Chimps Ahoy!*

Recently, there have been a couple of articles on Gawker about “bonobo lesbian relationships“. My humor juices got flowing about this, and so I thought I’d mix theory and my wacky humor in one post.

When talking or thinking about sexuality, most North Americans tend to adopt understandings that circulate North American culture, most often along the lines of gender differences or clearly delineated sexualities. Those who have read Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality are in some ways at an advantage for being able to acknowledge that most of our ideas of sexuality come from the 19th century with small transformations over time, but no real substantial difference from the way people thought and constructed sexuality a century and a half-ago.

To summarize Foucault, he shows that the science of sexuality was, ironically, not finding the “truth” about sexuality “out there” but rather sexual science was constructing the categories that we now think as “truth” through continual usage. One of the major insights to come out of this understanding is that, like Judith Butler’s analysis of gender being performative, sexuality itself is a performance heavily affected by the categories we use and the ways we talk about it. So while we may use the categories of ‘straight’, ‘gay’ and bisexual, these categories are very specific to a time and place and how people are sexual in this time and place.

So, when we are talking about anything other than North American sexuality since World War II (to be very general) we often tend to use our own categories of sexuality and apply them to other times and places. The problem with this, of course, is that these times and places didn’t use our categories, didn’t think about sexuality the way we do today, and in fact practiced a different form of sexuality because of this. What I mean is this: when we are talking about sexuality in other cultures and times and use the label homosexuality (or gay, lesbian etc.) to label some sort of same-sex love, we are imputing our own sexual norms onto another culture. Doing this inhibits our ability to see the sexuality of the Other on its own terms.

In fact, we do this to the animal kingdom as well, we anthropomorphize animals, sometimes to unfortunate results. Other times, it is hilarious.

Now this all leads me to interesting perspectives when it comes to pop-cultural and media discussions about sexuality. So, when people start talking about the bonobos on Gawker websites and labelling the female to female sexual encounters of bonobos as “lesbian” encounters, the comedic side of my brain starts revving up.

To whit, I start imagining bonobos adopting kittens, processing feelings and having marathons of the L-word and taking votes on whether Shane or Carmen is the hottest. Hehe. And when the articles in question note that lower-status females flaunt their relationships with higher-status females, it makes me think that the bonobos have some version of “The list” by Alice Pieszecki. Do the male bonobos ask the females if they scissor?

Anyway, I’ll let you fill in <lesbian stereotype> to <image of bonobos> for your own humor needs.

*I know bonobos are not chimpanzees, but forgive me for the pun.


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