It’s 10am and Liz Bonnin is talking sex. Lesbian sex. What, that nice Liz Bonnin off the TV? Yes, one and the same. So let’s be clear. The intimacy in question involves the bonobo – the African ape often described as the “make love, not war” primate. So frisky is this pygmy chimpanzee that it’s only found in one zoo in the UK (Twycross in Warwickshire), its amorous antics thought to be a little too risqué for visiting children.
“Oh, they love having sex,” says the biochemist and TV presenter. “It’s an absolutely essential part of their life.” Which, given they are one of our closest living relatives, shouldn’t come as any particular surprise. Except, the bonobo does it an average of 17 times a day – much in same-sex couplings.
“In a sense bonobo sex is a much more sophisticated expression of emotion than it is with us. We have a very sexualised society, yet it’s all very taboo. For them it’s the same as giving another bonobo a hug, or a handshake.”
And that uncomplicated view of sex translates to tranquillity in bonobo family life.
“It’s a very equal and peaceful society where the females run the show,” says Bonnin. “There are moments when females do need to keep the males in check, but more often than not before anything escalates to an uncontrollable level, a female will have sex with a male, or two males will have sex, or two females will have sex. They just go: ‘Oh come on. Just chill out. Let’s have a bit of sex and let’s calm down.’ ” It’s a theme the 38-year-old French-born, Dublin-educated naturalist warms to.
“The thing is, the female-to-female bonds are very strong. When a new female enters the group she’ll ingratiate herself with one of the older ones and they will have sexual encounters in order to bond and assess their rank. It’s so interesting how they use sex. It’s completely different to ours. It has resulted in one of the most peaceful societies in the world. And there is such a lesson to be learnt in that.”
So humans should make love not war, too? “Well it wouldn’t be a bad thing, would it!”