In yesterday's post I reflected briefly on the recent controversy concerning bonobo behavior. Frans de Waal has posted a reply to his critics here (and another is coming soon, here). On one item I agree completely, and cannot resist a brief comment.
One of the scientists featured in The New Yorker story, Gottfried Hohmann, says that frequent vulva-to-vulva contact between females is "probably not" sexual.
De Waal's reply notes that US courts settled this matter in the Paula Jones case, determining that deliberate contact with the genitals is sex. That better not be right, or gynecologists all over the world are in trouble.
But we don't need the courts to make the point for bonobo research. What's interesting in the bonobo case is the claim that these primates, especially the females, perform "genito-genital rubbing" (is that the least sexy name ever?) in a range of contexts.
And if you define sex so narrowly that sex is only what leads to intercourse or happens in an erotic mood, then by definition, female bonobos can't engage in playful sexual activity in varied contexts. But that seems wrong: whatever else, the claim of free-wheeling bonobo sexuality can't be false by definition.
As Greta Christina elegantly argues in her "Are We Having Sex Now or What?" it's almost impossible to give a good definition for human sex. Probably it'll be even harder to give one for bonobo sex, given that we can't even ask them their opinions. "Yo, babes, are you having sex now? Or what?"