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Can ‘Animal Prostitution’ Help Humans Rethink Sex?

We think of transactional sex as shameful and evil. But it’s way more common in the natural world — not to mention respectful, consenting and mutually beneficial — than we’re led to believe

I grew up in the Bible Belt, where I learned that sex has exactly two purposes: 1) to create the next generation of Christian soldiers; and 2) to allow your distressed denim-wearing youth pastor to express his love to his smokin’-hot Proverbs 31 wife. Any other kind of sex simply wasn’t discussed, cast aside by the shame-obsessed adults in my life. 

Those adults, however, would be floored to find out about a third kind of sexual activity in the animal kingdom — a kind of sex that’s not romantic, nor reproductive. I’m referring to sex that’s strictly transactional, performed in exchange for food, water and other resources. Apologies to my Evangelical forebears, but transactional sex is way more common in the natural world than we’re led to believe. Penguins, chimps — everybody’s doin’ it, and it has implications for the way we view transactional sex in the human world.

“Animal prostitution,” or transactional sex in the animal kingdom, was first reported in 1998 by Fiona Hunter, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, and Lloyd Davis of the University of Otago. Hunter and Davis spent a total of five years observing the mating behavior of Adélie penguins on Ross Island, an isolated area approximately 800 miles from the South Pole. According to a report about the study published by BBC News Online, some female penguins have sex with unattached males, then take a pebble from the male’s nest after doing the deed. Pebbles are hot commodities for Adélie penguins, essential to building sturdy nests despite their relative scarcity. The reasoning behind the transaction remains a little fuzzy; Hunter told the BBC that female penguins didn’t necessarily engage in sex in the strict pursuit of stones. But one way or another, these gals get what’s coming to them. 

“What they’re doing is having copulation for another reason and just taking the stones as well,” she explained. “We don’t know exactly why, but they’re using the males.” Additionally, the data shows that when copulation occurs at the male’s nesting site, the female takes one or more stones; but when copulation occurs at the female’s nesting site, the male never takes a stone, leading the scientists to speculate that the male penguins engaged in sex with the females only to satisfy their little penguin urges.

It’s worth noting that the number of female Adélie penguins engaged in this behavior was pretty small at the time of the study. However, the research may say something about outdated evolutionary ideas that see animal sex as purely reproductive. With this study in mind, you could easily make the argument that animal sex isn’t just reproductive, and that the tendency to exchange sex for resources is, in fact, a fundamental part of nature. 

Penguins aren’t the only ones getting their rocks off — in their case, quite literally — in exchange for hot goods either. In my personal favorite example, researchers at Yale-New Haven Hospital trained capuchin monkeys to use silver discs as money in order to study their “economic behavior.” Tiny monkey commerce, if you will. During one incident, a researcher observed what appeared to be a monkey exchanging a disc for sex, after which the monkey traded their disc for a tasty grape. Sex for disc, disc for grape. Seems like a fair trade to me.

Meanwhile, chimpanzees are perhaps the soundest example of transactional sex in the animal kingdom. A study conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany attempted to support something known as the “meat-for-sex behavior hypothesis,” which suggests that the best hunters in early human societies got the most action from cave hotties. Unable to study early humans, researchers studied chimpanzees instead. Their conclusion? A form of prostitution may exist among chimpanzees, and it involves females offering sex to males in exchange for meat. In particular, chimps enter into so-called “meat-sharing communities” — think of a chimp cul-de-sac — and females tend to copulate with males of their own meat-sharing community. The results “strongly suggest that wild chimpanzees exchange meat for sex, and do so on a long-term basis.” 

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One caveat: Some scholars have critiqued the notion of “sexual bartering” among chimpanzees, suggesting that researchers are perhaps projecting onto non-human animals. But while the studies may be controversial, it’s hard to deny that animals appear to be trading sex for resources. The phenomenon certainly says something about the ways humans sensationalize transactional sex, turning it into something other than what it is: sex that benefits both parties outside of a strictly romantic entanglement. Ideally, human transactional sex pays the bills, provides companionship and creates a secure, respectful relationship between two or more participants. 

Anya Volz, a comedian and OnlyFans performer who co-hosts the podcast Best Mistakes with Nika Lomazzo, agrees. Volz doesn’t see transactional sex as a good thing or a bad thing — it’s a reality, and a positive one when respect is involved. “I saw a few tweets about how OnlyFans is ‘causing’ people to see sex as transactional, and I feel very much that sex has been used as transactional in mainstream culture for a long time,” Volz writes in a Twitter DM. “So it’s weird to me to blame sex workers for something that people engage in constantly regardless of the existence of our work.”

Ultimately, Volz is irritated by the stigma against so-called transactional sex, explaining that it’s a natural, mutually beneficial arrangement. “The implication that transactional sex is somehow dehumanizing or immoral automatically assumes that there’s a victim in that transaction,” she continues. “But sometimes transactional sex is between married partners, sometimes it’s between a sex worker and client and sometimes it’s between friends.” 

Volz adds that transactional sex, like all sex, should obviously involve explicit consent. “The problem is, of course, if someone assumes there’s a transaction where there isn’t one, and thinks they’re owed sex,” she says. “But that isn’t the fault of the existence of transactional sex — that’s the fault of the entitled, inconsiderate person.” She cites her own OnlyFans as an example. “My subscribers are generally very kind, considerate and generous people who are happy to support me and in return get to see some hot pics,” she says. “The transaction is mutually beneficial, but there’s also a very important mutual respect there.” 

If the studies are accurate and transactional sex occurs naturally in the animal kingdom — again, consenting, respectful, mutually beneficial transactional sex — one could argue that it’s perfectly natural in the human world, too. 

Now, who’s going to break that to my youth pastor?