Sex sells, but can it save the planet?
Dr. Susan M. Block is not your typical crusader for endangered species.
Sure, peace signs dangle from her ears — perhaps a little large, but not completely outrageous. Her voice carries conviction and bespeaks a clear intelligence — Yale, magna cum laude. A doctorate, too, in philosophy. Then she fled academia to build her own thriving multimedia enterprise: books, radio and TV shows, videos, websites, a gallery, consultations.
With a portfolio like this, Dr. Block would seem a worthy asset to any movement she befriended.
Perhaps it’s the bra that takes some getting used to — the tension of enforced cleavage, the fact that the bra is not undergarment but garment. Maybe it’s the fishnet stockings, the Technicolor fingernails, the sprinkle of glitter on moist skin. Or is it the props? A brass bed, a corn snake named Eve, a stick of salami, a velour vulva puppet — these are not traditional tools of conservation.
For example, Dr. Block chose to accessorize herself with a slim riding crop for the videotaping of an, um, dramatic reading of her letter to Laurent Kabila upon his ascension to power in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The subject of her letter: the plight of the endangered bonobo, sometimes called the forgotten ape. As a conservation manifesto, Sand County Almanac it ain’t. It’s more of a tease — “heard that you are a man of sizeable sexual appetites yourself” — a prelude to a little light B&D, that is bio & diversity.
Dr. Block’s prurient interest in bonobos? “They’re the horniest chimps on earth,” she says frankly. She’s a sex therapist — a phone sex therapist. (Apologies for whatever unresolved mental imagery that evokes, but further explanation would take us completely off-topic.)
They’re Great Apes
If you’ve left your primate scorecard at home, bonobos — Pan paniscus or pygmy chimpanzees — are the least well-known of the great apes. Not until 1929 were they discovered, and that was by somebody huddled over a box of chimpanzee bones in a Belgian museum.
Bonobos live only in the Congo. They are wondrous creatures to witness: wise, playful, caring, and dynamic. Unlike other primates, they have never been seen to murder a fellow bonobo, and females seem to hold the balance of power. Bonobos share some 98 percent of their genetic material with humans, and some geneticists argue that they are our closest living evolutionary kin. One extraordinary captive bonobo, Kanzi, has learned hundreds of words and can converse, using symbols, at the level of a two-and-a-half-year-old human.
Oh yes, as Dr. Block mentioned, they do have lots of sex. “Bonobos share all kinds of sexual pleasures, including masturbation, massage, bisexuality, body-licking, sex in different positions, group sex, and lots of long, deep, wet, soulful, French kissing,” says Dr. Block, anthropomorphizing a bit much for the taste of some primatologists. “Like tantric sex practitioners, or just like two people very much in love, copulating bonobos often look deeply into each other’s eyes.” Er, anthropomorphizing a lot.
Oh, No, Bonobos
But all is not well in Eden. “[The bonobos’] remoteness was the best assurance for their survival, and that has rapidly changed,” explains Gay Reinartz, a bonobo specialist with the Milwaukee Zoological Society. The Congolese economy is ruin built upon ruins, and even that’s overvalued. Millions are starving for protein and cash. Logging is on the increase in bonobo habitat, and the bonobo are often hunted for their meat. Thanks to a prolonged civil war, the once-pristine bonobo home range is now divided between two contending armies. “Their situation is dire,” says Reinartz.
Dr. Tony Rose directs the Biosynergy Institute and its Bushmeat Project, which focuses on the hunting threat to primates. Rose believes that a key to conservation is what he calls a “profound interspecies event,” an epiphany in which a person suddenly realizes the wonder and complexity of another species. “Forming a kinship relationship, feeling akin to and close to the animals, seems to be the one [experience] that affects the laypeople most,” says Rose, who sees it as quite natural that a sex therapist might take to bonobos. “I think the way we get regular people involved is to talk about the animals in ways that regular people can understand.”
Block volunteers that the first time she saw bonobos, on PBS, it was a revelation. “I constructed my philosophy of ethical hedonism before I found out about bonobos,” she says. “But they really infused the philosophy with a lot of inspiration and meaning.” The philosophy, in a nutshell: “Pleasure eases pain. Good sex defuses tension. Love lessens violence. Women rule. And you can’t very well fight a war while you’re having an orgasm.” This, she says, is “The Bonobo Way.”
John Muir is blushing in his grave, while ecofeminists and animal rights activists are furiously taking notes for later discussion. Is this any way to crusade for biodiversity? It’s a fair question. But other approaches don’t seem to be meeting with great success, at least not for the bonobos. A few years ago, educated guesses put the wild bonobo population at between 10,000 and 40,000. Reinartz refuses to even hazard a guess now.
A Bonobo of Contention
Meanwhile, Dr. Block enthuses on the air, literally in bed with her guests, about how bonobos at the San Diego Zoo like to use rubber balls to pleasure themselves. She calls her staff the Bonobo Gang and incorporates video clips of bonobo sex into her programming. But while she makes no apologies for the fact that she was initially drawn to them by their overt sexuality, she is also outspoken about the serious nature of the bonobos’ predicament.
The Block Bonobo Foundation website gives the impression that Block is an active conservationist, but she will candidly admit that neither she nor her foundation has ever given any money to bonobo preservation efforts. “I just do what I do. I consider that a big contribution,” she says. She directs those with willing pockets to a different, unconnected organization, the Bonobo Protection Fund.
Here the plot thickens in uniquely Internet fashion. For if you click through Block’s bonobo website to the Bonobo Protection Fund site, one of your choices is to learn more about bonobo sexuality, by way of a long, typographically challenged, and unsigned disquisition that begins:
Bonobos need protection not only from needless habitat destruction and irresponsible hunting in Africa, but from misunderstanding here at home as well. … There has arisen a popular movement called the “Bonobo Way,” which seeks to encourage people to adopt bonobo sexual practices in their own lives, and bonobos have appeared on web sites dedicated to pornographic material.
The essay goes on at length, explicating in exhausting detail the plethora of reasons why bonobo behavior should not be compared to human sexuality. No one at the BPF is willing to take credit for it.
The BPF’s motivating force, Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, refused to speak on Block at all. And though her organization stands to gain materially from Block’s hotlink to its site, they have made efforts to have the link removed. A spokesperson for Georgia State University, where the BPF hangs its shingle, said that Dr. Block was completely detrimental to bonobo conservation efforts and demeaning to bonobos by using them as an entryway to her pornographic site.
“Pornography is always in the eyes and ears and fingertips of the beholder
,” responds Block. “I would not say my site is not pornographic because I am sure that some people would think it is. Margaret Sanger was arrested and put into jail for pornography and obscenity and she was just trying to teach women about birth control.”
Books on Ape
Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham had his own brush with the perils of pornography when he did a phone interview for a TV show with Dr. Block about his book Demonic Males, a comparative study of male violence in primates.
A few weeks later, a videotape copy of the show arrived in his mailbox. “While I was talking, Susan Block was showing shots of bonobos doing rude things with each other,” Wrangham said, “and when she was talking, the camera was on her partly clothed body. The point that I remember most vividly was that Demonic Males was propped up against her crotch while she lay on the bed with her legs apart.”
Wrangham was favorably impressed, however. “She wasn’t a bimbo. It was a sensible and intelligent conversation. She was engaging and thoughtful about bonobos both from a behavioral point of view and in thinking about their conservation.” He even showed the video to one of his classes until a Harvard administrator warned him he could be accused of sexual harassment.
Dr. Frans De Waal, on the other hand, refused Dr. Block’s invite to be a guest on her show. “I don’t know how serious her operation is, and I’m not sure what motivates her either,” said the Emory professor and author of the book Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape. “In order to have a credible conservation effort, you need to be doing more than sitting in California and having a website. You need people on the ground, working in the country.”
By this standard, bonobo conservation of any stripe is hampered by political chaos. “We have not tackled the social problems that are devastating this region,” says Reinartz, of the Milwaukee Zoological Society, who has encountered repeated roadblocks in her efforts just to survey a portion of the bonobos’ suspected range. “We have not made conservation worthwhile at this point for the indigenous people.”
Getting Down to Business
Does Block use bonobo sex to sell her erotic products? Block says you could make that argument, but the economics don’t pan out. Her other websites generate enough traffic to rank in the top 30,000 sites. Her bonobo site is a ways down the list, around 482,000. Beyond that, she says little of her bonobo crusade contributes to her product lines. “I don’t have any sex toys that are shaped like bonobos, although I was trying to find one, I must admit,” she says. “I wanted to get one for myself.”
In the end, she chuckles at the notion that she profits from her bonobo habit. “Very few of my sex therapy clients want to talk about bonobos,” she says.