends are moving favorably towards gay-marriage rights, if only because more people are empathizing, as this lawmaker did, with the driving force of marriage equality.


Homosexuality has been well-documented or observed in over 1,500 animal species, ranging from fruit flies and gut worms, to dolphins and primates. Yet curiously, only one of these species – presumably the most intelligent – is known to react to it with hatred, disgust, and even fear.

To our knowledge, we’re the only animals that acknowledge it distinctly at all, let alone regard it as some aberration worthy of contempt. Homophobia, even in its mildly judgmental form, is no different in its stupidity, bigotry, and backwardness than racism, sexism, or any other baseless form of prejudice. Hopefully, it’ll be looked upon with the same shame and disapproval as well.

Of all the qualities from which to judge a person, I could think of none more pernicious and absurd that who they love or have sex with consentually. Such behavior, regardless of its origin, has no bearing on a person’s character, goodness, or integrity. It harms no one. It bears no spite or maliciousness. Any disapproval is derived from nothing more than a mindless deference to ancient dogma, or a selective and arbitrary notion of normality. No exercise of reason, ethics, or empathy could lead to such an intellectually and morally bankrupt position.

Zach Wahls’ My Two Moms

A few weeks ago, a  sharp young man named Zach Wahls made a passionate and eloquent case on behalf of retaining gay marriage rights in Iowa (I shared the video here). Among other things, he discussed how he was brought up two lesbians, and how his family was every bit as normal in it’s love as any other.

Indeed, he had a lot to show for it: he’s athletic, well-spoken, an Eagle Scout, and an Environmental Engineering major – he hardly validated the notion that being raised in an “abnormal” family is somehow detrimental to growth and development. As he himself rightly noted – in what I think was his most poignant and powerful statement – no one would even know he was raised by a homosexual couple – “the sexual orientation of my parents has had zero effect on the content of my character.” The love, values, and familial bonds were still there all the same.

At any rate, Wahls’ video quickly went viral, and rightly so. More people have now been made aware of his valuable example, and hopefully there will be more empathy towards those who still have the same needs for love and a family as any of us, even if their sexuality is different. Mr. Wahls will now have a book published soon, My Two Moms, which will share more of his story and seek to reassure other same-sex couples and families that they’re not alone, nor should they feel ostracized.

I’m hoping to get a chance to read it myself some time, since there are few well-known books on this subject (his popularity, as much as his touching account, will no doubt help drive sales). The more consciousness raising this issue will get, the better. It was only a decade ago that a majority of Americans were opposed to same-sex marriage – now, the numbers are reversed (if still tenuous). The more people understand the human side of this issue, the more they’ll support and appreciate love in whatever form it takes.


Questions for Opponents of Gay Marriage

A skepticism blog called Unreasonable Faith has posted five questions for gay marriage opponents to consider. These were in response to a series of questions poised to homosexuals – and their “supporters” – by Christian Apologetic and Research Ministries (CARM). For responses and counterpoints to all 28 of their questions, click here.

These are inquiries I’ve often presented to homophobic and anti-gay marriage individuals myself. They’re as follows:

1. What is natural?

A lot of people like to say that homosexuality is unnatural. I read these statements on my computer, a device made of substances not found in nature and requiring tremendous amounts of human industry to create, maintain and power.

What are our standards for determining what is natural and what is unnatural. Is toilet training natural? Is civilization natural?

2. Is unnatural always immoral?

Consider the old saw, “If God had meant man to fly, he’d have given us wings.” Does the fact that we don’t have wings make flight immoral? Perhaps not immoral, but unwise?

If nature is good and unnatural is bad, how does this square with the common Protestant notion that nature is fallen? To quote Katherine Hepburn, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above. ”

3. Is the Bible the basis for morality?

Perhaps the most common argument I hear among Christians is about how the Bible relates to homosexuality. Is the Bible “against” homosexuality? Let’s leave aside issues of historical context and translation for the moment.

Consider this: sections like 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 are frequently cited against gay marriage. However, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul advises his readers against getting married at all. He states, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” and while he accepts marriage, it is clearly as the lesser good to celibacy (or perhaps as the lesser evil to fornication.) In my experience, this section is basically ignored.

Is there a systematic means of interpretation that leads to accepting chapter 6 as holy writ but rejecting chapter 7 as irrelevant? Or is it just “common sense”?

4. Why is gender treated differently than race?

Consider the following quote:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” (Judge Bazile, 1965)

The above comes from the Caroline County Circuit Court in Virginia, in one of the cases leading up to Loving vs. Virginia. Judge Bazile was siding with the prosecution, who were using Biblical stories like the Tower of Babel and Noah’s Flood the same way that gay marriage opponents use the story of Adam and Eve.

I’m assuming that most of my readers will disagree with this reasoning. Why?

5. Who defines marriage?

Social historians, like Stephanie Coontz and others, have noted that the institution of marriage has been undergoing major changes over the past two centuries or so. Briefly: marriage is changing from a social obligation to a personal contract within the couple. We now look askance at someone who would try to strengthen their community or family by marrying for money and political connections. Most of us believe that marriage should be for love between individuals.

So marriage is becoming more individualized. This is both subtle and profound; it leaves the outward marriage much the same but changes the very basis of marriage on the inside. My marriage may look like my grandparents marriage, but my understanding of the purpose and what my marriage means is completely different.

One of the consequences of this shift is that marriage has become more of a mutually agreed upon contract between two people than something enforced from outside. That makes it difficult to oppose people who want to marry on their own terms: who are you to tell two people that they can’t be in love?

Social transitions like this are never uncontested, but this one seems to have lots of inertia behind it. Do you feel that this shift is good, bad or indifferent? Would you support laws that attempt to reverse some of the trends, like strengthening anti-divorce laws?

Since many of these individuals tend to define themselves as constitutionalists steeped in the American values of liberty and freedom, I would also ask why they support restricting the freedoms of others. If you don’t like homosexuality, than feel free to do so. But where do we draw the line as far as what moral imperatives should be imposed by the government?

Should we pass laws against infidelity, atheism, and other anathemas to Judeo-Christian morality? Would this not present an issue as far as promoting small-government and the pursuit of happiness is concerned? It’s contradictory to stand for individual freedom and responsibility, yet expect the government to involve itself in the private matters of millions of its citizens.

I often wonder how many opponents to gay marriage actually reflect upon their own position. Do they simply defer to the Bible or the teachings of their religious leaders? If so, do they follow everything the Bible says consistently? If not, then how to they discern which parts to apply and which to ignore? Have they at least considered the scientific and ethical arguments? These are questions I would add as well, since doing so is largely what convinced me to change my position all these years ago.

In fairness, I’d ask supporters of LGBT rights and gay marriage to question their own position too. On what basis do they form their approval? Is it also visceral and intuitive, or do they have deeper ethical and philosophical considerations informing them? No belief, especially as it pertains to the rights and concerns of other human beings, should be adopted without proper reflection and dialectic.

Insight on Human Sexuality from the Aka People

Sex is a difficult subject to discuss, especially here in the US. Though we’re viewed as being exceptionally prudish about the topic, most societies more or less treat it as an impolite or vulgar thing to talk about, especially in a frank or open way. This is very curious given how much sexuality pervades every aspect of our lives. Like it or not, we’re sexual beings, and all aspects of sex – relationships, self-pleasure, fetishes, fantasies, etc – occupy our minds and dreams at one point or another.

Unfortunately, this ambivalent and ambiguous approach leaves us ignorant to a comprehensive understanding of sexual issues, despite how much they concern us deep down. Much of what we do learn about sex tends to be novel and unscientific, or based on folk tales and mere intuition. This partly accounts for why Americans seem particularly more uncomfortable about homosexuality, transgender people, and other manifestations of so-called “abnormal” or “deviant” sexuality. We hardly know sex well enough in general to truly know what accounts for “acceptable” sexual behavior.

For all these reasons, I took great interest in a recent article in Slate that followed a very unique anthropological study of the subject (I’m a huge anthropology buff to boot). Even the basic introduction presents and intriguing claim:

A husband-and-wife team of anthropologists at Washington State University named Barry and Bonnie Hewlett believe that they’ve found a society without gay sex—and that there other societies, too, in which some presumably universal behaviors, such as homosexuality and masturbation, are nonexistent at all levels of analysis.

Almost immediately, many of you may believe that this would claim to validate the position held by religious conservatives thatf non-heterosexual copulation is aberrant. As it turns out, however, the conclusion of this study ends up, surprisingly, pointing to the opposite direction.

The Hewletts work amid a group of peaceful net-hunting foragers in central Africa known as the Aka, who live in migratory camps of about 25 to 35 individuals. Other ethnographic details, such as the Aka’s sociopolitical organization (minimal-control chiefdoms) and gender relations (men and women are relatively equal) certainly aren’t irrelevant to their sex lives, but in a report published last year in African Study Monographs, the researchers focused on the Aka’s bedroom behaviors. It was the Aka’s apparent hypersexuality that inspired the Hewletts’ research. “We decided to systematically study sexual behavior,” they explain, “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 we thought it was just men telling their stories, but we talked to women and they verified the men’s assertions.” That’s right—three or four times per night.

Indeed, these people are not as stuffy about sex as the initial impression may have suggested. They’re remarkably sexual, and that is reflected in more than just their rate of intercourse. It permeates throughout their very fabric of society.

The other important thing to note with the Aka and Ngandu is that, by Western standards, they are extremely open with respect to sexuality. Children mimic intercourse publicly and without being reproached by their parents, the lyrics to a popular Aka children’s song are the orgasmic vocalizations of two people having sex, and adults discuss sexual matters freely in camp.

Furthermore, the Aka are known for their extremely flexible gender roles and near absent gender stereotypes. The women are just as likely to hunt as are the men, and men are heavily involved in childrearing. (In fact, the Guardiandubbed Aka men “best fathers in the world” a few years ago.)

This is hardly an oppressive environment, which is why the apparent absence of homosexuality and masturbation in these societies came as a surprise to the Hewletts. “[These behaviors] are rare or nonexistent,” observe the authors, “not because they are frowned upon or punished, but because they are not part of the cultural models of sexuality in either group.”

Given this uniquely progressive attitude to both sexual expression and gender roles, it may seem contradictory to imagine that the Aka do not engage in many other kinds of sexual acts: oral and anal sex is absent, as is any notion of foreplay. As noted before, same-sex relationships are unknown to them: the Aka people don’t see homosexuality as taboo or unacceptable, because it is literally an alien concept to them. The same applies to “self-stimulation,” of which even the mechanics, as simple as they are, simply don’t translate.  In fact, no words remotely exist to describe these acts (and they’re not alone in this regard either).

Much of this stems from their attitudes towards sex, which isn’t as carnal as you might think.

To begin with, they’re having a lot of married sex. On average—and remember, this isn’t just newlywed teenagers, but also middle-aged couples we’re talking about—the Aka reported having sex three times per night, and the Ngandu twice per night. According to the Hewletts, these groups consider sex as being more like work than recreational activity. Given the importance placed on having many children—coupled with a high infant mortality rate—the Aka and Ngandu view sex as an exercise in gathering offspring, a form of nocturnal labor that is just as important as their subsistence activities during daylight. “The work of the penis is the work to find a child,” said one Aka informant. “I am now doing it five times a night to search for a child,” said another. “If I do not do it five times my wife will not be happy because she wants children quickly.” It’s not that sex isn’t pleasurable to these people, the Hewletts emphasize. Rather, pleasure just isn’t their primary motive.

It may seem unusual to imagine that such a hyper-sexual society would view pleasure as a secondary concern, if not merely a by-product, let alone see it as actual labor. But that’s just it: what is strange as far as sexual norms are concerned is largely a subjective and relativistic matter, something that wasn’t lost on the researchers, given that they’re anthropologists.

“One of our fears in writing this paper,” emphasize the Hewletts, “was that the Aka and Ngandu might be viewed as ‘others’ with unusual and exotic sexual practices … [but] overall, the Euro-American patterns are relatively unusual by cross-cultural standards.” In other words, although widespread Westernization creates the impression of a species-wide sexual homogeneity, when one takes the sheer number of living and extinct cultures into perspective, it’s us—not them—who are weird.

This is pretty much the crux of most anthropological studies. While some universal norms exist, the sheer diversity of human culture and experience leaves us with very little in the way of objective standards of what is “natural” or “normal.” Most of us unknowingly view the world through our own social and cultural prism, and construct our notions of what is “right” or “ideal” based on this benchmark. Every society does this, and even those of us that try to be conscious of this bias and overcome it have a difficult time doing so in practice (bear in mind that morality is a different matter for me entirely – I am not a moral relativist).

I think the article wraps it up rather well as far as attitudes to sex in particular, and views of different cultural mores in general.

In any event, the point is not to suggest that homosexuality and masturbation are unnatural and therefore wrong, but that “deviance” is a relative term. Let’s not forget there are certainly cultures for which homosexual behavior is the norm rather than the exception…The examples above should remind us that there are as many sexual differences between cultures as there are similarities. It may astonish Westerners to realize that societies with these practices exist elsewhere in the world, but just imagine all of the other variations in human sexuality that must have been lost through the ages. Even today, there really are societies in which homosexuality does not exist.

Basically, there’s a lot about our very nature we simply don’t know, and we should keep this in mind before we make any generalizations or assumptions concerning who we’re “supposed to be.”