Bonobos: our pansexual cousins

Spread the love

Originally posted 2015-10-06 11:30:05.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at how societies might have been structured before the development of agriculture.  Clearly, we can’t directly study the human groups that existed outside Africa between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago, because they no longer exist. So I  also looked at relatives of humans, particularly our closest, bonobos, Pan paniscus.

Our ancestors left very little evidence. Although they did use stone and bone, a great deal of their artefacts were made of wood or leather and were perishable. The few that we do have are somewhat mysterious.

To try to shed light on this, we reviewed a wide range of anthropological literature. We especially concentrated on extant traditional societies, of which there are a surprising number, despite the attempts by religious fundamentalists, especially the Christian and Muslim ones, to eradicate them. (As a matter of fact, Islam has been less damaging to many traditional societies than Christianity, as we see from the number of traditional groups still living, and respected, in Indonesia.)

We reviewed the mythology that was recorded soon after the invention of writing, in Sumer in the 5th Millennium BCE. We then compared this to modern mythologies which form part of traditional cultures. We also looked at similar species, and that’s where bonobos came in.



Bonobos have a fascinating social model. They are pansexual and gender-fluid. Males are not dominant. Rape has never been observed in bonobo society, either in the wild or in captivity. Generally speaking, they have very relaxed, cool societies with notably low levels of aggression and stress.

In fact, bonobos use sex as the antidote to aggression and stress. Instead of fighting, they love each other, to be blunt. What is interesting is that when they do this, there is no dominance imperative: partners in bonobo sexual relations are equals. Females and males are equally likely to initiate sex. Furthermore, they have no defined preferences — they will as happily have sex with same-sex partners as with opposite.


Sex is a powerful bonding agent in bonobo society. It holds groups together and prevents division. This protects the group from falling apart and thus the individuals within it are more likely to survive. So sex has an evolutionary imperative alongside the reproductive one.

Bonobos don’t have sex to make babies, they have sex with their friends and for fun, because they like it. However, they have so much sex that there is no shortage of bonobo babies. Bonobos are evolved to be pansexual and gender-fluid. We argue that this is the case for humans too.

It should be clear how this torpedoes the ‘homosexuality is an evolutionary dead-end’ argument. It might be, as far as individuals are concerned, but when everyone is having sex with everyone else, this is not the case. Being exclusively homosexual might mean an end to the individual’s genetic line, but this is not how same-sex sex works in either bonobo or traditional societies.


The individual male only has to impregnate one female to reproduce his genes. Given the amount of sex bonobos have, and the variety of it, this is easily achieved. The same, of course, holds true for females — if they give up having sex with each other occasionally to have it with a male, job done. Bonobos are naturally pansexual, to accommodate this. We argue that the same is true of humans, and back it up with examples.

Further, bonobos are gender-fluid. This does not mean what some people think it does; it is not about wearing a miniskirt and sporting a beard. It means being happy to play either the penetrating or receiving role in sex. Bonobo males are routinely observed having sex, in which one penetrates and the other receives. Immediately after, they have sex again and swap roles. Then they will go off and have sex with females, who probably were having sex with each other in the meantime. Bonobo children are brought up by the group.

We share over 98% of our DNA with bonobos. Our traditional social models are almost identical. We wondered if we would find something in traditional societies that pointed to similar behaviours in humans and we did.

Same-sex activity is normal.

All over the world, traditional societies exist that do not follow the model we are used to in the West, which is, men and women are formally bonded into exclusive, monogamous relationships for life. Yet in many traditional societies, this is not the case.


In many such cultures, same-sex activity is normal; frequently this is observed between adult men and boys. (Unfortunately, and probably due to the fact that the anthropologists doing the research were men, there is far less information about the women’s sexuality.) The adult men in these relations have women partners too.

We know of the Spartans that not only the men but also the women had normalised same-sex relations.

In fact, being gender fluid (in a sexual sense) and pansexual appears to be as normal for humans as it is for bonobos. However, bonobos have had to do without the curse of organised religions. They are still happily having sex with anyone they like, while we invented a whole raft of ridiculous rules and conventions about it.


Gender: you are how you fuck.

Gender can be summed up as how you like to have sex; if you’re a poker, you’re a man, if you’re into being poked, you’re not. You might not actually be a woman, but you are playing the sexual role of one.

Bonobos illustrate this quite neatly.


Leave a Reply