Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Bonobos on the Flexibility of the Cultural Meanings of Sex and Sexuality

One of my friends recently told me about an amazing site called TED.com where scientists, intellectuals, politicians, and just people with ideas talk briefly about things, questions, and problems they think we should know and think about. The site summarizes: “The annual conference now brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).” I’m someone who generally the last to know about technological and computer happenings. But in any case, this is really a wonderful place to stimulate thought and ideas across a wide-range of fields. I would even go so far as to see that a site like this represents an important way to use technology to broaden horizons and create a more informed, equal, and democratic society. To bring up an interesting example, I watched a fascinating video on the Bonobos that you really must see. It brings up numerous questions about the animals and humans. But what struck me was the idea that sex and sexuality are culturally-coded behaviors. Bonobos are an extremely sexual in comparison to us, it would seem. They seem to be always having sex with anyone! Brother, sister, children, mother, father. Wild stuff!

All of this leads me to what is obvious to all of us: sex and sexuality are not really “natural” at all but more like a complex socio-cultural activity. Having sex isn’t simply reproducing (or why else would we do it so often!). Having sex and expressing sexuality comes out through a complex cultural web of meanings and significations. The Bonobos are not simply having sex because they’re horny; in fact, they’re using sex to establish and communicate relationships and bonds.

This is exactly the same concept of sexuality we find in humans where individual cultures and societies express, prohibit, and promote specific forms of sex and sexuality. There is not just one way to have sex. And equally, there isn’t just one meaning behind the sex we have. We often say that sex is about aggressively, but it doesn’t have to be, because if the bonobos express kinship and resolve conflict through sex, why can’t we do the same? Acting like an animal is such a bad thing.