Shriek! Behold, these obscene birds standing there NAKED! With CHILDREN around!
You know I’m a sex nerd wherever I go, observing and evaluating sexual mores and behaviors in nearly every setting I find myself. The doctor’s office. The airport. And my first trip to a zoo in my adult life this past weekend was no different.
My husband Ryan and I visited the world famous San Diego Zoo for his birthday and oh my, do I have observations and insights about animal sexual behavior to share.
1. Everyone is naked
Not the humans of course. But the flamingos? All naked. The two tigers with their testicles in plain view? Totally naked. The, koalas, capybaras, and slender-snouted crocodiles? Completely 100% naked!
If you practice mindful awareness while spending time with animals, it starts to dawn on you that concepts like clothing, modesty, obscenity of the nipples, buttocks, and genitals, even the idea of “nudity” itself, is completely socially constructed. Us humans, we just made it up.
And we torture ourselves with it. We apply value and meaning to unclothed bodies. We feel ashamed and embarrassed to be naked. We feel violated and uncomfortable at the site of other people naked.
The argument is that clothing makes us civilized, but walking around the zoo seeing every other animal in existence naked except humans, one wonders who is actually the most culturally advanced- us or them.
2. Gorillas don’t care about your social norms
In addition to giving zero fucks about American human social norms on nudity, animals could care less about our norms on breastfeeding. Personally I don’t even care for our breastfeeding norms, but that didn’t seem to stop other humans at the zoo from being rather disturbed by the gorilla breastfeeding situation.
About 60 onlookers including myself were peering through glass at three sleeping gorillas in their grassy habitat. One gently rolled over and began suckling at another one’s nipple. A zoologist pointed it out and explained mama was nursing her 5th son. Because the baby looked quite large, a number of humans asked his age. The zoologist said, “He’s 4 years old, although they typically nurse until age 5” and well, some people were not having it.
Offended eye rolls.
Cries of “What!? That’s too long.”
I’m no primatologist, but I feel really confident in saying that mama gorilla knows how much time is and is not “too long” to feed her own child. And as a sexologist, I feel really confident in saying that human social and cultural norms, rooted in sex-phobia and the sexualization of the female breast, is the lens through which these zoo-goers were evaluating mama gorilla.
3. Bonobos show us what we can be
Despite social pressure to the contrary, I often deign to dream and advocate for humans to be better in the way we treat each other and to finally outgrow our use of violence, poverty, greed, and cruelty to manage our societies. I believe we can fulfill our potential, and bonobos, our closest genetic relative other than chimpanzees, sharing 98.7% of their DNA with humans, remind us what’s possible.
Seeing the bonobos at the zoo reminded me of what’s possible.
Bonobos are a species of peace and kindness. While about 1 million humans die per year, year after year, at the hands of another human- war, homicide, drunk driving to name just a few of our most popular methods- there has never been a single recorded case, in either the wild or captivity, of a bonobo killing another bonobo.
They are highly empathetic and altruistic. They share their food and resources. They are especially good at regulating their impulses, and perceiving and being sensitive to distress in others. Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it?
And here’s the part that makes them sexology’s favorite animal to study: bonobos have a matriarchal, egalitarian culture in which sexual activity is a tool of everyday life. They use sex to greet each other, resolve conflict, and form social bonds. Instead of a handshake, an argument, and a campfire, its tongue kissing, dry humping, and intercourse.
You know when humans are stuck in traffic, and get increasingly tense, annoyed, aggressive, and angry as everyone is vying for their spot to merge? To manage this stress, we turn to honking, cursing, maybe driving in a way that puts other drivers’ lives in danger, and in some cases, getting out of the car to engage in physical violence.
The bonobo equivalent, when a new food source is found and everyone is hungry, stressed, and vying for their turn at the fruit tree, they turn to community-wide orgy. They all fuck each other (except mothers and sons, that’s the only sexual taboo), the pleasure defuses the stress, and then all get to enjoy a peaceful meal.
Female bonobos, which in their matriarch have social status, are about half the size of adult human women but have clitorises 3 times the size. And they use them to manage a harmonious society. “GG”, or genital-genital rubbing, in which two female bonobos rub their clits together for a few seconds, as well as other varieties of sex, happens about every two hours in a bonobo’s day- to keep the peace, to say hi, to relieve anxiety, to pass the time.
People, we are fucking up at primating by not being more like bonobos.
4. And baboons show us what we wish we weren’t
If the bonobo exhibit reminded me of human’s greatest potential, visiting the baboons reminded me of human’s ugliest look in the mirror.
Baboon society is run by a rigid male dominated hierarchy in which one male has a harem of females that he gets exclusive sexual access to. The female children stay with the group for life, while male offspring go off and form their own harem. Multiple harem can join together to form a troop.
In this social order, baboons are jealous, competitive, and violent. The males get in vicious fights over females, they kidnap females from other groups, and attack and bite their own female members if they try to leave. And sometimes they beat and bite the females for no obvious reason at all.
And baboons are stressed. The incessant bullying, taunting, violence, and emotional cruelty based on social status, including low ranking members being ostracized from group grooming behaviors, and high ranking members getting first (and sometimes only) access to food and water resources, makes for a vitriolic existence.
But something fascinating happened, and it’s my all-time favorite story related to sexuality, aside from the invention of the vibrator.
A research team in Kenya was studying the stressful lives of baboons in the wild and the physiological effect of that stress on their bodies. But they walked away with a different insight entirely.
Several years into their research, the baboon troop they had been observing got into the dumpster of a nearby tourist area that happened to have scraps of meat infected with bovine tuberculosis. Because the aggressive alpha males, per their culture, fought off the others and took all the food for themselves, only the aggressive alpha males died from the tainted meat. And just like that, it was like ding dong the witch is dead, and this baboon troop of low ranking males, females, and children suddenly found themselves without their abusers.
And so of course the research team was riveted to see what would happen next.
As expected, the baboon society became relatively peaceful after that.
However there was a surprising twist. When alpha males from other troops, not raised in the post-tuberculosis culture of this troop, came around, they didn’t attack, assert dominance, or try to steal females and take over, as was customary. Instead of seizing on a power vacuum, they molded and assimilated to become a part of the new culture of peace.
It’s been 35 years since the death of the alpha males in this troop, and still no alpha males have risen to replace them, and they are still living a low stress and low aggression life.
We aren’t bonobos or baboons, flamingos or slender-snouted crocodiles, and we can’t necessarily look to other species as evidence of what we could or should be doing.
But personally I find it inspiring to study, for example, how sex is used for peace among bonobos, or how when it comes to the nature/nurture debate, aggressive patriarchal behavior among a group of baboons has been socialized out of existence. It gives me hope. And these are the thoughts I have when I go to the zoo.
I invite you to comment and engage in this ever-growing digital sex ed library and community! I know it doesn't quite have the instant gratification of posting a comment on Facebook or Instagram, but it also doesn't have the corporate anti-sex censorship, so comment away! Just be kind.
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All content © Dr. Jill McDevitt, 2019. Permission to print and download for personal use only. Materials may not be shared on social media or elsewhere, and may not be used commercially.