Bonobos are living proof that patriarchy is not inevitable.
My recent book The Bonobo Sisterhood identifies how the model of bonobo behavior offers a way out of patriarchal violence. While it focuses on forming female-female alliances, please consider it as well an invitation to men to join the Bonobo Sisterhood. Males thrive outside of patriarchy, it turns out. How? Their sexual encounters are mutually wanted and frequent. No lethal violence has ever been observed in bonobos. And males derive their social status from their mothers. What’s not to love?
Our most closely related evolutionary cousins—the bonobos—are peaceful, loving, food sharing, freely sexual, and xenophilic, meaning they love strangers, they do not fear them. Why? Because in their female-led social order, they have nothing to fear. Bonobos open a whole new world of possibilities to eliminate male sexual coercion and, with it, the underpinnings that cause, support, and perpetuate patriarchal violence.
Here’s how it works: If a female bonobo is aggressed upon, she lets out a special cry, and other females—whether they know her, like her, or are related to her—rush immediately to her defense from wherever they are. They form coalitions instantaneously with remarkable speed. Together they fend off the aggressive male, sometimes biting his ear or toe, and send him into isolation. When he returns, in a few days or later, they all reconcile, and he does not aggress again. And here is the most significant takeaway: evolutionarily, bonobos have eliminated male sexual coercion.
This model of collective self-defense changes everything. I first learned about bonobos from a Harvard University anthropologist, Richard Wrangham, when we were on a panel together in 2004. He explained that primates use male sexual coercion to control females as reproductive resources. For example, male chimpanzees batter fertile females; male orangutans force copulation with lone females; male silverback gorillas commit infanticide, abduct the infant’s mother, impregnate her, and add her to their harem. We humans hear about this violence and consider how brutal nature is, but we don’t question its logic because it fits with our expectation of male behavior. We think of male violence as our legacy, our evolutionary destiny. Bonobos invite us to think again.
It might be that bonobos prevented patriarchy from ever taking hold. They might represent a “pre-patriarchal” social order that stopped violence from becoming the organizing principle of society. And it produced instead a harmonious, peaceful, cooperative, and joyful community. I contend that such a society is not only possible, it is proven by the existence of the bonobos. Bonobos, who share 98.7 percent of their DNA with humans, look very similar to chimpanzees, so much so that they were not recognized as a separate species until 1929. They are found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo and are less studied and less well known than chimpanzees. Nevertheless, the fascinating and developing body of work being done around bonobos reveals possibilities for peaceful coexistence between males and females that we might never have thought possible.
To say I was riveted while learning about our bonobo cousins would be a wild understatement. At that point in my career, I had spent more than a decade as an activist, legal scholar and lawyer searching for ways to end male sexual violence. I had tried to do this through asking audacious questions to expose the underlying inequalities of our legal system and social order. “Why Doesn’t He Leave?,” for example, became the title of my master’s thesis at Harvard Law School, challenging the deeply flawed societal expectation that sending women to battered women’s shelters is an acceptable approach to domestic violence. (It is not.) But my new insights learned from bonobos opened a whole new world of possibilities to eliminate male sexual coercion and with it the underpinnings that cause, support, and perpetuate patriarchal violence.
Patriarchal violence is the term I use to describe the amount and type of male coercion necessary to preserve a male-dominated social order. Richard and I were mutually compelled by our respective fields, so we created and cotaught a course on theories of sexual coercion to more fully explore the potential of bonobos to inform human law and society. Teaching this class with Richard gave me the opportunity to test the hypotheses about the power and potential of female alliances to change the world. My book is the result of that inquiry.
That the idea of female alliance was born of a collaboration with a male colleague is not ironic—though at first glance it might appear to be. Female alliances don’t exclude males; quite the opposite. And in The Bonobo Sisterhood, I examine the how and why and invite everyone to join in new coalitionary forces to thwart, once and for all, the power of violence to shape the world. I call these alliances the Bonobo Sisterhood.
This sisterhood excludes no one, and all are welcome—as long as they abide by the Bonobo Principle. It is a two-part principle, and if you agree with it, you are part of the Bonobo Sisterhood.
The first part: No one has the right to pimp my sister. With pimp I include any form of patriarchal violence from gaslighting to economic, emotional, physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. The second part: Everyone is my sister. For now, though, we must start where we are, in a world saturated with patriarchal violence.
Every day in the United States, three to four women are killed by their estranged husbands or boyfriends. Black women are at a 40 percent higher risk of being killed. LGBTQ+ people experience intimate partner violence at rates comparable to and even higher than their heterosexual counterparts.
The National Network to End Domestic Violence conducts an annual survey to offer a snapshot of domestic violence in the U.S. On one day in 2019, 43,000 women and children were refugees from their own homes because of domestic abuse and the threat of domestic homicide; more than 11,000 requests for shelter services went unmet.
When I worked as a legal advocate, I once counseled a woman who was in fear of her ex-boyfriend. He instigated a car chase that blocked her in, approached her with a lug wrench, and hospitalized her father who was a passenger. When the case was called, the abuser asked for a 30-day continuance to find a lawyer. The judge agreed immediately, and simply went on to the next case. The prosecutor did not intercede to tell the judge that he had already violated the emergency order of protection and that she was in lethal danger. I was incensed.
This violence is the backdrop of our everyday lives. Part of why we view patriarchal violence as inevitable is that until now we have not had a proven way to eliminate it. We’re taught to rely on laws or law enforcement to protect us. But the moment we delegate our safety to someone else, we give up our power to them. Bonobos show us that uniting with other females and allies, coming physically to one another’s defense in numbers , will shut down aggression. We have a way out.
As biological anthropologist, primatologist and Darwinian feminist Amy Parish puts it: “Bonobo females live the goals of the human feminist movement: behaving with unrelated females as if they were their sisters.”
Society is in this infinite loop—what I call the “good girl trap” of patriarchal democracy. First, notice that the term patriarchal democracy is an oxymoron: democracy is not possible in a patriarchy, which, by definition, is based on male supremacy. Second, we are taught to be good girls, to politely challenge the patriarchy.
Imagine a board game with an infinity loop marked into spaces. Your starting point is an injury from gender-based violence. The injured person might form a small group, and go to the legislature, and there are meetings and hearings and meetings and hearings, and then maybe legislation will get passed. But often by the time it does, it is a shadow of its former self, or has some giant hole through which you could drive a truck.
If it is passed, it is challenged, not because we hate women, but “because women already have those rights,” or “they don’t really need them,” for some reason. Then it is struck down and the player is back at square one, but too exhausted to do anything about it.
I refer to this game as the good girl trap because we are taught to ask quietly for change instead of demanding it in a system that is designed to give us just enough crumbs to make us go away quietly. All that is what’s behind the theory of patriarchal violence. Our system is not set up to provide rights for women, or for women to challenge male sexual violence. We keep going through this infinite loop of patriarchal democracy.
Or, we can get out of it and say: “They’re not coming to help us. The system’s not coming to help us, law enforcement is not coming to help us. And if we’re Black or brown or indigenous, they won’t even answer our call.” So, we have to come for one another, like bonobos—whether we know each other, like each other, hate each other, or are related to each other.
A new concept of equality
In my book I talk about a new vision for equality. We always think about equality in terms of women’s equality to men, where we use men as the standard. What happens when we shift the lens and think about equality among and between women, as a starting point—that all women are created equal? That we can share our resources among ourselves? That is a radical way of looking at equality—and untapped, because patriarchy depends on the division of women against each other. Let’s get over artificial divisions between women and realize that what unites us is so much more important than what divides us. I am eager to see what will transpire from this different lens on equality.
Magical things will happen when women realize the power of defining resources on their own terms and sharing them amongst others.
How does the law and legislation play a role?
Although I teach at Harvard Law School, I have very little faith in the law, especially in its enforcement, to protect women from sexual violence. I’m more hopeful about the power of coalitions among women—even informal, quick coalitions to protect women and put pressure on the system to enforce laws that we already have, that are unenforced.
In terms of law, I would require that every law enforcement community has a high-risk case management team—mandatory danger assessments—and a way to identify and track high-risk cases to prevent domestic violence homicide. In my opinion, it must be a two-track effort: 1) demand enforcement of laws on the books and 2) create new frameworks on equality enacted through unprecedented female coalitions.
A pastor in Baltimore contacted me because she was concerned about one of her congregants and asked if I could help. She was in danger, and no one was listening to her. “I’ve been working closely with this woman, whose estranged husband is actively threatening to kill her. Nobody’s paying attention. I wrote to the police commissioner, and instead of calling it ‘domestic violence’ in the regard line, I called it ‘active terrorist threat.’”
Then I was in Chicago visiting my mom. The front page of the paper carried a story about a murder-suicide in Buffalo Grove, Ill., where the man killed his two young daughters, his wife, and his mother. I wrote an op-ed published in the Chicago Tribune headlined, “When we treat domestic violence as a private affair, we are culpable in perpetuating it.” It offers a glimpse of how what I call the Bonobo Sisterhood Alliance concept is crystallizing. In both these cases, the system treats domestic violence as an everyday occurrence about which nothing much can be done. But what happens if we treat it as the terrorist threat that it is?
In my book, I question a system set up on the premise that “she” will leave. “Why doesn’t she leave?” we ask, because our response to domestic violence is to let law enforcement off the hook and to expect her to go into hiding at a battered women’s shelter.
I want us to think about the injustice of this situation. And to use the power of groups of citizen-allies to compel law enforcement to hold abusers accountable and support victims by keeping them safe. In 1994 I said this kind of violence is so predictable as to be preventable. And nearly 30 years later, I’m still saying the same thing.
In terms of legislative changes, I propose that we treat all domestic violence cases as potentially lethal. Separate the ones that are. Have a coordinated community response around those cases. Hold the offenders accountable. Let the women stay safely in their homes. Rocket science? Not at all.
The Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Newburyport, Massachusetts, for example, created a High Risk Team Model that is highly effective at preventing intimate partner violence from escalating into homicide. I was part of the Greater Newburyport High Risk Case Management Team when it started in 2004.
A former student of mine, Maclen Stanley, and his wife, Ashley Ruggles Stanley, posted an amazing TikTok about the book. At the end of it, Ashley asks: “What if, when she goes to the police station, instead of going alone, she has five allies with her. Would the police take her more seriously?” Law won’t protect women; we have to protect one another. That’s the Bonobo Sisterhood. It is very easy. Just show up.
Diane L. Rosenfeld, JD, LLM, a lecturer for two decades at Harvard Law School, is the founding director of its Gender Violence Program.
Abusers: The Original Domestic Terrorists
Every day the U.S. domestic violence courts are filled with women in an abject state of terror. Every day, judges hear case after case concerning men threatening violence to women they view as “theirs.” It is so common, so ubiquitous, so woven into our everyday existence that nearly all of us accept these assembly-line courtrooms, society’s tepid response to domestic violence, as natural and sufficient. We have lost the sense of urgency presented by this form of domestic terrorism. … Their existence, with the long queues of terrified women, testifies to a system that routinely fails to provide a comprehensive safety net for endangered women by holding the abusers accountable.
In one case in which I was involved, the abuser had already broken into the woman’s apartment, so she did not feel safe there. A court advocate hoped she’d have “luck” to find space in a local battered women’s shelter.
I represented the chief legal officer for the state of Illinois, and this was the best that I could do for this citizen? The system had just allowed a dangerous criminal to freely roam the streets while I was hoping to put this woman into hiding. How in the world did we get to this place? How was I complicit? What could possibly be done?
I now have answers. But at that moment, what I knew was that the United States has built and staffed specialized courtrooms filled with terrorized and terrified women desperately pleading for protection from their intimate partners. And, rather than provide them with any meaningful help, our system is set up to make it their own responsibility to keep themselves safe.
To be stronger together, we must confront the problem. We must understand that the problem isn’t that of an individual woman in individually bad circumstances. Nor is it the problem of any single state or nation.
The world of abusers is the problem. In recognizing that truth, we recognize something fundamental: that this is a problem for an army of women to solve.
The overwhelming majority of sexual violence goes unremarked upon until it turns into a lawsuit or a murder. And when stories of sexual violence reach the media, they are treated as something remarkable, sensational, conveyed with an air of shock and resignation. The murder is reported; the underlying, escalating violence seldom is.
But domestic violence homicide is so predictable as to be preventable. It is by far the most predictable type of homicide. We know who the intended victim is. We know that the motive is to control her and prevent her from leaving. We know that immediately after leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time for a woman—and her children—and that her partner’s abuse will become more frantic, more violent, more desperate. We know this well enough by now to expect it. We are resigned to expecting an intimate partner to be the perpetrator. Never does an article call for intervention and action at the first signs of abuse. The rare tracking down of foreign terrorists gets top-of-fold, page A1 coverage; the ubiquitous terroristic reign of men against women barely makes the paper.
—Diane L. Rosenfeld The world of abusers is the problem. In recognizing that truth, we recognize something fundamental: that this is a problem for an army of women to solve.
Support the Bonobo Sisterhood Alliance
The Bonobo Sisterhood Alliance works to counteract the dynamics of gender-based violence through collective action—from selfdefense to legal support—in response to the issues identified in Diane Rosenfeld’s book, The Bonobo Sisterhood: Revolution through Female Alliance.
To support its work, tax-deductible contributions can be sent to: The Bonobo Sisterhood Alliance 36101 Bob Hope Drive Suite E5 – 265 Rancho Mirage, CA 92270