Meet the non-human primates who tell us everything our culture doesn’t want to hear about female sexuality.
You’ve probably heard about bonobos — close relatives of chimps who are somewhat skinnier, and are native to the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the popular imagination, bonobos have a somewhat hippie-ish reputation. They’re portrayed as the “free love” primates, but are also supposedly a more likable, peaceable version of their stressed-out, lashing-out chimp cousins. Several articles even refer to bonobos as pacific, “Make love not war” “swingers.” It has long been believed that bonobos have sex to diffuse potential tension — when they come upon a cache of food, for example, or a new bonobo troop, having sex is a way to bond and take the stress level down.
Dr. Amy Parish, a primatologist who has studied bonobos for her entire career, pointed out that this was happening as we observed them being fed in their enclosure at the San Diego Zoo (many primatologists who study bonobos believe they behave basically the same way under human care and in their natural environment). Once the food was flung down to them, at least one pair of bonobos began to “consort” immediately, and others followed. Only after getting down did they get down to the business of eating.
Early in her career, Parish, who has blonde hair and wore heart-shaped sunglasses the first day we met, and whose voice has a sing-songy, So-Cal inflection, noted that bonobos were female affiliative, socially gregarious, and very sexual. She also quickly realized that females ate first, and got groomed more often than the males; and that there was a clear pattern of female-on-male violence. Females swatted, chased, smacked, gouged, and bit males, who mostly seemed to know better than to annoy them.
Eventually, Parish observed a male in Frankfurt with only eight digits intact, and she learned of another male who had had his penis nearly severed from his body (the vet was able to reattach it, and the male went on to have erections and successfully reproduce, though you have to wonder how good he felt about the females from then on). Parish asked her mentor at the time, Franz De Waal, about it. He had worked with the San Diego Zoo population in the 1980s, and had in fact recorded a list of injuries but didn’t recall the males being injured more often or more seriously than the females. Still, Parish asked to see records — both De Waal’s and the logs zoo veterinarians had kept of bonobo injuries over the years. Sure enough, of a total of 25 serious injuries, 24 were inflicted on males. By females.
That clinched it for Parish. She realized that bonobos were female affiliative, female bonded, and, most extraordinarily of all, female dominant, sufficiently so that females eat first, are groomed more often, and have the authority to attack males. All this in spite of the males being physically larger and ensconced within a kin network of automatic allies (female bonobos leave their families, their natural power base, at sexual maturity, in order to join another troop and better avoid in-breeding).
Female bonobos manage to dominate males because they form coalitions of two or more whenever they perceive a male is challenging them. It doesn’t take males long to stop trying and to realize who’s in charge. But how exactly are these females, who are unrelated and who disperse from their kin, able to form power coalitions in the first place? It’s the sex, Parish told me. “They choose what feels good, and what feels especially good is having sex with other females, probably because of the front-facing, relatively exposed, innervated clitoris.”
In fact, Parish told me, when a female bonobo is solicited simultaneously by a female and a male, she will tend to pick the female (other primatologists have observed this preference as well). On my second day observing the bonobos with Parish, then-three-year-old Belle sat directly in front of us, right up against the glass. She had a long piece of grass looped around her torso, like a necklace. Her legs were splayed, and she poked between them with one finger. She was playing with her clitoris, which was about the size of a large pencil eraser. Clearly, she was enjoying herself.
Another day, Parish and I watched Belle mount her big sister Maddie, who was lying on her back; they indulged in some genital-to-genital swishing back and forth. Bonobos don’t just reduce tension with sex. Females are grinding and G-to-G-ing their way to establishing goodwill and connectedness, or reinforcing goodwill and connectedness already in place, using sex to build a sisterhood of sorts. And bonobo sisterhood is powerful. “We don’t see infanticide or females being sexually coerced, and we don’t see males being aggressive to females in any way,” Parish explained. “But we cannot ignore female bonobo violence toward males and female dominance among bonobos.”
I was momentarily stunned by the simplicity and profundity of what Parish was asserting. Our closest non-human primate relatives are non-monogamous. Females have baroque anogenital swellings, the better to attract the interest of multiple males, not one “best” alpha guy. In fact, there are no alpha guys, because they are a society of alpha gals. And this is so mostly thanks to gals preferring sex with one another. Which they do because of how wonderful it feels to rub their front-facing, exposed, and richly innervated clitorides (yes, that’s the plural of clitoris) together.
It all begs a number of questions about our world and the bonobo world, which we might think of as the original hookup culture. If human females lived under these conditions — a world that was female bonded, female affiliative, and female dominant, and where females had the freedom to be blatantly pleasure focused — then sex on college campuses would look very different indeed. It certainly wouldn’t be about women serving men’s needs at the expense of having their own fulfilled, as Peggy Orenstein discusses in her book Girls and Sex. Affirmative consent, analyzed so thoroughly by Vanessa Grigoriadis in Blurred Lines and familiar to millions of teens in the U.S. thanks to a video comparing it to offering someone tea, would not be an issue — men would not dream of assaulting women in a world where sex happens publicly, women are there to watch it all happen, and “Girl Power” is the actual order of things, not some abstract motto about how things might be.
More generally, Parish’s work is richly suggestive of other possibilities: What if human sexuality is more like bonobo sexuality than chimp sexuality? Specifically, what if human female sexuality is as much informed by our bonobo sisters as it is by comparatively abject chimp females (who risk violence when they themselves have multiple, rapidly sequential consorts during and also outside of estrus)? What if all our presumptions of alpha males being dominant adventurers in sexual conquest, and women as passive recipients seeking a single dominant male’s attention, come from the long shadow cast by a culture of containment and control, not from how we evolved? What if women are in fact “wired,” at some level, to be sexually dominant and promiscuous, and to use sex for pleasure and building social bonds with other women — and it is primarily environment that has resulted in our behaving otherwise? The bonobo sisterhood is part of the arc of humanness. Are we ready to acknowledge it?
This excerpt is from Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong And How The New Science Can Set Us Free by Wednesday Martin (Little, Brown Spark, 2019).