From a platform on a steel tower, Kim Wallen, an Emory University psychologist and neuroendocrinologist who has been working for decades at the university’s Yerkes Primate Research Center outside Atlanta, gazed down at the habitat’s 75 rhesus monkeys. This is the species that was sent into orbit in the ’50s and ’60s as stand-ins for humans to see if we would survive trips to the moon.
“Females were passive. That was the theory in the middle ’70s. That was the wisdom,” he remembered from the start of his career. Deidrah’s face, always a bit redder than most, was luminous this morning, lit scarlet with lust as she lifted it from Oppenheim’s chest. “The prevailing model was that female hormones affected female pheromones — affected the female’s smell, her attractivity to the male. The male initiated all sexual behavior.” But what science had managed to miss in the monkeys — and what Wallen and a few others were now studying — was female desire.
And science had missed more than that. In this breed used as our astronaut doubles, females are the bullies and murderers, the generals in brutal warfare, the governors. This had been noted in journal articles back in the ’30s and ’40s, but thereafter it had gone mainly unrecognized, the articles buried and the behavior oddly unperceived. “It so flew in the face of prevailing ideas about the dominant role of males,” Wallen said, “that it was just ignored.”
Long-held biases about lust
What mostly male scientists had expected, and likely wanted to see, appeared to have blinded them. Wallen’s career had been about pulling away the blinders. My visit to Yerkes was part of seven years of reporting about the science of women’s sexuality, a field that has only begun to look beyond the stereotype of long-held distortions about female lust and monogamy that Wallen was describing. Wallen and his primates helped to put things in focus.
At the moment, below us, one female clawed fiercely at another, bit into a leg, whipped the weaker one back and forth like a weightless doll. Harrowing shrieks rose up. Four or five more monkeys joined in, attacking the one, who escaped somehow, sped away, was caught again. The shrieks grew more plaintive, more piercing, the attackers piling on, apparently for the kill, then desisting inexplicably. Assaults like this flared often; Wallen and his team usually couldn’t glean the reasons. Full battle — one female-led family’s attempt to overthrow another — was very rare. That tended toward death: death from wounds and, some veterinarians thought, from sheer fright and shock. Occasionally the compound was littered with corpses.