Sex and science usually steer clear of one another, and rightfully so. Most people don't want their sex clinical and most researchers don't want their science emotional. Yet lately the science of sex seems to have entered the public discourse in a big way. Olivia Judson (author of Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice To All Creation) blogs for the New York Times; and Bonk, a book about scientific research into the how's and why's of sex, is a best seller. So it follows that, starting last week, New York City's Museum of Sex would play host to the new Sex Lives of Animals exhibit.
The new exhibit, which takes its cues from Stanford evolutionary biology Joan Roughgarden, argues that sex and sexuality in the animal kingdom are far more diverse than biology class has let on. Bisexual deer, porn-loving pandas and even a gay, necrophiliac mallard, are just some examples the exhibit cites as proof of a natural world where non-reproductive sex acts are as common as copulation for the sake of procreation.
While some of material in the exhibit is fairly graphic (one sculpture shows two dolphins engaging in a form of congress impossible for animals without a blowhole) it is approached in the dry and detached tone of science. This attitude may be the key behind the recent success of approaching sex from a technical direction. Looking at it through the lens of science appears to dampen the obscenity factor. The fig leaf provided by science allows for a conversation about acts that could not otherwise be discussed in a public forum where an exposed breast during the Super Bowl leads to years of litigation.
And those acts need to be discussed to have an accurate understanding of biology. The exhibit continuously states that non-reproductive sex acts form the foundation of many vertebrate social structures. Without those social groups, the animals would perish. In that way, behavior that does not result in mating, and thus would otherwise be considered "evolutionarily useless", proves its worth by increasing the survivability of the various members of the group by strengthening cohesion and diffusing tension. That argument about evolution underlies one of the two implicit messages of the exhibit.