Bonobo Handshakes

The “Make Love Not War” bonobos have a new friend.  She’s an ape like them—a brilliant, beautiful, empathetic, courageous creature on the human branch of the primate family tree.  Her name is Vanessa Woods, and she has written a wonderful, ground-breaking new book called Bonobo Handshake, a must-read for anyone interested in primatology, anthropology, sex, love, war, peace or that greatest of mysteries we commonly call human nature.

Now, if you don’t know a bonobo from a banana, let me introduce you to our kissin’ cousins who swing from the trees (as well as with each other). Bonobos are a rare species of chimpanzee sometimes called “pigmy chimps,” (Latin: pan paniscus) and, like common chimps (pan troglodyte), they’re over 98% genetically similar to humans.  Though they tend to be a lot hairier than us—and they don’t build houses or churches or corporate skyscrapers or Pentagons, like we do—they do look and act remarkably like us in many, often surprising ways.

Take sex, for instance.  The genitals of bonobo females are rotated forward, like in human females, allowing face-to-face sex, rather than just “doggie style” like most animals. Basically, bonobos can have sex in as many positions as humans can (even more actually) and they do have sex—a lot.

Peace through Pleasure

I’m not just talking about sexual intercourse, but also much of what we call foreplay: the give and take of sensuous pleasures of all different sorts, including fellatio, cunnilingus, sex with food, masturbation, gay sex, group sex, massage, sex in different positions and lots of long, deep, soulful, French kissing.

But it’s not just how bonobos have sex that fascinates—it’s how they use sex: as part of a barter system (e.g., I’ll give you an apple if you give me a handjob); to ease stress (e.g., Don’t be nervous, come here and sit on my face); and to reduce violent conflict.  And here’s the kicker: unlike common chimps (and humans), bonobos have never been seen deliberately killing each other, neither in the wild nor in captivity.  Apparently, all that hot sex just cools ‘em out.

The males are especially peaceful.  Unlike common chimps and other great apes, bonobo society is not male dominated. Female bonobos have the strong relationships, creating a chimp version of “sisterhood” that gives the ladies a lot of power.

Embarrassing Relatives

Speaking of powerful females, with the publication of Bonobo Handshake, Vanessa Woods has emerged as one of the world’s foremost advocates for the highly endangered bonobos; certainly among the fiercest that I’ve encountered since I first fell in love with these adorable apes, having caught them frolicking, fornicating and peace-making on a PBS documentary called “The Nature of Sex” in 1994.

When I saw how much they look like us and how remarkably sexual and peaceful they are, I assumed that everyone would fall in love with bonobos, just as I had.  I was sure that bonobos would become *the next big thing* in the human media.  Boy, was I wrong about that!

For years, the vast majority of the media has treated bonobos as some embarrassing relative in our primate family that had to be shut away in a dark basement.  Not many primatologists studied them and the few that did were often reluctant to speak freely and openly about their remarkable sexuality for fear of losing their grants or even their jobs.  My own work to promote awareness of the bonobos, their amazing sexuality and their urgent plight was criticized in certain primatology circles for focusing “too much” on their sexual behavior and for “using” them as an inspiration for what I call The Bonobo Way, a philosophy of keeping the peace by sharing various pleasures, including sexual pleasures.

Bonobo Bashing in the New Yorker

Bonobos got a bad rap in a 2007 New Yorker article by Ian Parker who mentioned The Bonobo Way, but spent thousands of words promoting the unfinished research and ruminations of primatologist Gottfried Hohmann, with the very pointed implication that bonobos aren’t really as sexual or as peaceful as deluded hippies like me (and another great friend of the bonobos, Sally Coxe, director of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative) would have you believe.

Recent field research has effectively proven that Mr. Parker’s “bonobo-bashing” thesis was wrong; we hippies were right after all.  Bonobos are extremely sexual (especially if you define sex as more than just intercourse), and, though they fight tooth-and-nail every so often, they still haven’t been seen killing each other—in any context—let alone making war like common chimps and humans do.  Nevertheless, the New Yorker still hasn’t published anything to reflect these findings, let alone printed a retraction.

Studiously Ignoring Our Kissin’ Cousins

Even more ironically, when Dr. Owen Lovejoy and his team of anthropologists discovered Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus), the 4.4 million year old fossil of a human ancestor, bonobos barely got any rap at all.  Despite the rather bonobo-esque sound of Lovejoy’s own name, he doesn’t even acknowledge that  Ardi—with her stooped but two-legged walk, tree-dwelling lifestyle and peaceful ways—is very much like a bonobo, though he does take great pains to say that she is not much like the violent, war-making, ground-dwelling, four-legged common chimp.  It’s as if Dr. Lovejoy was so concerned about downplaying Ardi’s closeness to common chimps that he “forgot” all about our equally close relative, the bonobo.

Even more recently, Dr. John Mitani’s research into why common chimps kill each other in a war-like fashion (apparently, to expand their territory) was trumpeted by most of the major media as giving the definitive evolutionary psychology behind why human beings make war.  Despite thousands of pages of coverage of the warring chimps, barely a word was written about humanity’s other cousin who is at least as genetically close to us as common chimps and never makes war at all.

It’s as if the media is trying to tell us (or sell us on the idea) that we humans are irreparably murderous, war-making creatures—after all, our close cousins, the common chimps, are—so let’s relish our murders and wars, including our obscene media coverage of them, and forget about trying to end them.

But what about our other close cousins—the ones our media has shut away in that primate family basement: the peaceable, sexual bonobos?  Aside from Dr. Frans de Waal’s excellent Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape (with beautiful photos by Franz Lanting), there had been no books published by a major publishing house with bonobos as the sole focus.  That changed a couple months ago, when Penguin’s Gotham Books published Bonobo Handshake, Vanessa Woods’ extraordinary “memoir of love and adventure in the Congo.”
Bonobo Handshake Breaks the Silence

It’s a terrific introduction to bonobos for the novice, and a real treat for people who, like me, already love bonobos and are hungry to know more.  Even if you’re not the least bit interested in bonobos (in which case, you should be ashamed of yourself!), you’ll lose yourself in this fantastic love story set against the wild, war-torn backdrop of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Vanessa Woods, whom I interviewed on radioSUZY1 last Saturday, had a very personal reason for agreeing to accompany her newly wedded husband, Dr. Brian Hare (now an assistant professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University), into the “Heart of Darkness” that is the Congo.  Her dad had fought in Vietnam and returned home, to Australia and to his family, his own variant of PTSD wreaking mild havoc on everyone—his daughter included.  Vanessa entered the Congo—even as vicious wars raged between Tutsis and Hutus, Nationals and Rebels and their various supporters and enemies—because she wanted to try to somehow grasp the effects of war on its participants.  She wanted to understand her dad.

Woods did learn a lot about war in the Congo.  Her book is one of the few I’ve read that makes any sense of the incredibly convoluted, complicated history of Congolese wars.  She also marvels at the very personal differences between people who survive the wars, some of whom are broken and despondent while others cultivate astounding hope, laughter and love.
But little did she know when she went off to learn about war that she would get involved with a bunch of apes who may hold the secret to peace.

Dr. Wrangham, Sex, War & More

Harvard Professor Richard Wrangham supervised some of the research projects Woods and Ware worked on.  I interviewed Dr. Wrangham back in 1996 when his groundbreaking book, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, came out and found him to be refreshingly open about bonobo sexuality when other scientists were trying to cover it up, like Victorians skirting their table legs.  I suppose it is because we focused on the sex that my interview with Dr. Wrangham is said to be “notorious” around Harvard.

But times are changing and primatologists are facing the facts of bonobo life; Vanessa Woods is an important part of that change.  It’s great to read a well-researched book about bonobos that doesn’t pussyfoot around their amazing sexuality—unless, of course, one bonobo is rubbing her pussy against another’s foot, as they are wont to do…

The Bonobo Handshake, after which the book was titled, refers to the way that bonobos—from the alpha males and females to the tiniest of their babies—rub genitalia as often and as casually as we shake hands, as a matter of cordial greeting, as well as to calm various forms of tension.

But the book is about much more than *just* sex or even war.  It’s about the roots of love, hate, fear, grief, mourning, spiritual longing, tolerance, cooperation, altruism, the will to live and the depth of human experience reflected back to us from the dark brown eyes of our simian brothers and sisters.  If you’re new to primatology, Bonobo Handshake may just turn your whole world upside down.

Bonobo Heroine Claudine Andre

While there are many heroes in this book, the most important human heroine of all—the great guardian of the bonobos—is Claudine Andre.  An elegant, flame-haired, French-born mother of five who has lived in Congo most of her life, Andre is founder and director of Lola Ya Bonobo (“paradise for bonobos” in Lingala), a sanctuary near Kinshasa where Woods and Hare studied bonobo behavior and in which orphaned bonobos are cared for before being released back into the wild.  Over the years, I had heard about Andre who built her sanctuary on a beautiful woodsy stretch of land that was once a rustic retreat for Congo’s old dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.  But Bonobo Handshake really fleshed out the portrait of this living, legendary miracle woman who does so much to save bonobos—both as individuals and as a species—from the ever-threatening bushmeat trade.

Even though shooting bonobos is illegal in Congo (just as it is in every country in Africa), with all of the real human hunger, war, devastation and lawlessness, bushmeat hunting still goes on. Most of the orphaned babies taken to Lola ya Bonobo are not only sick, starving and desperately scared; they are traumatized by having seen and felt their mothers being killed by a hunter’s bullet.  Sometimes when an adult bonobo sees a hunter, she claps her hands together, then holds out one palm in a begging motion, as if pleading for her life.  Of course, the hunter rarely grants this poignant last request.  Imagine seeing your beloved mama begging for her life just before a bullet kills her, perhaps while you are clinging to her breast or riding on her back.  This is just one of many traumas that the bonobos orphans have been through before they arrive at Andre’s paradise.

While the common chimp babies that Woods worked with in Uganda almost always survived, once they had made it to Debbie Cox’s Ngamba Island chimp sanctuary, bonobo orphans appear to be more fragile and sometimes, despite the best of care, simply fail to rally.  Perhaps this is a painful corollary to being peaceful, sexual, empathetic and sensitive: difficulty coping with the barbarity of war and the cold-blooded murder of loved ones.

Key to a World Without War

Despite the tragedies and the imminent danger of extinction, Bonobo Handshake is brimming with hope and progress.   I was moved to tears by Woods’ story of how she, Andre and the Lola Ya Bonobo “Mamas” (local women who take care of orphan bonobos as if they were their own babies), worked together to save one particular little baby bonobo girl named Kata. I wanted to do my part to help her, so I visited and “adopted” little Kata!  I’m sure she must have at least 30 adoptive parents by now, but if “it takes a village to raise a child,” it might take the whole world to save the bonobos. Whatever it takes, they are worth it!  After all, they will “reciprocate” and help us save ourselves.

Not that bonobos’ empathy and sexuality have much to do with their status as highly endangered species.  Bonobos had survived for hundreds of thousands of years just fine, undisturbed and alone in their native, food-rich habitat of the Congolese rainforest, south of the great Congo River.  But when logging, diamond, gold, coltan (a vital component in the capacitors that control current flow in cell phone circuit boards) and other mineral companies cut roads into the jungle, devastating villages and wildlife along the way, humans not only discovered bonobos—we initiated the contact that has come very close to destroying them.

Now we owe it to them—and to ourselves—to help save our kissin’ cousins from extinction.  So read Bonobo Handshake, adopt an orphan, liberate your “inner bonobo,” make like bonobos—not baboons, practice The Bonobo Way of peace through pleasure, give what you can to bonobo conservation and do what you can to help. Do it now.

As Vanessa Woods writes, “bonobos hold the key to a world without war.”  It’s a key that we humans cannot afford to lose.

Dr. SUSAN BLOCK is a internationally renowned LA sex therapist, bonobo lover and author of The 10 Commandments of Pleasure, occasionally seen on HBO and other channels.  Commit Bloggamy with her at  Email comments to her at

© July 10, 2010.





Susan Block, Ph.D., a.k.a. “Dr. Suzy,” is a world renowned LA sex therapist, author of The Bonobo Way: The Evolution of Peace through Pleasure and horny housewife, occasionally seen on HBO and other channels. For information and speaking engagements, call 626-461-5950. Email her at