Female bonobos have gay sex to improve their social status

Bonobos are famous as one of the relatively few species that has sex simply for pleasure. But just because our primate cousins aren't reproducing doesn't mean they're only having fun — as revealed by a new study of bonobo lesbian relationships.

According to research by Emory University's Dr. Zanna Clay, female bonobos use sex for, among other things, boosting their social status, particularly with the "alpha female" of the group. Clay and her team observed the bonobos at the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bonobos, who along with chimps are our closest living relatives, are not male-dominated in the way almost all other primate species are.

They found that the lower-ranking female bonobos would make the most noise during sex when the alpha female was nearby, and those females who were invited to have sex by higher-ranking females would make a series of calls apparently meant to make sure the group at large knew about the coupling. This builds on previous research that determined there's a specific vocal pattern female bonobos only use when having sex with other females. Dr. Clay explained the discovery to BBC News:

"Bonobos appear to be highly aware of the dynamics governing their social worlds. As a low-ranked female, advertising [a] social-sexual bonding with another dominant group member may serve to strengthen their social position, and signal this to the alpha. In bonobos, sexual interactions represent a powerful means to enable females to develop and maintain social relationships, and it is these bonds which lie at the heart of their raised status in bonobo society."

In case this all seems a tad cynical on the bonobos' part, it should be pointed out that bonobo sex is no more just about social climbing than it is just about reproduction — as Dr. Clay says, sex is also used to "reduce stress and competition, develop affiliations, express and test social relationships and for reconciling conflicts and consoling victims in distress." You can check out the BBC for more, which features some photos of female bonobos having sex and an audio recording of the sounds they make during sex. Huh... the BBC turned into a hardcore bonobo sex site so gradually, I didn't even notice.

Image by Jeroen Kransen on Flickr.