Having now seen the cover of the book being summarized in my article, I’m thoroughly embarrassed that I didn’t investigate further. Shame on me!
That said, the claims are not entirely without merit, it seems.
Zanna Clay of the U of Birmingham, who has published with de Waal, also detracts from the stereotypical view. Emphasis in the quotation below is mine; it points to aggression in bonobos. They do not war as chimps and humans do, but they are far from peaceful. [Edited for accuracy.]
This is all true, but the public fascination with these behaviours has given rise to a view of bonobos that is a little extreme, says Zanna Clay of the University of Birmingham in the UK, who has spent years studying wild bonobos. “There is this perception that they have sex all the time, that they are like nymphomaniacs.”
The reality is more nuanced. The frequency of copulation in bonobos is not as high as most people assume, she says. “In terms of reproduction they are not more sexually active than chimps.”
The genital rubbing and touching is very common, but it only happens in very specific contexts, often ones that are not obviously sexual.
“People think they just do it for fun but it’s not really to do with that. It’s to do with uncertain social situations,” she says, summarizing the conclusions she and de Waal came to in a paper published in the journal Behaviour in 2014.
For instance, when a group arrives at a new feeding tree, there is tension over who is going to make the richest pickings. “The females will have lots of genital contact with each other and that will relieve the apprehension of this feeding competition,” says Clay. “Once they are calm they can actually feed together in the tree and be quite peaceful.”
Females will also often use genital rubbing to defuse tension between two rival groups, avoiding the kinds of violence seen in chimp wars. But this does not mean that bonobos are incapable of aggression.
“One of the reasons they have this genital touching is because they need to relieve tension after they’ve had fights.”
Things can get particularly nasty in zoos, where the artificial set-up can let females assume more power than they normally would in the wild. These super-dominant females can be pretty violent towards males, says Clay.
“There are lots of males in zoos that are missing digits. There’s a male bonobo that’s actually missing the tip of his penis because the female has bitten it off,” she says. “This isn’t quite [in line] with the stereotype of them being peaceful.”