Badpuppy Gay Today

Wednesday, 23 April 1997


Little-Known Erotic-Loving Species Isn't Hot-Tempered or Ill-Mannered

By Jack Nichols


It would be hard to find primate cousins more suitable as role models for humanity than are bonobos, sometimes known as pigmy chimpanzees. These little-known creatures, now being given close study by primatologists at Emory University, fly in the face of social Darwinian theory about domination and they call into question basic assumptions that have been peddled by such "scientific" popularlizers as Desmond Morris ("The Naked Ape"), Konrad Lorenz ("On Aggression") and Robert Ardrey ("The Territorial Imperative") who seem to have said that human aggression has its "natural" roots in less amiable kinds of ape behavior that blocks cooperative ventures.

Bonobos, though related to chimpanzees, stand straighter, have longer legs and a less burly upper body. With slender builds, they move more gracefully than their ape-world cousins. Females and males are, according to some observers, co-equal, though others note that bonobo society is peacefully run, for the most part, by females. Bonobo males do not seem to mind this arrangement inasmuch as they remain perpetually satisfied about sex, enjoying access not only to females but, happily, to other males as well. Females appreciate females also. The New York Times (April 22) has published a photograph of two young bonobo females rubbing their genitals together, a photo--which if the subjects were human--would be considered pornographic.

Except for their scattered presence in only a hundred American zoos, bonobos are found mainly in central Africa, and, in contrast to chimpanzees, live amorously and amicably in polysexual behavioral patterns. Natalie Angier, writing in the Times, says that bonobos "lubricate the gears of social harmony with sex, in all possible permutations and combinations: males with females, males with males, females with females," and their sexual acts include "intercourse, genital-to-genital rubbing, oral sex, mutual masturbation and even a practice that people once thought they had a patent on: French kissing."

Walt Whitman's prophetic demand that human society--Democracy-- must some day cement itself through affectionate and sexual bonding, gets full backing from recent scientific observations about cooperative bonobo behavior. Bonobos, in fact, use sex as their primary social cement, a method of reducing tensions. Among most animals, for example, such tensions arise at meal time, when there is often troublesome competition for food. Other animals, including human beings, generally eat meals before copulating. In bonobo society, however, sexual play precedes meals, thus reducing occasions for competitive quarreling .

Two backward human assumptions must be overcome, however, before any full-scale application of bonobo behavior to human society is possible. The first involves egalitarian relations between the sexes. Cultural/religious conditioning in many human societies promotes male dominance, something which bonobo society totally rejects. Also problematic are bonobo orgies--or public displays of sexuality. Though America's gay-male subculture has provided, in certain sequestered locales, such as the baths, occasions for non-privatized sex, most human societies condemn such behavior as "lewd." Sexologists, however, say that such judgments are rooted in cultures stymied by anti-sexual dogmas, a "morality" which is fashioned, for the most part, by "religious" ideologists.

Bonobo sex is casual, according to Frans de Waal, author of "Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape," (to be published next month by the University of California Press). Sex, he says, saturates bonobo social interaction, and, he believes, there could be no bonobo society if sex were not treated as the bonobos treat it. "But it is not what people think it is," says de Waal, "It's not driven by orgasm or seeking release. Nor is it often reproductively driven. Sex for a bonobo is casual, it's quick, and once you're used to watching it, it begins to look like any other social interaction."

The larger message that bonobos bring to us, according to de Waal, is that flexibility, in contrast to social Darwinist preaching, lies foursquare in humanity's lineage. Bonobos are as genetically close to human beings as are chimpanzees, sharing at least 98% of humanity's DNA.

The flexibility of these creatures as role-models also coincides with studies involving people by Dr. George Weinberg, the New York psychotherapist who has celebrated pliancy as a human trait best suited to secure the survival of Homo Sapiens. Weinberg, who is heterosexually inclined, coined the word "homophobia," and, along with his pioneering book, "Society and the Healthy Homosexual," he also wrote "The Pliant Animal," wherein he salutes the flexibility so valued in Frans de Waal's new book about bonobos.

1997 BEI; All Rights Reserved.
For reprint permission e-mail

GayToday Image Map