Columns / Discourse / January 14, 2009

Doin’ it bonobo style

When we think about ape species closely related to us, most people inevitably think of the chimpanzee. Their male-dominated, aggressive style does strike a chord with anyone reading about them— they form alliances, fight for the top, and even commit murder to get there.

But when you look at the sex lives of chimps, they seem quite alien to us. Females only have sex every five years, after they have weaned their child and gone into heat. Sex is for procreation only— it’s doggy style, short, and with little foreplay (the Pope would approve… well, aside from the doggy style part!).

Dominant males get most of the sex, punishing any other male they catch in the act. The females have sex rapidly until they get pregnant, and then it’s no sex until the child is grown.

In other words, a chimp’s sex life kind of sucks.

But no worries, because we’re equally related to another, far sexier modern ape—the bonobo, a chimp relative which lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If chimps are the sexually conservative, gun-toting nutjobs of our family, then bonobos are definitely the sexy swingers.

Unlike the male-dominated chimps, bonobos are female-dominated. This is despite the fact that male bonobos are larger than the females and have inborn weapons, such as sharp canines, that the females don’t. Bonobos take girl power to the extreme, leading in a collective group of females. Alone, no female could dominate a pack of males. But together, it’s more than possible. The group of females strengthens its bonds with lots and lots of girl-on-girl action, and settle disputes with, well, even more sex.

Like us, female bonobos have sex all year long— except when they’re on their periods (and hey, we can relate to that). They have sex for far more reasons than pure procreation, many of which we’ll recognize in our own lives. Sex for pleasure, make-up sex, sex for food, sex to get closer to someone, sex to move up in the ranks… And they do it in every way imaginable, including hanging upside down from treetops (sadly, “bonobo style” isn’t an actual sex position, but if it were, hanging from the treetops would be it!) In fact, they’ve even been reported to develop “fetishes”, such as only desiring to have sex while in water.

Kinky as they are, their most favorite position is missionary, interspersed with deep French kissing. Like us, bonobos pay attention to their partner’s enjoyment— missionary position allows them to closely monitor each others faces. They change the depth and speed of their thrusting and rubbing, depending on their partner’s response.

Bonobos also get an A in foreplay, with their frequent blow jobs, hand jobs, and clitoral rubbing. All are most common during same-sex lovin’— because all bonobos are bi, regardless of opposite sex availability. This bi-lifestyle allows for more sex, deeper relationships, and less aggression. Who could be angry at someone when they just gave you a blow job?

Thus, even though the females do get to rule, this lifestyle is great for the guys as well. What guy wouldn’t want to live in a society with little competition, where he gets to lay around and have sex all day? Life isn’t a constant orgy— there does need to be some time to forge for food, build nests, keep enemies at bay, and tend to children—but there isn’t nearly as much warfare and internal aggression to worry about as there is among chimps.

Unfortunately, one thing bonobos do have in common with chimps is that they’re both endangered. Constant warfare and strife in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have meant massive habitat destruction, illegal poaching, and an increase in the bush meat trade. Even though the Congolese have had a deep respect for the bonobo for centuries, warfare often overrides culture. There are now less than 20,000 bonobos left in the wild, far fewer than the estimated number of chimps. Letting our peaceful cousins with nympho tendencies die out would be a huge shame. So let’s help save the bonobo! One way to start is with

All information taken from leading primatologist Frans de Waal’s book, “Our Inner Ape”. A big thank you to Jon Wagner, for making me read it for his Human Origins class.

Christy Reuter

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