The sex lives of animals

A new exhibit in New York reveals that creatures in the wild do a lot more than what you see on the Discovery Channel.

Published June 17, 2008 2:40PM (EDT)

The curators at the Museum of Sex in New York have got their jobs cut out for them -- they need to create museum exhibitions about sex that are graphic enough to be interesting, but intellectual enough not to be mistaken for the offerings at the local adult video store. Good news for MoSex patrons: Those kinky devils are at it again. We just got a press release about an upcoming exhibition -- "The Sex Lives of Animals" -- that made me think that if I ever get tired of freelancing, I should apply for a job in the museum's P.R. department. Unfortunately, I can't find the version we received online (the only one listed is decidedly tamer), so I'll just quote you the first paragraph for flavor:

"A male bonobo shrewdly soliciting sex in exchange for sugar cane. Two female bonobos blissfully engaged in genital-to-genital rubbing. A male and a female white-tailed deer in the middle of having sex only to have a second male eagerly join them for a threesome. The strenuous coupling of endangered Panda bears. This summer, visitors to the Museum of Sex will encounter these creatures and others so vivid in their portrayal that they will likely feel as though they have unwittingly begun a voyeuristic journey into the wild."

This, my friends, is no "Kung Fu Panda."

The exhibit, which opens July 24 and marks MoSex's "first foray into the exploration of animal sexuality," will feature still photography, video and life-size models of bonobos bonking (among other creations by Norwegian sculptor Rune Olsen). But there's actually a serious point to all this feral fornication: to expose humans to the idea that a) we're not the only species that has sex for nonreproductive reasons, and b) we are mistaken in our assumption that heterosexuality is the only "natural" form of sexuality. As the appropriately named Joan Roughgarden, a Stanford University evolutionary biologist who is the exhibit's primary advisor, puts it:

"Nature shows, magazines and museums in the U.S. have not revealed the true diversity of gender expression in nature, fearing the public is not ready, and worrying about boycotts or protests ... As a result, nature has been misrepresented, allowing the public to think that heterosexual sex roles are universal throughout nature when they aren't."

What? Us not ready? It's not like we stage protests or fire teachers for taking their students to art museums where they might see ancient marble carvings of human bodies that happen to show their genitalia ... wait a second.

I doubt that photographs of pandas watching porn will revolutionize the way American society as a whole thinks about sexuality (the museum, after all, is in Manhattan). But if it's true that Animal Planet isn't providing us with fair and balanced coverage of the natural world, then I say, bring on the pandas. At very least, the exhibit could prompt some interesting conversations -- and make for a great museum date.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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