Animal Sexuality May Not Be As Binary As We Think, New Book Says: NPR


NPR’s Sacha Pfeiffer interviews Eliot Schrefer, author of Queer Ducks (And Other Animals): The Natural World of Animal Sexuality. It’s about how “natural sex” might not be as binary as some think.


At worst, a non-fiction science book on animal sexuality could read like a dry biology textbook. But that’s not the kind of book Eliot Schrefer wrote. His book, titled “Queer Ducks (And Other Animals): The Natural World Of Animal Sexuality,” is designed to be teen-friendly, for one thing. It’s a young adult book filled with comics, humor, and accessible science, and it’s filled with research into the diversity of sexual behaviors in the animal world. Eliot Schrefer is with us to tell more. Welcome Elliot.

ELIOT SCHREFER: Hello. I’m really happy to be here.

PFEIFFER: We are delighted to have you. I really liked the way you structured your book. It’s basically one animal per chapter, sort of. But you also have these wonderful illustrations. You have talks with scientists. Tell us a bit about how you decided to make it accessible because, again, you’re targeting teenagers, as I understand it, in a non-fiction way, and they might be inclined to think non-fiction equals to a boring, dry manual.

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

PFEIFFER: A gender sexuality alliance meeting.

SCHREFER: That’s true. And they each introduce themselves in turn. And so the bonobo presents in turn the functioning of his family, then the doodlebug and the dolphin and so on.

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

SCHREFER: Of course. Well, the hardest part of starting to write this book was figuring out which animals to focus on. Bonobos are renowned for their promiscuity and the majority of their sexual activity takes place between females. So I knew they had to be in there, it’s a first chapter.

PFEIFFER: What’s funny – well, what’s interesting about these animals is that they – like you said, they’re very promiscuous. I mean, there’s almost this orgy way to the way they behave sometimes.

SCHREFER: Yeah, and what was so interesting about the early studies of bonobos – they’re really quite new to science. We used to call them pygmy chimps and we just thought they were little chimps and that was it. And it was only in the 90s and 2000s that we really started to study them. And sex, especially same-sex sexual activity among bonobos, is a way to avoid conflict and ease post-conflict feelings.

There was a really fascinating study where they gave honey, which is a really desirable food source, to a group of bonobos and a group of chimpanzees and saw how they reacted differently. And the chimpanzees, the strongest males, grabbed the food source and distributed it to their allies. And then among the bonobos, they all surrounded the honey, and none of them touched it. And they all got very, very worried about how this food was going to be divided. And then rather than start eating, they started an orgy. They all just started having sex. And that’s between males and males, males and females and females and females. And then once they were blissful and calm, that’s when they started eating that food. And chimpanzees and bonobos are related as our closest relatives, so it’s a great metaphor for the two ways we can look at human nature equally.

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

SCHREFER: Bovids are – have one of the highest percentages of same-sex sexual behavior within their populations. And it’s long been the ace card in the hands of cattlemen to get a steer out to excite a bull to perform sexually. And in fact, there was one of the greatest sheep researchers, Valerius Geist, who studied bighorn sheep in the 1960s – he was out in the wild observing these bighorn sheep and saw that they lived essentially in an entirely homosexual society until the age of 6 or 7. The males are alone and have frequent sexual intercourse. And he didn’t post on it. He wrote about it in his memoirs years later because he couldn’t stand the idea that those – what he – quotes, “magnificent beasts were queers”. And so he resisted posting about it.

PFEIFFER: We mention that the book includes interviews that you did 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 existed. Could you name one that you think is the most remarkable?

SCHREFER: Of course. I wanted to broaden the children’s impression of who can do science, in quotes – that it’s not just old people in white coats, is it? There is an upsurge of young scientists doing wonderful work on queer behavior and queer identities in animals.

So one person I spoke to was a gender-changing environmentalist, still actively seeking his place in the world at large, and looking forward to the days when he could just be with his binoculars in the fields, from the mud up to their ankles, just staring at the moose because at that time, all of these–the convoluted navigation of all of these identities just disappeared, and they were just part of nature. Like, they didn’t have to explain themselves to the animals, and the animals had no idea judging or shaming anyone for the choices they made around their gender identity. And I found it so moving that there is – there is a peace to be found and a simplicity and an acceptance, a radical acceptance within nature.

PFEIFFER: Eliot, you wrote 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 that it’s 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: Yes. I think there’s – you know, some people will say, well, there’s all kinds of things that animals do that humans shouldn’t do – right? – that we shouldn’t cannibalize our partners after having sex with them, that we shouldn’t live on webs in the wild, and that we can’t just choose the examples of animals we choose to utilize. But that’s really taking the book’s argument upside down. I’m not trying to argue for human behaviors from some – the ways animals can behave. Instead, I’m trying to say that we can no longer assert that humans are alone in their homosexuality or in their LGBTQ identities – that instead, we are part of a tradition of millions of years in the animal world of a variety of approaches to sex and a ton of benefits that come with it.

PFEIFFER: Eliot, you wrote and said you wish you had known that when you were younger. If you had known, how do you think it would have changed the way you perceived yourself?

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

PFEIFFER: It’s Eliot Schrefer. His new book is “Queer Ducks (And Other Animals)”. Elliot, thank you.

SCHREFER: Thank you very much for inviting me.

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