Unless you opened this newspaper directly to this column without glancing at the cover (has anyone ever done that?), you're aware that this is the "sex issue"—that is, a publication momentarily preoccupied with sex, not some inky, soy-based fluid excreted during an act of journalistic depravity. When I counted the weeks and discovered that I would have both the privilege and the burden of writing for this issue, I rejoiced (sex being one of my favorite subjects) and then panicked (sex being a difficult thing to write about without descending into adolescent nonhumor or numbingly dispassionate clinical analysis).
We've got a long way to go, but we're light years beyond the days when J.H. Kellogg—yeah, the freaky cereal guy—instructed parents to suture their sons' foreskins closed and pour pure carbolic acid on their daughters' clitorises in order to eradicate the evil of recidivist masturbation.
Sex took a great leap forward in the 1970s when the Federation of Feminist Women's Health Centers rediscovered—and then redefined, remapped and reclaimed—the clitoris. As Rebecca Chalker recounted in The Clitoral Truth, Sigmund Freud and a host of other people with penises had killed and buried the clitoris in years past.
Miraculously, people who actually have a clitoris resurrected it, in all of its physiological glory. (Or maybe the miracle was that people with penises finally accepted the obvious.) Eighteen distinct physiological structures! More than 6,000 sensory nerve endings! Capable of great feats of elasticity and excretion! (Look it up.) And all of it serves the singular purpose of sexual pleasure. Now that's intelligent design.
Even in the deepest darkness of centuries past, some knew of such secrets. Reay Tannahill's 1980 opus Sex in History cataloged a long litany of sexual horrors wrought by ignorance, shame, guilt, foolishness and—let's face it—religion of all stripes. But her fascinating text also noted moments of dramatic discovery and profound enlightenment. For every spiked collar that warded off nocturnal emissions by "warning of imminent erection" (spikes inward—yikes!), there was an obscure yet heroic midwife who not only understood human genitalia, but also advocated for its proper care and use.
And now we've arrived at a historic moment when we can invite Tucsonans to work out their kinks 150 words at a time in our erotic fiction contest and publish their decadence for all to see.
Lest we humans feel too badly for past prudishness or current carnality, we need only consult Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, Olivia Judson's clever compendium of animal sexual behavior and its evolutionary implications. Suffice it to say that our four-legged, feathered, reptilian, single-celled or exoskeletoned sisters and brothers have a crazy-kinky rainbow groove that makes us seem milquetoast by comparison.
Animals engage in behaviors approximating bondage, orgies, adultery, oral and anal sex, cross-dressing, hand jobs, foot jobs, skull fucking, use of sex toys, celibacy and Darwin knows what else. On the darker side, there's rape, gang rape, date rape (complete with various druglike excretions that render the partner defenseless), incest, murder, cannibalism—you name it. In fact, the one thing that's truly rare in the animal kingdom is plain old monogamy, which Dr. Tatiana calls "one of the most deviant behaviors in biology."
Animal penises have spikes, knobs, bristles, hooks, horns and spines. Some are inflatable, some are detachable, and some produce musical sounds. Many reptiles have two penises. (OK, I'm envious.) Like most birds, the male red-billed buffalo weaver does not have a penis, but he does have a rather impressive fake that he rubs on the female's genitalia for half an hour before he ejaculates. Dr. Ruth would be proud.
One species of marine flatworm engages in "penis fencing," a bizarre ritual that consists of a duel with erect penises extended, each attempting to pierce the other for the privilege of delivering sperm. Sounds like a Republican debate.
And who can forget the epic sexuality of hermaphroditic snails, memorialized in the film Microcosmos a few years back? A writhing, slippery, gender-flexible embrace set to the swelling strains of Puccini—sign me up for that.
Why all the weirdness? Dr. Tatiana explains most of it with wonky analysis of evolutionary advantages. But what of "gay" penguins? Or "lesbian" bonobos that regularly lick each other to orgasm? Some behaviors seem to have no other purpose than pleasure and personal fulfillment, even in the animal kingdom.
Anyway you look at sex—whether it's fencing flatworms or the beast with two backs—it's all about diversity, and that's almost always a good thing in my book.