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.”)