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Penises, Primates and the study of Human Sexuality: A Q&A with Jesse Bering

Jesse Bering is the author of the new book, “Why is the Penis Shaped Like that?: And Other Reflections on Being Human.”  He is well known in my circles as someone willing to answer any question posed to him, no matter how private or unusual.  Here, Bering tells me about how human sexuality is different from primate sexuality, whether he’s ever been stumped by a question and how he would design a sex education program.

Q: How different is human sexuality from primate sexuality, really?  Why does that matter?

Jesse Bering:  Humans are a particular species of primate, of course, and every species has its own unique evolutionarily derived peccadilloes. When we look at what sets us apart from our closest living relatives, chimpanzees (or perhaps bonobos), we can easily spot both similarities and differences in our sexualities.

In my own writing I tend to focus on the differences, because I think that too often we gloss over these critically human aspects in favor of the ‘naturalistic’ argument, which, typically, tends to translate into “if other species do it, then that makes it natural and, hence, morally okay.” But it’s not quite so simple.

First, we haven’t shared a common ancestor with other great apes for about 5 to 7 million years. At least twenty other species of humans have come and gone during that interval, and a lot has happened in our lineage in that span of time. Anatomically, there’s an obvious contrast between the appearance of our genitals and those of other non-human apes–for example, men’s penises are enormous compared to those of males of other primate species, and the female reproductive tract seems to have capitalized on our very frequent use of intense eye gaze during coitus. Related to this, I think the most significant difference between human sexuality and that of other primates is the fact that we alone have the cognitive capacity to take the rich psychological perspective of our sexual partners into account. or at least to empathize to the degree we do (Nicholas Humphrey refers to our species as “natural psychologists”). As a consequence of this social cognitive capacity, sex in our species has become about more than quick-and-dirty copulation or sex play, as found in other primate species.

For humans, it has evolved quite literally into “intercourse” and “lovemaking,” in which our own immediate sexual desires must be carefully balanced with the mental needs, desires and wellbeing of others. Sometimes our old primate brains overpower these more recently evolved social cognitive factors; people may fail to inhibit themselves when intensely aroused and selfishly take advantage of others’ bodies without consideration of their unseen minds. And therein lies a vital conflict, or tension, for our species. 

Q: I’m often asked what the practical value of studying sexuality from a scientific perspective is – what would be your answer?

Jesse Bering:  It’s easier to answer that question when we’re dealing with a particular issue–say, studying the effects of semen exposure on female biology and psychology (recent findings suggest that seminal fluid may have antidepressant properties, among other things), or how MSMs (“men who have sex with men”) are more at risk of acquiring STIs because of their rejection of the label “gay” and, hence, their lack of exposure to health education tailored to gay men. But more generally speaking, studying sex from a scientific perspective can dramatically change our comfortableness with ourselves. The more I write about sex, the clearer it becomes that people are struggling, often in silence, with their own sexual issues. I’ve had many readers tell me that by simply approaching these topics openly and objectively (and really, I’ll talk about absolutely anything) using the neutral, non-moralizing language of science has made them feel less lonely and less ashamed over things that are so often beyond their conscious control. 

Q: You are very open to reader questions (and answer them on your blog).  What question are you most commonly asked?  Have any ever stumped you?

Jesse Bering: No matter where they fall on the sexuality scale, I enjoy communicating with my readers. I especially try to foster open communication with sexual minorities that are either ignored or ostracized by ‘mainstream’ sex researchers. I’ve certainly written about things that make me uncomfortable–often deeply so–but there’s absolutely no aspect of human sexuality that does not deserve a proper scientific explanation, or at least some empirical consideration that goes beyond our immediate aversion or knee-jerk response. Sometimes you’ve got to be pushed to the edge of your comfort level to think most clearly as a scientist. I’ve fielded questions from zoophiles, pedophiles, ‘furries,’ asexuals, gerontophiles, sexual sadists, and many other demographics that–whether we like them or not or derogate them as comical–are very real. You probably walked by a few of these people on your way to the office this morning, in fact.

As far as getting stumped, sure, that definitely happens, but the answers are usually out there somewhere if I dig deep enough. The only ‘unanswerable’ questions are those that aren’t really scientific ones, but rather those seeking advice or ethical guidance. “What’s the *right* age for a gay person to come out of the closet?” for example, or “Should I tell my mom that I saw my dad out in public dressed as a woman?” By ‘unanswerable’ in this sense I mean only that there aren’t any hard and fast amoral, laboratory-based facts to cling to when responding to such questions, and so ultimately one slips into the language of personal bias, social rhetoric and personal anecdotes. Having said that, I’m willing to give my warped advice from time to time, and in fact I’m diving into the deep end soon by serving as Dan Savage’s fill-in for his “Savage Love” advice column during the week of August 6th to the 10th. Maybe you’ll see my Savage Bering side then. 

Q: How would you design a sexual education class for tweens?  Would it be possible to keep that kind of class “abstinence-only”?

Jesse Bering: If focusing on ‘tweens’ I’m assuming we’re referring to, say, ten- to twelve-year-olds? It’s hard to envision the perfect blanket curriculum, to be honest. First, there are often enormous differences between individuals within this age range, both physically (some will be pubescent while others lag behind as late bloomers) and psychologically (some may be mature enough to discuss sex without giggling uncontrollably while others can’t get past the words “penis” and “clitoris”). Personally, I fell toward the undesirable ends of both spectrums–I was a late bloomer in every sense of the word. So if the teacher is going on about, say, ejaculation, and you’ve not even experienced one yet yourself, the effect of the lesson may not be as meaningful as it would for another boy in class who has been masturbating every night without understanding what or why he’s doing this. Likewise, a girl for whom the onset of menarche is not until age fifteen or so will probably process and attend to the information very differently from a female classmate who has been having periods since the age of eleven.

But these problems aside (and of course there’s no easy solution to the above concerns), there’s no evidence–at least that I’m aware of, and I’d be very curious to hear of any such data if someone out there knows of it–to suggest that sexual education leads to an increase in sexual behavior in tweens or teens. It’s not like sex ed ’causes’ a desire that wouldn’t exist otherwise, after all. And if they’re going to experiment sexually anyway, parents are better off arming their children with knowledge that protects them from STIs and unwanted pregnancies.   

(For more about Jesse and the penis, check out his video interview with BigThink’s Megan Erickson: 




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