The Sex Lives of Others

“Although anthropologists have identified few, if any, true human universals, taboos are widespread against exposure of the genitals, public displays of sexual behavior, and multiple consecutive partners. Having sex willingly in the presence of observers or with multiple participants crosses a line of social propriety in many societies. Where these lines are drawn is, of course, highly variable.”          

– Katherine Frank, Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex (2013: 3)

“Humans aren’t the only sex deviants in the animal kingdom. But we are the only ones to stigmatize each other as disgusting perverts.”

– Jesse Bering, Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us: (2013: 216).


Apes don’t have bedrooms.

This is relevant because privacy is sometimes hard to come by in the life of an ape, including for intimate sexual behavior. But for humans it’s different. Sexual privacy is important, yet privacy is never really absolute.

One of the more puzzling questions around human sexuality is why we invest so much energy into influencing the sexual and romantic lives of other people. Why does it matter to us whether celebrities get divorced, or gay people marry, or whether the sexual behavior of strangers somehow falls outside specific social norms?

This isn’t necessarily the case for our primate cousins. Certainly, monkeys and apes compete for mates and they keep track of each others’ social relationships. What they do not do is moralize about proper sexual practices. For chimpanzees and bonobos (outside of the occasional private tryst away from the group to avoid interference from a dominant male), sex usually takes place in view of fellow group members, with little fanfare. Among bonobos, sex is so common that it is almost mundane.

In one study, Zanna Clay and colleagues observed a group of fifty adult bonobos for about a thousand hours in a year (Clay et al 2011). In that time, they recorded 1,100 female–male copulations and 674 female–female genital contacts. Notably, females often made ‘copulation calls’ when they were with a partner of higher rank, regardless of whether their partner was male or female. Clay suggested that these calls were part of a female’s social strategy, announcing to other group members that they had powerful friends (“Hey, see who likes me!?”).

However, while apes jockey for social position when it comes to relationships, we can take this to another level. Not only do we try to improve our own prospects by climbing the social ladder, but we can also get quite judgmental about others’ erotic lives.

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