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The Erin Brockovich of the bonobo
Sex sells, says Dr. Susan Block, so why not use it to save an endangered species?

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By Deirdre Guthrie

May 18, 2000 |  Dr. Susan Block calls herself the "Erin Brockovich of the bonobo." Yet she's not crusading against a power company poisoning ground water, she's fighting for a sexual revolution, and she's drafted one of Homo sapiens' closest relatives to help her in battle.

Like the cleavage-baring Brockovich, Block, star of two HBO specials and "The Dr. Susan Block Show," which runs Saturdays on cable TV in San Francisco and Los Angeles, tends to get flak for her combat fatigues. Propped amid ostrich feathers and dildos, she plies her trade in lacy lingerie, teaching her eager audience how to have "bigger orgasms and better relationships" from in between the satin sheets of her "broadcast bed."

Block's TV constituency has been described by Detour magazine critic Dale Brasel as an "ever-growing cult following ... Unlike Dr. Ruth," writes Brasel, "you can actually believe she's had and is still having sex. Good sex."

Block says this is largely because she's a passionate subscriber to what she terms the "bonobo way." Like the chimpanzee, the bonobo, which look a lot like the chimp, share 98.5 percent of their DNA with humans, making them roughly as close to us as a fox is to a dog. These apes, also known as pygmy chimpanzees, appear to function under an egalitarian matriarchy in which the highest-ranking males tend to be the sons of respected females.

In fact, it's been observed that when female bonobo share a meal, lovingly feeding each other bits of sugar cane or banana, they calmly ignore the charging displays of males anxious for a bite. Instead, when the ladies have had their fill, they generously leave a portion for the hungry, humbled male who waits until they leave to claim his share.

The female bonobo's self-possession is believed to come from a strong sense of sisterhood, reinforced daily through sexual petting and grooming rituals.

Still, should food sharing or virtually any conflict arise, the bonobo know how to avoid violence and apply a little sexual healing to alleviate a tense situation. Indeed, some observers have witnessed the apes alleviating their libidos in some form of hetero, homo or self-sexual activity as frequently as every 90 minutes. (Granted, their average copulation lasts 13 seconds.)

As Block says, "They know how to give a blow job for a banana or communicate 'Don't be nervous, honey; come sit on my face.'"

Frans De Waal, a primatologist at the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta, has noted the profound implications of the bonobo upon evolutionary theory. "The art of sexual reconciliation may have reached its evolutionary peak in the bonobo," he writes. He has predicted "after 20 more years of research the bonobo is going to change the whole picture of human evolution."

As early as 1954 primatologists at European zoos observed that the bonobo mated like people, that is, face to face. Yet, since the late 1970s, the patriarchal chimpanzee with its penchant for warfare and power politics, has served as the chosen evolutionary model for human behavior. It took until the 1970s, for the first researchers, a team from Japan, to venture into the bonobo's sole habitat: the Salonga National Park in the dense equatorial Congo River basin of Africa, a region ranked fourth in the world for plant and animal diversity.

Today, some researchers claim that had primatologists studied bonobos earlier, models of human development may have challenged assumptions about the supremacy of violence-prone males.

Block says she was elated to discover her "French-kissing cousins" because they authenticated the paradigm of her life's work: a concept she calls "ethical hedonism."

"Ethical hedonism supports the egalitarian pursuit of pleasure and the repression of violence," she explains.

Block says she and her "bonobo gang," a mix of co-workers and friends, practice the bonobo way every day, inspired by the apes' bisexual appetites. Her Web site features photos of the pygmy chimps "goin' downtown," "bun grabbing" and masturbating with a big, red ball. Elsewhere, a click of the mouse reveals humans body-licking and massaging one another with equal enthusiasm.

Block sees other parallels between Homo sapiens and our hairier counterparts. She assures me that "penis-fencing," a phenomenon De Waal observed among captive males he found hanging face to face from a branch twiddling their diddlies together, is "the macho man's best kept secret fantasy." She also observes the female bonobos' tight-knit cohesion among her own human girlfriends who host swinger parties.

. Next page | Why do men submit to female power? Because they're getting laid

Photograph by Glenn Campbell

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