Can We Do It Like Bonobos?


As a burgeoning sexuality student I had a mild obsession with the human implications of bonobo sexual behaviors. They were like this unshared secret of zoology, hidden from sight on nature channels because of apparent prurience and I wondered if we could locate some inherent sexual truth about humanity by looking at bonobos. But doing that means locating the same truths in chimpanzee behavior. Human predilection towards rape, war, and infanticide would be just as valid as promiscuity, cooperation and sex for the fun of it.

In evaluating and understanding our own, often confounding, sexual behaviors I think it’s a mistake to hold any other animal up as an ideal or try to identify immutable parts of our sexual behavior by observing them. Though closely related to both of these creatures we’ve evolved on our own path for quite some time, not only in terms of biology but in cultural terms as well. And that last bit is often the biggest influencer on how we have sex.

When I imagine a bonobo-fied sexual landscape in modern culture I can’t help but giggle. Road rage solved with handjobs, bar fights ending in orgies and hands down pants at board meetings. (Although, bonobos do engage in sex to attain higher rank, which is a bit like our own “sleep your way to the top” phenomenon in some industries.)

But maybe there is something valuable we can learn from Bonobo behavior: bonding through sex.

Now, I’m sure some people will read this and think “But we do bond through sex!” Yes and no. In certain contexts sex used for bonding purposes is ideal while in others neither expected nor desired. Discourse around sex within marriage frames sex as a way to strengthen pre-existing marital bonds but we assume any sex outside of these bonds to be potentially disruptive or competative in some way. The underlying message we see is that marriage (or monogamous, partnered sex now that marriage rates are down) is the proper place for bonded sex to occur.

What if all sex was bonding? What if our one night stands, fly by nights or short term flings left us thinking as affectionately about long-term partners? And furthermore, what’s stopping us?

A friend recently told me about breaking up a casual relationship by telling her partner she loved him. For her, the admission was not a declaration of absolute monogamy and eternal bonds but simply what she felt: love. The cultural weight of that word is staggering in the context of sex and sex alone. We seem more comfortable proclaiming our love to inanimate objects and foodstuffs or even our friends and family than with someone we’ve shared a naked night drenched in sweat.

To me, this seems a complete waste of perfectly good affection.

And this construction needlessly places awkward boundaries between people. People try to remain detached or play it cool when they could be laughing and blissfully enjoying each other. Deeper emotions remain locked away and thoughts go unsaid because we’re too afraid of what it might mean and if we’re even ready for that meaning.

Love is not often the archetypical fated, lose your breath, you-and-me-against-the-world experience of Hollywood. (Which, seriously, if that happened with every couple we would have major social problems.) Sometimes love happens slowly, sometimes it comes after hating a person, sometimes it sits softly inside and merely makes a person’s face shine brighter when you see them. And sometimes, it goes away completely after furnace levels of emotional heat.

A remark another friend made about relationship trajectories sums up my current thinking:

 “I don’t see why you ever have to break up with someone. Sure, you may stop having sex for whatever reason, but why break up? You don’t stop talking to other friends because you’ve met new people.”

Why break up indeed? Sex is inherently vulnerable, a moment in time where you can lose control of yourself, muscles spasming, face contorting and uncontrollable sounds yelping from your mouth. I know some people will point out that sex doesn’t need love to happen and it’s possible to have amazing sex without being head over heels for someone. But I’m not suggesting that we need to be swimming in that heady soup of Romeo and Juliet love. Rather, that love is more multifacted than that and it’s silly to suppress affections and warm sentiments about another person just because sex is supposedly either emotionless porno sex or a meeting of made-for-each-other souls. Reality is far messier than those two tiny categories.

Sadly, our sexual assumptions stand in the way of a middle ground and prop those options as the only ones. When we see sex only through a lens of reproduction and assume that all activity represents genetic codes jockeying for evolutionary position, we assume sex to be characterized by competition.

So I challenge you to try and look through a lens of cooperation. I’m not saying the path to happiness rests on casual sex partners or to reject the dizzy nature of intense romantic love or to pooh-pooh monogamy. Truly, the path to happiness in our relationships is manifold. What works for one person won’t work for everyone else.

But I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where exes didn’t exist as antagonists in our stories and where any sex that made you smile was an absolute good. What would it be like if we were just as comfortable professing our adoration for sexual partners as we are for hamburgers and drinking buddies?

All in all, I think when it comes to love maybe we should look to the mouths of babes (instead of other animals) to spit truth better than our jaded adulthood can muster:

“When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.” – Billy, age 4

(For more lovespiration, check out other kids’ answers in “What Is Love? Some Really Smart Kids May Have The Answer.”)

12 thoughts on “Can We Do It Like Bonobos?”

  1. I am finding myself inhibited in bed with my current partner BECAUSE I can’t freely tell him how I feel. It makes him uncomfortable. Just realized that on reading this.

      1. Yes! Just did a whole workshop around this, and I feel much freer. But makes me question the viability of the relationship. His position is: I will not love again, because I have been burned in the past. I don’t know that I can or should try to “fix” that.

  2. “But I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where exes didn’t exist as antagonists in our stories and where any sex that made you smile was an absolute good.”

    I think this would be a lovely world to live in, though people break up for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with sex. The intimacy that comes with sex or a romantic relationship can result in discovering qualities and behaviours that wouldn’t be apparent to anyone that doesn’t share that intimacy.

    I don’t have any exes where sex is the root of bad feelings. If I’m not on good terms with an ex it’s because they were abusive or we discovered we had incompatible values or there were money issues or control issues. For me, bad feelings are always the result of non-sex conflict or bad behaviour.

    I know sex is often the source of conflict and bad feelings in a relationship and break up, but it’s one of many causes of discord.

    “I don’t see why you ever have to break up with someone. Sure, you may stop having sex for whatever reason, but why break up? You don’t stop talking to other friends because you’ve met new people.”

    Even if we move past looking at sex through the lens of reproduction, which I think is happening (a lot of the discourse around sex today is about pleasure or personal agency), we still live in a culture where enforced monogamy is the norm (particularly for women, though men are not exempt either.)

    Our mononormative culture does not leave room for maintaining strong emotional connections to romantic or sexual partners when the sex part of the relationship has dissolved. Doing so creates the perception that one is not available or suitable for new relationships.

    There is a deep cultural expectation:
    - of emotional fidelity, in addition to sexual fidelity, in monogamous relationships; – that all relationships will either become committed and monogamous or end;
    - that you must be “over” your ex and have moved on before you’re fit for a relationship with anyone else.

    Until we can get past all the expectations imposed on us by the culture and accept the validity of diverse relationship structures and relationships that may not fit neatly into culturally defined boxes, we simply can’t come to a place where break ups and antagonism are unnecessary. Break ups and antagonism are a necessary part of maintaining our mononormative culture.

  3. Thanks for this, and it brings up a lot for me.

    I’m in a polyamorous relationship with my primary partner, and I have two long-distance secondary relationships. My primary and I have a no-intercourse-with-secondaries boundary in place that I am not really behind. Her contention (and fear…she owns both of these labels for her point of view) is that my having sex (speaking just for me in this role at the moment) with another would *change* me *through* the inevitable bonding, and the contention/fear is that that change would not feel good to her, even if a strong relationship with her metamour is in place. For her, the love prior or possibly deepened love after is not really the problem…the problem *is* the sexual bonding. If I bond with another, my primary bond would perhaps then be seen or felt by her as “diluted”. I don’t see it that way. For me it’s additive, yet for her, that’s at best unrealistic on my part and at worse, dangerous to our relationship energetically.

    Interestingly, you have brought up bonobo sexual behavior, and paradoxically, it IS the animal-self bonding that sex brings that seems to be the issue for her. Perhaps so much of the animal kingdom in their mating/sexual behavior is monoamorous (a word I prefer to monogamy…poly peeps don’t like polygamy as their descriptive and it isn’t accurate anyway for them, why shouldn’t the word monoamory be in play too?), and the animal-self being mono in the non-bonobo world could be a good reflection of her point of view.

    I’m probably not representing her point of view very well, but if she hasn’t yet read this post, flagged by a mutual Facebook friend of ours, I will direct her to it and if she chooses she can weigh in.

    Thanks for the food for thought and all the cool things you said within. I haven’t read you before – but I believe I will again :-)

    1. Reading back, I realize I need say more – I have made it sound as though my partner and I are incompatible and eventually headed for a fall. We have an issue to deal with, but this relationship means more to me than anything in the world and I am committed to finding the balance somehow. We have just about made it to fourteen years and we are better than ever. I have faith that our seemingly incompatible stances can evolve into that balance through healing and shift.

  4. I wish people did not require being broken up with. But they do sometimes. Not just lovers but friends too. Not because of sex but because of lack of respect for boundaries. All relationships require boundaries and I think a sexual relationship almost by its very nature (being naked, rolling around sweating and making funny noises) causes us to throw out strange boundaries just to give us some semblance of control.

    1. This is my reaction too..which is funny since I’ve often made a very similar argument for poly relationships that one doesn’t need always just draw that line in the sand and cut things off, that our friendships serve many things and so can our relationships and our breaks. What’s hard is breaking the mold of traditional relationships that causes us to get so entangled in the first place, be it with sex or LTRs, etc, where even if boundaries aren’t awful, sometimes it takes space and time to reset things to a non sex level for the purposes of respecting self boundaries. Sometimes people have unhealthy attachments that don’t serve them and they need a hard line, as well. Like all things, there’s grey area. I still really like this argument because it challenges the relationship assumption, and I’m obsessed with bonobos as well…but there’s defiantly gotta be some middle ground.

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