Environment: The ecology of sex —Saleem H Ali
The rise in sexual dysfunction and increasing concerns about hormonal irregularities is now strongly believed to have environmental causes. As our consumption of materials becomes more complex, human societies will have to consider the potential for the impact of pollutants on some of our most personal behavioural processes
Pakistan’s morning talk shows have become quite adventurous in their coverage of global issues. The satellite TV channels are a welcome opportunity for expatriates like me to connect with conversations on the street.
Most recently, the talk of the town was a story about the American “man” who became pregnant. There were all kinds of bizarre questions being called in from Karachi to Kohat on how such a prospect was possible. Contortions of human anatomy were being propounded in some of the conversations and a gynaecologist first had to clarify to the audience that the pregnant father was actually a woman!
She had gone through hormone treatment and breast-removal surgery to give the appearance of a man with facial hair and other features but the rest of the anatomy was still female. Thus it was quite possible for this individual to father a child through artificial insemination, a practice which is frequently used by infertile couples.
Most of the callers to the talk-shows were quite repulsed by this situation and lamented how unnatural the world was becoming. Here was yet another incidence of American hubris to many of the callers — taubah taubah! However, many Americans were equally dismayed by this individual’s choice of going through the procedures to have a child. Medical professionals were concerned about the hormones that were being ingested by the parent, which could interfere with the baby’s natural development, and declined to support the procedure purely on scientific grounds.
What was ironic about this whole affair was that Pakistanis did not reflect much on the conflicting gender traditions that are often taken for granted within our society. The well-established institution of eunuchs (khwaja-sarah) during Mughal times was a means of providing communication between the segregated harems and the male leadership. The continuing presence of transvestites (khusras or hijrahs) in Pakistani cities is widely tolerated with a pinch of sympathy, some scorn and plenty of mockery. Perhaps more consequentially, the underlying sexual preferences that are engendered in these individuals are also tolerated within very conservative cultures such as the Pathans.
As an environmental researcher, what interests me more than the titillation of the narrative in the talk shows is the underlying ecological cause of hormonal imbalances. Both male and female humans are born with both gender hormones and can exhibit propensities in each direction but there is usually a dominance of one hormone over the other in each. In recent years, environmental toxicologists have discovered that there are certain pollutants which can also mimic human hormones and cause artificial hormonal imbalances in individuals. This class of compounds is called “endocrine disruptors”. and includes a wide range of organic molecules that were first brought to global attention in 1991 by Dr Theo Colburn of the Worldwide Fund for Nature.
The research conducted by Dr Colburn and her colleagues on wildlife impacts of certain plasticisers and pesticides was alarming. Hormonal imbalances were leading to impotence and physical abnormalities. A study of male alligators in Lake Apoka in Florida revealed that most of the sturdy reptiles could not mate because of stunted genitalia that were found to have been caused by endocrine disrupting activity of pollutants in the lake. Males were disproportionately impacted because most of the endocrine disruptors mimic the female hormone estrogen. Women consuming excessive estrogen can have biophysical side-effects as well but the phenotypic impact on males would be much more acute.
The thought of being struck by an “estrogen epidemic” alarmed the largely male Congress in the United States at the time. Lawmakers expeditiously prompted Congressional Hearings and the Environmental Protection Agency was instructed to regulate the emasculating chemicals. Perhaps this may be the only way to make Pakistani politicians pay more attention to pollution problems in Pakistan as well. The potent threat of pollution in changing male attributes of the macho feudal elite with their luxuriant moustaches will perhaps be more effective than all the street activism of our environmental groups.
Comic relief aside, the threat of endocrine disruptors in affecting the quality of life in developing countries all over the world deserves much more attention and is a very serious environmental challenge. Some of the chemicals that are involved in this pathology include widely used organic compounds such as Bisphenol-A which was even used to make plastic baby bottles. Other culprits include phthalates that are used ubiquitously in manufacturing cosmetics, air-fresheners and an assortment of plastic products.
Clearly, some hormone imbalances are natural and people are born with certain sexual proclivities. However, the rise in sexual dysfunction and increasing concerns about hormonal irregularities is now strongly believed to have environmental causes. As our consumption of materials becomes more complex, human societies will have to consider the potential for the impact of pollutants on some of our most personal behavioural processes.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Natural Resources and on the adjunct faculty of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. www.saleemali.org