Monkeying About with Daniel Bergner

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Cover - Sex At Dusk[This is a post by Lynn Saxon, author of "Sex At Dusk: Removing the Shiny Wrapping from 'Sex At Dawn'." It provides perspective for Daniel Bergner's new book "What Do Women Want."]

Daniel Bergner’s “What do Women Want” presents some thought-provoking, if limited, information about female sexuality. It challenges the idea that female sexuality is more about making babies than enjoying sex, and promotes instead a picture of a naturally insatiable female sexual appetite that should leave men quaking in their boxers.

The evidence from our primate cousins comes mostly from feisty, female rhesus macaque ‘Deidrah’, and her aggressive, ground-tapping, sexual stalking of males. What’s more, we are told, these males have to be replaced every three years because the females grow sexually bored with them. If monkey females behave like this then surely it can only be human culture that has stifled a similar expression of sexual appetite in the human female.

    I spend most of my life learning about the sexual behaviour of other species and, like Bergner, I too would like this information to get across to more people. I’d like to imagine readers of this book rushing out to discover more about other species and the evolution of sexual behaviours. Somehow I doubt it. More likely, these few details are all they will ever know about the rhesus macaque yet this will not stop them using this limited knowledge to point to what it is that women really want. So here I’m going to deal with some monkey business that is clearly passing under the radar.

    The demanding sexual behaviour of Deidrah occurs only when she is ovulating; the rest of the time she avoids males. The rhesus female in natural conditions can conceive once a year during the mating season which lasts only a few months. Outside of oestrus and for most of the year there is no sex. This is clearly about making babies, and it includes a lot of competition between females as they act to out-reproduce each other. Oestrous females are attacked by other females and by males. The sexually assertive behaviour of these female monkeys when they are fertile is the way sex happens in spite of the social disruption it causes to their relations with other females and in spite of the attacks they receive. There is no great motivation to have sex if reproductive success is not on the cards.

    Now, if a human puts a rhesus female and male together in a cage, mating will occur across the female’s cycle: the sex is initiated by the male and the female is receptive (the male is bigger with much more dangerous canine teeth, and she has nowhere to go). Studies across species have shown that when the female controls when a male has access to her there’s a lot less sex than when the male has control. This, incidentally, makes me think about the Mosuo where women do have more control, where there is not the constant presence of a husband, and where a lot less sex seems to go on (as I discussed in Sex at Dusk, though even the Mosuo shame a woman who pursues a man as behaving like “a sow in heat”.)

    Many species are physically not capable of sex outside of the female’s fertile period but not primates, many of whom will have sex at other times whether to confuse paternity, to access food, or to avoid the harm a refusal might entail. A lot has been made of the possible whys and wherefores of the (supposedly) constant sexual receptivity of the human female (and I’m not going to even attempt to deal with this now) but if we are going to hold Deidrah up as an example of natural primate female sexual behaviour then we cannot ignore her lack of interest in sex, or her sometimes passive sexual receptivity, when she is not fertile. For a forager female human ancestor we’d be looking at an interest in sex for a few days during a few months every three years or so, and that’s not a lot of sex!

    Human females are clearly far more willing and able than this. On the other hand, the ‘problem’ of the low female libido that needs to be ‘fixed’ with a ‘female viagra’ is likely, at least in part, to be connected to the expectation that human female sexual desire, as opposed to her physical capacity to engage in sex, should be as constant as that of the male. (This also points to possible clues about what is going on with the apparent disconnect between women’s measured physical responses to sexual cues and the lack of sexual desire that is felt and reported.)

    Back to the rhesus monkeys, there is another issue that will have passed readers by, and this concerns the replacement of males. These monkeys, like most monkeys, live in groups where females stay in their birth group and males move to new groups to breed. (It should also be noted that rhesus males are not passive as is implied in “What Do Women Want” – there is also competition between males, and the male mortality rate peaks during the mating season when males are trying to gain entry to groups and to mate once there.) Females lose sexual interest in resident males after three to five years and the males move on. But female rhesus monkeys reach sexual maturity at the age of three to four years. It is hardly a coincidence that these females are replacing ‘dads’ with novel males and therefore are avoiding inbreeding.

    As I explained at some length in Sex at Dusk, apes do not have this female philopatry with females staying in their birth groups and breeding with transient males. In chimpanzees and bonobos the males stay for life in their birth group and natal females move to a new group at puberty. What’s more, we don’t find a mirror image of monkey female philopatry – there is no loss of sexual interest in familiar females (in fact, older, experienced females are preferred because their offspring have better prospects of survival).

    We can easily see why there is this difference: the immigrant ape females left their fathers behind in their birth group and know their sons in their breeding group. The problem of inbreeding does not occur when females are the immigrants and so they can stay for life in their initial choice of breeding group. It’s about adding more females, not replacing a small number. The reproductive differences between the sexes make male philopatry a whole different kettle of fish from female philopatry – and male philopatry is almost certainly an aspect of ape evolution that we share.

    A lustful and assertive sexual behaviour is undoubtedly one part of the primate female’s sexual behaviour repertoire, as is competition with other females, and a multitude of strategies to achieve infant survival in complex societies. We can look at Deidrah and ask why human female sexual behaviour is not so obviously and aggressively demanding but we then need to understand the context of her behaviour and cannot simply conclude that the differences are solely a consequence of an unnatural and repressive culture.