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Animal sexuality may not be as binary as we're led to believe, according to new book


At its worst, a nonfiction science book about animal sexuality could read like a dry biology textbook. But that's not the kind of book Eliot Schrefer wrote. His book, called "Queer Ducks (And Other Animals): The Natural World Of Animal Sexuality," is designed to be teenager-friendly, for one thing. It's a young adult book filled with comics and humor and accessible science, and it's filled with research on the diversity of sexual behavior in the animal world. Eliot Schrefer is with us to explain more. Welcome, Eliot.

ELIOT SCHREFER: Hi. I'm really happy to be here.

PFEIFFER: We're glad to have you. I really liked the way you structured your book. It's basically an animal per chapter, in a way. But you also have these wonderful illustrations. You have interviews with scientists. Tell us a little bit about how you decided to make it accessible because, again, you're aiming for adolescents, as I understand it, in a nonfiction way, and they might be inclined to think nonfiction equals boring, dry textbook.

SCHREFER: Right. I sort of imagine, like, we're kind of sitting in the science classroom, passing notes back and forth, and it even comes down to the doodles. There's an artist, Jules Zuckerberg, who did a one-page comic for each of the animal species that we discuss. So it's - the premise is that it's an animal GSA.

PFEIFFER: A gender sexuality alliance meeting.

SCHREFER: That's right. And so they're each taking a turn introducing themselves. And so the bonobo takes a turn introducing how her family works, and then the doodlebug and the dolphin and so on.

PFEIFFER: Yeah, they're really great. They make the book really accessible. As we said, every chapter basically tackles an animal and something about the sexuality of that animal. Do you have a favorite or one of your favorites that you could tell us about?

SCHREFER: Sure. Well, the hard part starting to write this book was figuring out which animals to focus on. The bonobos are famously promiscuous, and the majority of their sexual activity is between females. So I knew they had to be in there, is an early chapter.

PFEIFFER: What's funny - well, what's interesting about these animals are they - as you said, they're very promiscuous. I mean, there's almost this orgy-like way about how they behave sometimes.

SCHREFER: Yes, and what was so interesting in the early studies about bonobos - they're really fairly new to science. We used to call them pygmy chimpanzees and just thought they were small chimps and that was it. And it wasn't until the '90s and the 2000s that we started really studying them. And sex, in particular same-sex sexual activity in bonobos, is a way to avoid conflict and to smooth over feelings after a conflict.

There was a really fascinating study where they gave honey, which is a really desirable food source, to a group of bonobos and to a group of chimpanzees and saw how they reacted differently. And chimpanzees, the strongest males grabbed the food source and handed it out to their allies. And then in the bonobos, they all circled the honey, and none of them touched it. And they all got very, very anxious about how this food was going to be split up. And then rather than starting eating, they started an orgy. They just all started having sex. And this is between males and males, males and females and females and females. And then once they were blissed out and calm, that's when they started to eat this food. And chimps and bonobos are tied as our closest relative, so it's a great metaphor for the two ways that we can also look at human nature.

PFEIFFER: There's also a chapter that I found interesting about bulls. And a lot of bulls are used for breeding. They're used to inseminate females. And sometimes, the bulls have to kind of get in the mood. The handlers help them get in the mood. And what's interesting is they often bring in other males to do that, and it's effective. And I thought that was very interesting. Tell us why you chose that example.

SCHREFER: Bovids are - have one of the largest percentages of same-sex sexual behavior within their populations. And it's long been the ace card in the hand of cattle breeders to bring out a steer to get a bull excited in order to perform sexually. And in fact, there was one of the foremost sheep researchers, Valerius Geist, who studied bighorn sheep in the 1960s - he was in the wild observing these bighorns and saw that they basically live in entirely homosexual society until the age of 6 or 7. The males are off by themselves having frequent intercourse. And he didn't publish on it. He wrote about this in his memoir years later because he couldn't tolerate the idea that these - what he - quote, "magnificent beasts were queers." And so he resisted publishing on that.

PFEIFFER: We mention that the book includes interviews you've done with scientists, these little question and answer exchanges. I really like those. They not only added to the science of the book, but it was interesting that these types of professionals exist. Could you tell us about one that you think is most noteworthy?

SCHREFER: Sure. I wanted to expand kids' impression of who gets to do science, with gets in quotes there - that it's not just old guys in white coats, right? There's an upswell of young scientists who are doing some wonderful work around queer behavior and queer identities in animals.

So one person I spoke to was an ecologist who has transitioned genders, has - is still actively figuring out their place within the broader world and looked forward so much to the days when they could be just with their binoculars in the fields, mud up to their ankles, just staring at moose because at that moment, all these - the complicated navigation of all these identities just dropped away, and they were just part of nature. Like, they didn't have to explain themselves to the animals, and the animals had no concept of judging or shaming anyone for the choices that they were making around their gender identity. And I found that so moving that there is some - there's a peace to be found and a simplicity and an acceptance, a radical acceptance within nature.

PFEIFFER: Eliot, you've written in your book that you are well aware - these are your words - well aware that this book is bound to be controversial. But on the other hand, you also seem to be trying to assure young people out there that this is not controversial at all. It's actually quite common in the animal world. Is that part of the message you're trying to send?

SCHREFER: Yeah. I think there's - you know, some people will say, well, there's all sorts of things that animals do that humans oughtn't to be doing - right? - that we shouldn't cannibalize our partners after we have sex with them, that we shouldn't be living on webs out in the wild, and that we can't just cherry-pick which animal examples we choose to use. But that's really getting the argument of the book backwards. I'm not trying to argue for human behaviors from certain - the ways that animals can behave. Instead, I'm trying to say that we can no longer argue that humans are alone in their queerness or in their LGBTQ identities - that instead, we are part of a millions of year tradition within the animal world of a varieties of approaches to sex and a ton of advantages that come around from it.

PFEIFFER: Eliot, you've written and you've said that you wished you had known this when you were younger. If you had known it, how do you think it would have changed how you felt about yourself?

SCHREFER: I think there's a loneliness to human queerness, that there is this idea that it is something that happened recently to this species and that we are alone in it, and that queer people can find each other and find community with each other, and that that is the goal that they can - they should hope for when we are heavily integrated into the natural world. And that is the part of the message that I think is lost, and that LGBTQ behaviors and identities are absolutely natural.

PFEIFFER: That's Eliot Schrefer. His new book is "Queer Ducks (And Other Animals)." Eliot, thank you.

SCHREFER: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
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