Monday, January 07, 2008

The Market For Macaque Sex

A recent popularization of a study about sex and grooming among the long-tailed macaque monkeys has those almost invisible strokes out of which the daily edifice of views on women is ultimately created. The strokes are practically not there, and ignoring them seems to be the sane reaction. Until you realize that almost every single study selected for popularization has those same tiny strokes and that none of the studies missing them gets picked.

I have not yet managed to get the original paper, so what I say about the study itself must necessarily be limited to conjectures. But happily we do have a couple of popularizations. Here is the summary of the study:

Male macaque monkeys pay for sex by grooming females, according to a recent study that suggests the primates may treat sex as a commodity.

"In primate societies, grooming is the underlying fabric of it all," Dr. Michael Gumert, a primatologist at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said in a telephone interview Saturday.

"It's a sign of friendship and family, and it's also something that can be exchanged for sexual services," Gumert said.

Gumert's findings, reported in New Scientist last week, resulted from a 20-month observation of about 50 long-tailed macaques in a reserve in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Gumert found after a male grooms a female, the likelihood that she will engage in sexual activity with the male was about three times more than if the grooming had not occurred.

And as with other commodities, the value of sex is affected by supply and demand factors: A male would spend more time grooming a female if there were fewer females in the vicinity.

"And when the female supply is higher, the male spends less time on grooming ... The mating actually becomes cheaper depending on the market," Gumert said.

Neat, is it not? I thought that anthropomorphism was a no-no in animal research, but here we decide that monkeys have markets with not just barter, but a currency: grooming. This makes the female monkeys into sellers of sex (or prostitutes, really, continuing the anthropomorphizing) and the male monkeys into buyers of sex (or johns), and the dollar they use is grooming: cleaning burrs and fleas and so on from the other monkey but also stroking the other monkey.

How do we know that what Gumert describes is a market with a currency? If we were to force monkey behavior into the human construct of a marketplace, then the one he describes sounds a lot more like one of barter: a situation where two monkeys trade services. Why can't we view the market as one for grooming, where the female monkeys are buying grooming services and paying for it with sex? That would make the male monkeys into the sellers and the female monkeys into the buyers. See how deciding that this is a market for sex and not for grooming warps our views and prepares us to superimpose all the human values and all the human biases on what is happening?

There are additional problems with the use of the market metaphor. First, if you read enough of the popularizations you will find that grooming didn't necessarily result in the grooming male getting more sex, and that sometimes the groomed female instead had sex with other males in the area right after the grooming. It sounds a bit as if she may have been turned on by the grooming, does it not? But the point I'm making here is that if grooming was the actual currency paid for sex the female supplier should have given the sex to the groomer every time, not just some of the time and not sometimes to males who didn't pay.

Of course grooming may well have the value of currency in some sense. But it's not money. It's a service which is associated with affection, bonding and perhaps even love. How is our understanding of the macaque behavior improved by putting that all into the human market structure, one which I'm pretty sure the macaques don't explicitly use?

And where is the sexism in all this, you ask, sarcastically. Here, my friend, in another popularization telling us what the study really means:

Selling sex is said to be humankind's oldest profession but it may have deep evolutionary roots, according to a study into our primate cousins which found that male macaques pay for intercourse by using grooming as a currency.

Michael Gumert of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore made the discovery in a 20-month investigation into 50 long-tailed macaques in Kalimantan Tengah, Indonesia, New Scientist reports on Saturday.

On average, females had sex 1.5 times per hour.

But this rate jumped to 3.5 times per hour immediately after the female had been groomed by a male -- and her partner of choice was likely to be the hunky monkey that did the grooming.

Market forces also acted on the value of the transaction.

If there were several females in the area, the cost of buying sex would drop dramatically -- a male could "buy" a female for just eight minutes of nit-picking.

But if there were no females around, he would have to groom for up to 16 minutes before sex was offered.

The work supports the theory that biological market forces can explain social behaviour, the British weekly says.

"There is a very well-known mix of economic and mating markets in the human species itself," said Ronald Noe of France's University of Strasbourg.

"There are many examples of rich old men getting young attractive ladies."

Another popularization with the same message can be found here.
So we leap from monkey grooming to human prostitution. Male monkeys can "buy" a fuck from a female monkey, rich old men can "buy" a fuck from attractive ladies. Females are the sellers of sex, males the buyers. And this is the essential message of this popularization: not about monkey sex at all but about human sex, and the popularizations leap deftly across species, biological differences and cultural difference (yes, even monkeys have cultures) to hasten to the point they wish to make.

Is the original study itself sexist? I have no idea, given that I haven't managed to read it yet, but I notice that the researchers followed 60 male monkeys, not female monkeys. A different observer might have spotted different patterns. Remember that what we see depends on what we are looking for.

Note also how female desire is erased from these kinds of popularizations. It's as if the female macaque monkeys are not in heat at all, as if they are not having lots of sex with lots of male monkeys all the time anyway (1.5 times an hour). And what do we really know about the sexual desires of male and female macaques and the feelings they experience? Are we anthropomorphizing about that here, too? And what IS the role of grooming when the monkeys are at different places in the dominance hierarchy?

I think the market metaphor is a poor one, because it gives us an odd bias in looking at the behavior of these monkeys. It makes us ignore the pleasure of grooming (it might even be pleasurable to the groomer, just as stroking your cat or dog is pleasurable to you) and it makes us forget that we are watching the monkeys in their everyday life, not at some marketplace where sexual services are being traded.
First link thanks to Oscar, the second one from The post there and the comments are well worth reading to see why feminists are concerned.