Yes, Other Animals Do Have Sex For Fun

By Jamie Lawson, Durham University | August 3, 2015 1:38 pm

dogs mating

There’s an idea circulating that humans are the only animal to experience sexual pleasure; that we approach sex in a way that is distinct from others. As with many questions about sex, this exposes some interesting facts about the way we discuss the subject.

On one level, the question of whether humans and nonhumans experience sex in the same way is fairly simply dismissed: how would we know? We cannot know how a nonhuman experiences anything – they can’t be asked. Sex as an experiential phenomenon for nonhumans is, quite simply, inaccessible. Science is obliged to propose questions that are answerable, and “how does a leopard slug experience sex?” is, at time of writing, about as unanswerable as they get.

Having said that, we can make educated guesses about whether sex is pleasurable for other species. Sex would be a very strange thing to seek if it didn’t bring some form of pleasure. It increases risk of disease, it wastes energy, it can seriously increase the likelihood of something bigger coming along and eating you (seriously, check out leopard-slug reproduction, below).

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There’s no reason why an animal should seek sex unless they enjoy it. It is often proposed that an inherent “drive to reproduce” explains nonhuman sexual activity, but that is not an alternative here: if animals possess an instinct to reproduce, it needs to function somehow – and pleasure is a fairly basic motivator. The hypothesis that all sexually reproducing species experience sexual pleasure is, in itself, quite reasonable – as would be the hypothesis that animals find eating pleasurable.

Do Monkeys Have Orgasms?

This hypothesis about sex has been tested. Since the word “pleasure” is quite vague, scientists have tended to focus on orgasms. As a particularly intense form of sexual pleasure for many people, the logic has been that if non-humans experience orgasm, they are almost certainly experiencing pleasure.

Given that we are most familiar with human orgasms, scientists have unsurprisingly looked for behavioral and physical correlates of what we sometimes experience – shuddering, muscular rigidity, a cessation of movement, vocalization, changes of facial expression, ejaculation. None of these are guaranteed, and consequently we should not expect them necessarily to be associated with sex in other species. But using this method, most commonly to study non-human primates, the animals perhaps most likely to display responses similar to humans, scientists have detected orgasm in many different species including macaques, orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees.

In fact, very few primatologists doubt that non-human primates experience orgasm – at least, male non-human primates. There is debate as to whether female primates (including humans) experience sexual pleasure in the same way male primates do, which raises some fairly important questions about how Western culture views female sexual agency. But some detailed studies of the stump-tailed macaque have suggested that females of this species, at least, demonstrate a capacity for orgasm.

Bonobos definitely have sex for fun. Credit: Edwin Butter / Shutterstock

Bonobos definitely have sex for fun. Credit: Edwin Butter / Shutterstock

Defining Pleasure

Drilling down the totality of the “experience of sexual pleasure” to the moment of orgasm is problematic, though. It is the result of the pioneering work of Masters and Johnson dating from 1966. They focused sexual pleasure on orgasm by proposing a four-stage biomedical framework of excitement, plateau, orgasm and resolution. Despite much criticism, it entered intellectual and public consciousnesses as a description of “normal” sex, involving genitals and aimed at producing orgasms.

But while this may describe sex for many, it excludes an awful lot of people. A brief survey of the various things that humans get up to quickly indicates that sex isn’t necessarily focused on orgasm or genitals. Focusing sex on genitals and orgasm only makes sense if we assume that the central function of sex is reproduction – exactly the same assumption that seems to lie behind scientific inquiries into sexual pleasure in other species.

Various cultures maintain that sex is not connected to conception, though – most famously the Trobriand Islanders of the South Pacific. New reproductive technologies have meanwhile separated sex and reproduction: it is not necessary for a people to have sex in order to conceive. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given that people have more sex than they have children. The yoking of sex to reproduction to the exclusion of pleasure can be traced to the Victorian era, and is the consequence of all sorts of exciting historico-political processes that would take a whole separate article to explain, but it seeped into all aspects of Western culture, including science.

jeep2499 / Shutterstock

jeep2499 / Shutterstock

Not Just for Reproduction

Not to suggest that sex isn’t involved in reproduction. The gamete exchange that is necessary for conception to occur is, in general, the result of some form of contact between bodies. But when people say that “humans are the only species to have sex for pleasure” they are really saying that “humans are the only species that has non-reproductive sex.”

In fact, sex may well serve a number of other functions. Sex may bond animals together or may cement a dominance hierarchy in the case of bonobos, for example, one of humans’ closest relatives. These functions may be extremely important, especially for social animals, and would likely only be feasible if sex were in itself a source of pleasure.

There is also no shortage of examples where non-human sex has nothing to do with reproduction at all. Females of many species mate with males when they are non-fertile (marmosets for example). And same-sex sexual behavior, which is definitionally non-reproductive, occurs in every vertebrate species in which it has been looked for, along with some non-vertebrates (bedbugs, for example, or fruit flies).

This evidence alone should lead us to expect that many animals experience sexual pleasure in much the same way that humans do – that the pleasure involved in sex leads many animals to seek it in non-reproductive contexts, and that this aspect of sexuality is not as unique as humans may like to think. This insight is surely vital to understanding sex in other species, not to mention all other aspects of their behavior too.

The Conversation

 Top image by Sutichak Yachiangkham/ Shutterstock

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    “There is debate
    as to whether female primates (including humans) experience sexual
    pleasure in the same way male primates do, which raises some fairly
    important questions about how Western culture views female sexual
    agency.”
    -Uh, no, it’s because there’s no evolutionary reason for females to have orgasms.

    • the master of disaster

      No evolutionary reason that we KNOW of.

      • nancyfay

        How about, to ensure cooperation?

    • Brian Crawford

      If it gives them pleasure so they seek to have sex, that’s a very good evolutionary reason. Seeing the vast amount of energy and risk involved in sex, it’s clear individuals need a very good incentive to engage in it, and pleasure is that incentive. Humans have a long history of claiming that we are different from the other animals because we are the only species that…. From making and using tools to communicating and expressing emotion, to enjoying sex, these false dichotomies have fallen.

    • Maia

      There are hypotheses that orgasm in female vertebrates encourages them NOT to immediately expel semen in various ways, and possibly to seek more orgasms/sex which makes sense, since intense pleasure does have that effect elsewhere: you go for more. More sex and more sperm success translates to more offspring.
      So IF you buy the idea that for anything at all that happens, there must be a clear evolutionary reason to “explain” it (which I don’t), then there you go.

    • nancyfay

      Read “Bonk” by Mary Roach. About sex research. There are people who work on hog farms who artificially inseminate sows, and there is significant evidence that the sow has a better chance of becoming pregnant if she has an … ummm…. if she is …. ummm…..just read the book.

    • Lurid

      The contractions that result from female orgasm aid in the fertilization of the egg. In other words, we pick up on men’s short comings. Lawl.

  • Bill Britton

    The only difference between human and animal sexual pleasure is (possibly) the intensity and the (sometimes) hilarity of the act itself. A little visualization here will confirm the latter conjecture.

  • M. J.

    No one is talking about how people are the only species who do it for meaning. Or how people are the only only ‘animals’ who have same sex intercourse and experience ‘pleasure’. Someone should look into that see what they discover :)))

  • Harold McFarland

    Human sexual behavior is complicated by our ability to predict consequences for our actions, and by our evolutionary history of violence which has made a male protector a valuable assistance to a childbearing woman. Since a man has little assurance that a wife’s offspring are his other than her word, his confidence in her emotional attachment to him is of extreme importance if he is to stick around, foregoing opportunities to spread his seed more widely and possibly risking his life protecting his wife and her children.

    “Sincerity, that’s the ticket: When you can fake that you have it made!” Possibly so, but genuine sincerity in a relationship wears better over the years, and so It appears that a primary function of sex in humans is to bond the woman to the man. Hence, women have several anatomical features that are uncommon in the animal world:

    Most obvious is permanent breasts which develop at puberty, an evolutionarily expensive feature which is possessed by very few other animals. It has been suggested that this evolved as a sexual signal to replace the rounded buttocks when we developed longer legs and began to mate face-to-face. However, our closest relative, the bonobos, also mate face-to-face, but do not have permanent breasts. Another (not necessarily exclusive) evolutionary advantage for permanent breasts is to repurpose a preexisting instinct, namely, the attachment of mother to child through the release of oxytocin and other hormones by nursing. The precocious breast development, with a corresponding reactivation of breast-seeking instinct in the male at puberty, allows this same attachment instinct to be triggered by her lover when a woman’s breast are manipulated in foreplay.

    Then, there is female orgasm. It may be true that some other animals have something like human female orgasm, but it appears to be rare. Female orgasm causes a release of oxytocin and several other hormones and pleasurable neurotransmitters in the brain which again facilitate bonding of the woman to her mate.

    A somewhat more common, but still relatively unusual trait is hidden estrus, so that even the woman is not aware of the timing of her ovulation. In much of the animal kingdom the female is only receptive during ovulation and one or at most a few matings virtually assure fertilization, whereas a human couple seeking to have a baby takes on average about a year of frequent sex to achieve a pregnancy. That is startlingly inefficient if the purpose of sex were only reproduction, but clearly, there has been an evolutionary advantage to the bonding achieved by sex.

    All of these work to bond the woman to her mate, which is necessary to forming a stable pair bond. It isn’t different in kind from every other animal, but is certainly unique in overall degree.

  • The History Man

    Anyone who has had their leg humped by the family pooch knew this without any scientific study necessary!

  • Danny Davies

    everyone/every pet, dog, every creature enjoys mating, even if it’s not their species
    ,

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