Queer Ducks (and Other Animals): The Natural World of Animal Sexuality by Eliot Schrefer

Review by Walter Cummins

Eliot Schrefer’s Queer Ducks is a revolutionary book, one that upends longstanding assumptions about the nature and purpose of sex in the animal kingdom, with implications for rethinking what human beings should and shouldn’t be doing when it comes to mating. The book compiles the findings of dozens of scientific studies to reveal what “goldfish in the privacy of bowls” are up to, along with the many other creatures in what turns out to be Cole Porter’s prophetic 1928 song, “Let’s Do It.” If not specifically goldfish, Schrefer reports on the sexual activities of dolphins, bonobos, penguins, sheep, snails, and even fruit flies and doodle bugs, along with many other beings large and minute. It turns out that the sex is polymorphous and hardly limited to heterosexual couplings. In fact, for many species same-sex doings dominate. Bisexuality is “the essential norm throughout the tree of life.”

Despite the supporting data, these observations are sure to upset and outrage large numbers of Americans, especially in places enacting laws to limit or even ban discussion of alternative sexual practices in schools and suppress books that dramatize these possibilities. It’s quite likely that Queer Ducks is or soon will be one of the banned books. In fact, it may be considered more dangerous because of the solid evidence behind its conclusions.

Yet such evidence was long in being made public. Even scientists suppressed publishing their observations of animal sexual behavior to avoid stirring up reactions from homophobics. Researchers ignored what they saw and knew. Eventually, however, as indicated by this book’s many pages citing authenticated sources, the news was revealed. Now, “the number of species with confirmed substantial queer behaviors, published in well-regarded scientific journals, is 1,500 and growing.” The creatures are out of the closet.

The book frankly contradicts two basic theological givens for many in our society—that natural sex is limited to a male and female couple and, according to some, only when sanctified by holy wedlock, and that sex has a single purpose—procreation for the survival of the species. The consequences of these beliefs condemn sex that isn’t heterosexual as unnatural and sex that isn’t conducted to produce offspring as sinful.

But what are we to do about these givens when Queer Ducks demonstrates the staggering amount of sex between creatures of the same sex throughout the animal kingdom—from the creatures closest in DNA to humans, bonobos, to tiny flying bugs with a lifespan of only two weeks? Such same-sex matings can’t possibly result in offspring. Then what is it for? As Schrefer emphasizes throughout the book, they do it for pleasure with the release of oxytocin. To revise Cole Porter, instead of “Let’s do it, let’s fall it love,” it would be, “Let’s do it, let’s make each other feel good.”

Despite the science behind the book, Schrefer’s presentation is hardly dry. In fact, it’s almost as if he has anticipated all those “don’t say gay” objectors and is in their face with his aggressive prose. The very title, Queer Ducks, sets a tone. The term comes from a gay cartoon character, but Schrefer’s appropriation of the term queer becomes a transformation of what started as an insult of homosexuals into a statement of defiance.

Here’s a sample of his graphic writing:

Sheep courting one another, whether the combination is heterosexual, or homosexual have all sorts of sexy moves. They’ll twist their head and flick their tongue with a “come hither” look. They’ll take a lick of each other’s urine. They’ll kick their foreleg into each other’s crotch . . . which I guess must feel good? The process is the same, whether it’s two ewes or two rams or hetero courtship.

The book offers frequent cartoon illustrations by Jules Zuckerberg that are often even more graphic than the prose in their playfulness, suggesting that the book deserves an amused response, nothing to get all hung up about.

Schrefer, in an early chapter, explains that he is gay and how at age eleven he found himself attracted to males in underwear ads. That made him feel strange and confused, as if there were something wrong about him and that he should be ashamed. As an adult he certainly overcame such doubts and has been twice a finalist for the National Book Award for young adult fiction as well as being married to a husband. He already knows he is not abnormal, but his extensive research for Queer Ducks and the resulting book is a message to thousands of other young people that they are merely human variations, normal like millions of creatures throughout nature. “If queerness is wrong,” Schrefer concludes, “then you’d better be willing to say that the entire animal kingdom is wrong.”