A friend recently told me that two women from her circle of friends, both in their fifties, ‘suddenly’ had a relationship with a woman after several years of heterosexuality. She wondered if there could be a hormonal explanation for it. Can your sexual preference change over the course of your life if, for example, your hormone balance changes after menopause?
According to an available standard work in sexology, Sex! Lifelong learning (Ellen Laan and Rik van Lunsen) your sexual preference is largely formed before the age of eight in an interplay between biology and the environment (‘love cards† Your actual sexual practice is then also determined by all kinds of social ideas about sex, what is the norm, what is taboo. Hormones play a role, but a minor role, they argue; man has countless reasons for partnerships and sex. For a sexologist, biology is not enough to explain behavior.
I’m curious what the answer would be from primatologist Frans de Waal. In his recently published book Various. Sex through the eyes of a Primatologist he contributes to the (over) heated debate about gender and sexuality. We have become too disconnected from biology, he says. The once clear distinction between gender (gender) and gender (the cultural roles seen as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’) has faded. In English – and also in Dutch for that matter – the word ‘gender’ has been interchangeable with ‘sex’ for some time, leading to some confusion. What is fascinating about De Waal’s book is that he biologically anchors the concept of ‘gender identity’, the inner experience of being a man or a woman: he argues that gender and sexual identity are formed in the womb.
That certain sexual behavior is not “natural” is an argument that is difficult to maintain; you will find all combinations in nature. De Waal hesitates to put labels on animals. The world-famous and media ‘gay’ penguin couple Roy and Silo have been enthusiastically embraced by the gay movement. If anything, then “bisexual”: penguins change partner; their choice depends on the number of males or females available in their habitat. Feminists, on the other hand, are often enthusiastic about do not love war-bonobo, who loves in all possible combinations and organizes himself matriarchally. De Waal argues that we should not lose sight of our kinship with the more aggressive chimpanzee.
De Waal wants to tame the ideological projection of humans on animals so that we can continue to look more closely at the role of biology in primates. He condescendingly serves the pioneering work of the philosopher and zoologist Donna Haraway. IN Primate visions. Gender, race and nature in the world of modern science (1989) she showed that the stories we tell about monkeys say a lot about the people who tell them: they project their desires, desires, nightmares and dreams onto monkeys, shaped by the ideology of the spirit of the times. Awareness of your biases and the role of ideological projection makes you a critical, better scientist, not a worse one. She’s right; the fact that a primatologist is now publishing a book on ‘gender’ shows how much the scientific agenda is determined in part by the spirit of the times. When De Waal concludes on the last pages that binary thinking should have an overhaul, it is almost funny, because he is thus following in Haraway’s footsteps.
Back to my boyfriend’s questions. I projected it cheerfully: Maybe the women in question looked like penguins, preferring the sweet woman at hand over a boring man. Or was there always something bisexual in their ‘love card’ and only now did it get a place? In a cafe you can freely put a playful tree on it, on social media and in the academic world there is a little fun about it these days. This is how the newly published book turned out Gender-critical feminism by Holly Lawford-Smith had been boycotted before it even appeared. She argues in her captivating book that there have always been differences of opinion in gender research, but that today’s tribal wars between feminists and transgender activists rarely lead to dialogue, let alone reconciliation practices. I’ve had enough of both groups’ aggressive chimpanzee-like behavior, cancellation, and calls. Let’s make room for the curious penguin in us, go on a sniffing practice! ‘Biology’ can explain a lot, but when it comes to how we deal with being ‘different’, it’s up to us humans.
Stine Jensen is a philosopher and author. She writes a column here every other week.
A version of this article was also published in the newspaper on May 20, 2022