If You Want Fidelity, Get a Dog
A version of this article was first published: www.ethics.org.au - 3 May 2012
We’re animals. Let’s get that clear straight up. And our closest relative is the bonobo, a type of great ape. At the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, while watching a short clip of bonobos after they’d been fed apples, I wondered if in fact I was witnessing animal porn. Christopher Ryan, a psychologist and co-author of the best seller, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, certainly entertained us, if in a slightly uncomfortable way.
It seems our nearest mates, are, how would I put it?, frisky creatures. Mother-son relations are the only no-go in their society. Everything else, well pretty much everything else, goes.
Understanding these relatives of ours can go some way to explaining certain behaviours and challenges we humans face, especially when it comes to relationships and fidelity. Associating ourselves with bonobos could perhaps excuse all types of behaviour such as multiple partners, father-daughter and sibling relations, bisexual experimentation, indiscriminate sex for pleasure and sex as a way of resolving conflict.
Female bonobos have an open sexuality in that they have sexual relations with both males and females. It has also been observed that they use their sexuality to control males and in fact they collectively dominate males by forming alliances. Some of this sound familiar?
Just like bonobos, women are highly sexually charged beings, Ryan declared to the audience. Hysteria, in the 1700s, was regarded quite simply as sexual frustration and this apparent malfunction of the uterus was easily alleviated by ‘genital massage’. Doctors, tiring of performing the task, were then saved by the vibrator and hysteria has now been rendered a thing of the past. Female sexual pleasure, it seems, is intrinsic to women’s health.
The contraceptive pill altering women’s sense of smell and subsequent choice of partner, the wearing of red lipstick being akin to a monkey’s bottom, tight jeans or dresses giving the effect of a protruding derriere like that of a chimp’s are variously picked up in mainstream media, leading to surprise and intrigue for a short time. Then we get back to our business of being human, civilised ones at that.
But would it really help to think of ourselves as animals, as bonobo relations?
Ryan’s point was that understanding where we come from and what we’re related to can help us to understand why monogamy can sometimes be so difficult.
When the talk turned to the audience and the concepts of trust, respect and loyalty were raised, however, it became evident that there was still a strong willingness for, and commitment to, monogamous relationships. And we never got to religion which could be seen as one of the ultimate tempers of sexual behaviour.
So while it was all very interesting, I got the feeling that Ryan’s option of ‘monogomish’ didn’t seem to hold much favour with the Festival crowd. Perhaps it was the footage of the bonobos that turned us off.