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What We Can Learn From the Bonobos

by Tinamarie Bernard

I just finished reading the seminal best-seller, Sex at Dawn, a book that turns all our ideas about human sexuality upside down, with a slap (for its intellectual discourse) and a tickle (for its sharp humor). As a species, we’ve been pulverized, culturalized, and civilized (some might argue in defiance of this), our sexuality wrapped up tight in a prude little bow, only to discover that we don’t hump like animals at all. Oh no, we are far more carnal than our primate cousins, with the exception of the bonobos, who live in a jungle more lush, fragrant, and peaceful than any we’ve built in our concrete labyrinths.

Before any homo sapiens dismiss my observations as monkey business, remember that we share upwards of 97-99% of our genetic code with our lower primate cousins. We can arguably agree that sex is subject to the same forces of nature vs. nurture as every aspect of the human condition.

Besides, animal behavior can teach us much about ourselves, if we are willing to do the uncomfortable viewing of our navels and unweave the stories we’ve made up about our secret sexual and primal selves.

What would our planet be like if females ruled fornication?

The answer to that question may be as close as our nearest primate relations. Those who study bonobos point to the unique sexual behavior of the species. Once upon a time, they were called ‘pygmy chimps’ because they resemble small chimpanzees. And like the chimps, they share 98% of their DNA with humans. But the bonobos have an exceptional social structure and method for keeping the peace.

First, theirs is a matriarchal society, which means that ladies lead the pack, and second, they have sex.  Lots of it. Their promiscuous, loving, non-warlike nature blows holes in the notion of male dominance being hardwired, natural or just the way we’ve always been.

The bonobos have found the solution to world peace. It’s called love. Whenever there is a dispute, they resolve it with a good bout of nooky. A bit of masturbation here, a little tickle where it feels really good there, and soon enough the tension is relieved. Have a problem? Not after you’ve had sex, bonobo style.

And if you have any doubt about female satisfaction, rest assured that these apes know how to swing. Wink wink, nod nod, grunt grunt, sigh. In fact, in their natural habitats, Bonobos have rarely demonstrated hostile or violent behaviors towards another, preferring open-mouthed French kissing to fisticuffs.

Now I am not suggesting that we become a matriarchal society (although some balance is still very much in order around the world), nor I envision our world leaders mounting each other at summits for sustainability or peace. That just is too strange for even my inner adolescent boy imagination. But don’t you agree that we can learn something here?

Mother Earth is suffering from our mistreatment. Her waters run foul, her air breathes heavy, her children live in fear of mutual annihilation, her ground quakes, and her oceans rage. Is it entirely out of reach for us to imagine the relationship between peace and the environment? As much as nature knows no boundaries, perhaps challenging our own views on sexual morays may also benefit humankind?

In a previous column (Polyamory: Toward a New Sexual Ethic), I confessed that underneath my vanilla heterosexual monogamous skin beats the heart of a polyamourist. Certain characteristics of open relationships – sharing and resource allocation – may hold one key to redirecting our current, environmentally unconscious course. And now, in this post, I ask us to consider what our primate friends may have to teach us on the topic of love, sex and the single female monkey (or attached for that matter).

Because I have a sneaky suspicion that if the bonobos could talk to us, they’d tell us this: you can’t have too much (age-appropriate, consensual, mutually satisfying) sex, but you can (and do), have too much war and destruction. “Their sexual behavior is too human like for most of us to be comfortable with…”


Tinamarie is an occasional poet and writer for several acclaimed websites. You can find her at twitter and Facebook, or send her a private message at modernlovemuse @ yahoo dot com. ©2010-2011; PARTIAL reposts only permitted with link back to original article.