Homosexual sex is common between female bonobos, but believe it or not, it might serve more of a purpose than mere physical pleasure. Researchers in Atlanta recently found that female apes use sex to communicate social standing, making noise to advertise their actions to other females nearby.
Dr. Zanny Clay of Emory University has been studying these vocalizations for five years knowing that this species of ape, Pan paniscus, uses sex to “reduce stress and competition, develop affiliations, express and test social relationships and for reconciling conflicts and consoling victims in distress.”
Her team's results were published in the journal Scientific Reports after analyzing research collected while observing a group of apes at the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa.
It appears that sexy noises most often came from lower-ranking female apes in order to let the rest of the crew know they'd been selected by one higher up on the totem pole to do the deed.
Jason Goldman, writer for Scientific American and current Developmental Psychology grad student at the University of Southern California, said this makes sense knowing basic social tendencies of the species.
“Unlike with chimpanzees, it is the female bonobos who leave the social groups they are born into and join new groups,” Goldman said. “After joining up with a new group, their main task is to become socially accepted and to rise in dominance.”
Unlike the male-dominated chimpanzee species, it's the bond between females that is key within the bonobo community, and advertising dominant “alpha” tendencies such as those performed during sexual interactions is a logical way to promote stance within the community.
In other words, female bonobos kiss and tell as an effective method for gaining respect from their cronies and climbing the social ladder. Dr. Clay said that bonobos are very aware of the social dynamics of their surroundings.
This gives reason to believe that these “mating” calls aren't made as the result of mere sexual pleasure. Clay and her team noted that the sounds are intentionally similar to those made during copulation as a strategic social strategy.
While recent human studies show women's sex noises are often to benefit their partners, it's clear female apes make noise strictly to facilitate this kind of social bonding.
“It stands to reason that the vocalizations have some sort of social function beyond something relating to reproductive success,” Goldman said. “The research described in this paper is one recent attempt at figuring out what those social functions might be.”
And it appears Clay and her team's research has made a solid inference as to what that function might be:
“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,” Clay said.
Additional reporting and research by Wyoming Reynolds.