Are humans ready to learn from our most promiscuous cousins?
The Bonobo Way: The Evolution of Peace Through Pleasure
Once upon a time, the story goes, the Congo River changed its course, dividing a group of great apes in two. (They were already split off from the apes who would evolve into humans.) Isolated on the Congo’s north side, one group evolved into our famous cousins the chimpanzees. South of the river, subject to a different set of environmental pressures, another group became the bonobos.
Common chimps are famously humanlike—described as intelligent, prone to violence, male dominant and territorial. Want to blame everything from the hydrogen bomb to rape on our biology? Look, as biologists and anthropologists have done for decades, to chimpanzees and their often-vicious behaviors.
But that’s not the whole story, says Susan Block, PhD. The sexologist, sex therapist and host of late-night HBO specials—also known as Dr. Suzy—would like you to get to know bonobos. Just as closely related to us as chimps, sharing “about 98.7% of our genetic material,” she writes in The Bonobo Way: The Evolution of Peace Through Pleasure, they provide a template for living that centers on play, cooperation, peaceful conflict resolution—and lots and lots of sex. Non-procreative sex. Oral sex, masturbation, same-sex coupling—you name it, they do it. “They’re the unabashed porn stars in our great ape family,” says Block. Whether it’s the so-called bonobo handshake, “an affable hand-to-genitals greeting,” or simply the chivalrous sharing of food and sex (often at the same time), bonobos offer living proof that social interaction doesn’t have to suck. Unless you’re into that.
In a phone interview, Block explained that a 1993 PBS special called “The Nature of Sex” was her wake-up call. “I had just gotten my PhD in psychology, and I was starting to establish my practice as a therapist, and focusing on sexuality, and I just loved … all the different animals having sex in various interesting ways. But when it came to the bonobos … it was like looking into a funhouse mirror and seeing myself in a way that was a little warped,” she said with a laugh, “and hairier, and different. But yet deeply familiar. And I just wanted to know more.”
The delight and fascination of Block’s lifelong love affair with the bonobo leaps from the pages of The Bonobo Way. And while other in-depth books have been written about the science behind these intriguing primates, that’s just the leaping-off point for Block. Half her book is devoted to “a different kind of ‘12-step program,’” one intended to “guide you toward unleashing and cultivating your bonoboësque powers on a variety of interconnected, personal, interpersonal, sexual, social, political and ecological levels.” Through a series of linked case studies, personal anecdotes, thought exercises and suggested activities, Block takes readers on a sex-positive journey designed to loosen inhibitions, open doors and provide lifelong pleasure.
Throughout, Block’s voice is a choice blend of graphically playful, unabashedly cheesy and academically conscientious. (Sample footnote: “If the woman uses coconut oil as lube and the man drinks pineapple juice to sweeten his ejaculate, the ensuing blowjob would be a ‘penis colada’ (seen on the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists [AASECT] listserv).”)
By this point, you may be wondering where—
In a nutshell (“a coconut shell,” Block corrected me), the Bonobo Way consists of “peace through pleasure.” In the book she writes, “The most revolutionary way bonobos use sex is for conflict resolution. It’s the main reason why these apes are my heroes. The methods they use vary with the situation and personalities involved. One possible script might go something like this: fight, kick, slap bite—‘Ouch! Time out! Let’s turn around and rub butts—quick, before someone really gets hurt!’”
It’s a direct counterpoint to the notion that humans’ similarity to the common chimp means we’re biologically locked into one kind of social system, one kind of sexual behavior, one kind of might-makes-right mentality. As an undergrad at Yale, Block told me, she had originally wanted to major in anthropology. But at the time everything about the subject was off-putting. “Our anthropology professors taught us that humanity’s closest relatives were murderous, male-dominant, warrior chimpanzees. … Everything revolved in my anthropology classes … around ruthless violence and war, with females being beaten into submission, and frankly it was too depressing a major for me to pursue. I was a peace-loving feminist—romantic, hedonist—so I opted to major in theater studies, which was a lot more fun.”
Bonobos were classified as their own species in 1928, but after years of being ignored by uncomfortable researchers, they’re finally getting the academic respect they deserve. “They weren’t really taught—because they were sexual, embarrassing,” said Block, “you could lose your tenure.” But now their peaceful ways are adding to our ideas about what it means to be an ape. Unlike chimpanzees, bonobos “have never been observed deliberately killing other bonobos,” writes Block. They share sex, they share food. The females are not brutalized by the males, as has been observed among chimps, but band together and exert power. “They’re not angels, they’re animals like us, but they don’t let it get into murder and war like common chimps do and certainly like humans do,” Block said.
Which is why Block spends so much time in The Bonobo Way talking about a healthy, nonjudgmental approach to sexuality for humans. “Now, I’m not saying,” she told me, “that we should be exactly like them. We don’t have the same situation. But I think we can take a hint to be a little bit more open about our sexuality. Maybe not have sex right in the town square like they do but maybe be more open about it with our partner, or maybe have a group that we might feel open about being sexual [with] in some way. And bonobos also teach us that sex is not just about intercourse—not that we don’t have humans teaching us this, but sometimes it seems that the conventional wisdom is that humans have come up with all this other stuff, that really when it comes right down to animal sex, it’s about intercourse. But bonobos spend a lot more time on all the licking and touching and massaging and tickling and playing that we might consider to be foreplay, or what some people call outercourse. So there’s a lot that they can teach us.”
The Bonobo Way is available on Amazon.com for $15 in paperback, $7 on Kindle. A portion of the proceeds from sales of the book go to support groups like Lola Ya Bonobo and the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, organizations working to keep our cousins from going extinct. “Once I hopefully I have seduced you into loving these creatures as much as I do, you’ll want to help save them.
“I figure you gotta know these bonobos and who they are and what they can do for you in terms of helping you release your inner bonobo and all those good things. And also inspiring the world to, you know, have a different answer to bombings than beheadings and a different answer to beheadings than bombings. The answer might be the Bonobo Way.”
[Editor’s note: This article originally ran in print in an abridged and slightly modified form.]