O ho, O ho! would't had been done! Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else This isle with Calibans. -- William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Several years ago, when I was still working for the New York Times, a friend of mine I’ll call Marsha, who was the artist-in-residence at the New York Museum of Sex, asked me for a favor: she wanted me to be the opening act of the big show she had spent the last year putting together, and introduce her to the crowd.
Marsha, a small but incredibly strong, wiry lesbian woman in her late forties, had just been on an amazing trip to the heart of Africa, to the Congo basin, where she had been allowed to research a species of endangered great ape: the Bonobo. She had been inspired by the work of primatologist Frans de Waal, who described Bonobo society in somewhat idyllic terms as a “gynocracy” — relatively unencumbered by male dominance, with a matriarch usually placed highest in their social order. The Bonobo, who have been historically known as the “pygmy chimpanzee,” are the closest extant relative to human beings, in the animal kingdom. According to de Waal, they are capable of patience, compassion, sensitivity and empathy — even altruism. Decidedly non-monogamous by nature, the Bonobo uses sexual activity for all sorts of reasons, from a casual greeting to conflict resolution, and are the only non-humans known to French kiss. They frequently engage in group sex; the females frequently rub each other’s genitals and engage in lesbian scissoring as a form of bonding. The males, too, find enjoyment in an array of homosexual behaviors. It has been theorized that this frequent sexual activity is possibly why the Bonobo are less violent than their chimpanzee cohorts.
Marsha was quite taken with this pan-sexual, peace-loving, orgiastic lifestyle — the Bonobo became her obsession and her calling.
The performance took place in the lobby of an “art hotel” in midtown.
Marsha had me introduce her as a French scientist. I was curious, since this project was the culmination of so much effort, as to why she wasn’t performing as herself — but I attributed her French scientist character to the fact that Marsha was a seasoned showman, and probably felt it would make her research more whimsical.
After my introduction, I took my place in the audience, which was mostly filled with snappy gay magazine writers with crisp collars and expensive colognes, and other respectable, professional print-media and curator types.
Marsha, as the white-coated French scientist, introduced her film in a thick comic accent.
As it began, the audience started to understand the grueling extent of Marsha’s great research adventure; there she was, bravely rowing a dugout canoe on a brown river in the middle of a jungle, with two pitch-black guides who looked like they’d never seen a white woman quite as headstrong and eccentric in their world before.
She was admitted to the Bonobo reserve, a lush foresty area, the gate to which was guarded by a pair of extremely large, scowling Congolese women in colorful print dresses.
A few minutes later, Marsha was standing next to a dirt mound, where a pack of pre-adolescent Bonobo were frolicking. One of the smallish males — an animal about the size of a human three-year-old — suddenly decided to play with her, and started lunging off the mound to whack Marsha with his feet. This inspired all the other Bonobos to follow suit and make a game of it — suddenly the pack of smallish apes was raining down on Marsha with great force and speed. Marsha somehow held fast during the siege, but took an incredible walloping, as evidenced by the bruises she was covered with the next day.
However pummeled, Marsha was undeterred. In the next chapter of the film, Marsha was making friends with an adolescent female Bonobo. The ape showed an endearing sweetness toward Marsha, and the two began to groom each other in a display of inter-species care.
Nobody in the audience was sufficiently prepared for what came next. A series of gasps spread over the room as the film clearly showed the ape and Marsha, now quite friendly with each other, beginning to engage in lesbian frottage.
The gay couple next to me started to choke up, trying to suppress their nervous laughter, averting their eyes. A wave of shock spread through the crowd like an offensive smell, paired with a collective feeling I can only describe as, “I can never unsee what I am now watching.”
“Oh my fucking God,” said someone behind me, watching Marsha stimulate the Bonobo’s clitoris. Audience members were groaning, giggling wildly, turning visibly purple — we had all been unwittingly plunged into an uninvited demonstration of bestiality, and were now witnesses and somehow possibly accomplices in this act.
I was squirming miserably in my seat in a raw panic, because I had been warned repeatedly by the New York Times that I was to act as an emissary for the esteemed publication at all times, and not associate my name with anything that might besmirch the Grey Lady’s inviolable reputation. I was positive I was going to lose my job (and I did, later, but for altogether different reasons).
The film continued. Marsha was informed by her guides that she was no longer welcome at the Bonobo reserve.
Marsha tried to return to the reserve anyway, but the large women in charge were so aghast at the sight of her that their eyes rolled back like spooked horses. They shook their heads emphatically NO. Apparently, word of Marsha’s over-friendly behavior toward the animals had gotten around.
The film ended with a whimper, as Marsha was forced to return to the US with somewhat less Bonobo experience than she had originally intended.
The crowd left hurriedly once the film was over. There was no Q & A session with Marsha’s French scientist character. Coats were gathered quickly, chairs were scraping across the floor as everyone lunged for the exits.
I walked up to Marsha and gave her a long, very firm handshake.
“That was really something,” I said, meaning it.
“Eh!” She said, with a Gallic shrug. She was, after all, a sex artist, and used to being outrageous — and apparently equally accustomed to making people hideously uncomfortable.
In the end, I could only admire her for it. As Barbra Streisand once said, “The function of art is to disturb.”