When we call sex “animalistic,” it suggests id-driven abandon. Teeth-bared, guttural noises, positions that prioritize athleticism over comfort. Cast in this light, mutual pleasure amongst partners can seem almost coincidental. “You just happened to get yours while I was getting mine,” goes the lizard mind.
Our ideas must come from somewhere, and there is little doubt that so much of what we’ve seen of actual sex among animals, in documentaries for example, tends to present brutality as a matter of course in animal copulation. Coercion seems to abound, and apparent consent rarely enters the equation. Lions look like they might want to eat each other. Rhinos mount with a singleminded, utilitarian dispassion. The female praying mantis decapitates her partner seemingly because she can.
But the natural world is bigger than a nature documentary. In an email to Jezebel, primatologist and widely read author Frans de Waal (Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?) bemoaned “the misconception that only humans enjoy recreational erotic activity. For other animals, sex is said to be procreational. It’s not only that other animals don’t make love, they don’t even have sex. They just ‘breed.’”
For every category of everything in life, there is a spectrum. Even if all animal sex qualified as brutal—and many experts argue quite the contrary—there would be an animal that could be described as typically having the least brutal sex. By extension, that species could be considered, in our human terms, to be the most tender lover of the animal kingdom.
Valentine’s Day’s imminence, the imperatives of Horny Week, and my general affinity for mind expansion had me wondering: Who is the tender lover of the animal kingdom? “Tender lover” is, admittedly, a vague designation. But, as Babyface knew, it’s a catchy one, and besides, keeping things open allows for interpretation on the part of our experts. With that in mind, I reached out to several zoologists and various authorities on animals, who indulged my question, sometimes as passionately as the animals they represented.
My initial approach was to evaluate the actual act of copulation, but animal behavior expert Jennifer Verdolin dismissed such a narrow lens during a Zoom conversation. “When I think about tender, it’s not just about the main event. It’s all the things that go into it,” said Verdolin, a professor at the University of Arizona in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, and author of the 2014 book on the subject at hand, Wild Connection: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us about Human Relationships. “I think what people miss with other species is that there’s a ton of preamble,” she added. “For most other species, there’s a lot of effort that’s put into convincing the individual that this is a worthwhile thing to do.”
Verdolin rattled off a list of various behaviors that could, in some capacity, be considered tender. Birds like kingfishers bring food to their mate (so do spiders). Other birds perform elaborate dances. Cockatoos and parrots kiss their partners. Bonobos, prairie voles, and the California mouse cuddle their mates. Bats perform oral sex on each other, sometimes in 69 configurations. Porcupines have sex facing each other, though this probably has more to do with preventing injuries, given their backs are lined with quills, than it does any notion of locked-eyed intimacy. (After all, unlike doggy style, we don’t call face-to-face human sex “porcupine style.”) Similarly, the male redback spider (aka the Australian black widow) will massage his female mate before sex—though this is for the sake of calming her. “The reality is he has to do that or he might die,” said Verdolin.
For some species, what could broadly be described as tenderness is so important that its absence prompts major life changes. This is so in cockatiels, who typically mate for life, Verdolin told me. “They’ll divorce if they’re not compatible sexually—with frequency and affection,” she said. “What you see in many species is similar to what we see in humans, which is that compatibility and affection is a really important barometer for the state of the relationship.”
Still, the act of copulation can speak to tenderness too. The pursuit of sexual pleasure plays a massive role in the life of bonobos—de Waal estimates that “about three-quarters of their sexual activity has nothing to do with procreation.” In his email, he listed several documented scenarios in which bonobos had sex in combinations that couldn’t reproduce (members of the same sex, members that are too young, members that are already pregnant). The way de Waal described sex amongst bonobos struck me as what we’d call “highly connected” in human terms. He said that via gestures and loud calls, partners negotiate a position beforehand, and that during the act, they remain attuned to each other’s facial expressions.
“We know from video analyses that if the face doesn’t express much enthusiasm, such as when a partner yawns or turns away, males slow down their thrusting, or stop altogether,” he wrote. He added that the most intense sexual interactions occur between the females “who laterally rub their clitorises together and loudly squeal with high voices at the climax.” Female bonding, he explained, “is the core of their sociality and the reason females are able to dominate the males.”
“Both sexes want to have sex and both sexes are willing to pay for it when they have the means,” wrote primatologist Amy Parish in an email. In her research, Parish discovered that male bonobos, who were already known to offer food for sex, will offer sex for food in a scenario in which dominant females control the food. “This demonstrated that gender roles are not set in stone,” she said.
In terms of actual bonobo intercourse, however, Parish noted, “‘Tender’ might not be the word that most often comes to mind.” Heterosexual copulations average nine seconds, while female-on-female bonobo sex can last up to a minute. “In terms of long copulations (if you equate that with tenderness), orangutans are closer to humans with copulations that average about 15 minutes,” she added.
While bonobo gender roles are malleable, those of the seahorse frappe our human understanding of heterosexual procreative roles—it is the male seahorse that carries the fertilized eggs and gives birth to baby seahorses. I wondered if this seemingly egalitarian setup is facilitated by sex that might be considered nice.
Well, kind of, according to marine biologist Richard Smith, author of The World Beneath: The Life and Times of Unknown Sea Creatures and Coral Reefs. Smith wrote in an email that “the lead up to mating in Denise’s pygmy seahorses is more BDSM, than tender.” He watched males in a small group wrestling with each other to mate with a female by using their tails to strangle each other. This resulted in a sprained tail.
Smith continued: “Once that was all settled, however, the actual act of mating was more tender I suppose.” Here’s how he described the mating:
The male-female pair would take themselves to the edge of the group’s sleeping area and conduct a ritualized dance consisting of mirrored shaking. Moments later, the pair’s tails would intertwine with their bodies face to face in almost a heart shape. The female was visibly full of eggs and she would push these across into her mate’s pouch. He fertilized them as they entered his pouch. In this way, the male seahorse knows that each baby that he raises will be genetically his own. It’s incredible that these fishes, the size of a grain of rice, have such elaborate behaviors. Sadly, like many coral reef species, they are threatened by climate change-induced warming of the water, which makes the gorgonians that they rely on susceptible to disease.
And then there are European badgers, the “millennial hippies” of the animal kingdom, according to zoologist Tanesha Allen. During a Zoom conversation, Allen described the polygynandrous (read: promiscuous) badger sex scene as “free love, loving everyone.”
“It’s very egalitarian,” she explained. “There’s no dominant mating pair. It’s to the point where badgers will have orgies with each other. There will be a pair of badgers mating, and there will be some males just kind of lining up, waiting their turn.” Cute! Allen said that the badgers also perform scent marking with their unique subcaudal gland, which is located between their tail and butt. In one-way marking, a badger can essentially advertise its sexual availability by sitting on an associate, who carries that scent signaling to mates that their buddy is available. Allen compared the process to printing out your Tinder bio and pinning it to the back of a friend who’s going out for the night.
Maybe the biggest surprise of this investigation was the case made for the hyena by behavioral biologists Oliver Höner and Eve Davidian. They both work at the Ngorongoro Hyena Project in Tanzania (Höner additionally is employed by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research). Like bonobos, hyenas tick off boxes of tenderness both before and during sex, and both arenas are home to signs of unequivocal consent.
Female hyenas, Höner explained, have no external vaginal opening and an elongated clitoris, which makes it impossible for males to force copulation. The female has to position herself properly (standing still, with her head low) to allow access, and if she “doesn’t fully cooperate, he will just fall over.”
Davidian described hyenas’ courtship behavior, which involves males approaching and retreating in a display of submission. This can go on for months. “We don’t know exactly what are the key traits females seek in a male, but it seems that it’s more likely for a male to be picked by a female if he spends a lot of time with her and shows these behaviors,” said Davidian. Höner added that bullish males tend to be less successful in scoring. “There seems to be a bit of a selective process going on in favor of males that show friendly behavior—that lick and groom the females,” he said.
When it’s on, the hyenas’ roles actually switch, with the female pursuing the male, who moves away from her, in Höner’s estimation, “to make sure that she really wants to meet with him and not chase him around.”
The actual sex, Davidian said, can take hours, requiring patience on the part of the female. “It seems that maybe the females try to reassure the male that indeed, she’s not going to force him to react and show dominance,” said Davidian. Hyena sex can go many rounds, with genital cleaning in between each. It typically ends when the male is exhausted.
“Tender” is clearly a subjective adjective, even within the realm of human behavior, but what I think it comes down to is a sense of gentleness and consideration—two elements present in at least some animal mating behavior. Bonobos are the go-to example of sexual utopia in the animal kingdom, but Höner and Davidian made an extremely strong case for hyenas’ sexual practices. Compounded by the element of patience, I come away from this inquiry convinced that the hyena might be our winner.
Hierarchy notwithstanding, animals are, perhaps, more like us—or we like them—than we tend to believe.
“I don’t really anthropomorphize the animals. I sort of zoomorphize the people,” said Verdolin of her approach to her work. “The lives of other animals are just as dramatic as ours. They have affairs. They have all kinds of issues that come up in their relationships, and I figure they handle it a little bit better than we do. I think that goes for sex, too.”
“I don’t really think humans are that tender at all,” she added. “I think we could learn to be a bit more tender.” Point taken, Babyface excepted.