Female Empowerment

Posted on February 24, 2011


Girl Power is a phrase that was banded about in the mid 1990’s by the phenomenally successful pop quintet, Spice Girls. Females of all ages were no longer tarred with the same brush as the ‘burn-your-bra’ feminists of the past; but given a new perspective in mainstream media. The phrase was so popular that the Oxford English Dictionary added it during the new millennium.

But female empowerment has been around for centuries, in fact our wild kin, very much rely on it keeping the peace and securing alliances. Bonobos or pygmy chimpanzees (Pan paniscus) are part of the great ape family and have evolved in isolation in the forest of DR Congo in Central Africa. They live in very tight family groups and together with common chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes troglodytes), they’re man’s closest living relative.


Since I started studying primates, the one species that most men want to know about are bonobos. Outside of the scientific world, few people have heard of them, but there’s a reason why a select few of you do – they have sex on the brain.

These apes live in an unusually placid atmosphere because they use sex as a way of easing tension; reconciling disputes and forging friendships. If an explosive argument does erupt, it’ll usually boil down to the thrashing of a branch (not quite like Basil Fawlty) followed by a sexual encounter. They are not as aggressive or violent as chimpanzees, in fact males will touch other males’ genitalia to appease tension – it’s their way of shaking hands.

It could be said that sex is quite literally used as a currency and they are one of the few primates species that copulate for ulterior motives other than to reproduce. The females of this species really do rule the roost and sex between females is crucial in securing the ‘right sort’ of friendships.

A new study published in Biology Letters from a team at St Andrew’s University, led by Dr Zanna Clay has found females use calls to advertise their sexual encounters not just with males but with higher ranking females as a way of forming female alliances.

Dr Clay told me: “Calling out during copulation is common behaviour in primates, but bonobos have very strong female relationships which are often sexual. The vocalisations are an extension of those female relationships. It’s done as a social mechanism, they’ve ‘hijacked’ the use from the reproductive system and are demonstrating their allegiance to higher ranking females because they are socially important.”

Yes bonobos have sex with everyone; but reproductive motives aside, they’ll only advertise it if it’ll strength their place within the group. Simply put, it does pay to shout about having friends in high places.

Nioki sits Lukaya down (centre)

Dr Clay added: “Interestingly when females show signs of fertility they call more with males and less with females. This indicates that when reproduction matters, they call in a more traditional way. But when they do not have a high swelling they call more with other females.”

Female bonobos migrate out of their natal group, so it’s vital that they are able to strike up solid relationships with new females in another group. Survival in the wild really does rely on group cohesion, if you’re on your own, you’re vulnerable and probably won’t last long.

Dr Clay told me comparatively, there’s very little research on bonobos than on chimpanzees. This is because they only live in one place – Democratic Republic of Congo – this area is plagued with conflict and it’s very difficult to access. Their habitat is bordered by four rivers, so they’re not found anywhere else. Chimpanzees on the other hand, live in more than 20 different African countries.

Dr Clay continues her research on these apes. Here are some of the pictures taken during her time in Africa between 2008-2009.

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