Bonobos and Human Sexual Behavior

I’m against gay “marriage.” It bothers me that I might be cutting off future employment opportunities by saying so, but that’s the age we live in.

I know, that makes me a hater and a homophobe. But no. I believe that homosexuality is, in essence, a sexual dysfunction that leads someone to feel sexually attracted to people with whom they are physically incompatible. Homosexuality doesn’t make someone bad. The gay people I personally know are excellent, every one of them. They just have a sexual dysfunction. I’m no more homophobic than I am ED-phobic.

In a Facebook thread that mostly featured people arguing against me, I said,

There has been gay activity in humans and other animals, but (a) it doesn’t involve the use of sex organs in a healthy or reasonable way, and (b) “animals do it” is never an excuse for human behavior. Now, some will take issue with my use of “healthy” and “reasonable”; I believe that that’s because people have rejected the idea that there is reason or purpose for the various aspects of the natural world. I reject that notion: If there is no purpose, most of what we believe in, including the things you and I agree on — which is no doubt a great deal — is the drool of a dog. Once we consider purpose to be a feature of the universe, it’s no more strange to say that homosexual behavior isn’t healthy or reasonable than to say that a fever or anorexia is healthy or reasonable.

A bonobo.

A bonobo.

“Rather cryptic,” one of my interlocutors said. “Perhaps you can explain why how bonobos use sexuality as a sort of social lubricants is neither healthy nor reasonable. Biologists seem convinced it makes sense and is adaptive for bonobos.”

I said it was a red herring, but he wouldn’t let up: “In any case, there is little doubt that homosexuality is functional in bonobos, and you have not yet answered my question as to why that makes bonobos unhealthy.”

Apparently the argument is that since homosexual behavior exists and performs certain functions in bonobo society, it is presumed to be healthy for them; furthermore, since it is healthy for them, the burden of proof is on me to show why it’s unhealthy for humans.

So let’s talk about bonobos for a minute.

I don’t take Wikipedia as authoritative, but this particular correspondent does, and I’m lazy, so I’ll go for it. If you have better information, please feel free to cite it in the comments.

The following are excerpts from the Wikipedia entry for “Animal Sexual Behavior“.

Two examples of systems in primates are promiscuous mating chimpanzees and bonobos. These species live in social groups consisting of several males and several females. Each female copulates with many males, and vice versa. In bonobos, the amount of promiscuity is particularly striking because bonobos use sex to alleviate social conflict as well as to reproduce.

Infants and children in bonobo societies are often involved in sexual behaviour.

Amongst bonobos, immature males have been recorded initiating genital play with female adult or female adolescent bonobos. Copulation-like contact between immature bonobo males and mature female bonobos increases with age and continues until the male bonobo has reached juvenile age.

This is from “Homosexual Behavior in Animals.

Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal on observing and filming bonobos noted that there were two reasons to believe sexual activity is the bonobo’s answer to avoiding conflict. Anything that arouses the interest of more than one bonobo at a time, not just food, tends to result in sexual contact. If two bonobos approach a cardboard box thrown into their enclosure, they will briefly mount each other before playing with the box. Such situations lead to squabbles in most other species. But bonobos are quite tolerant, perhaps because they use sex to divert attention and to defuse tension.

This is from the entry on Bonobos.

Bonobos do not form permanent monogamous sexual relationships with individual partners. They also do not seem to discriminate in their sexual behavior by sex or age, with the possible exception of abstaining from sexual activity between mothers and their adult sons. When bonobos come upon a new food source or feeding ground, the increased excitement will usually lead to communal sexual activity, presumably decreasing tension and encouraging peaceful feeding.

More often than the males, female bonobos engage in mutual genital behavior, possibly to bond socially with each other, thus forming a female nucleus of bonobo society. The bonding among females enables them to dominate most of the males. Although male bonobos are individually stronger, they cannot stand alone against a united group of females. Adolescent females often leave their native community to join another community. Sexual bonding with other females establishes these new females as members of the group. This migration mixes the bonobo gene pools, providing genetic diversity.

To sum up: Bonobos have sex with infants and children, are completely promiscuous and do not form long-term monogamous sexual bonds, have sex with anyone they feel like whenever they get excited, engage in orgies, and use sexual bonding to establish dominance over subgroups.

Now, someone please tell me why I should have to defend the position that we shouldn’t model our society’s sexual mores on this great ape’s sexual behavior.

While you’re at it, please tell me why this subject arose while talking about extending the legal recognition of long-term sexual relationships.

It seems to me that the argument boils down to “well, animals do it.” That’s never a reason to accept a behavior as part of human society.

In fact, “because humans do it” is frequently not a reason to accept a behavior as part of human society. If I wanted examples of “functional” sexual relationships that don’t fit my definition of “healthy and reasonable”, we could find them without leaving the species. There are women who sexually gratify their powerful male mates to prevent them from getting beaten. There are teenage girls who are promiscuous to make themselves more popular and get more desirable boyfriends. There are men who are abusive to women, thereby attracting those women who are most likely already to be abused.

These behaviors exist among humans, and they are all “functional” in that they play a role in social structures and “defuse tension” with sex, just as bonobo sex does.

But are they healthy? Are they reasonable?

2 comments on “Bonobos and Human Sexual Behavior
  1. Back in ’03, Andrew Sullivan tried this with flies. Uh-huh, flies. He pointed to a genetic component for homosexuality because a science mag told him that some genetically engineered flies, male flies, lost their interest in females when the temperature in their hothouse was raised and began turning to each other instead. I remember asking my readers: Isn’t that what most of you do? Look to the insects to confirm your proclivities?


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