Thanks to Alexis Heloir, a fellow PhD working on gestures, for sending me this story: Wild Vervet Monkeys Wreak Havoc in Kenya (or check the BBC which is the source).

The most interesting part of this nice story (which tells of a group of vervets monkeys stealing food from a village and threatening specifically the women) is the following quote:

“The monkeys grab their breasts, and gesture at us while pointing at their private parts. We are afraid that they will sexually harass us,” said Mrs Njeri.

Well, that is an interesting statement by Mrs Njeri. In the picture below you can see vervet monkeys:

Vervet Monkeys (source)

It must be said, these monkeys are not very big and the idea of ‘sexual harassment’ seems to me at first glance to be a tale of imagination gone wild. What are they going to do? Pinch a ladies bottom? Squeeze a boob? Certainly that is as far as they can go? Or is it? Perhaps I am thinking in the wrong direction.

Perhaps sexual harassment is more like psychological warfare? Indeed, wikipedia states on sexual harassment that it can include many types of behavior and has a variety of purposes, most of which appear to be psychological rather than directly involving sexual intercourse. Dominance and humiliation can be important parts of it.

From wikipedia we also learn that Vervets seem to “possess what has been called the “rudiments of language”. Vervet Monkey alarm calls vary greatly depending on the different types of threats to the community. There are distinct calls to warn of invading leopards, snakes, and eagles.”

Now, there is an excellent web page on The Phallic Threat: Giant Penises and Similar Threat Devices. From it, I gather that the idea of a phallic threat is not unheard of, but instead common in both men and monkeys. Specifically on Primata (with a good overview of the Vervet’s signals) it is stated that Vervets have the folllowing use of the penile display.

penile display: This is when an adult male vervet monkey will present his erect penis and scrotum so that a neighboring group will see them (Estes, 1991). This display is used to demarcate territory (Estes, 1991). red-white-and-blue display: This display is used to communicate dominance by one male over another within a group (Estes, 1991). The male walks back and forth with his penis and scrotum in full view for the receiver to see; the sender will encircle the receiver (Estes, 1991). Occasionally the sender will stand on his hind legs and present his penis and scrotum to the receiver (Estes, 1991).

Moreover, the pigmentation of the Vervet Monkey’s scrotum is a vivid blue that pales when the animal falls in social rank. In other words, Vervets may perhaps refer to their dominance over someone else by referring to the color of their genitals.

So now we may have (1) an ability to communicate a variety of messages, (2) a phallic threat with (3) a reference to dominance. Suddenly it is not so difficult to imagine that it is real. Or at least as real as sexual harassment gets. If the monkeys mean to express their dominance, mark their territory or humiliate the women and the women feel dominated or humiliated then that is a successful (if you will pardon the expression) case of sexual harassment.

Unfortunately we cannot be sure of anything from such a distance. The whole story could just be exaggerated. It could even be an excuse for the villagers to start physically harassing the monkeys.

Elsewhere: Atheism Central on this story A YouTube playlist on monkeys and their penal displays The Colobus Trust website, has more info on pest behavior by vervet monkeys