Meat for sex

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From the Max Planck Institute comes news of a new study that sheds light on male-female interaction in the primate world.

… Cristina M. Gomes and Christophe Boesch show that female chimpanzees copulate more frequently with males who share meat with them on at least one occasion, compared with males who never share meat with them, indicating that sharing meat with females improves a males’ mating success. Although males were more likely to share meat with females who had sexual swelling (i.e. estrous females), excluding all sharing episodes with estrous females from the analysis, did not alter the results. This indicates that short term exchanges alone (i.e. within the estrous phase of the female) cannot account for the relationship between sharing meat and mating success.

The study does not explain why this exchange occurs. Are female chimps bestowing their sexual favors on males who bring them a highly prized food because those males are more likely to be good providers for a female raising young? Or do female chimps bestow their sexual favors on those who will pay for them, with meat being the favored currency? In other words, are female chimps looking for the best father for their children, or are they high priced call girls, willing to have sex with any john who can pay the extravagant price?

You might think that these issues would be of interest only to a small community of scientists who primate behavior. You’d be wrong. The Great Beyond, the blog of the prestigious journal Nature, believes that the way that the story has been reported in the mainstream media reveals a strong undercurrent of sexism.

Feminists avert your gaze. News that female chimps mate more frequently with male chimps that share their meat with them has prompted a slew of at best corny, at worst downright sexist, even lewd, headlines…

…Thank goodness for the Daily Mail, who confuse humans and chimps even in their headline, “Why food is the way to a woman’s heart (if you happen to be a male chimpanzee)”, to open their story with the brilliantly enlightened “As every Romeo knows, laying on a delicious dinner for two is one of the best seduction ploys.”

Seduction is also apparently what the chimps are up to according to Mongabay.com and the Independent.

And how about “Frisky chimps’ female meat market”? over at Blatherskite. Nice.

The Telegraph takes a leap that I’m not sure the author’s would have intended: “Buying a woman presents could help men get them into bed, a new study which shows that chimpanzees have sex for gifts suggests” is how their story begins.

Reuters have a go at linking the study with prostitution in their opening paragraph.

The long-term nature of the behavior, though, indicates that rather than being a form of chimp prostitution, the meat for sex exchange is a sign of something more prosaic. The male chimps don’t simply offer meat at the time that the females are sexually available (estrous); it is an ongoing behavior that persists even when the female chimps are unreceptive. The researchers believe that female chimps are looking for males who are the best providers. The ability to catch another animal is a sign of hunting prowess and a good hunter will be able to supply high quality food that will increase the chances of a healthy pregnancy and strong offspring.

According to Gomes, “Our results strongly suggest that wild chimpanzees exchange meat for sex, doing so on a long-term basis. Males who shared meat with females doubled their mating success, whereas females, who had difficulty obtaining meat on their own, increased their caloric intake, without suffering the energetic costs and potential risk of injury related to hunting.”

Feminists may not be mollified by the acknowledgement that the meat for sex exchange is not prostitution. Even the more mundane explanation lends credence to traditional notions of mate selection, and marriage interaction. The meat for sex exchange is the chimp form of the traditional marriage, where the men goes out into the wider world to do exciting things, and women stay home to raise the children.

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