FEATURE

The Nature of Sex:
What wildlife teaches us about reproduction, gender, and pleasure

By Scarlett Li-Williams

Imagine looking at the full moon over the sea on a warm, early-October night.  A moonlit, starry sky over a vast and still ocean with no land in sight. The waves moving with the tide ever-so gently, and the reflection of the moon’s white light just quietly glistering off the surface of the water. The ocean is all that can be seen far and wide, but now, looking down into the water’s depths, a faint tint of orange is suddenly visible. Like a cloud underwater, the foggy orange mist seems to grow with swirls of amber, gold, and faint glimpses of pink and yellow. It rises and spreads, drifting elegantly in the currents.  To witness this romantic and enchanting sight is to specifically see coral sperm and eggs fill the oceans around Australia.

The natural, biological world is commonly examined by philosophers and scientists exploring what the meaning of life could be, through investigating universal features.  Observing all forms of life on this earth, including bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals, reveals the aspect that unites them all - their dedication to survival and reproduction.  The importance of reproduction is based on the need to produce new generations for the continuation of a species.

 

  Corals of Heron Island   Illustrated by Scarlett Li-Williams

Corals of Heron Island
Illustrated by Scarlett Li-Williams

So, is there anything more to life than reproduction?

An animal example that demonstrates life is only worth living for sex is the octopus, as they soon die after performing the act. On top of it being lethal, octopus sex is a rather dull and dreary activity for both females and males. The males have a specialised arm (called the hectocotylus), which contains their sperm and functions similarly to a penis. The male sticks the hectocotylus into the female octopus and they both sit on the sea bed, motionless, for around an hour. Despite having three hearts, octopuses need to prevent their heart rate from accelerating in order to preserve energy and oxygen, and therefore cannot afford to become excited.

 

After this thrilling mating event is over, it is all worth it -  the octopuses can look forward to a life of prolonged aging, forgetfulness and vulnerability (as they slowly lose their ability to camouflage) before dying. So, in addition to being a mundane activity, octopus sex is life-draining. Furthermore, it is common for females to starve to death whilst maintaining the fertilised eggs. A rather tragic love story.

The mayfly is another example of a life dedicated to reproduction. They live for a year or so as a nymph, an early, juvenile stage in which they are infertile and cannot reproduce. When they finally reach adulthood and attain sexual maturity, they usually only have 24 hours left to live. During this day, their sole purpose is to reproduce before they die. Therefore, adult mayflies do not eat, sleep, or drink – they simply focus on ensuring that their mission is completed. Nothing says romance like time pressure.

  Octopus   Illustrated by Scarlett Li-Williams

Octopus
Illustrated by Scarlett Li-Williams

However, there is a key difference between reproduction and sex.

Reproduction is the making of offspring, a new generation, but sex is not the only way living creatures can reproduce. Sex is only one of the many ways to continue a species. For example, bacteria and some fungi usually tear in half and split to form two identical new clones, a process known as “asexual reproduction”.  Some animals, such as coral and fish, release their eggs and sperm into the open water, in the hope that the egg and sperm come together to produce offspring in a process known as “spawning”.

Nature swarms with examples demonstrating that sex is not a simple equation of ‘male and female results in offspring’. It is anything but unusual to encounter homosexuality and hermaphroditism, both of which are methods of reproduction. For some animals, these methods are what they depend on for the survival of their species.

Hermaphroditism is a wonderfully adapted method of reproduction, and utilises the fluidity of the defined sexes. It is completely natural in multiple animal groups (such as reptiles and fish) for an individual to switch, pick, or disregard their sex. Typically, hermaphroditism occurs during mating, in raising offspring, or in response to isolation. For mating purposes, it allows flexibility in situations where one animal needs to take the role of producing eggs and another takes the role of producing sperm. There are various ways animals can decide which role is taken by whom, but this form of reproduction allows a greater chance of continuing the species. All clownfish, for example, are born with genitals that are non-functional. The largest fish undergoes a change to release eggs (known as the dominant female), while the second largest fish undergoes testis development to produce sperm. Furthermore, if the dominant female dies, the second largest fish will change again to produce eggs.

  Reptilian   Illustrated by Scarlett Li-Williams

Reptilian
Illustrated by Scarlett Li-Williams

Sometimes, however, males are just not needed. New Mexico whiptail lizards, also known by their common nickname ‘lesbian lizards’, are an all-female species. Despite all members of the species carrying eggs and having no male genitalia, these females still engage in mating behaviour with each other. Rubbing their bodies against each other provides stimulation and releases chemicals whilst they are ovulating, which results in the production of offspring. In addition to the all-female method, a New Mexico whiptail can also be born through heterosexual sex, between a male Western Whiptail lizard and female Little Striped Whiptail, or vice versa. Therefore, whether it is between a male and a female whiptail lizard or between two females, the species continues.

Sex is not necessarily solely about reproduction.

It is a reasonable and rational to assume, from a biological perspective, that other animals enjoy sexual acts. Sexual pleasure increases both the duration and frequency of sex, thus leading to a greater chance of successful reproduction.  Sex, therefore, is universally known to be pleasurable. Oral sex is not only exclusive to humans either. In fact, many other mammals including bats, bears, and primates appear to perform similar stimulating acts.

 

Bonobos are apes that are widely known to engage in frequent sex, even while it is impossible for the female to get pregnant. This includes females engaging in sex when already pregnant! Bonobos engage in sex just for pleasure, for fun, or even as a pastime activity. A renowned Japanese primatologist called Takayoshi Kano recorded, whilst studying bonobos, that sexual pleasure was not exclusive to male and female partnerships. Kano documented “Genito-genital rubbing” between females, and that two females would hold each other “and begin to rub… (probably clitoris) rhythmically and rapidly” (Kano 1980)[1]. During the same year, a scientific paper published in the research journal Science evidenced that female stump-tailed macaques are able to experience sexual climax and orgasms as human females do. [2]

Bonobos are apes that are widely known to engage in frequent sex, even while it is impossible for the female to get pregnant. This includes females engaging in sex when already pregnant! Bonobos engage in sex just for pleasure, for fun, or even as a pastime activity. A renowned Japanese primatologist called Takayoshi Kano recorded, whilst studying bonobos, that sexual pleasure was not exclusive to male and female partnerships. Kano documented “Genito-genital rubbing” between females, and that two females would hold each other “and begin to rub… (probably clitoris) rhythmically and rapidly” (Kano 1980)1. During the same year, a scientific paper published in the research journal Science evidenced that female stump-tailed macaques are able to experience sexual climax and orgasms as human females do2.

  Bonobo   Illustrated by Scarlett Li-Williams

Bonobo
Illustrated by Scarlett Li-Williams

Female lions, to give another example, have sex an unnecessary 2-3 times an hour every day during the ovulation period.   It is therefore not unusual for a female to have sex 40 times a day.  If the male of the pride is not up to that much demand, female lions are also known to go elsewhere and court with another male of a different pride if she is unsatisfied with her male.

The natural world is a surprisingly sensual one, filled with a different sort of methodology and practice. It shows that reproduction may not be the only reason for sex and it is an eye-opener to what we consider to be “natural” or “unnatural”.


  1. Kano, T 1980, ‘Social behavior of wild pygmy chimpanzees (Pan paniscus) of Wamba: A Preliminary report’, Journal of Human Evolution, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 243-254, DOI: 10.1016/0047-2484(80)90053-6.
  2. Goldfoot, D., Groeneveld, W., Slob, A and Westerborg-van Loon, H 1980, ‘Behavioral and physiological evidence of sexual climax in the female stump-tailed macaque (Macaca arctoides)’, Science, vol. 208, no. 4451, pp. 1477-1479, DOI: 10.1126/science.7384791.