For January 5 Event: Book Excerpts of “The Bonobo Sisterhood”

Thanks to Tanya Korpi, Northern Minnesota Valvoline franchise owner, for supporting our gender-based violence series

Introduction, by Diane Rosenfeld

Diane Rosenfeld wrote her master’s thesis at Harvard Law School titled “Why Doesn’t HE Leave?” A few decades ago, she was asking why sending women and their children to shelters become the acceptable approach to domestic violence? 

Subsequently, she learned about the matriarchal tendencies of the bonobo species to instinctively come together and ward off male aggressors. Bonobos are similar to chimpanzees, found in forests south of the Congo River. They share 98.7 percent of their DNA with humans.

“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 she uses to describe the amount and type of male coercion necessary to preserve a male-dominated social order.

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.

“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.”

Says anthropologist Amy Parish: “Bonobo females live the goals of the human feminist movement: behave with unrelated females as if they are your sisters.”

Rosenfeld shares the story of 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. Rosenfeld worked as a legal advocate for the woman. 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.”

“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.”

The abuser had already broken into her apartment, so she did not feel safe there. A court advocate hoped for “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 roam the streets freely 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 court rooms filled with terrorized and terrified women desperately pleading for protection from their intimate partner 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 have to confront the problem. We have to 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 vast 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 there is. We know who the intended victim is. We know that the motive is to control her and prevent her from leaving. We know that just after leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time for a women 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.”

Sign up for the discussion

Related Reading

Changemakers Alliance is the action-oriented arm of the Minnesota Women’s Press, the longest continuously run feminist publication in the U.S. Join the newsletter to become part of the solution as we build, alongside Diane Rosenfeld, a Minnesota chapter of the Bonobo Sisterhood Alliance.