Sex in the Animal Kingdom

Want to do it like the animals?  Want to get in touch with your primal instincts and lose your humanity?  Here’s how to do it:

  1. Wait six months to a year.
  2. Find a fertile female.
  3. Do it as quickly as possible, and only once or twice.
  4. Go back to step 1.

Contrary to popular notions, our preoccupation with sex is not part of our base instincts, nor is it especially like any of the other animals.  Most animals use sex exclusively for reproduction.  Even bonded pairs seldom use sex for anything other than making babies.

In fact, there are only two notable species in which sex is primarily a social activity, and they’re both apes.  Specifically, Homo sapiens andPan paniscus. You know them better as humans and bonobos.

You aren’t going to see anything this intimate anywhere in the animal kingdom besides us and our close ape relatives.  Besides being unique in the social use of sex, we’re also pretty close to unique in the level of intimacy we achieve.  Like us, bonobos often stare deeply into each others eyes both before and during sex.  We both enjoy cuddling afterward.

Go anywhere outside of this little evolutionary enclave of sexual liberation, and you’re not going to find much “self-actualization” from sex.  It simply isn’t there to be found.  And that’s a very important concept for us to think about.  Because in evolutionary terms, our split with the bonobo was astonishingly recent, and it’s likely that we co-evolved our love of oxytocin as a social drug.

What’s that I hear you saying?  I’m going too far overboard comparing us to bonobos?  Chimps are closer relatives?

Well, that’s technically true… slightly.  But we’re not really that much like chimps.  Here’s an interesting breakdown of the sexual behaviors of chimps, humans, and bonobos:

  • Human and bonobo females have sex through their whole cycle, as well as during pregnancy and lactation.  Chimps do not.
  • Human and bonobo females remain with their group after giving birth and show little or no fear of infanticide.  Chimps are notorious baby killers, and females protect their young from the group.
  • Humans and bonobos enjoy different positions as well as variety during individual acts of coitus.  Both human and bonobo females tend to prefer missionary or other face-to-face sex positions.  Chimps are exclusively about the doggy style.
  • Bonobos and humans enjoy eye-gazing and deep kissing.  Chimps do not.
  • The vulva is oriented forward in bonobos and humans.  It’s oriented rearward in chimps.
  • Food and sex go hand in hand with bonobos and humans.  Chimps are more reticent to share.
  • Homosexuality is common in humans and bonobos.  It’s rare in chimps.
  • Humans and bonobos use sex for purely social reasons quite frequently.  It’s primarily reproductive in chimps.

But I think I hear another objection.  Humans don’t “naturally” go for the kind of orgiastic free-for all that bonobos enjoy?  We naturally gravitate to exclusive pair bonds?

If that is so, how then do we explain the dozens of “primitive” cultures that do not subscribe to this viewpoint?

  • The Aché,
  • the Bari,
  • the Canela,
  • the Cashinahua,
  • the Curripaco,
  • the Ese Eja,
  • the Kayapó,
  • the Kulina,
  • the Matis,
  • the Mehinaku,
  • the Piaroa,
  • the Pirahã,
  • the Secoya,
  • the Siona,
  • the Warao,
  • the Yanomami,
  • the Ye’kwana

This is but a small sampling of the cultures in which the “one man, one woman” concept of both sex and parenting is completely foreign.  In fact, the  Aché have four distinct words for “father,” and each of them is believed to be necessary for a child to be born:

  • Miare: The father who put it in
  • Peroare: The father who mixed it
  • Momboare: The father who spilled it out
  • Bykuare: The father who provided the child’s essence.

Make no mistake.  These are tribal cultures, many steps closer to our “animal origins” in terms of cultural complexity.  And they believe that a woman needs to have sex with at least four men for a baby to be born.  There are even cultures in which not having extramarital sex is considered a sin.  In many cultures, it is considered a moral failing for a man to reject sex with a woman who has already had sex with several members of the tribe.  They believe that babies are built from multiple inseminations, and that without continued sex with multiple males during pregnancy, the baby will not fully form.

There is actually precious little empirical evidence that “one man, one woman, and their children” is the most “natural” way for humans to mate and reproduce.  In fact, there is considerable evidence that in tribal cultures, children with multiple “fathers” are much more likely to survive childhood than those with only one.  Rather than being thought of as bastards, children with many fathers are the prized possession of the tribe.  If one, or two, or even five of their fathers die, there are still many men with warm parental feelings towards them.

So whence comes our preoccupation with exclusivity and monogamy?  That’s a tougher question to answer, and it involves a certain amount of guesswork.  But make no mistake — the facts are the facts, and our interpretation must not make light of them, nor may it brush them casually aside.  The thing that makes human sexuality different from animal sexuality is precisely that we are obsessed with it, that we desire it with many different people, and that we use it for social purposes as much or more than the animals. If you want to have sex like an animal, lose your sex drive and only do it when you want a baby.

 NEXT:  Where Did One Man/One Woman Really Come From?


de Waal, F. (2005) Our Inner Ape: The Best and Worst of Human Nature.  London:  Granta Books.

Ryan, C and Cacilda, J. (2010) Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality.  U.S: HarperCollins.


One thought on “Sex in the Animal Kingdom

  1. Also, many Native Alaskan tribes practiced wife-swapping as a means of formalizing agreements. A contract wasn’t valid unless all parties involved slept with each other’s wives.

    Posted by Nerdsamwich | September 21, 2013, 2:33 pm

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