Slug sex and the steam-o-sphere

HUMANKIND, as the internet makes so pumpingly clear, has an unholy obsession with sex. Drawn partly by ancient biological urges and partly by uncloseable XXX pop-up windows, our appetite for the salacious sights, sounds and smut-cams of the steam-o-sphere is insatiable.

This seems reasonable enough given the crucial role sex plays in keeping the human race, you know, so racy. But it doesn’t explain why we also have such an overwhelming obsession with the reproduction habits of other species.

Google the word sex and there, alongside the predictable plague of free porn sites on the first page of 713 million results, is a short video called Slug Sex narrated by that well-known international pornographer David Attenborough.

“When an individual is looking for a partner, it gives its trail of slime a special taste to advertise the fact,” Attenborough gushes as two lusty leopard slugs hook up for a slowie.

After providing a running commentary on the squelchy slug foreplay, Attenborough becomes almost as enthused as his hermaphroditic subjects when the big moment finally arrives.

“Suddenly, the pair start to slide downwards on a rope of mucous [and] each everts its male organ from just behind its head. Now, at last, sperm passes from one slug to other. The transfer is complete!”

Phwoar! I mean, hurrah! I mean, what a sober and completely untitillating educational experience.

Our fascination with the mucousy ropes and oddly situated penises of non-human intercourse is these days being serviced by a motherlode of eminently respectable books, docos and internet sites. Through these we can learn that redback spiders use their sex organs as pivots to somersault on to their partners’ fangs for an orgasmic cannibalisation. It’s toe-curling — and also genital-curling — stuff.

Then there’s the Hugh Hefner-ish existence of the male painted crayfish, which shacks up with as many sheilas as he can squish into his coral bachelor pad.

And let’s not forget:

* The pygmy chimpanzees or “jungle hippie”. (These philanderers pair off for a poke at the slightest hint of danger, stress or boredom.)

* The sexually suicidal blanket octopus. (Males are 100 times smaller than females, which means sex for dudes is of the kamikaze variety and requires the use of a licentious, arm-like marital aid.)

* Aquatic warblers. (Europe’s rarest songbirds are the most promiscuous and energetic lechers in the avian universe, with males indulging in orgies of up to 35 minutes compared with most birds’ embarrassing one or two seconds.)

While I can’t speak for the other 5.9 million people who have viewed the slug sex clip on YouTube, my interest in the ins and outs of animal romping has a lot to do with the challenges it poses to the notion that somewhere on earth is a little tag reading “Made by God”.

Well, how are upstanding Christians supposed to explain what the Big Guy was thinking when he created the deep-sea angler fish, a breed that revels in an outrageous trinity of vampirism, semen prostitution and snuff sex? The fun starts when the male latches on to the much larger female’s side and sucks her blood in exchange for sperm. Their flesh then permanently fuses, with some female deep-sea anglers swanning about with six-packs of suitors still attached. Call me heretical, but this sounds more like the work of a bored goth than an intelligent designer.

The idiosyncratic world of animal sex also flies in the face of stereotyped ideas about sexuality. A prime example is the female greater horseshoe bat, which routinely shares her male sexual partners with her mum, aunts and nanas.

High levels of gay or bisexual animal behaviour (male big-horn sheep bond through genital licking and anal intercourse) confound restricting notions of heteronormity while the owners of leg, cat and chicken-humping fox terriers could tell you plenty about the prevalence of inter-species sexual opportunism.

Maybe old-school scientists are right and carnal beasts such as Sharka — a rhino that recently attempted to impregnate a Renault Laguna at a British safari park — are just anomalous deviants that missed Darwin’s message about sexual selection.

Or maybe it’s time we came to terms with the fact that the natural order is actually unstoppably, exuberantly and exquisitely unnatural.

- originally published in The Australian on 04-12-2008.

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