Is Sex For Pleasure Uniquely Human?

We are apes. We are animals. We are made of the same organic molecules as all life. We metabolize. We procreate. We die. But we are also human beings. We have language and culture. We self-reflect and ponder the future. We have medicine. We use advanced tools, like televisions, smart phones, and computers.

We also have sex.

We have a lot of sex. In human culture, sex is so much more than a means of reproduction. Sex is emotional. Sex is communicative. Sex is fun. And when it comes down to it, for most of us, sex just feels good. We have sex for pleasure significantly more often than we have sex for reproductive purposes. Is this one of those things that makes us uniquely human?

Well, here’s where things get complicated. How do we know what feels good to an animal? It’s not like they can tell us. Perhaps all animals have sex for pleasure. Perhaps we are all hard-wired to experience pleasurable feelings during the act of sex for the very purpose of procreation. I sincerely doubt that most animals are aware of the fact that sex leads to offspring. They probably do it because it feels good. Science has done a pretty good job of exploring and explaining precisely how sex feels so good to us. But answering the question of why it feels so good is seems to be a matter of conjecture. Granted, if it didn’t feel good, we might not do it. And if we didn’t do it, there wouldn’t be any of us here to have this discussion.

One indication that animals enjoy sexual activity is the act of masturbation. We’ve all seen our dogs do it. Male dogs will pretty much hump anything they can wrap their legs around. Masturbation in horses is also quite common. There’s even a seminal (no pun intended) paper on squirrel masturbation. In fact, a lot of animals go solo. Birds, walruses, sheep, turtles, elephants, bears, and many more species have been observed engaging in autoeroticism. Porcupines have even been witnessed to fashion vibrators out of sticks. Interestingly, although all of these animals have been documented to play with themselves, it is exceedingly rare that they actually get off. That is, masturbation to the point of orgasm/ejaculation appears to be a fluke outside of the human species (except maybe in squirrels).

What makes us so different that our masturbatory experiences are “goal-oriented” when other animals’ are not? And why is our masturbation frequency significantly higher than that of other species? Jesse Bering hypothesizes that it is because humans have the unique ability to form mental representations of erotic material. It may be the case that what sets us apart is our ability to write, produce, edit, and even star in our own mental porn.

I know that masturbation may not be considered sex, per se. You’ve probably heard the rumors that dolphins are the only other mammals that have sexual intercourse for pleasure. It appears as though this is almost true, depending again on how one defines sex for pleasure. Dolphins have been observed to have sex during all stages of the female menstrual cycle, not just ovulation. But, as they have been apt to do lately, our favorite ape relatives, the bonobos, have to be included in this conversation. Bonobos get it on year round as well. As far as I know, no other animal species has been documented to engage in full-on intercourse even when females aren’t in heat. So in a way, when our thoughts and behaviors are dominated by non-stop, year-round sexual urges, we aren’t really acting on animalistic impulses. We are doing something that is almost uniquely human. If we were to actually “do it like they do on the Discovery channel,” we’d only be getting it on a few days each month. So the next time I hear somebody quote the Nine Inch Nails song Closer, I’ll remember that I’d rather do it like a human, thank you very much.