Just How Much Sex Are We Talking About?

By Chris Mooney | June 4, 2010 8:59 am

Vanessa Woods CoverThis is the last in a series of guest posts from Vanessa Woods, author of the new book, Bonobo Handshake. Vanessa is a Research Scientist in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University and studies the cognition of chimpanzees and bonobos in Congo.

So there is some doubt floating around like a bad smell, that bonobos don’t even have that much sex. For a species that only 25% of people know is a great ape, and those that do know them only really know about their great sex life, taking the sex away from bonobos is like taking the mojo from Austin Powers.

Don’t let anyone tell you bonobos have equal or less sex than chimpanzees. Like this article in the New Yorker or scientists like Stanford 1998: “Female bonobos are frequently portrayed as hyper-sexual, but mating frequencies in the wild are actually quite comparable for the two species of Pan.”

When I was at Lola, I did a study. I compared the infant bonobos in the Lola nursery to infant chimpanzees in a chimp sanctuary. The nursery groups are isolated from the adults, so they can’t learn their sexual behaviors from adults. And they are wild-born, some of them just arrived and they live in a forest, so any sexual behavior is not from captivity and confinement.

I observed the nursery in the context where the most sexual behavior occurs, when they eat together: Each morning morning, half an hour before the food, then half an hour during the food, then half an hour after the food.

This is my histogram for the different positions I saw the bonobos babies having sex

histogram

And these were the results:

bonobo baby results

And if you don’t believe these results, Harvard student, Tory Wobber analysed the hormone levels of bonobos and chimps. Bonobo babies have incredibly high levels of testosterone compared to chimps, explaining their sexual behavior.

So for everyone trying to take away bonobo mojo – how do you explain this?

*My new book Bonobo Handshake is out now. It’s available on Amazon, or through my website www.bonobohandshake.com.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Books

Comments (14)

Links to this Post

  1. anthropologyworks » Anthro in the news 6/7/10 | June 7, 2010
  1. It’s been a great series, thanks for writing it. (Although, I never guessed there would be graphic stick figures. :) )

  2. Mork

    I like how your scientifically accurate drawings show the bonobos smiling while they do the deed.

  3. gillt

    The graph you drew only shows bonobos. Where are the red bars for chimps?

  4. ponderingfool

    . gillt Says:
    June 4th, 2010 at 12:18 pm
    The graph you drew only shows bonobos. Where are the red bars for chimps?
    **********************
    Maybe that is the point (i.e. no sexual encounters). Of course then a bar graph may not be the best way to represent the data given the absence of a red bar could mean 0 or it could mean the bar is missing. A table perhaps?

    By the way what is the y-axis on the graph (number of sexual encounters, avg. / chimp)?

    Of course sexual play in the morning before, during, and after the meal doesn’t exactly show that bonobos are more sexual than chimps overall. It shows they are more sexual in the morning around/during that meal.

  5. Nullius in Verba

    Not that I doubt that there are differences, but you quote a statement talking about bonobos in the wild, and seek to refute it with a case of bonobos in captivity. You say that these youngsters haven’t learnt their sexual behaviour from their parents, but the articles cited seek to explain the difference through the environment of easy and plentiful food, and no danger. Are you sure you are answering the right question?

    They also question whether genital-genital contact is necessarily “sex”. That sounds like a reasonable question.

    Some other points I’d be interested in more commentary on…
    Question from the first article: “Why do females give birth only every five to seven years, despite frequent sexual activity?”

    “As an example of the possibly distorting impact of provisioning, Hohmann noted that the Wamba females had far shorter intervals between births than those at Lomako.”

    “science still needs to explain the physical superiority of males: why would evolution leave that extra bulk in place, if no use was made of it?”

    The articles here read as being ‘defensive’, as if it was emotionally important to the author that there be these differences between bonobos and chimpanzees. Again, I don’t see any problem with the idea that there are – and such matters as animal altruism I regard as far less controversial than is suggested – but I can’t help feeling uneasy about the apparent emotional investment in the conclusions.

    The behaviour of dogs is very different to that of wolves, and is in many ways more “human-like”. It is very easy to get closely related animals behaving very differently, and it doesn’t necessarily imply anything about other species.

  6. gillt

    Ponderingfool: ‘Maybe that is the point (i.e. no sexual encounters)”

    That doesn’t work, because Chris said “I observed the nursery in the context where the most sexual behavior occurs, when they eat together.”

    Based on his observation that’s not true for chimps, and so it’s a false comparison. Or he simply missed the chimp behavior. Either way zero recorded sexual encounters is not useful here.

  7. Rhea

    Chimps are no slouches at sex. I don’t have the reference, but I recall an account of an adult female chimp in heat who had sex 30 times in an hour with six different males, and then went off in the bushes with the youngest one. This was, I believe, an observation in the wild.

    You refer to bonobo infants, but the ones in the photos, especially 2, 3 and 4, don’t look like infants. How old are we talking about?

  8. ponderingfool

    gilt I believe it is Vanessa Woods who is writing this series not Chris. Given the blog is run by Chris and Sheril, guest posts like Vanessa’s are listed as either by Chris or Sheril (in this case Chris).
    “This is the last in a series of guest posts from Vanessa Woods, author of the new book, Bonobo Handshake. ”

    The no sexual encounters line you are quoting for me was not for the bonobos but rather for the chimps (hence no bars corresponding to the chimps in the graph while you do see bars corresponding t the bonobos in the graph). No red bars is what you were asking about gilt. The reason is because maybe Vanessa observed 0 such interactions. Not sure if the line: “I observed the nursery in the context where the most sexual behavior occurs, when they eat together” refers to the bonobos, chimps, or both.

  9. gillt

    I know you were referring to the chimps, which is why comparing bonobos to chimps in this particular circumstance and then making a generality about overall rates of sexual behavior–”Don’t let anyone tell you bonobos have equal or less sex than chimpanzees–” is suspect. Obviously chimps have sex, so what sense does it make to use a time period when they were having zero sex?

    I’m simply taking a skeptical view of her methodology, nothing else.

    And this line: “I observed the nursery in the context where the most sexual behavior occurs, when they eat together” obviously refers to the bonobos, because of this line: “I compared the infant bonobos in the Lola nursery…”

  10. Of course sexual play in the morning before, during, and after the meal doesn’t exactly show that bonobos are more sexual than chimps overall. It shows they are more sexual in the morning around/during that meal.

  11. Cait

    Ms. Woods has never seen a bonobo in the wild.

  12. SkepticalScientist

    Ms. Woods is selling her book. The more flamboyant and controversial the better for her. Notice the pretty pictures. Science doesn’t have to be dry but her approach makes one doubt the science even if the conclusion is valid. Chimps also use lots of positions (and even some monkeys e.g. capuchins). If her comparative data were presented properly there wouldn’t be so many doubts. But that might not sell books.

  13. Jim Moore

    There is certainly a difference between bonobos and chimpanzees in sexual behavior (using broad definition of sexual); what exactly it is, is less clear.

    Bonobos are known to engage in sociosexual behavior in response to tension or stress. These observations come from a group of infants whose mothers have (presumably) recently been shot, and they placed into a cage with a bunch of strangers and cared for by humans. No matter how loving and experienced the care, that has to be stressful and that fact considered. As to high T explaining sexual behavior – hormone levels can in principle be influenced by behavior; could the ‘sexual’ behavior contribute to high T? Or the conditions in general – normally stress suppresses T but need to consider the possibility…

    Chimpanzees in the same situation do not respond the same way, that’s important and interesting.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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