Apes From Venus

A review of Bonobos, The Forgotten Ape

by Frans de Waal with photographs by Frans Lanting

Reviewed by Spring Cascade

Originally published in Loving More #24 in 2001

Sex as a social lubricant to defuse tensions. Does that sound farfetched? Not for bonobos, formerly called pygmy chimps. Unlike other species which squabble or fight over food or other items of interest, two bonobos are likely to engage in sexual play before peacefully sharing the desired object.

"Bonobos, The Forgotten Ape" is a fascinating look at our fellow primates, with whom we shared a common ancestor about 6 million years ago. Bonobos and chimpanzees are our closest relatives, and we share 98% of our genetic material with them. We are 3 closely related branches of the order of primates, each with our own ways of handling conflicts and relating sexually. Bonobos, at one time called pygmy chimpanzees, look very similar to chimpanzees, but their behavior is quite different. Chimps are relatively aggressive, with the males forming alliances and enlisting others to take part in a fight, and even engaging in brutal warfare with other groups. Bonobos, on the other hand, are rarely violent. Chimpanzee females have a short period of being sexually receptive, and the males fight over sexual access to the females. Bonobo females are receptive for a much longer period of time, and the males don't need to fight over them. Like humans, bonobos engage in sex for a variety of purposes and bring a great deal of creativity to their sexual activity.

Frans de Waal is interested in how our observations of bonobos may affect our perceptions about human sexual behavior. As he comments, "The truth is that if bonobo behavior provides any hints, very few human sexual practices can be dismissed as 'unnatural'". Indeed, "The bonobo, with its varied, almost imaginative, eroticism, may help us see sexual relations in a broader context. Certain aspects of human sexuality, such as pleasure, love, and bonding, tend to be overlooked by reproduction-oriented ideologies."

De Waal strives to strike a balance between giving the sexual proclivities of the bonobos proper attention and describing their larger, cultural environment. He makes extensive comparisons between bonobos and chimps. We learn about the area of Africa in which bonobos are located, threats to the species, and about the evolution of primates. The main text of the book is interspersed with a number of interesting interviews, and many excellent photographs.

I find his description of the differences between the Japanese and western primatologists to be very interesting. The Japanese who study bonobos in their natural habitat learn the local language before going to Africa, and work closely with the local people. Japanese primatology emphasizes the social fabric, the interactions of specific individuals, and the relationship between individuals, whereas the identification of individuals by name or number was long resisted in the west. The records of the long term Japanese observations of individuals have greatly helped the understanding of the bonobo behavior and the cultural differences between groups.


The book includes a number of stories to show the intelligence and empathy of the bonobos. Bonobos use tools less than chimps do, which some people might think is an indication of lesser intelligence. De Waal thinks that the reason bonbos don't appear to use tools is that they have little need of them, since food is abundant in the region in which they are found. Tools may serve in the social domain rather than in the acquisition of food. For example, they build nests in the trees to sleep in at night, but also for resting, grooming, or play during the day. These nests are private, and even a youngster will not enter its mother's nest uninvited. A bonobo which does not wish to share a favorite food may quickly build a nest when approached by a companion. In one case, "an adult male escaped the charging display of another male by climbing a tree and building a nest. In response, the charging male stopped at the base of the tree and moved away."

In describing the empathy of bonobos, he mentions a 21 year old bonobo in a zoo who was feeble because of a heart condition, and was confused when people urged him to move from one place to another. But other bonobos came to help when he uttered a distress call, and would take him by the hand to lead him to the proper place.

Another story of intelligence and empathy comes from the San Diego zoo. The moat in front of the bonobo enclosure had been drained and cleaned, and the zookeepers went to turn on the valve to refill it. One of the bonobos, Kakowet, screamed and waved his arms at them, attracting their attention. The zookeepers discovered that some young bonobos had entered the dry moat, and needed help to get out before the moat was refilled with water, or they would have drowned.

Apes from Venus

There is a whole chapter, called "Apes from Venus," devoted to a description of bonobo sexual habits. Female bonobos, whose genital swellings indicate when they are sexually receptive, are sexually active far beyond the times when they could be fertile. Although young males have fewer opportunities for mating than mature adults, the females mate freely with many males. This means that it is impossible to know the father of a young bonobo. De Waal feels this may be the reason for the lack of infanticide, which is common in some species where males kill the young of other males. Infanticide has been observed in chimps, but not bonobos.

The book gives examples of bonobos using sex in different ways: for procreation; for pleasure; for appeasement; to get desired food; and as a sign of affection. However, sex often does not include an orgasmic climax. Its function is not limited to reproduction and sexual desire. "Gratification is by no means always the objective, and reproduction is only one of its many functions."

De Waal mentions that he was "amazed by the sheer variety of positions and the extent to which the apes mutually stimulated each other." He describes the behaviors observed at the San Diego zoo. They include both face-to-face and belly-to-back copulation; pseudo-copulation between females face-to-face while they rub their clitorises together (know as GG-rubbing, short for genito-genital rubbing); females facing opposite directions (one lying on her back, the other crouching above her and facing away from her); males back-to-back rubbing rumps and scrota together (known as rump-rump contact); one male thrusting at another while their penises rub together; and fellatio.

They also engage in kissing, with tongue to tongue contact. "While typical of the bonobo, such 'French-kissing' is totally absent in the chimpanzee, which engages in rather platonic kisses. This explains why a new zookeeper familiar with chimpanzees once accepted a kiss from a male bonobo. Was he taken aback when he suddenly felt the ape's tongue in his mouth!"

Juveniles often engage in sexual play, and participate on the edges of adult sexual activity. Bonobos also do manual massage of another's genitals, as well as masturbation.

De Waal comments that their sexual activity is strikingly casual and relaxed, a natural part of their social life, and says the bonobo's sexiness should not be exaggerated. The average copulation is quick, lasting 13-15 seconds.

Studies show that "the speed and intensity of thrusting is visibly altered or terminated as a function of changes in the facial expression or vocalization of one of the participants." In other words, they pay attention to their partner's pleasure as well as their own.

Sex among the bonobos appears to be a key method of overcoming competition. Instead of fighting over food, they engage in sexual touching. Or if there has been other aggressive behavior, sex may be used to reduce the tensions.

For example, after one male has chased another away from a female, the two may engage in a scrotal rub. Or when one female has hit a juvenile, and the juvenile's mother has come to its defense, the problem may be resolved by intense GG-rubbing between the two adults. Based on hundreds of such incidents, my study produced the first solid evidence for sexual behavior as a mechanism to overcome social tensions. This function is not absent in other animals (or humans, for that matter), but the art of sexual reconciliation may well have reached its evolutionary peak in the bonobo.

Female Bonding

An uncommon feature of the bonobo social organization that the book points out is that the females appear to be dominant, as demonstrated by the way they control highly prized foods. Even low- and middle-ranking females can displace males at a feeding site. This happens in spite of the fact that male bonobos are larger and stronger than females. It's especially surprising considering the fact that juvenile males remain with the group they were raised in, while juvenile females leave and join another group (this prevents inbreeding). The young females which have just joined a group have the lowest status, and tend to keep a low profile. When they join a new group, they select a particular resident female for special attention, trying to groom her and inviting her to sexual contact. This can establish a close friendship. Females establish bonds with other females through GG stimulation at other times as well. This alliance between females allows them to control special food.

The male bonobos, on the other hand, have no close bonds with each other, and their only close bond with a female is with their mother. The mother-son bond is very significant; the dominant male is usually the son of the dominant female, and observers have noticed the dominant male losing his position when his mother becomes weak or dies.

The female alliances among bonobos is in sharp contrast to chimps, where it is the males which form alliances. De Waal speculates that one reason male chimps form alliances is to gain access to sexually receptive females. The dominant male grants access to the other males who helped him gain his power. This is not a motivation among bonobos, since there are plenty of receptive females. This cooperation (or lack of cooperation among male bonobos) seems to carry over to food. Male chimps have been observed sharing food with other males, whereas male bonobos do not tend to share with each other.

Bonobos as example

De Waal is interested in the effects our knowledge of bonobos may have on our understanding of ourselves and human society. "Our fascination with bonobos is precisely because, consciously or unconsciously, we recognize the way sex functions in their social relationships." We may engage in sexual rapprochement in the privacy of our homes instead of in public, but it's still important to us. He also challenges the idea that scientists have had that female orgasm is exclusively human, pointing out the characteristic screams and squeals the females utter before or during coitus. As he asks, why else would the females masturbate, if not for pleasure?

De Waal's initial interest in bonobos came when he was studying aggressive behavior and the way conflicts are resolved among primates. As the book shows, bonobos provide a very interesting example of conflict resolution through cooperation and pleasuring. What would our society look like if we learned to do something similar? Perhaps we in the poly community are pioneering something similar, with our ideas about compersion and enjoying the pleasure of our loved ones.

Some people find Bonobo, the Forgotten Ape worthwhile just for the pictures and captions, but I recommend reading the whole book.

© 2000 Elaine Cook

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