How Do Animals Learn About Sex?

Has anyone done research on this vitally important topic? Do animals need to learn how to do it or do they pick it up instinctively?

I wish to assure my readers that I have a perfectly scientific interest in this topic. It appears that human animals need to be taught. Wehear stories of conservatively brought up young men and women entering adulthood perfectly ignorant of the granular details of the sex act, often with embarrassing consequences. These stories led me to the question I have posed. Mammals other than humans without the benefit of our cognitive capacity or our capacity for language and communication seem to manage just fine. Then why is it that only humans have this problem?

One possible answer is that animals are in fact being taught, in the same way that cats teach their young ones to hunt. Perhaps animals do learn from their siblings, or are given an initiation by senior members of the opposite sex. If so, I am keenly interested in knowing of any research that has been done on this topic. Unfortunately, this is a difficult topic to google.

The other possible answer is that animals do not need to be taught. This answer is quite plausible. We often hear of attempts to mate endangered animals like the Panda. Often, they have been brought up in captivity, away from the environs that would school them in the art. These attempts are often failures, but are sometimes successful. That at least some attempts are successful indicate that animals are capable of figuring out what to do without being trained. I may be wrong in this, of course. This is just a tentative conclusion – many other possibilities are whirring in my mind, which I will not go into.

But if it turns out that animals do not in fact need to be taught,I do have to wonder if we are witnessing an example of humans losing an instinctive skill because of their capacity to learn. It is becoming increasingly established that focusing too much on the mechanical details of a performance tends to degrade your performance. I recently read of an experiment – I am too lazy to dig up links- where athletes were divided into two random groups and and given sets of words to focus on before practice. The group that was assigned words denoting details of the act did worse than the group that was given abstract words that had to do with the performance as a whole. I wonder if humans forgetting about sex is an example of the same phenomenon. If you plan to do research and establish this link, please make sure to credit me with the original hypothesis.

23 thoughts on “How Do Animals Learn About Sex?

  1. Oh , before reading the above article I hadn’t even thought of this thing. Interesting!

    You know wild is a word that is related to animals, but getting wild in sex is something essential to have pleasure and can you think of a washing machine can be helpful for getting wild, if you want to know ,check here.

  2. Just that these are easy times for humans, just like it was easy times for dinosaurs 160m years ago. Just wait for a supervolcano eruption, a meterorite strike, or some global warming catastrophe, and these idiot humans who need instructional videos will be wiped out.

    After all, Sparta was just 2600 years ago.

  3. Got this in my QOTD feed today:

    “The great thing about human language is that it prevents us from sticking to the matter at hand.”
    — Lewis Black

    More seriously, I am sure you have considered the following:

    1. Animals do communicate.
    2. They can see what’s going on around them (in their natural habitat, at least).
    3. Curiosity about one’s body and that of others is quite universal.

    It appears to me that it is quite “natural” for animals to learn the process of procreation.

    It is our species that does not communicate well enough, lives in an artificial habitat with arbitrary social taboos, and discourages natural curiosity in children (“shame-shame”).

    The previous paragraph is not intended to be a criticism of our species, merely a possible explanation for the issues raised.

  4. I doubt if the conservative people not knowing about the granular details is as true or common as it is made out to be. Do you know of anyone first hand?
    Given some time alone, I am sure even for humans, it will instinctively happen.
    If it doesn’t I am sure something is terribly wrong with one or the other and there may be cases in animals too where there is some glandular malfunction

  5. Way back in 1995, I spent a day accompanying my friend try to get his Alsatian to do it. A bitch was procured for the purpose, and a seedy auto-rickshaw driver who dropped her told us that she not only had pedigree (with certificate and all that) but also had ‘experience’. Both these qualities were important to my friend, although, what his dog thought about them, I can’t say.

    Well the point is, I was discussing this very same issue with him. In the event, nothing happened. The dog didn’t have his day. The bitch got bored after a few unsuccessful attempts and after a while began attacking the poor dog…and his master.

    My friend put it down to the dog being brought up in domestication, in a ‘sheltered environment’, and all that. I guess he was anxious to convince me that there was nothing wrong with his dog’s doghood.

    My argument was that they should know this instinctively. But my friend didn’t agree. He felt it is learnt, dogs being social animals and all that.

    I think the bitch stayed over. I didn’t wait to see if something did indeed happen at night and was fast asleep in a jiffy. The next morning my friend told me he heard barking noises.

    The autorickshaw driver came at 8:30am. He was paid. There was a caveat that if there were puppies, my friend would have the first pick of the litter.

    Months later I found out that there were no puppies.

  6. Interesting topic. It might be worthwhile to note that all animals except human beings have sex only to reproduce (not sure if its of any pleasure to animals) and they do it only in certain season or time of the year. Whereas no such season or time constraint for humans.

    I think in primate times when humans used to live just like animals in jungles and had to hunt for food etc., the act of having sex came to them instinctively just like all other animals. They used to follow just the basic instincts, hunger, thirst and the need to copulate with a member of opposite sex. But as the man evolved, the concentration shifted from basic instincts to other mundane interests like the quest to understand the nature and the world etc. Once man’s interest got piqued in these, he put sex on the backburner because it was not mandatory for survival, unlinke the other two needs of hunger and thirst. This continued and due to drastic change in upbringing of man, to todays man sex is secondary, and todays man is more interested to gather knowledge and make money out of it, for all kind of luxuries etc… putting sex on the backburner. Also, the way world has evolved, today money is needed for basic needs of housing and food.

  7. Orion, Have you put your sex on the backburner? Or even on the front burner? I suggest you try it next time before commenting on modern man.

  8. You just did not get the point avataram, would you go on have sex when you dont have assurity of your next meal? If you still dont get it then you wont get it.

  9. orion,

    have you heard of the swear word “varumai’kku piranthavane”.

    P.S: I am not swearing at you. But it has remarkable relevance to your comment.

  10. Animals don’t perform their acts inside closed rooms as happens in most advanced human societies. So, by the time they reach the age of puberty, they should get a chance or two to pick up on the activity just by observing other males and females. Though this might turn into a chicken and egg discussion, that whether the first act happened by chance, or is it coded in the genes of a species.

    btw Ravi, Have you seen the movie “Anubhav”? In the movie, Padmini Kolhapure learns that her body indeed is a backburner/frontburner for Shekhar Suman after watching her husband(Shekhar Suman) do it with other babe.

  11. Orionbhai, I got it only now. If you are using both burners to make food, where is the time and place for sex? Maybe you have a microwave?

  12. I am curious to learn if they do *need* to communicate to learn about sex.

    Hmm. Unless such information is encoded in the genetic makeup, there would probably be no way to learn about sex except from the environment (lets call everything under this term as “communication”).

    Now, if such information did happen to be genetically encoded.. one would expect that animals brought up in isolation (or artificial environs) would (usually) not need to be pushed towards procreation. That doesn’t seem to be the general (anecdotal only) observation.

    In the absence of a scientific study, I would tend to assume that they do need to communicate to learn about sex. The communication could possibly take all kinds of forms in different species.

  13. avataram, yes I have a microwave, but when I did not have a microwave, I was working to be able to afford one. Hope you get it now. Also, primitive man also did not have one.

    On the lighter side, oven costs way more than microwave these days 😀

  14. Nitin, did you and your friend check if the bitch was in heat?

    Himanshu, while it is true that animals do not have bedrooms, it is also true that in most species, sex is a highly private affair. There are some exceptions like dogs, the reason for their oddity can be found in our scriptures. Also, one must remember that there are some animals that are not as social as humans, dogs or cows. A lion or a tiger may never see a lion or a tiger other than its immediate family member (mom, dad, siblings, spouse, children) in its entire lifetime. Moreover, the stage of life at which they need sex education is precisely the stage at which they will probably be moving away from their parents and getting into rivalrous relationships with their siblings. Add that to the fact that animals do not have sex as much as humans (only at a certain time in a year, only when the female is ovulating) and it is highly possible that a certain non-negligible percentage of animals grow up without witnessing another member of their species “doing it”.

    So, in evolutionary terms, it would be extremely surprising if animals need to be taught to do it. Vivek, I think this also answers your point.. In addition, I must also point out that one can think of many reasons why animals may not want to have sex when forced to, but I will put more store in the fact that there are some successes…

    Of course, we shouldn’t make the mistake of treating instinct vs. training as mutually exclusive. Love and jealousy are also instinct-driven, but one can’t claim that Mills and Boons novels have no effect. It might be that knowledge of sex is like language – natural to pick up when you are a kid, but difficult to teach in adulthood…

  15. Ravikiran,

    Nitin, did you and your friend check if the bitch was in heat?

    It was only my friend’s dog that was supposedly clueless about these things.

    My friend was (is?) an expert on these matters: human or canine. The bitch, so the autorickshaw driver confirmed, was in heat.

  16. Animals learn by observing other animals. That’s why your pandas in captivity only figure it out sometimes.

    Like anything, put 1 & 1 together and eventually they’ll come up with 2 – which is why they figure it out sometimes but not all the time.

    There’s no mystical in built genetic thing – aside from the basis of all life: the need to reproduce. Viruses to elephants, the need to reproduce is coded in genetically. The how is observed through watching others of your species (monkey see, monkey do…) or by simple trial and error (what goes in what hole?!)

  17. there was some research done (try googling it) where panda’s in captivity started mating once they were shown videos of other panda’s mating (panda porn). Coming back to the dog thing, so the bitch was on heat but the dog did not know how to. maybe the dog in question is gay?

    and as for why sex is fun for humans and dolphins, a whole lot of reasons mostly to do with our anatomies. Jared Diamond has written a good book on it, which I will read in the near future.

  18. Sorry to bump such an old post, but after observing my dog trying to analize my cat for the umpteenth time, I had this question myself. After reading the comments here, I am left wondering if any of these people have ever had pets. I will challenge one statement made in your post, and some of the statements made in the comments.

    You said:
    “It appears that human animals need to be taught. We hear stories of conservatively brought up young men and women entering adulthood perfectly ignorant of the granular details of the sex act, often with embarrassing consequences.”

    There is no doubt in my mind that if you made a [untaught] man and a woman live together, provided neither was physically repulsive, they’d figure it out sooner or later… Sex is expensive, so Western cultures do their best to make sure everyone is doing it. In a poor, heavily populated country, it might be in the best interest of the community to not teach young people about sex.

    Orion said:
    “It might be worthwhile to note that all animals except human beings have sex only to reproduce (not sure if its of any pleasure to animals) and they do it only in certain season or time of the year.”

    Poppycock. The dog has been doing this quite often the last few months (it’s about 10 months old). As far as procreation-survival-instinct is concerned, my cat is of another species and it is also male, so I don’t think it applies.

    Yak said:
    “Animals learn by observing other animals. Thats why your pandas in captivity only figure it out sometimes.”

    There are no other animals around to teach my dog anything, so the theory that they learn by observing other animals doesn’t suffice.

    It is quite apparent to me that animals get horny, just like human beings. How they know where Mr. Happy goes, is beyond me 😀

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