Making Love Instead of War

The link between sexual freedom and social harmony.

Posted Feb 05, 2020

Source: Gerhard111/flickr

Bonobos—along with chimpanzees—are human beings’ closest ape relatives. They are as closely related to us as a fox is to a dog.

One of the most striking things about bonobos (who live solely in Africa) is that they are extremely peaceful. Modern researchers have never observed a single murder among them (1). Rather than fighting with each other, bonobo groups are much more likely to socialise peacefully, having sex and grooming each other (2).

Male bonobos don’t dominate their groups, and their societies are not hierarchical, with no elite groups hoplding power over others. As well as being friendly and cooperative toward one another, bonobos often show signs of empathy and altruism towards other animals. For example, it is common to see them helping or tending to other animals who are injured, such as birds or turtles.

Most famously, though, bonobos are very sexual animals. They have a lot of sex, in a lot of different ways. They often make love face to face, like humans (although in other positions too), and genital rubbing is as normal and habitual as—in human terms—shaking hands or hugging. Homosexual sex is normal for bonobos, most of whom seem to be bisexual (at least as we would term it). For example, members of the same sex often rub their genitals together and give each other orgasms. 

In fact, there seems to be a strong link between bonobos’ sexual behaviour and their peacefulness and egalitarianism. If bonobos show signs of aggression or any signs of social tension or disputes, it is often diffused by sexual activity. As zoologist Frans de Waal has put it, “sexual activity is the bonobos answer to avoiding conflict.” (3)  

There is some evidence of a connection between sexual behaviour and peacefulness in human affairs too. In 1975, American psychologist James W. Prescott published a remarkable study called "Body pleasure and the origins of violence," which showed a very strong correlation between sexual freedom and social violence around the world. Studying data from 400 different cultures, Prescott found that societies characterised by “permissive premarital sexual behaviors” had a low level of adult physical violence, while societies that punished premarital (and extramarital) sex were the most violent. As a result, he concluded that “Premarital sexual freedom for young people can help reduce violence in a society.” (4)

Prescott also found a correlation between a society’s level of violence and how much affection and bodily contact their children receive from their parents. He concluded that “societies which give their infants the greatest amount of physical affection have less theft and violence among adults, thus supporting the theory that deprivation of bodily pleasure during infancy is significantly linked to a high rate of crime and violence.”

Sexual Freedom 

We can find examples of groups with a high level of sexual freedom and openness among the world’s indigenous tribal peoples. In 1971, the anthropologist Donald S. Marshall published a study of a tribe called the Mangaia of the Cook Islands (close to New Zealand). He found that the Mangaia put special emphasis on the sexual needs of women. It was common for older women to give adolescent boys “sex lessons,” showing the different ways of giving pleasure to a woman, including oral sex, clitoral stimulation by finger, and different love-making techniques. At the end, the boys were expected to be able to give women multiple orgasms, and if they didn’t reach the required standard word spread around and they found it difficult to get sexual partners. Parents encouraged daughters to have sex with different men to help them find a suitable marriage partner. By the age of 18, both male and female Mangaians were usually having sex several times a week (5).

Earlier anthropologists studied groups in Polynesia and found that it was common for adolescents to sleep in communal dormitories, away from adults, where they would regularly have sex with different partners. Girls initiated sexual relations as often as boys and were never thought of negatively for being sexually forward and uninhibited. After adolescence, people did begin to pair bond, but even then, extramarital sex was common, with practices akin to what we would call "wife-swapping" or "swinging." (Anthropologists also found that the groups used plant contraceptives to reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancies.)

And as Prescott’s findings predicted, such groups were also very egalitarian, with highly developed practices of sharing in terms of food, possessions, and decision-making. Neither did women have an inferior status to men. When living with the Trobriander people of Micronesia (another island group, close to Polynesia) during the early 20th century, the English anthropologist Branislaw Malinowski found that there were extremely low levels of anti-social behaviour and violence. Because of their lack of possessiveness and the great importance they attached to sharing, crimes like theft and robbery were practically unknown. In fact, the same co-operative, sharing behaviour that the Trobriander applied to sex was extended to every aspect of life. (6)

There are also some modern cultures that illustrate the connection between sexual freedom and healthy social conditions. Scandinavian counties, such as Sweden and Denmark, have high levels of sexual openness and freedom, and at the same time, they are highly egalitarian, with low levels of social conflict and violence. It’s also surely not a coincidence that such countries regularly appear at the top of the rankings of surveys of well-being and life satisfaction around the world. 

Sexual Repression

Although many modern societies—such as western Europe and northern America—have a similar level of sexual freedom to the tribal societies I've described, there are still many societies that illustrate the connection between sexual repression and social violence. 

Historically, many societies in the Middle East and Asia have been highly sexually repressive, with taboos against (and severe punishments for) pre-marital and extra-marital sex, and a disregard for the sexual needs of women. There is also a high degree of segregation between the sexes, especially during adolescence. Such societies place a high value on virginity, associating it with purity and honour. In her book, Veil of Shame, the Lebanese-American author Evelyne Accad described how—in complete contrast to some indigenous cultures, some of whom don’t even have a word for virginity, since the concept is so unimportant—many modern Middle-Eastern cultures suffer from a “virginity mania.” As she wrote, “From early childhood, a girl is brought up in constant fear of losing her virginity… Virginity represents the 'honor' of the girl, and, more importantly, of her family.” This honor is so important for the family that a girl’s father and brothers often see themselves as the “guardians” of her virginity. They chaperone her wherever she goes to make sure that she’s never left alone with other men and never has the opportunity to cultivate male friendships.

As Prescott suggests, such societies tend to be hierarchical and patriarchal, with higher than usual levels of domestic violence and group conflict. 

Why Is There a Connection Between Sex and Peacefulness?

Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich put forward a simple explanation for the link between sexual repression and violence. He argued that if a person doesn’t have a healthy sex life with regular orgasms, what he calls “undischarged bio-energetic tension” builds up inside them. This creates a sense of frustration and latent aggression, which has to have an outlet. And often this outlet is physical and mental violence, towards individuals or groups. 

My own explanation is a little more complex. In my book, The Fall, I suggested that the main difference between indigenous cultures and modern human beings is that most of us have a stronger sense of individuality or an intensified sense of ego. Whereas indigenous peoples’ sense of identity is linked to their environment and their community, we tend to perceive ourselves as individual entities who live in separation from the natural world, and in separation from each other. This intensified sense of ego also led to a sense of duality between the mind and the body, and to sexual repression. It led to a tendency to see sex as animalistic and impure, and to view sexual desire as an unhealthy aspect of human nature which we should try to rise above. 

Contemporary Trends

All of this suggests that there are causes for optimism. Over the last hundred years or so, in many parts of the world, sexual freedom has increased to levels that approach those of indigenous societies. There has been an increasing openness to the human body and its impulses, and an increasing recognition of the sexual needs of women, which suggests that the duality between the ego and the body is being transcended. 

It is perhaps not a coincidence that many historians believe that we are also living through the most peaceful era in recorded history (although it may not seem like it when we watch the news). Until the mid-twentieth century, Europe existed in a chronic state of warfare. Historians estimate that, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, European countries were at war with each other an average of every other year. But since the end of the Second World War, what historians call "the long peace" has prevailed among leading world powers. It certainly isn’t the only factor, but based on Prescott’s findings, I wouldn’t be surprised if increased sexual openness was part of the reason for this trend. 

There is some evidence that permissive Western attitudes to sex are spreading around the world. Perhaps, as they continue to do so, patriarchy, hierarchy, and all forms of social and individual violence will decline on a global scale. As well as being a source of great pleasure, and the means by which the human race keeps itself alive, sex is a great source of social harmony. Increasing sexual freedom may be a means by which future generations live more harmoniously.

And paradoxically, by advancing in this way, we will actually be returning to an earlier state. We will be recapturing the intuitive wisdom, and the social harmony, of our primate cousins, the bonobos.


(1) Furuichi, T. (2011). Female contributions to the peaceful nature of bonobo society. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 20(4), 131-142; Parish, A. R., de Waal, F., & Haig, D. (2000). The other “closest living relative”: How bonobos (Pan paniscus) challenge traditional assumptions about females, dominance, intra‐and intersexual interactions, and hominid evolution. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 907(1), 97-113.

(2) De Waal, Bonobo Sex and Society.

(3) De Waal, Bonobo Sex and Society.

(4) Prescott, Body pleasure and the origins of violence. 

(5) Marshall, Donald S. Sexual behavior on Mangaia. Human sexual behavior (1971): 103-162.

(6) Malinowski, B. (1932). The Sexual Life of Savages. London: Routledge and Keegan Paul.

(7) Accad, E. (1978). The Veil of Shame. Sherbrooke, QU: Editions Naaman.