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Bonobo Behavior
  Types of Intercourse & Reasons for Sexual Behavior
  • These are the only non-human apes to partake in these types of sexual behaviors
    • Face-to-face genital sex
    • Oral Sex
    • Tongue Kissing
  • Homosexual forms of non-penetrative intercourse include
    • Genital-genital rubbing in female-female intercourse
    • Frotting, also known as Penis Fencing, in male-male intercourse
  • Besides the obvious procreation reasons for copulations, Bonobos partake in intercourse for other reasons including conflict resolution, affection, social status, erotic games, reconciliation, excitement, and stress reduction (de Waal 1997).
  • A study conducted by Blount et al found that males, who often do not share food, are significantly more likely to share with another bonobo if copulation happens first. This study does make the clarification that copulation is used as a stress reducer in this situation and not a currency for food.
  • Feeding time in bonobo society is the peak time for sexual interaction. Paoli et al. found that non-reproductive sexual interactions peak during feeding times and reproductive copulations were rare. These findings suggest the use of non-copulatory sexual interaction as a means of tension reduction.
  • Additionally, a study conducted by Sannen et al found that high testosterone levels in bonobos is primarily related to non-reproductive sexual interactions.



  • One of the bonobo’s most unique sexual patterns, which is completely undocumented in other primates, is genital-genital rubbing between adult females. The two females will face each other and one of the females will wrap both her arms and legs around the other female, who then lifts the first off the ground. The two females will then rub their genital swellings together, and will show pleasure reflecting an orgasmic experience.
  • Males also engage in similar homosexual behavior, but with more variety. It is common to see one male rubbing his scrotum against the buttocks of another male. They also will hang face to face from a branch and rub their erect penis’s against each others, which is known as penis fencing.
  • Bonobo sex often occurs in aggressive context, not related to food (as seen in chimps) A jealous male will often chasse away a different male from a female, but they will then reunite and engage in scrotum rubbing between each other.
  • It was also noticed that after two females fight they will engage in genital rubbing, to reconcile their fight.
  • “My study yielded the first solid evidence for sexual behavior as a mechanism to overcome aggression. Not that this function is absent in other animals--or in humans, for that matter--but the art of sexual reconciliation may well have reached its evolutionary peak in the bonobo. For these animals, sexual behavior is indistinguishable from social behavior. Given its peacemaking and appeasement functions, it is not surprising that sex among bonobos occurs in so many different partner combinations, including between juveniles and adults. The need for peaceful coexistence is obviously not restricted to adult heterosexual pairs.”
  • Females will also use genito genital rubbing between on the senior female when they enter into a new community to establish a relationship, if the senior female reciprocates the new female will be allowed into the group.
  • Reports from captive and wild populations indicate that the females engage in face to face mounting and genito-genital rubbing since infancy.
  • Study by Vasey showed that both males and females in caged and free range environments engage in homosexual behavior. Males were rated a 2*-3* and females were rated a 3*. 2 =occasional a) homosexual behavior occurred 6-24% as frequently as heterosexual behavior b) constituted part of a development phase that all individuals of an age/sex class experienced. 3= frequent a) homosexual behavior occurred 25% or more than heterosexual behavior. * = indicates that the frequency value occurred in the presence of opposite sex individuals.
Similarity to Humans

  • The human and the bonobo share 98% of the same genes.  Therefore, many scientists believe they are a good resource for studying the behavior of human evolution.  The bonobo provides a good model for our early human ancestors.
  • The bonobo also has similar social and sexual behaviors when compared to the human.  The bonobo is the only non-human primate to have face-to-face genital sex.  They have also been seen tongue kissing and having oral sex, as well. Bonobos are able to communicate to one another using primary vocal means, but humans have not yet been able to decipher what they are saying. 
  • Humans can understand their facial expressions and hand gestures.  Humans have been able to teach bonobos in captivity a large amount of vocabulary words.  These bonobos are also able to understand complete sentences.  Bonobos are also known to tickle one another and laugh about it.  Finally, these animals are able to recognize themselves in a mirror. 
Other Social Behaviors

    • Several studies have shown that adult bonobos show a variety of noncopulatory sexual behaviors, such as vocalization as the main form of communication.  These behaviors serve many social functions.  Several behaviors seen in bonobo groupings function to reduce tension within the community.  Many of the common behaviors seen help form social groups.
    • Animal behaviorists have described bonobos to live in a fission-fusion pattern.  A community is made up of a large group (somewhere between 80 and 100) of individual bonobos.  This large group is then broken into several smaller groups known as foraging groups.  These smaller groups spend the day together looking for food and remain active from dusk to dawn.  At night, the smaller groups reconvene so the whole community can sleep together.  Bonobos sleep in trees where they have constructed nests.  It is common for adults to sleep in the same nest which is not seen in other primates.  Once a membership is developed, individual bonobos rarely ever change communities.  Individual communities remain separated, however, aggressive behaviors are not commonly seen when two communities meet.
    • Female bonobos are generally smaller than males but tend to exhibit dominance.  However, aggressive behavior between males and females is rare.  Male bonobos are known to be tolerant of infants and juveniles, which is rare for primates.  Juvenile bonobos have been observed to exhibit rough and tumble-like play often with sexual behavior inserted.  Animal behaviorists refer to this as playful copulation.  The mother and her offspring maintain a bond that stays strong throughout their life.  As a result of strong bonds within the community, rank does not play as high a role as it does in other primate communities.
  © BBC Natural History Unit