People who work with primates are used to apes' planting affectionate pecks on their lips. But imagine the surprise of a San Diego zookeeper, unfamiliar with a newly arrived species known as the bonobo, when the animal gently slid its tongue into the zookeeper's mouth. The only thing more surprising than the French kiss was that the bonobo, like the zookeeper, was male.
After studying the primates for his new book Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, primatologist Frans de Waal, a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, says that such expressions of intimacy are consistent with the homosexual behavior of what he terms "the erotic champions of the world." "Same-sex, opposite-sex--bonobos just love sex play," de Waal said in an interview. "They have so much sex, it gets boring."
Researchers have long known that same-sex erotic contact is common among apes. But de Waal's bonobo research as well as that recently presented by other authors suggest a more provocative conclusion: that homosexuality is consonant with the survival of the species. "Humans have created the myth that sexuality can be justified only by reproduction, which by definition limits it to hetero sex," says Michael Bronski, author of The Pleasure Principle: Culture, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom. "But here is an animal society that uses homosexuality to improve its social life."
Bonobos, in fact, who live in the equatorial rain forests of Zaire, have a sex life that would exhaust even the randiest humans, engaging in sexual activity, on average, every 1 1/2 hours, day and night. Females rub their genitalia together in a ritual graphically described as "GG-rubbing"; adolescent males swing from trees to practice what de Waal calls "penis fencing" and "rump-rump rubbing." Masturbation, French-kissing, and oral sex, all generally thought to be the province of humans, are the norm. Ejaculation, however, is generally reserved for conventional opposite-sex intercourse.
Nonetheless, de Waal warns against viewing bonobo life as one long Roman orgy. Sex is used not simply for pleasure, he says, but also to encourage peaceful interactions between competing bonobo groups and to quell the violent urges of males. Infanticide, common among apes, is virtually unheard of among bonobos. "Sex for the bonobo is as much affectional as it is genital," he says. "They have adapted sexual relations to soothe tensions, encourage cooperation, and ensure their survival as a species."
This sexual utopia apparently is made possible by the prominence of females in bonobo society. Because females camouflage their reproductive cycle, they are able to keep males off-balance and have a larger say in their choice of sex partners than females of other ape species. Males have learned to moderate their behavior to curry favor among females, who can just as easily turn to other females for companionship and erotic gratification. In a section of de Waal's book titled "Make Love, Not War," the author describes observing a female bonobo defuse a potentially dangerous standoff between two camps by rubbing her clitoris on an aggressive male. Shortly thereafter the animals were resting together peacefully.
That model of social interaction does not necessarily apply to humans, admits de Waal. "We have other ways of reducing aggression, including verbally and through nonsexual bodily contact. The reason we have sexual moral restraints--not all of them good--is that our society is based on the nuclear family, with males invested in just their own offspring. To increase paternity certainty among humans, we require monogamy. Bonobo females have successfully countered the danger of males' attacking the infants of other male bonobos by making it difficult for males to determine their own offspring."
De Waal is not the only expert on primate behavior to present evidence of pervasive homosexuality in bonobos--nor is he the only one to warn against anthropomorphic interpretations of the data. "We have to be careful to remember that homosexuality means different things in animals," says Richard Wrangham, coauthor of Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. One fundamental difference between apes and humans when it comes to the "meaning" of homosexual behavior is reflected in its distribution. "All wild primates we have seen within a particular species are equally homosexual," says Wrangham. "If you lined up ten female bonobos, it's not like one would be a 6 on the Kinsey scale and another a 2. They would all be the same number. It's only humans who adopt identities."
Despite such warnings, the temptation to draw analogies is apparently irresistible. Since bonobos and chimpanzees share 98% of their genetic makeup with humans, researchers pay close attention to their behavior--and its relevance to humans. "From homophobic people saying there is no such thing as homosexuality in animals to Konrad Lorenz's famous research into territorial aggression, animal behavior has been used to show the limits of human sexual behavior and liberation," Bronski says. "The message has always been, `We are related to animals. Look at the behavior we are saddled with.' What's interesting is that we now have a model superior to our own to strive for."
In fact, questions about animal homosexuality have repeatedly surfaced in gay rights debates. In a 1993 interview in The Advocate, for instance, former Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, in championing the rights of gays and lesbians to serve in the military, quipped, "There has always been homosexuality.... There were gay apes." While the politician is not known as a student of anthropology, it now seems he was right. Yet antigay activists are quick to point out that nature rarely provides good role models for humans.
"The debate has always been whether sexuality is primitive, which has a negative connotation, or natural, which is positive," de Waal says. "My own feeling is that humans may have started out more like bonobos but have become more intolerant, dividing the world into homo and hetero and eliminating the gray areas." For the bonobo, that gray area leaves a lot of room to play.
RELATED ARTICLE: CWAs [Chimps with AIDS]
Studying other primates to learn about humans can yield precious insights--but it also has its limitations, as scientists warned April 29 when reporting the latest development in AIDS vaccine research. In experiments performed at the University of Pennsylvania, two chimpanzees who had first received a novel form of AIDS vaccine were deliberately infected with HIV. After 48 weeks the chimps showed almost no detectable levels of HIV in their blood, while a third chimp--who had received a different, weaker form of the vaccine--had 10,000 copies of HIV in its blood.
Unlike past efforts, which relied on killed or weakend forms of the virus, the new vaccine incorporates weakened DNA from HIV. In addition to the chimpanzees, about 30 human volunteers are also being used to test the vaccine, but it is still too soon to tell how effective it is on them. While the DNA approach, if successful, could lead to a safe and relatively inexpensive vaccine, the experiment is still years away from any marketable product. And it may yet endure the fate of promising vaccine experiments in the past that have worked well on animals, only to fail in human subjects.
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|Title Annotation:||homosexual behavior in primates|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Jun 10, 1997|
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