Two Zambian males were recently sentenced to a hefty 15 years in jail for committing a crime not against any person, but “against the order of nature”. Mr Daniel Foote, the American ambassador to Zambia expressed personal horror at the injustice. For this, he has received some battering from many online media keyboard warriors. But we shouldn’t lose track of the core issue. Two men have been thrown into jail for committing the “unnatural offence” of anal sex. Even if they had not been found guilty, their lives were virtually over socially. Being known or suspected to be gay can be but the beginning of a dominoes of rights violations and deprivations. If we are going to take people through a painful and dehumanising trial and serve them with an inhumane jail sentence of a quarter of their lives, we need to have exceptionally good reasons. Is going “against the order of nature” a good reason? In this article, I aim to show that this is a bad reason. However, we understand “against the order of nature” or “unnatural”, the argument that homosexuality is unnatural and thus immoral and, on that ground, must be criminalised, is doomed.
Below, I consider candidates for what our laws mean by ‘unnatural’.
No. 1: Our body organs have strict natural functions
Sexual organs are clearly designed in such a way that the female’s organs are to be penetrated by a male’s organs. We can tell this by looking. The vagina is ‘hollow’ and internal while the penis is solid and protruding; the vagina lubricates, the penis erects for penetration. The right thing to do is to use the organs in line with this natural design.
One problem with this is that for any other human parts, there is no such cast-in-stone mapping for organs’ anatomy or physiology and their function/s. The mouth’s job description may include chewing, kissing, but also lifting drums for public amusement as is done at the Agricultural Commercial Show. The nose may be used for expelling cigarette smoke or for drinking tea for those who can perform the feat. We rightly do not find these ‘unnatural’ acts immoral but simply strange or amusing. If someone asks you why you don’t drink tea through your nose, your response is like to be, “I can’t” or “I find it gross”. Fair enough. If you said instead, “It is immoral”, people will rightly think you don’t know the word ‘immoral’ or that something is wrong with you.
The general rule appears to be that people are free to innovate on what they use their organs for alone or jointly with others who consent. If this is the understanding of ‘unnatural’ used against homosexuality, we should condemn or punish anyone attempting to play a guitar using her mouth. If we find only sodomy immoral and other ‘unnatural’ acts moral or amoral, we are being arbitrary and inconsistent, which are moral and logical flaws.
This view of ‘unnaturalness’, furthermore, applies to sodomy generally, including consensual anal sex between a husband and his enjoying wife or girlfriend, and not to homosexuality as such. Won’t the jails be full and perhaps even some judges’ benches become empty? Secondly, the view prohibits oral sex between heterosexual couples as well since mouths are naturally not for going down there. Won’t the church pews be empty?
No.2: Sex is for making babies
‘Natural’ has also been understood as sex aimed at procreation. If this is the meaning of natural sex, pleasure derived from a man thrusting or a woman riding or gyrating plays merely an instrumental role for baby-manufacturing. Since sex between men cannot yield pregnancy or children, it is unnatural and should not be practiced. Saint Thomas Aquinas is the godfather of this view that continues to be very influential in ultra conservative Catholic circles. Some people advance this view through the rhetorical question whether Steve and Paul can sexually produce a child between them. Since they cannot conceive, their having sex with each other is unnatural and thus prohibited.
A response to this can be offered in the form of counterexamples. We can cite cases of sex we (Zambians) are okay with that do not stand a chance of producing children. Sex while using contraception immediately comes to mind. Many philosophers think pleasure is something worth seeking for its own sake. An orgasm is one source of the most intense pleasures. Even virgins know this. Why can’t we with fellow pleasure-seeking partners aim at that just, without being judged morally offside? It is very odd that satisfying a naturally occurring sexual desire is unnatural just because we avoid conceiving. Few Zambians will want to endorse this view of ‘unnaturalness’. I doubt this is what the judges are thinking about as they pronounce the harsh sentences.
No. 3: Feminine men is unnatural
Zambia is very patriarchal. A man’s natural role in sex is penetrator and not penetratee! In homosexuality (sodomy), a man allows himself to be penetrated as if he were a woman. A man is naturally masculine and it’s therefore a natural transgression to render himself effeminate by allowing another to penetrate him.
This view smacks of sexism found in Plato’s Laws or the Old Testament. In these works, or societies in which they were written, women were property, inferior creatures, second class citizens or simply non-citizens in their own countries. It is no wonder, a man being reduced to a woman was abomination. Unfortunately, 21st century Zambia isn’t doing so great. The false male-female binary still infects our thinking about sexuality despite queer theory rightly telling us these are not fixed reality but are fluid identities. The point is that being an effeminate man is a reality on the sexual or gender continuum and does not signal any unnaturalness, inferiority, or immorality. Some women are masculine morphologically and behaviourally as well, and some men feminine morphologically and psychologically. There is nothing morally wrong with being this way.
No. 4: Even animals don’t do it!
Some Zambians say, ‘Even male dogs don’t have sex with other male dogs’. According to this view, untamed nature provides us with ample evidence of what is natural, and it excludes homosexuality. Nonhuman animals, it is alleged, do not engage in same-sex romance or sex. Homosexuality is therefore a human deviant invention, a corruption from the natural norm.
Animals really don’t do it? They do! Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance gives ample evidence of homosexuality in animals. Robin Baker’s Sperm Wars, Jules Howard’s Sex on Earth, and Jonathan Balcombe’s Pleasurable Kingdom all attest to males of all types of adult animals in nature from mammals to amphibians engaging in same-sex kissing, mutual masturbation, oral and anal sex. When people tell lies to win an argument, you know their position.
I am not saying that because animals do it, therefore it’s okay for humans to do it, no! I’m just debunking a reason or premise some people ignorantly or dishonestly use to show that what homosexuals do is unnatural. Whether animals do something or not does not inform us morally on whether that thing is right or wrong. Whether an act is unnatural or natural does not determine whether it is right or wrong.
Some unnatural acts may be right morally, and some natural acts may be immoral. Take for example doggy style, a sexual position where a man humps from behind a woman while she’s on all fours in a dog-like fashion. We know those who found this style devilish or perverted and recommended the missionary (man atop a woman on her back) style were wrong. Whether it seems more naturally a dog’s or kangaroo’s sex position is irrelevant to whether humans should do it or not. Those who love this style can enjoy it with a clear conscience.
In summing up, I have argued that branding gay sex acts as unnatural rests on bogus ‘facts’ and twisted logic whichever of the four meanings one has in mind. The colonial law that sent our two Kapiri Mposhi brothers to jail after putting them through a dehumanising investigation and trial is based on a façade, a mere taboo devoid of evidence or logic. Over half a century ago, the British who bequeathed us the sodomy law, saw, through John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle, the folly of it. Fifty plus two years later, we still take glory in it. This will unfortunately likely remain so until lawmakers are no longer prosperity pastors but philosophers or thinkers who go only where the logic and evidence take them. It is a great shame and an injustice that in a country that is a cornucopia of injustice, as Mr Foote noted, spend resources on enforcing taboos and majority sexual tastes against a sexual minority. The law, and its enforcement, is a crime against the order of logic, love, and justice.
(The author teaches Ethics and Critical Thinking at the University of Zambia)