Bonobo farewell

Mixed-sex-party-of-bonobos-females-in-centreI’ve been working for money, and blogging at the same time. So today I’m out of words.

Here’s a picture of bonobos being happy. I’m having a slightly miserable time of it at the moment. Your blogger is sad. But contemplating those guys cheers me up a lot. I hope it works for you, too. 

I like bonobos a lot, but I won’t be writing about them again for a while. I feel like writing something sexy, and about humans. 

Where does bdsm come from? Other species

Hot primate spanking action.

Hot primate spanking action.

We know that submission postures and the reddening of the genitals and buttocks are common to chimps, bonobos and humans. In humans the submissive presentation posture is a universally recognized sexual signal.

Strong sexual appreciation of a reddened ass, on the other hand, seems to be specific to bdsm.

We know that that red sexual display died out in our hominid ancestors some time before we homo sapiens sapiens turned up, but we really don’t know when.

The fossil record is a long way from complete, and fossils mean bones, not flesh. Flesh decays, so we don’t know what our ancestors’ asses were like.

Presumably that red-hot perineum flush would have started to be less important in reproduction, and slowly die out, some time after our ancestors took up walking while standing up.

When you’re on your hind legs, your ass isn’t as prominent as it is when you’re on all fours, so a reddened ass is less effective as a sexual signal, and over time it will stop being selected for. But we don’t know when that was.

But it’s very likely that the importance of submissive display positions in primates is one of the reasons they still work so powerfully in bdsm. The reddened ass theory is more speculative, but it’s at least plausible.  

There’s something else we can take into account.

That guy, he really wants dimmer lights and a gold chain.

That guy, he really wants dimmer lights and a gold chain.

Meredith Small, in her book, Female Choices: Sexual Behaviour of Female Primates, argued that male primatologists had often failed to observe what female primates were doing. 

They interpreted primate sexual behaviour in terms of competition to be an alpha male, with the assumption that the alpha male had his pick of all the ladeeze.

It took women primatologists to see that female primates were initiating a lot of the sex, and that they, not some phalanx of alpha males, were choosing their partners. And they weren’t necessarily choosing the alpha males.

She argued for a kind of imaginative empathy. Female primatologists may be more likely to notice and interpret female primate behaviours that male primatologists have overlooked, because they are female.

My suspicion is that people who are attuned to bdsm, who’ve experienced it and take pleasure from it, may have some intuitive access to the experience of the primate submission ritual, that primatologists who haven’t experienced bdsm won’t have. 

When chimps and bonobos are in conflict, getting close to a fight, and one of them assumes a submissive sexual position, the other primate may drop the aggression, and mounts the submissive. They rub genitals, and sometimes have sex.

Most primatologists have written that as if it’s a win-lose encounter. At least the submissive doesn’t get bashed up, but he or she is humiliated and defeated. 

The rewards for the dominant primate who “wins” the exchange are the most obvious: there aren’t many of us primates who don’t enjoy triumph, power, sexual access, and so on.

But the submissive primate is also rewarded: fear turns to relief, anger turns to sex, and conflict, through the mounting, turns to connection, with the associated pleasure of sexual surrender – a pleasure that seems to be enjoyed by many animals as well as humans.

Both primates are highly aroused by the time their pre-fight postures change to sexual postures. The submission allows them both to channel that arousal into sex. The sexual presentation, the mounting, the thrusts, of primates aren;’t just symbolically “like” sex. They are sex. 

That position, and its aftermath. Fight or fuck? No contest.

That position, and its aftermath. Fight or fuck? No contest.

Chimps and bonobos are highly sexed, and they enjoy a wide range of activities among their own and the opposite sex. So do we, only more so. They, or rather we, are all polymorphously perverse.

 There’s a reason this bdsm-like behaviour, and pleasure, can survive and pass its way down to modern humans. 

Primates who have the ability to turn conflict arousal into sexual arousal are likely to pass on their genes. If they can end a conflict with a dominance and submission ritual rather than a fight until one or both primates are severely injured, they will live longer and have more chances to pass on their genes.

Another factor is that primates with that ability are sexier: their sexual repertoire is slightly wider, and so they are likely to mate slightly more often. Throw in a couple of million years, and that will make a difference. Regardless of the mechanism by which it’s transmitted, that is, whatever the mix of genetic and “cultural” factors, the ability to sexualise dominance and submission seems to be part of our primate inheritance.

And, purely from the random chance of the DNA lottery, it seems that some humans have that trait more than others. So, is this one of the reasons bdsm exists in humans? It’s not certain, but it’s very probable.

What do we know about where bdsm comes from? 5 Other species

Our closest relatives, chimps and bonobos, get seriously sexually interested when they see a submissive posture, and especially the sight of a red, hot ass, presented for their attention. In human bdsm, many doms feel the same way about the heat and colour of a disciplined submissive’s ass. So, is some of the force of our sexual response linked to our common hominid ancestry?

This is Vanessa Woods, a primatologist who's lived with bonobos and contributed a lot to our knowledge of their social structures. She's not responsible at all for suggesting a connection between bonobos and bdsm.

This is Vanessa Woods, a primatologist who’s lived with bonobos and contributed a lot to our knowledge of their social structures. She’s not responsible at all for suggesting a connection between bonobos and bdsm.

It’s certainly true that we’re closely related to chimps and bonobos. We evolved from the same ancestors, until the family branch split into homo, which is us, and pan, which is them, about 4 to 6 million years ago. That isn’t as long in evolutionary terms as it is when you’re waiting for a bus. We share about 95% of our DNA with our cousins.  

It’s not just genetics. We have quite a few things in common with them that are, in a sense, cultural, including lots of the ways we show affection, the way we do violence (I mean, like two guys getting angry, not mechanised warfare), and quite a lot about the way we do sex. So it’s completely plausible that we, or some of us, are still in thrall to that ancestral sexual signal. 

But we’re different from chimps and bonobos in two important ways. First, we don’t have a strong sexual cycle like them: chimp and bonobo females mostly only mate when they’re at the peak of their monthly reproductive cycle, so they need to signal when they’re most interested in fucking. Human women can fuck any time. No signal is needed, so it won’t be selected for. 

Second, we walk upright. A sexual signal that works best when the ass is the highest and most prominent point of the body doesn’t work so well when you’re standing. So we humans don’t have that signal.

That’s not the end of the argument, but it’s awkward for the case I’m trying to build. 

But I've also run her pic because I'm a fan; read her book, think she's brilliant, and so on. And, like so many women primatologists, she's gorgeous.

But I’ve also run her pic because I’m a fan; I’ve read her book, think she’s brilliant, ridiculously brave, and so on. And, like so many women primatologists, she’s gorgeous.

It’d be nice, really nice, if we knew how recently our ancestors lost that bright red sexual signal. Our ancestors probably had it, say, four million years ago, when we were still separating from chimps and bonobos.

But that’s all we’ll ever know.

We can look at our ancestors’ bones, but sadly, one thing that doesn’t fossilise is asses. All the hominid asses, the ones before homo sapiens sapiens, have rotted away and been eaten by worms, and we’ll never know a damn thing about them. 

But we can make some guesses, some of which don’t seem to be completely stupid, and make the best use of the evidence we do have. That’s tomorrow. 

What do we know about where bdsm comes from? 4 Other species

As far as I’ve been able to find, the first person to suggest a connection between the reddening of human buttocks by whipping, and the red sexual swellings of chimps and bonobos, was Alex Comfort.

Bonobos would recognise that sexual presentation posture. This girl's pose happens to be part of a bdsm scenario, but the pose is a sexual signal - for humans who like women - far beyond the bdsm world.

Bonobos would recognise that sexual presentation posture. This girl’s pose happens to be part of a bdsm scenario, but the pose is a sexual signal – for humans who like women – far beyond the bdsm world.

In his book, Nature and Human Nature, he wrote, “mammalian residues still persist in human sexuality, and we may underrate them. Blushing, and the interest of some individuals in the reddening of the buttocks caused by whipping, may contain echoes of the ‘releaser’ sex skin of lower primates.”

That was back in 1966, before Comfort went on to fame and fortune as the author of The Joy of Sex

Comfort’s idea got taken up in another bestseller, Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape (1969). 

Rump presentation again, but with a cane-striped ass. People who aren't into bdsm are likely to think the poor girl has been treated cruelly, and pity and shock will override sex. While people who like bdsm are likely to think that the reddening makes her even sexier. So the reddened ass thing isn't a universal human sexual response; it's one that's specific to some of us who like bdsm.

Rump presentation again, but with a cane-striped ass. People who aren’t into bdsm are likely to think the poor girl has been treated cruelly, and pity and shock will override sex. People who like bdsm are likely to think that the reddening makes her even sexier. So the reddened ass thing isn’t a universal human sexual response; it’s specific to some of us who like bdsm.

“The female sexual rump-presentation posture also occurs in humans,” Morris wrote. “It is there in corporal punishment, with rhythmic whipping replacing the rhythmic pelvic thrusts of the dominant male.”

He added that victims have their buttocks bared for punishment, not to increase the pain, but to allow the dom “to witness the reddening of the buttocks as the beating proceeds, which so vividly recalls the flushing of the primate female hindquarters when in full sexual condition.”

He thought corporal punishment in schools would end once teachers “fully appreciated the fact that, in reality, they were performing an ancient primate form of copulation with their pupils.”

But … that was fifty years ago. By now we should have gone beyond a bit of idle speculation by a pair of hippy-influenced primatologists*, shouldn’t we?

Well, we haven’t. 

The claim is this. We doms, at least those of us who like to mark our submissives with impact play, get many different rewards and pleasures from admiring and fucking our submissives, usually from behind, after a beating.

One of those rewards is genetically hard-wired. Our immediate primate ancestors, like our cousins the chimps and bonobos, reacted to reddened, swollen, warmed asses with very strong sexual interest and arousal. That’s part of our heritage, through some mix of genetic and cultural factors, from our primate ancestry. It’s one of the reasons for our strong sexual reaction to the sight and feel of a freshly disciplined submissive. 

Tomorrow I’m going to talk about what we need to know, in order to assess whether the claim is true. (And why we can’t find it.) 


* Yeah, I know Comfort wrote on primatology but his main field was medicine. I just don’t want to write “a hippy-influenced doctor and a hippy-influenced primatologist”.  Don’t rain on my phrases, ok?

What do we know about where bdsm comes from? 3 Other species

There’s a connection, or an alleged connection, between the reddened ass of a freshly-disciplined submissive, and the strong sexual response of doms to that reddened, swollen sexual area, and the bright red, blood-swollen perineal swellings in bonobo and chimp females.

This is a young bonobo female up in a tree. (Male bonobos looking up at her ass not shown.)

This is a young bonobo female up in a tree, flashing her perineal swelling. (Male bonobos looking up at her ass not shown.)

“Perineal” means that lovely, sexually sensitive skin from the vagina to the anus. When it swells up in bonobos and chimps, it becomes extremely, er, noticeable. 

Fact is, if bonobos could speak, they still wouldn’t have a word for “decorum”. 

So the idea is that we doms, at least those of us with a taste for a freshly-disciplined girl or boy, are drawing on some powerfully atavistic urges from way back in our evolutionary ancestry. 

In chimps and bonobos that swelling occurs at oestrus, the point in the menstrual cycle when the female is most likely to reproduce and to want to do a lot of fucking. 

That red and swollen genital and buttock signal, that the female is receptive and interested, gets an extremely strong reaction from the males in the troupe. They’ll hang around her, trying for any sexual opportunity they can get. They’ll fight over her, or – if they think they’d lose a fight – they’ll wait until the dominant male is distracted, and nip in for a quick fuck before he notices.

By the way, her strategy isn’t to mate with the most dominant male. Her strategy is to get a lot of fucking done, with lots of males. The males who fuck her feel good about her, which is handy for getting food and protection and so on, and when she gives birth they’ll be unlikely to kill the offspring. Since it might be theirs.

(By the way, almost everything people say when they use terms like “alpha male” is complete, utter, abject bullshit. Especially if they apply those terms to humans, and especially in the highest, forever and ever, if they apply those terms to themselves. The only exception is the first sentence of this paragraph.)

Some sort of sexual signal here. I think.

Spanked girl with her ass up. There’s some sort of sexual signalling going on here. I think.

Humans are different from our chimp and bonobo cousins, though. Human girls don’t get that red ass thing.

Yeah, you’re thinking, “Ah-hah! Except for submissive girls who’ve been bad, and submissive boys, too.” You’re way ahead of me, but there’s more to be said about this. For example, “is this theory actually true?” 

Well, we’ll have to get to that tomorrow. Tune in!

What do we know about where bdsm comes from? 2 Other species

Chimps and bonobos both use submissive sexual display to defuse confrontations. The ape who figures that he or she will lose a fight, if a fight gets started, assumes a sexually receptive position and holds it for the dominant’s consideration.

These are baboons, who are also classed as higher primates. I couldn't find a good bonobo rump presentation pic.

Presentation. These are baboons, who are old world monkeys and not as closely related to us as chimps or bonobos. But I couldn’t find a good bonobo rump presentation pic in which they weren’t already fucking.

Generally, that involves putting hands and feet on the ground, with their rump and genitals up and offered to the ape our chimp or bonobo doesn’t want to fight. Alternatively, the ape who doesn’t want a fight lies on their front, on the ground, with their rump arched up so that their genitals are vertically presented. Hey, they both work.

Usually this is reported as something that female apes and less dominant male apes do to appease dominant males. But it’s more flexible than that: male apes have also been observed offering the submissive presentation posture to dominant female apes, and female apes may offer it to other females.

The dominant ape may accept the display alone as being enough to establish friendly relations, or he or she may mount the submissively presented ape and make a few pelvic thrusts just to drive the point home. But with that, confrontation is over and peace is restored. The dominant and submissive ape may fuck at that point, but they don’t always.

The relevance to bdsm is fairly obvious. The submissive primate experiences fear, and the dominant experiences an emotion that may not have a name: let’s call it “conquest”. That tension builds up to a climactic point, and is then resolved in sexuality. That’s strongly reminiscent of the way human bdsm works, and pleasures us.

Presented. With a dash of color.

Presented. With a dash of color.

The submissive presentation postures that our chimp and bonobo cousins adopt arouse strong sexual reactions in humans, too, especially humans who enjoy bdsm.

It’s not just pleasurable for the human dominant who observes the submissive in that posture; it’s sexy for the submissive to place herself or himself that way.

My own reaction to being offered that submissive posture, at least from a submissive I desire, is very strong and very sexual, and it does seem to by-pass thought.

That’s not to say it’s innate or genetic, whatever “genetic” would even mean in relation to behaviour this complicated. It’s probably largely a learned behaviour and response in chimps, bonobos and humans, and some other apes, and it probably does build on some genetic elements.

But the link between dominance-submission and sex is part of a shared primate culture that doesn’t just pre-date language; it pre-dates hominids. (It’s arguably present in non-primates as well, but I’m only writing about our evolutionary neighbourhood.)   

There’s something else we bdsm-loving humans may have adopted from our primate cousins: an interest in what Aldous Huxley called “the gorgeous buttocks of the ape”. But we can talk about asses tomorrow. 

Bonobos. The bonobo female looking very relaxed. Yhis has no great relevance. I've just always liked this photo.

Bonobos. The bonobo female looking very relaxed. This has no great relevance to the topic. I’ve just always loved this photo.