De-Sexing the Bonobo

Primates have captured the hearts and imaginations of researchers and the general public alike. While the physical and behavioral similarities between primates and humans fascinate almost anyone, regardless of scientific background, researchers focus on the intriguing evolutionary importance of primates. Though both reasons represent entirely valid motives for interest in primate species, they are not with out their pitfalls. Because of their both charming nature and their genetic similarity to humans, it is often too easy for researchers to concentrate on certain aspects of primate behavior while ignoring others. Primate’s often comic and compelling similarities to humans can lead to scientifically damaging anthropomorphizing. Likewise, in using primates to study the mysterious nature of human evolution, researchers can overemphasize certain aspects of primate behavior while neglecting others.

Bonobos represent one of the primate species that most often fall victim to these mistakes. The rare apes intrigue the public and researchers alike with their “erotic” lifestyles, filled with seemingly inhibited sexuality. Attracted to their “lascivious” existence, humans project their own fantasies and notions about sexuality onto the ape species. This intense focus on the sexuality of the bonobo may overstate the importance of sexual relations in their behavior. In reducing the bonobos to “horny apes” the general public, as well as researchers, deemphasize other extremely important aspects of bonobo behavior.

Of course undeniable similarities exist between bonobos and humans which must not be ignored. Because of their close phylogentic relationship to humans, these similarities should be addressed. Like humans, bonobos are sexually receptive for extended periods, they exhibit a powerful sexual life that is strongly connected to food, and they appear to walk easily on two legs (de Waal, 1996). While many other parallels exist, the high degree of sexuality among both species receives the most attention. This tendency can be very positive in bonobo research as “it is impossible to understand the social life of this ape without attention to its sex life; the two are inseparable” (de Waal, 1997). The focus, however, can carry negative consequences. Animals should not be studied merely because the general public and researchers find them titillating. After reading several bonobo studies and any pop literature on the species, a researcher would find it difficult to avoid the impression that “a more puritanical ape would be less worthy of [their] attentions” (Zuk, 2002)

In focusing on sexual similarities between humans and bonobos, researchers can forget or downplay the many dissimilarities between the two species -one of the most important of which is ecological differences. Diet almost surely affects gender relations and social structures. Perhaps bonobos are “gentler apes” because they exhibit a more heavily herbaceous diet than either chimps or humans. This diet allows the bonobos to forage in groups and circumvents tensions that result from feeding on clumped resources such as fruits (Strier, 2003). Aside from subsistence strategies, other differences between humans and the apes exist- there are, for instance, no observations of male cooperations among the apes, females are as mobile as males, and pair bonding is unknown in bonobos (de Waal, 1996).

Due to human fascination with sex, researchers must remember to address interspecies differences and to consider that “while sex is central to bonobo life, that life and not the sex itself is the central focus to most scientific work” (Zuk, 2002). Because of their own culturally imbued reactions to bonobo behaviors, researchers might view bonobos as oversexed, salacious beings. Bonobos, however, lead their “erotic” lives without acknowledgement of taboo or prohibited actions. Because they articulate sexuality as a natural aspect of their behavior, “it would be a distortion to view their behavior as an expression of “sexual freedom” (de Waal 1996). Bonobos do not concern themselves with sexual morality- an issues that, even for humans represents a highly variant trait (de Waal, 1996).

Perhaps researchers fall victim to moralizing bonobo behavior because of how human-looking their sexual relations appear. Bonobo vaginas and clitorises are ventrally located, leading to greater ease of face to face copulations. Phone sex therapist Susan Block latched onto this trait and declared that “like tanctric sex practitioners or two people very much in love, bonobos often look deeply into each others eyes” (Zuk, 2002). Block has created a pseudo-psychological theory for better relationships based upon bonobo sexual relations. Her method, “Pleasure Eases Pain, Good Sex Defuses Tension, Love Lessens Violence” capitalizes on theories that bonobos use sex to reduce aggression and tension. While this may be true, it hardly seems appropriate to use a species without significant pair bonding as a role model for building strong relationships. Pseudo-theories such as this encourage the general public’s one-sided view of bonobos as “sexy apes.” Even respected researchers occasionally anthropomorphize bonobos into zealous lovers. In describing how bonobos use sex to diffuse tensions, Franz De Waal makes a passing comment about bonobos as the “original proponents of make love not war” (1996). “Love,” a culturally defined- as well as culturally variant concept, holds a tenuous place in the scientific study of primates.

While, probably more than any other researcher, Franz de Waal recognizes the pitfalls of over-focusing upon bonobo sexuality, he is not immune to it. Nor does he avoid taking advantage of the bonobo for feminist purposes. In a 1995 Scientific American article, he refers to the bonobos as a “gift to the feminist movment.” The movement had indeed combated early chauvinistic primatology models. Early primatology undoubtedly focused on male behavior, to the detriment of the field. Male researchers stressed male relations and dominances struggles while relegating females to the field of infant rearing (Strier, 2001; Zuk, 2002). This early approach led to several false conclusions such as incorrectly assuming that baboon society was male dominated (Strum, 2001). After the rise of the feminist movement, however, the field of primatology changed. Women now dominate the field and all primatologists are keenly aware of both genders of their subjects.

Some may argue, however, against using apes and monkeys as mascots for the feminist movement. The female alliances of bonobos present an attractive and easily co-optable argument for the movement. Unlike baboons, female bonobos cooperate without being genetically related (Zuk, 2002). They are a female transfer species with close female bonds. These close bonds have been demonstrated to create coalitions which “keep the males in place” (Wrangham, 1996). Such a take on female behavior presents an attractive model for the feminist movement to capitalize upon- one in which women band together to rise up against male oppression. While feminists should undoubtedly continue to struggle for women’s equality, adopting an animal as movement symbol presents significant scientific challenges. Overemphasizing the females of a species engenders that species as a whole.

With this view, animals such as chimpanzees become “male” species while bonobos are “females” (de Waal, 1997). The bonobo/chimp divide thus begins to represent human gender issues. This simplification of behavior ignores important data and imbues species with unempirical quality statements that lead to favoring one species over another. Bonobos and chimpanzees have been demonstrated as phylogentically equidistant from humans, yet many researchers debate about which species best represents human origins. This debate should be replaced with views that acknowledge the parallels among humans and both species. It should also focus upon the behaviors of both genders of a species.

Both bonobos and humans demonstrate an active interest in sex as well as a colorful sexlife. When studying primate behavior, however, the human fascination with bonobo sexuality should be carefully monitored. Bonobo sexuality represents a vital area of the ape’s life but researchers should be careful not to overstress the sexuality of the species. This extreme emphasis upon sexuality can lead to ignoring differences between the bonobo and human species and disregarding important ecological and behavioral data. Too much focus upon the erotic lives of the bonobos anthropomorphizes them into lusty animals, denying them existence as beings acting in a manner most natural to them. This focus can be abused by those without scientific intentions. Sex therapists and some in the feminist movement have already manipulated the bonobo for their own causes. Their actions transform the bonobo from a complex species into a caricature. For many years, researchers have been aware of the detrimental effects of anthropomorphizing their subjects. With further study of the bonobo, primatologists should be ever vigilant to the extreme sexualization with which the ape has been painted. Sexuality represents a central part of the bonobo’s life but researchers must not let it define the species.


De Waal F, 1995. Bonobo Sex and Society: The Behavior of a Close Relative Challenges Assumptions about Male Supremacy in Human Evolution. Scientific American March: 82-88.

De Waal F, 1997. Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape. Los Angeles: Berkeley and Los Angeles University of California Press.

De Waal F, 1996. Bonobos. In: Peacemaking among Primates. Cambrigde, MA: Harvard University Press; 171-227.

Strier K, 2003. Female Strategies. In: Primate Behavioral Ecology (Hanson K, ed). New York: Allyn and Bacon; 200-231.

Strum C, 2001. Starting Out. In: Almost Human: A Journey into the World of Baboons. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 6-22

Wrangham R, Peterson D, 1996. The Gentle Ape. In: Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (. New York: Mariner Books; 200-219.

Zuk M, 2002. Bonobos: Dolphins of the New Millennium. Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can’t Learn About Sex From Animals. Los Angeles: Berkeley and Los Angeles University of California Press; 107-120.

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