If there is one thing I’ve learned writing about sex for the past several years, it’s that human sexuality is really wacky. We’re a sexually violent species, and for all our alleged intelligence, we’re excellently bad at talking about and physically expressing our sexual selves, save for a growing subculture of open-minded individuals.
Recently, I stumbled upon a treasure trove of research into bonobos, our closest living relative. I’ve always been one to see the value of looking at humanity via the lens of other fauna and flora, and bonobos are definitely an inspiring lens.
According to an article from last year in The Dodo, bonobos are empathetic creatures, supporting one another in times of distress. What’s more, they avoid hosts of violent behavior via diverting energy toward sex. The apes frequently engage in sexual activities, whether they be heterosexual, homosexual, or orgy-style in nature. Also, females run the show, which sounds pretty chill after observing rampant masculinity in human society.
An article in Psychology Today detailing findings from Christopher Ryan – you may know the “shame exorcist” of Sex at Dawn fame – suggests that a whole lot more sex leads to less violence, especially when feelings of jealousy are more or less selected out of bonobo society. Also, bonobos aren’t all about the end result of sex; it’s more that their general interactions may have traces of sexiness in them, keeping the population peaceful. Again, the female’s being in the leadership position is indicated – if any male acts out of line, the females band together to teach this male a lesson.
Another article, this one appearing in the Pacific Standard, mentions that bonobo promiscuity wasn’t studied quite enough before a certain point. Chimpanzees, although slightly less genetically related to humans, are more akin to our violent societal model, meaning they got more attention. Once you get into bonobo society, though, it’s pretty evident that humans are doing something terribly backwards, and inefficient to boot. Animals unafraid to pleasure one another is a more cooperative model. The bonobo lifestyle seems a cure for our own disjointed, poorly executed methodology of dealing with sexuality.
Reading the work of Frans B. M. de Waal, a Dutch ethologist and primatologist, namely his essay “Bonobo Sex and Society,” it’s pretty clear how empowering the bonobo lifestyle should be to the observer. Bonobos are very quick to reconcile a conflict with a varied array of different sexual activities, such as genital rubbings, and with any number of partner fusions. There’s also a connection between sex and food time, where bonobos will engage in sexual play when the excitement of a meal occurs. It’s a beautiful thing. And it’s not that bonobos are spending every waking minute enjoying each other’s nether regions; it’s periodic and fast, but relaxed, just a part of the daily routine, not a rare cherry on top of a bitter existence sundae (read: most humans on earth).
This is all just the tip of the research iceberg. The articles cited here lead to many different resources regarding our friendly primate relative, including books by de Waal and others. There’s something to be said for digging a little into the cornucopia of research done on the sexuality of creatures that are not human beings, as it offers us the chance to reflect on all the wacky misadventures we have, and how sexual evolution doesn’t, in fact, reach its apex with our kind.
Bonobos, according to all this observation and research, give us a narrative of shameless and merry sexuality. It’s woven into the fabric of many other activities within the society, not a private affair to be executed within the confines of taboo. De Waal notes that there it helps serve the function of keeping the peace – the simplicity of that message is striking. Humans, upon considering bonobo society, don’t need to align all their sexual habits with that of the bonobo, but it’s worth taking the time to see how beneficial open sexual expression is amongst these mighty, chilled out apes.