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Regarding the Complexity of Sexual Identity . . .


Are you sexually normal? Am I? I’m no longer sure–about me, I mean.

This state of sexual confusion has set in after seeing the movie “The Danish Girl” starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. It was inspired by the lives of Danish artists Einar and Gerda Wagener. Einar was one of the first individuals known to undergo sex-reassignment surgery, and he became Lili Elbe. It’s one of those movies that you think a lot about afterward, and it brings up the question: What, exactly, is normal sexuality?

Lili Elbe, 1926

Lili Elbe, 1926

Eddie Redmayne’s transformation is a stunning theatrical achievement, and a very courageous one. The scene that comes to mind is the one in which he disrobes in front of a mirror and rearranges himself to study his image–lovely, pale, slender body with manhood tucked away. The actor has a certain beauty in general, including extraordinary eyes that seem to glitter with the power of an alchemist.

As I continued to watch, though, I got a little impatient with all the vignettes tracking his transformation. It’s a solid, two-hour movie, and I thought it could easily have dropped about 15 minutes. Maybe somebody got visually enchanted with Redmayne, but I was responding kind of like, “OK. I got the picture. Let’s get on with the story.”

And the backwash later was that the feminine image created–the fluttering eyelashes, the flirtatious winsomeness, the fascination with fashion–seemed almost a caricature. Einar/Lili’s wife, beautifully played by Alicia Vikander, seemed more authentic in the way that her nurturing love for her morphing husband was balanced by ambition and competence. She was certainly unusual for her time. Abnormal, maybe? But what’s normal?

In this regard, I have a little anecdote to share. At a dinner party last summer, another guest told about her experience of going home from cocktails with a man who turned out to be “in transition,” so to speak. Her interest piqued after their night together (I think he stayed in his shorts), she discovered a site on Facebook that listed 26 different sex types. A few minutes ago, I tried to locate that site and couldn’t. Instead, I found another that lists 80 different forms of sexual expression. At first glance, I think I may be “Gender-Normative.”

It is late to get concerned, but does this mean that I have been sexually boring all my life? And if there are 79 other categories, does this make normal “ab-” so to speak? This is indeed a bit confusing.

After all, sexuality on this planet is evidence of a degree of creativity that the human species has long refused to acknowledge, or–before the natural sciences were developed–knew much about.  I discovered this back in 2002 when I read Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation by Olivia Hudson.

Lest you think me a little odd, I must explain that the author and I share bachelor’s degrees from Stanford, which was promoting the book. She went on to get a PhD from Oxford in evolutionary biology. Her information is presented as a therapist (Dr. Tatiana) responding to inquiries from creatures concerned about sexuality, and the humor is totally appropriate. Nature’s way seems extremely weird at times.

For example:

1) A European praying mantis writes in about enjoying sex more when she bites her lover’s head off first because he goes into “the most thrilling spasms.” Dr. Tatiana explains that females in more than 80 species have been caught eating their lovers at some point during sex. There is a variety of explanations including the need for nutrition. However, in the case of the praying mantis, keeping his head may inhibit the male’s sexual behavior, the point of which is, of course, to breed. Dr. Tatiana points out that there is a similarity among humans: “throttle a man and like as not he’ll get an erection, not from erotic pleasure in dying but because ‘Down, boy’ signals from the brain stop coming.” I have occasionally felt the throttle urge, but it never led to this discovery.

2) A moorhen named Jerome is concerned about the way the hens attack each other whenever he’s around. Dr. Tatiana responds that he must be “ravishingly rotund.” In moorhen culture during breeding season, mostly the males sit on the nest to keep the eggs warm, and the girls will fight for the fattest guy, who is also probably the smallest because they fatten up faster. Fancy that, wanting a tiny fat guy. The human feminine mind reels.

3) A female manatee has a son who goes around kissing other males in the Florida Keys. She doesn’t want a “homo” son. What should she do? Dr. Tatiana calms her by explaining that homosexual activity is common in many kinds of animals. Among primates, she mentions bonobos, stump-tailed macaques, baboons, and chimpanzees. But get this. The adorable male Adélie penguin has been observed being coquettish to solicit sex from other males. And further–the male, bottle-nosed dolphin is known to copulate with turtles, sharks, and eels–and each other.  Has anyone told Walt Disney? Anyway, Dr. Tatiana’s message to the mother manatee seems to be “Get over it. Not a problem.”

Spotted Hyena

Spotted Hyena

Obviously, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Among other things, I learned that monogamy in nature is rare, “So rare that it is one of the most deviant behaviors in biology.” Did you know that the genitals of the male honeybee explode when he mates with the queen bee, hoping that she won’t be able to mate with another? Or how about the fact that lionesses in heat need to copulate hundreds of times over about three days before they can get pregnant? Or that the female spotted hyena has a phallus and is significantly bigger than the male? A fearsome predator, as Olivia Judson puts it, a spotted hyena can eat a gazelle fawn of over five pounds, bones and all, in two minutes. A dominant female runs the pack, and mating proceeds only by feminine invitation. Maybe that phallus along with the bulk and huge jaws establish a kind of order that goes like this: “When I say ‘No’ I mean ‘No.'”

I could go on, but perhaps you would like to buy the book. As I read it the first time, I was amazed at the extraordinary range of ways species have devised to survive and procreate. They aren’t always “nice,” I guess you would say, and one sometimes tends to go into an “Ick” judgment. I can imagine certain individuals requesting a sit-down with God to register a complaint: “This is totally unacceptable.”

There are limits to the sexual innovation we currently accept in what passes for civilization. However, Dr. Tatiana makes a closing statement that seems to pertain: “I hope that having seen the prodigious variety of sexual practices out there, you’ll be more tolerant of the predilections of others.” And she has made another thing very, very clear. If the human species can figure out how to ensure our own survival and enhanced–let us hope–evolution, then great. If we can’t, there is no doubt whatsoever that creativity will endure on this planet.

2 Responses to “Regarding the Complexity of Sexual Identity . . .”

  1. Jan Neugebauer Harris

    I had fallen behind on my reading of your blogs. This morning I awoke feeling a need to find some wisdom. Of course, I went straight to celeryellen.com for inspiration. I was not disappointed! I especially enjoyed the pieces on Islam. Those were chocked full of things I didn’t know and pointed out some of my own misconceptions. The latest one, re:sexual identity, I found fascinating enough that I’d like to read the book to which you refer. I remembered the piece about the puppy and the swans but enjoyed it again…that is probably one of my most favorite. Thanks for saving my day…actually, residual reminisces will inspire to think more deeply about my feelings and positions for days to come. You are an inspiration.

  2. Les Fenter

    “Abnormal, maybe? But what’s normal?” My granddaughters had a tendency to use the word, “normal” when discussing food, clothing, behaviors. Fortunately their dad, mom and THEY still engaged in discussion with papa. That word should rarely be applied in anything but mathematics and subsequently statistics. There it has a specific definition — the sum of the numbers divided by the number of numbers. 🙂 So to say the average American male is 5’9″. Is ok. But as you briefly mention, the average penis size doesn’t tell a woman what she’s in for. Nor does the average man’s behavior. (Does this go both ways? — oops, not for a “Gender-normative” person!). Now about “sexually boring”. Hmmm, cannot and better not address that one. Have a great 2016.