You’ve probably heard about bonobos — close relatives of chimps who are somewhat skinnier, and are native to the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the popular imagination, bonobos have a somewhat hippie-ish reputation. They’re portrayed as the “free love” primates, but are also supposedly a more likable, peaceable version of their sᴛʀᴇssed-out, ʟᴀsʜing-out chimp cousins. Several articles even refer to bonobos as pacific, “Make love not war” “swingers.” It has long been believed that bonobos have s.ᴇ x to diffuse potential tension — when they come upon a cache of food, for example, or a new bonobo troop, having s.ᴇ x is a way to bond and take the sᴛʀᴇss level down.
Bonobos have earned a reputation as a “s.ᴇ xy” ape. S.ᴇ xual activity — in many creative forms — plays a large role in bonobo society. S.ᴇ xual contacts occur often, in virtually all partner combinations and in a slew of different positions. One of the main functions of this behavior, besides fun, is to alleviate ᴄᴏɴғʟɪᴄᴛs that arise within the group.
Bonobo society is also known to be more egalitarian and peaceful, especially compared with their close relatives, chimpanzees. However, ᴄᴏɴғʟɪᴄᴛs still arise in bonobo groups. Zanna Clay and Frans de Waal of Emory University are studying how bonobos use s.ᴇ x after ᴄᴏɴғʟɪᴄᴛs.
They observed the bonobos across the daytime and recorded any instances of social ᴄᴏɴғʟɪᴄᴛs occurring in the group. ꜰɪɢʜᴛs among bonobos can often be very complex and confusing to follow. The most difficult ones to interpret are these mass ᴄᴏɴғʟɪᴄᴛs in which there is huge emotional contagion, and everyone loses control–suddenly, there are lots of bonobos piling up on top of one another, screaming, biting, pushing, shoving. Bonobos use a diverse set of behaviors to reconcile ᴄᴏɴғʟɪᴄᴛs and console victims–among these are s.ᴇ xual contacts, such as touching of the ɢᴇɴɪᴛᴀʟs with the hands or feet, ɢᴇɴɪᴛᴀʟ rubbing between two individuals, and ᴄᴏᴘᴜʟᴀᴛions. But there were also other, more familiar behaviors, such as embracing, patting, touching and stroking.
The four hypotheses regarding the role of post-ᴄᴏɴғʟɪᴄᴛ s.ᴇ xual contacts
Clay and de Waal tested four main hypotheses regarding post-ᴄᴏɴғʟɪᴄᴛ s.ᴇ xual contacts.
- Sᴛʀᴇss reduction, i.e. do s.ᴇ xual contacts alleviate sᴛʀᴇss following a ꜰɪɢʜᴛ;
- Reproductive benefits, i.e. do individuals offer s.ᴇ x following ꜰɪɢʜᴛs as a means to get a reproductive benefit (in other words, to ᴄᴏɴᴄᴇɪᴠᴇ);
- Mediate food-ᴄᴏɴғʟɪᴄᴛs, i.e. if s.ᴇ x is closely linked to feeding contexts, does s.ᴇ x play a special role in managing ꜰɪɢʜᴛs over food;
- Repairing valuable bonds, i.e. is s.ᴇ x especially likely to be used to restore social bonds with close friends?
More research on the physiology and hormonal profiles of bonobos is needed to answer the question bonobos use s.ᴇ xual contacts so frequently to relieve sᴛʀᴇss, but it seems that the s.ᴇ xual physiology of bonobos is closely related to their sᴛʀᴇss alleviation. This may be have to do with the rubbing of s.ᴇ xual organs causing reductions in cortisol levels in the blood or causing increases in ‘bonding’ hormones such as oxytocin or vasopressin. It is still rather a mystery why bonobos have evolved to use this additional tool for sᴛʀᴇss re lief in addition to more common forms such as touching or embracing. Nevertheless, although bonobos use s.ᴇ xual contacts especially frequently and habitually in sᴛʀᴇssful contexts, the relationship between sᴛʀᴇss and non-reproductive s.ᴇ xual contacts is actually quite widely observed across numerous animals, including humans of course. For example, male chimpanzees will mount one another during sᴛʀᴇssful events such as inter-group encounters with stranger chimpanzees.