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Unformatted text preview: ook The Naked Ape, zoologist Desmond Morris even
went so far as to claim that humans are the sexiest primates alive, that
women are the only females of any species to experience orgasms, and
that men have the largest penises of all the primates.2 Morris was wrong, Sex Versus Reproduction 41 on every count. With regard to each of these categories, a lesser-known
primate, the bonobo, has men and women cleanly beat.
Bonobos are a remarkable group of apes found only in the lowland rainforests between the Congo and Kasi rivers in the Democratic
Republic of Congo. Only a few groups of these apes exist, perhaps
five thousand to twenty thousand individuals in all. Because of their
dwindling numbers, the government of the Democratic Republic of
Congo, with the help of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative in Washington, D.C., has recently moved to protect 30,500 square kilometers
of bonobo habitat.
Bonobos were once and sometimes still are called “pygmy chimpanzees,” which is not a very accurate name, since bonobos and chimps
are nearly the same size, so “pygmy” doesn’t fit, and in all other features bonobos differ markedly from chimps, so “chimpanzee” doesn’t
fit either. According to Frans de Waal—an expert on nonhuman primates in general and bonobos in particular—bonobos are sensitive,
lively, and nervous, whereas chimpanzees are coarse and hot-tempered.
Bonobos rarely raise their hair; chimpanzees often do. Physical violence
almost never occurs among bonobos yet is common among chimpanzees. Bonobos defend themselves through aimed kicking with their feet,
whereas chimpanzees pull their attackers close to bite them.
And, perhaps most interesting of all, bonobos copulate more hominum
(face to face) and chimpanzees more canum (like dogs). The Latin was
provided to protect the innocent, as well as the first writers of these findings, who knew that pointing out that bonobos had sex in this position
long before humans did might have repercussions. After all, in the 1960s,
cultural anthropologists had speculated at length about the importance
of face-to-face mating and its elevation and sanctification of human lovemaking. Face-to-face sex became the infantization of lovemaking—with
the male assuming the role of the infant and stimulating in the female the
intimacies and kindnesses of motherhood. The female, too, became the
suckling infant as she pressed against the male’s chest and prepared to
receive “a life-giving liquid from an adult bodily protuberance.”3
Besides their fondness for human-like lovemaking, bonobos just
seem a lot kinder and gentler than their chimpanzee cousins. Geneti- 42 Between XX and XY cally, bonobos are about 98 percent identical to humans—a little more
like us than chimps are. In captivity, bonobos have lived as long as
fifty years. The males are about two-and-one-half feet tall and weigh
between seventy-five and one hundred pounds. The females are only
a little smaller. Both male and female bonobos often walk upright, just
as we do. Chimps do so much less often. All of that—especially their
genetic makeup—makes bonobos look like our closest living relatives.
And our closest living relatives, it turns out, devote more time, energy,
and creativity to sexual interactions—in all forms—than do any other
nonhuman primates. And among their purposes for sex, reproduction
appears to fall fairly low on the list of priorities.
In fact, the creativity and proclivity shown by bonobos during their
sexual interactions are truly astonishing. “The best way to convey the richness of this ape’s sexuality,” wrote de Waal, “is to list the patterns observed
at the San Diego Zoo. Before I went there, I had heard that the bonobos
were sexy, but I was nonetheless amazed by the sheer variety of positions
and the extent to which the apes mutually stimulated each other.”4
In spite of his extensive knowledge of apes, what de Waal saw at
the San Diego Zoo still stunned him. He goes on to describe a variety of
interactions that could exhaust even the most libidinous among us.
More canum, or dog-style intercourse between males and females, is
the most common sort of sexual interaction observed among the bonobos, as it is with chimpanzees. This is somewhat surprising because
bonobos, unlike chimps, share with us forward-facing genitals, which
seem best suited for face-to-face sex. The second most common interaction was missionary style, which seems to be the favorite among female
bonobos. As sexual arousal overtakes a female bonobo, her labia swell
to the size of grapefruits. At the same time her clitoris becomes prominently erectile and protrudes toward the front. When she initiates sex,
she is almost always lying on her back. And even when a male tries to
initiate sex from a different position she may push him into the position
she prefers, the position where she receives the most clitoral stimulation during intercourse.
Still, dog-style couplings occur about twice as often as human-style
couplings among bonobos. Beyond that, th...
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This document was uploaded on 02/04/2014.
- Spring '14