Thursday, December 27, 2007

bring out that inner bonobo

les be friends, or how to avoid stress

Human sexuality, in the developed west, is tending towards bonoboism, me likes to think [actually it's far more a hope than a thought].

Bonobos are a wonder. According to primatologist and psychologist Frans de Waal, who's made a study of them, they might better have been named Pan satyrus rather than P paniscus [the diminutive one], because of their considerable predilection for sexual activity [meaning they love to fuck, with whoever, whenever, however]. As you might expect, I can't wait to write about this, but I'll get the less stimulating part of their story out of the way first.
Bonobos, along with their larger cousins, the chimps, are our closest living relatives, but bonobos are very different from chimps. For starters there are far fewer of them, and their habitat is very confined, and becoming more so with human encroachment. They inhabit an area south of the Zaire River, and number only a few thousand, falling rapidly. They were only identified in the late twenties, and classified as a new species in the early thirties. The chimp and bonobo lines separated not so long ago, with the chimps moving on to a wider, drier savannah-like habitat.

Although originally described as pygmy chimpanzees, they’re no smaller than the smallest sub-species of chimp, about 45 kgs for males, and 33kgs for females. De Waal, perhaps with some bias, describes them as more ‘stylish’ or gracile in their movements than chimps [they do in fact have proportionally longer legs than other apes], and they have flatter faces, higher foreheads, and a distinctive hair-style, parted in the middle. Their diet is similar to that of chimps, but with less meat. They’re described as very sensitive, with very expressive eyes. They’re also less aggressive, and this relates, inter alia, to their social structure.

And their social structure brings me, not before time, to sex.

Okay, I exaggerated when I say they fuck all the time, but the truth is even more interesting. They use sex – and I don’t mean fucking as in full penetrative hetero-sex – as a way of bonding and curbing aggression. And because the closest bonding occurs between females, female-female sexual activity, especially in the form of ‘genito-genital rubbing’, is the most common type.

Here’s the social set-up. As with chimps, young bonobo females move away from ‘home’ to another mating group, whereas the males stay forever within the home group. But unlike their cousins, the adolescent females gradually develop close bonds, facilitated by sexual activity, with senior females of their new group. This allows them to band together to keep any larger, would-be aggressive males in check. In fact, it has essentially allowed them to become the dominant sex, spite of sexual dimorphism. Sisterhood is powerful. One reason for this sort of alliance, which male bonobos don’t seem to engage in, may be to prevent infanticide, a common practice among other species, including chimps.

It’s not just a matter of ganging up though. They also use sex to soothe the savage beast [male or female] – and for many other reasons. In fact, I’ve just found a fabulous blog, written by an Oz researcher in the Congo, who’s discovering almost more than she can handle about bonobo [and young chimp] sexual behaviour as we speak. It’s so full of useful and up to date info as to more or less render this post redundant. So I’m going to quit this post and start reading her blog – and so should you, dear reader.

I’ll just finish though by returning to my first line. It would be nice to think we’re becoming more like bonobos, make love not war and all, but my sense of the possibility comes from the increasing power of women in western society. Young women are more sexually confident, and even sexually exploitative than they’ve ever been before, and they’re also engaging in female-female sex play like never before. They’ve taken to hunting in packs, which have provided them with the security to go further than they would normally go. So-called ‘raunch culture’, female-driven, has provided women with a new sexual empowerment, and I’m not sure that I agree with feminist critics who claim that it’s just another form of enslavement [surely raunch culture is emphatically not about stripping for your man]. Sexual empowerment is only one form of empowerment certainly, but it’s far from an insignificant one, for sexuality is always going to be central, and if you can gain control of the sexual agenda, it’s likely everything else can fall to your hands as well. Could this be the real sexual revolution? All I can do is echo an earlier enthusiast. Vive le bonobo! I’d like to be one.

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At 9:32 am , Anonymous cerebralmum said...

I'm off to read that bonobo blog in a second (and very excited about it), but you idea about the "raunch culture" intrigues me. In fact, I've made some similar arguments myself. As a feminist, it seems crazy to me to take a hard line on particular human behaviours. While on a case by case basis there are definitely some in which "enslavement" is at play, I think empowerment is by far the stronger vein at the cultural level.

As with anything we humans do, the motivation is more key than the behaviour itself. I am constantly at odds with that select group of feminists who, to my mind, do not have the right to call themselves that, when they impose synthetic moral standards on women's behaviour. Just like the nebulous patriarchy.

At 4:15 pm , Blogger Stewart said...

I'll drink to that. Happy New Year!


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