Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Push Play Please

Why “All Work and No Play” Makes Jack a right Jerk

Bonobos are a particular kind of chimp whose social habits have fascinated animal behavioralists for a very long time. They seem to be a remarkably well-adjusted bunch, with lively social behavior, pleasurable mating habits and a very well-developed habit of play.

I find it delightful that bonobos don’t seem to suffer the same puritan social constructs that we Americans do when it comes to sex (although backwards ideas are hardly limited to our fifty states). Bonobos use play in their everyday interactions, and the females are often the ones who initiate sex. In fact, they are more dominant, and even though sex is frequent, they only reproduce about every five or six years.

Which is why, given that humans are aggressively wiping out their habitat (the Congo) if we’re going to study our closest primate relative- some 98% of shared genetic material, we’d damned well better hurry up and study them.

The great naturalist and animal behavioralist Frans B. Van De Waal wrote this wonderful piece about bonobos some time back. More recently, NPR’s The Ted Hour featured a piece on the bonobos, and the powerful influence that play has in their social lives.

Seems like they do a lot of coupling of all kinds with pretty much everyone, with the possible exception of close family members. In that regard, they seem to have one hell of a lot better common sense, if not manners, than their human counterparts.

Sex is play is sex, to a bonobo, and play is part of learning how to be in the world. An adult bonobo may pick up a baby by one arm and simply hang it off a tree limb. The baby has no fear of being dropped. This is a lot like the trust fall, which many of us who have attended a ropes course might have learned.

Unlike the superficial trust fall that we use in a training class, the bonobos are serious about using their play/trust exercises to strengthen bonds in the community. We think it’s funny as shit to ask someone to trust us and then they slam their head on the floor when we step away.

That seems to be yet another thing we could learn from the bonobos. They wouldn’t do such a thing.

Bonobos understand, as all kids do, that play is pure expression. Laughter, joy, inspiration, being completely free. Not imprisoned by worry about how you and I look or whether we have flab or wrinkles. When we’re locked down in our hearts in this way, and when we are locked to our work in that awful-compulsive way that so many Americans are out of sheer terror, it’s very, very hard to play spontaneously. We desperately need to relearn how to do it as a way of life.

Photo by Olga Guryanova on Unsplash

In our society, it seems that one of the few ways adult men and woman can play with one another is in socially-sanctioned contact sports. There’s a reason that we like them: we can slam and roll and land on top of each other and laugh and joke and nobody gets offended or huffy or misinterprets. There are plenty of jokes about men who get erections in the locker room, which in so many ways is a very natural response to the excitement and pleasure of the game. Not necessarily the fact that he’s surrounded by male bodies. While that might be true for some, the misinterpretation of a normal physical reaction is, to my mind, nothing more than a Puritan (or other) religious construct and judgment.

My dick got hard. That’s bad.

Really? Just because it did so in the so-called inappropriate social context? Where the hell do we get such stupid ideas? (don’t get me started)

Not long ago, during a session with a young chiropractor with whom I thought I had an excellent relationship, I playfully punched him in the arm. Subsequently I got kicked out of the practice for aggression. Aggression. The man was at least a foot taller, about forty pounds heavier and less than half my age. Aggression? I had spent the entire time I knew him providing him with books and articles, we’d had long conversations, laughed a lot. I’m a tomboy. I periodically punch my guy friends on the arm. They punch me back. It’s called being playful. Aggression?


I had been a loyal and dedicated client of that office for more than twenty years. To me, this is symptomatic of our times, our inability to understand what play looks like. What a baby man. Yet here we are.

Bonobos use sex to ease irritation and conflict. It is widespread as a sort of social grease. They are not the only non-human animal to enjoy sex, as best we can tell. Dolphins do too, and I would imagine it’s much more widespread. We just don’t understand what we’re watching, and have no idea if a pair of crickets is communicating, with genuine annoyance,


when we peek in the bushes.

Bonobos have sex much like we do, including face-to-face sex.

I find it interesting that far too many of us believe we have something to teach animals (catch! sit! speak! count!) rather than allowing animals to teach us how to be in the world, which we are systematically wiping clean of all its natural wisdom so that we can eat Cheetos and have sneakers with lights on them.

Photo by Ruth Hazlewood on Unsplash

I travel a lot. A lot. As I have spent a fair bit of time with indigenous peoples, I’ve noticed how we engage one another as opposed to those who live very close to the wild. This is unscientific, and only my take. Bear with me here.

Generally, we Westerners have real problems with touch, intimacy and the kind of warmth and affection that reinforce social bonds. That’s costly. Religious taboos, and a multitude of mindless rules that govern how we interact with each other not only make us nervous about rubbing shoulders, but those same rules isolate us. I believe that’s one reason we get sick. We need touch. Sometimes the only touch we get is medical, and that’s sterile, at best. It’s hardly the mother’s milk of true affection.

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

When I was in Fiji, I went out to sea in a densely-crowded boat full of folks from my host family’s village. Initially I was uncomfortable with having arms hung all over me, lots of entwined legs in the jammed space. After a while I realized it was all about inclusion. Safety. Cooperation. We’re all in this together, baby. There was nothing sexual about it. That experience was a touchstone for me. In my family, touch signaled inappropriate sexual contact from my big brother. That it was taboo, for him, made it far more attractive.

Touch initiated sex, which for my brother was dominance and control.

He got that from my folks. My parents quit hugging and holding me when I was about four, according to my mother, because they were both aware of sexual feelings towards me. Well, look. I might posit that we really don’t understand jack shit about human sexuality, and my folks, both of them having had Victorian-era parents- were infected by the deeply-repressed social attitudes of their parents. What my parents were feeling could well have been the kind of perfectly natural human excitement that a bonobo feels when playing, one that translates to sexual arousal. That doesn’t mean you’re going to fuck your kid. What it might well mean is that play, and joy, often do indeed translate to sexual arousal in living beings.

One reason I feel this way is that I’ve observed what many would interpret as sexual responses to massage and play when I work with animals. Elephants, horses, dogs, tigers. The more I work on them, the more likely it is that their penises will drop or become erect. This elicits the kind of puerile, inane response you’d expect from adolescents, but to me this is the most natural response in the world. I had a tiger do that once and the men (correction, baby boys) who were working there thought that was just sooooo funny. The tiger was relaxed, supremely happy, and thoroughly enjoying himself. He hardly had sex with a human in mind. Nor do the horses, both stallion and gelding, who drop as I’m working on them. Or the dogs I massage. In my world, which is peppered with working with furballs and large animals, this completely normal response to loving touch is not much different than from ours.

We’re the ones who put “evil” stamps on such feelings. No wonder we’re sick. We make ourselves that way.

Photo by Joseph Pearson on Unsplash

And therein lies the problem, at least to my mind.

We are hung up about sex, hung up about touch, and hung up about how to be with one another physically. And yet we crave that physicality. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that those very natural human cravings, driven underground by religious taboos, morph into deeply unhealthy compulsions.

Now before you accuse me of suggesting that you and I drop our drawers and rub genitals as we pass on the streets of downtown Cleveland (a sight that would definitely go viral, if nothing else) let me simply suggest this: the bonobos, which are a female-dominant society, are remarkably peaceful, happy, and cooperative.

I could make a lot of comments about that aspect alone, but that’s another article.

We humans largely don’t tend to be, most especially when males dominate. Like our chimpanzee cousins, we are far more aggressive. All too often we use sex as punishment, to dominate, hurt and destroy. Just witness any and all wars, where rape is part of the right of those who plunder. Yah. That will bring communities together in harmony all right.

In some ways war seems to be the only kind of play that mankind (please drop the kind part of that if you will, it doesn’t compute). I might add that George Carlin made a damned good point when he said that war is all about fucking with other people, using penis-shaped missiles and bullets. Frankly, it’s hard not to agree with the man. It’s what Americans do best. Declare war, invade and fuck with people, especially if said people happen to be any color other than white, are in the way of resources we want, with WWII as a deviation from our norm. We love to play war.

We discuss work as a battlefield. Love as a battlefield. Families as battlefields. The war on drugs, the war on obesity, the war on opioids, the war on….each another. We fucking LOVE war. It’s the only language we seem to understand.

And we sure as hell have lost our ability to play spontaneously, using nasty tricks to do damage as opposed to build trust. That leads to war between friends, between clans, between factions, cities, countries. At least we’re good at it.

Want a perfect example? Hazing for fraternities. Hazing schoolkids until they commit suicide before they turn ten. Just saying. So if we as a society sanction this kind of ugliness from childhood onward, is there any surprise that war has replaced play, cooperation and collaboration? Is there any surprise that the Great Mindless Pumpkin, a known rapist, is so eager to drop a penis-shaped bomb on any country with folks who don’t look like us?

Bonobos use sex and play to defuse conflict. Call me crazy, but that sounds like a hell of a lot more fun than eviscerating one another. Shooting one another. Chimps would shoot. Bonobos would fool around.

But please, do’t get me started on the NRA, people who have replaced their dicks with weapons, that includes women. Again. Don’t. Get. Me. Started. I was an expert shot in the Army, so I am no stranger to firearms. That’s precisely why I feel the way I do about play vs. penis-envy.

Photo by Laurentiu Morariu on Unsplash

When I traveled to Nepal and spent time in Kathmandu, I was struck by the ease with which young male schoolboys walked down the street with their arms draped around each other. None of this stiff-lipped formality that we inherited from the Brits, the hands-off homophobic fears that we infect our kids with. These kids were just friends.

When we are so terrified of touching someone inappropriately, we can’t play. When we work ourselves to death with 60–80 hour workweeks, rarely take vacations, or our vacations leave us even more stressed than when we began, we get sick. We can’t play even when we spend lots of dime to go play. When the strictures of sick religious dogma dictate that touch is evil, we are denied one of the most essential elements that keep us together.

We feel lonely and isolated and are full of hate because we need something so fundamental, so essential, that we have replaced it with rank consumerism and war games: Touch. Play. Joy. Laughter. The brain and heart starve without it. I include myself in this. I don’t play nearly enough. Especially if I get summarily kicked out of a practice for being affectionately playful.

Doesn’t make me right. It’s just a take. But being a military veteran, then traveling the world pretty extensively, I see things differently.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

One reason I fell hard for a young man with whom I spent some eight years of my life is this: one night after dinner, he dragged me over to an elementary school playground. We played on the swings, the monkey bars and crawled all over the equipment for hours. He was 28. I was 50. We laughed like idiots and had one hell of a good time.

Funny. No war games involved. Nobody got hurt. I just got sand down my pants. You’re supposed to. The then-BF didn’t whip out a Glock and playfully try to wing my left earlobe.

There’s a lot to that. But that’s just me. Meanwhile, I’m gonna go out and dance in the rain. Anyone wanna join me?

Danger: play involved.

Horizon Huntress, prize-winning author, adventure traveler, boundary-pusher, wilder, veteran, aging vibrantly. I own my sh*t. Let’s play!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store