It might illuminate some of our sexual discussions if we could recognize some distant connection with the way mushrooms do things. 

Mushroom Sex

These days I sometimes get sexually disoriented. Lingering menopause, maybe? I'd guess there's more to it than that. I feel I'm caught in a cross fire on our rapidly changing sexual landscape. In current events magazines I read that sexually transmitted diseases, including still-deadly HIV, are on the rise worldwide. I hear that in some parts of the United States, committed same-sex unions are beginning to get limited legal recognition. Some friends send me e-mails embracing and applauding this trend; others are persuaded it's the devil's own handiwork. Human cloning, I'm told, is by now a not-very-distant probability

While women in many societies clamor for increased gender equality, in Afghanistan, an exceedingly strict interpretation of Islamic law leads to cloistered, subservient or brutalized females. Our print and broadcast media are awash in discussions of how (or whether) to find a mate, feminism, anti-feminism, post-feminism, and the resurgence of "the traditional male." According to a 1999 survey of Internet use, sex sites are among the most popular categories accessed at workplaces, with users spending an average of more than 45 minutes a month viewing them. Every talk show host has an opinion he or she is eager to share about human sexual behavior, sexual deviance, sexual abuse, sexual harassment. It can certainly get confusing.

A few winters ago, between storms and sniffles, I found a new book about mushrooms at my local library. Ever since childhood, I've been intrigued by "toadstools" and other fungi. As an adult, I've learned a few rudiments of collecting, and this book, "In the Company of Mushrooms" by Elio Schaechter and published by Harvard University Press has great cover photos of statuesque boletes and gilled mushrooms in a verdant woods — a nice contrast to the bleak landscape outside.

The author introduces mushrooms to us as among the hardiest and longest-term organisms on the planet, having been around for as many as 300 million years. A recent fossil find in New Jersey included two 90-million-year-old mushrooms encased in amber. By the author's conservative estimate, there are currently at least two tons of fungal matter for every human on the planet.

In Chapter 2, Schaechter gets around to (shhhhhh!) mushroom sex. The author quotes the late John Cage, mushroomer as well as musician, as having been slightly inaccurate in his nomenclature, if well-founded in his sense of wonder: "There are around eighty types of (female) mushrooms and around one hundred and eighty types of (males) in one species alone." Schaechter then points out that, in the most versatile of mushroom species, there are as many as 21,000 possible combinations of mushroom "mating types" that can produce new mushrooms. Now, when I stalk the warmer-weather woods in search of a favorite edible, I can revel not only in what's on the surface. I can relish the knowledge that down there below the soil, there are millions of mushroom filaments putting out feelers for a mate, and that, for some, there are up to 20,999 viable potential candidates!

Stretching the analogy into social behavior (a possible alternative to the "social Darwinism" we've long been subjected to), I have begun to wonder if it would illuminate some of our sexual discussions if we could recognize in human sexuality some distant connection with the way mushrooms do things. In my life so far, I've had the experience of knowing both hetero- and homosexuals with a lifetime devotion to a single particular mate. I've also known relatives and friends of varying sexual orientations who never could quite settle down with one long-term partner, and who've gone to tremendous expense and pain questing for the perfect cohort. I've known people who struggled mightily to be able to produce biological offspring, and others who dropped babies about as easily as changing clothes. I've known "spinster" and "bachelor" teachers whose devotion to their students was more nurturing and generative than the behavior of most biological parents. I've marveled at creativity in music, art, media and sports by people of a wide range of sexual behaviors and orientations, from Tschaikowsky to Picasso, from Liz Taylor to Martina Navritalova. Attempts to sexually characterize people with whom I have more than a passing acquaintance do not fit readily into bipolar categories.

Our tendency to view human sexual patterns in "either/or" and "right/wrong" terms can lead to pernicious outcomes — eugenics experiments, hate crimes, suicides. Among the pieces of our identity that we anguish over and have difficulty with, sexuality is right up there near the top of the list. The history of human sexual repression is as long as the history of human sexuality itself, with some exceedingly dark chapters. Many of us still have difficulty not linking "different" with "dirty," "unacceptable," or even "criminal." Certainly there are areas of human sexuality that need to be off-limits, particularly the sexual exploitation of children. However, there is a broad range of healthy adult sexual experience. So let's remember the mushrooms — neither gay nor straight, neither pregnant nor childless, neither celibate nor promiscuous, neither male nor female, neither Christian Right nor secular left. They grow and prosper mainly in the dark, forming an underground network that's truly global. Their species are much more prevalent and more persistent than humans. And, although some have just two "mating types," many others have literally thousands of glorious possibilities for mixing it up.

Jinny Batterson is a free-lance writer and computer consultant who lives and works in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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