Does homosexuality exist in every human society?
Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images.
At a press event two weeks ago, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to elaborate on his notorious assertion from 2007 that there were no homosexuals in Iran. “My position hasn’t changed,” replied the defiant Ahmadinejad. He then acknowledged to Blitzer, begrudgingly, the tiny sliver of a possibility that there could be such monsters living amongst even the Sharia-centric Iranians. “Perhaps there are those who engage in [homosexual] activities … but these are not known elements within Iranian society. Rest assured, this is one of the ugliest behaviors in our society … but as the government, I cannot go out in the street and ask [my people] about their specific orientation.”
I’d take considerable pleasure in using this column to expound on Ahmadinejad’s intellectual deficiencies. (Let’s be honest, any leader who believes in a supernatural entity that finds gay people icky isn’t exactly the deepest thinker.) Yet this arrogant theocrat unwittingly raises a more interesting issue for us to consider: Does homosexuality exist in every human society?
For anyone with even a modest scientific background, the answer seems obvious —hence the widespread disbelief of Ahmadinejad’s initial claim of a gay-free Iran. Although LGBT Iranians live under constant threat of severe legal and social sanctions, we do know that there is no shortage of them. Still, that doesn’t mean that homosexuality can be found in every other corner in the world. 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.
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.
But campfire talk is one thing, actual behaviors quite another. So the anthropologists conducted a more rigorous series of interviews in the Aka’s native language (Diaka) using a local interpreter. They also interviewed nearby farmer-villagers known collectively as the Ngandu. To get at the patterns of sexuality in these two groups, the Hewletts interviewed 56 people, ages 18 to 70, who’d been married at least once. Given the sensitive subject matter, the husbands were interviewed by the male anthropologist, Barry Hewlett, while Bonnie Hewlett spoke with the wives. “The Aka and Ngandu were very open and willing to talk to us about sexual behavior,” note the authors, “but this was in part due to our long-term relationships in these communities.” (At the time of their interviews, 35 years for Barry and a decade for Bonnie.)
Now, before we get to the nitty-gritty, there a few important things to first point out about the Aka and Ngandu—and indeed, about the anthropologists’ motives in examining these people’s sexuality in the first place. Over the past half-century or so, a lot of impressive work has been done on cross-cultural differences in sexuality. But for a host of reasons—ethical, practical, personal and professional—it’s still a subject area at the outermost margins of mainstream anthropology. Anthropologists who choose to study sexuality, writes Carole Vance of Columbia University, are often cornered into the world of sexology, itself “an intellectual ghetto of disciplinary refugees.” As a result, enormous gaps in our knowledge remain, particularly with regard to sex in small foraging societies like the Aka. That we know so very little about sex in other cultures, however, hasn’t stopped many scientists from claiming that there are indisputable sexual universals on the basis of data collected from large Euro-American samples, such as the famous Kinsey findings.
“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.
Jesse Bering is the author of The Belief Instinct and Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (July 2012). He is a frequent contributor to Slate and writes the "Bering in Mind" column for scientificamerican.com. His next book will be on the curiously scandalous science of human sexuality. Follow him at www.jessebering.com, on Twitter @JesseBering, or try adding him on Facebook.