[This is a re-post of a post from back in 2007, as prelude to developing some further thoughts on the topic.]
A couple weeks ago I wrote a bit about bonobos, the "sexy ape" which is sometimes referred to as the kinder, gentler counterpart to the sometimes violent chimps. A commenter later pointed out an article written by primatologist Fraans de Waal in the eSkeptic (an organ of the Skeptics Society) taking exception to the New Yorker article which inspired my post, in which article he was presented as something of an outlier, reaching exciting but perhaps somewhat exaggerated conclusions based on research only on bonobos in captivity.
It seems that Dinesh D'Souza had written a blog post based on the New Yorker article, and this had pretty much convinced de Waal that the entire thing was a conservative attempt to co opt discussion of his "sexy" apes. The Skeptics brought their own ax to grind to the table, remarking in an editorial note, "it is interesting that so many people wish to deny the undeniable relationship between humans and chimps, and at the same time cannot seem to help finding political meanings in primate behavior that supports either a liberal or conservative agenda."
The de Waal article is marginally worth reading, but it strikes me that in his overall defensiveness (perhaps a combination of his less than flattering treatment in the original article and the fact that D'Souza, whom he clearly despises, picked up the story) leads him to engage in some poor rhetorical moves.
For instance, he says that all the examples of purported violence among bonobos are from captivity, and yet two of the examples in the article are recounted by Hohmann as having occurred in the wild.
On another occasion, he dispenses with what strikes me as a legitimate question as to whether or not all of the activity between bonobos which is usually described as group sexual activity for social bonding purposes is actually sexual (as in, whether the bonobos are relating to each other sexually, or just touching each other in what to humans would be sexual ways) by quoting the Bill Clinton/Paula Jones case. Clearly, that's not answering the question as to whether actions which would be sexual among humans actually carry that connotation among bonobos, and it's unfortunate to see that kind of unseriousness in response to what struck me as a pretty balanced, well researched article.
However, all this talk about whether the "hippie primate" who "makes love not war" is indeed the sort of gentle, oversexed creature that it is reputed to be got me thinking about the whole question of a "sex life".
You see, the thing that makes bonobos seem a bit unusual compared to many other animals is their tendency to engage in mating behaviors when not "in heat". While a tiny bit of this has been observed in chimps, chimp males are usually only interested in females when the females undergo the physical changes that indicate they're fertile.
In this sense, one of the things that has excited people about bonobos is that they seem to be interested in sex all the time -- just like many humans. While those of us who use NFP often note that Topic A becomes a bit more compelling during fertile periods, the signs of fertility are not widely observable among humans, and as a species we're pretty open to mating behavior at all times (headaches aside).
It's pretty common in popular culture these days to talk about the necessity of a "good sex life", a somewhat vague term which I take to mean having the openness and opportunity to have sex fairly often and enjoy it a lot. Well, that sounds pretty nice, doesn't it? And here's the bonobo to show that it's not just a human thing, it's a way that primates can get along and relieve tension so they don't fight all the time.
This fits pretty well with the human-as-mental-creature picture which has dominated our intellectual landscape since the Enlightenment. Here we've got this great thing we can do that forms close personal relationships and is a lot of fun as well. Shouldn't we all make sure to fit regular practice of it into our schedules?
Sounds like fun, but I think it fails to take into account our existence as physical creatures with biological systems that have specific purposes. There's a reason why they call them "reproductive organs", and it doesn't have to do with xeroxing.
Now this works out fine for creatures like the bonobos. Most species have a pretty scattershot approach to keeping the species going: every time you have the chance to conceive, you do; and if there isn't enough food or parental care to go around, the child dies. Most animals, left to their own devices, will get pregnant just about as often as their bodies and nutrition will let them. Pop 'em out, let 'em go.
However modern, first world, human society has managed to work itself in expected pregnancy to be very rare (and never to come unexpectedly) at exactly the same time it's decided that everyone needs a healthy and active sex life. Basically, we want to mate like bonobos, but not have every female going around the jungle either pregnant or with a small baby clinging to her back.
Modern birth control (and abortion) has made this possible to an extent, but holding mother nature in check with technology tends to add other complicating factors. It seems moderately hard-wired in humans for sex to create emotional pair-bonding, of the sort that you need between a pair of mates raising offspring that take 13-17 years to reach biological (much less intellectual) maturity. Taking the reproduction out of sex reduces the need for pairbonding, and so we provide ourselves with all sorts of ways to make ourselves unhappy why pursuing the "sex life" ideal.
I'm not saying that biological realities mean that sex should simply be a matter of closing ones eyes and thinking of England (though a vacation sounds like a good idea now that you mention it), but it seems to me that from a creature point of view we put ourselves into awkward places when we try to focus on having a "sex life" without admitting that we're really talking about a "reproductive life".