In January, Minnesotans gathered online in our first Values & Vision conversation of 2023 to discuss concepts in Diane Rosenfeld’s 2022 book The Bonobo Sisterhood. When a vulnerable member of the bonobo species (a type of ape) is threatened by a male aggressor, females rally together to ward off the attack. The bonobo species is uniquely matriarchal in its approach to keeping all members of the community safe.
Rosenfeld points out how women and allies can do the same. As a long-time legal advocate for survivors of gender-based violence, Rosenfeld outlines how patriarchal systems — in law and culture — regularly fail to protect the vulnerable. It is time, she writes, to become our own protection system to thwart aggressors. If someone is threatened, the equivalent of a bonobo call could bring an army of supporters to a police station or to court to insist that threats be taken seriously.
Beth Peterson, of the political leadership organization Vote Run Lead, took part in the discussion, and resonated with Rosenfeld’s contention that the narrative tendency is to consider women victims of violence, rather than focusing on men as batterers. She also pointed out the prevalence of lateral violence, “the system that women have to go through, and how some women are keeping other women in that cycle. They may not be the perpetrators, but they are [saying] ‘go back to your partner.’ ”
The tendency in U.S. culture is to enact punishment rather than invest in prevention. We know women are most vulnerable when they are trying to leave a crisis situation. Rosenfeld says we need to pay more attention — in funding and public discussion — before the pattern of violence becomes lethal.
She points out that the media reports on tragic ends of domestic violence rather than on the steps that could have been taken to disrupt violence.
Another weakness is the lack of safe and affordable housing. Many women stay with abusers because they have nowhere else to go.
One man in the Values & Vision discussion indicated that, as survivor of childhood abuse, he felt empathy for young men who join authoritarian organizations to compensate for feeling small and inadequate. At age 18, he joined the Marine Corps. He has since learned about violent groups, like neo- Nazis, that befriend vulnerable young men who are seeking kinship and strength.
He suggested that unchecked male anger might be addressed by other men who can compassionately relate to being a frightened eight-year-old child acting through the body of a 30-year-old man. What if the local community got better, he asked, at “befriending the child who has been abandoned and abused, who is looking for someone who will say, ‘I am here for you’?”
This would be one way to circumvent the shame-based legal system of right and wrong, and instead work to heal the damage. He added, “Violence is akin to substance abuse. These young men learned how to be abusive from being abused. Before they hurt others, what if they were put in a treatment program and treated like human beings, rather than as a murderer or a batterer?”
The group discussed the importance of reaching young people early with healthy messages, and of parental coaching.
One discussion participant had taken a workshop on restorative justice, based on teachings from the Anishinaabe people. If a family member notices incipient violence, village elders call a restorative justice circle. People gather in love. It might take weeks or months to develop new intimacy and trust for each other, but violence can be avoided.
Playwright and performer Amoke Kubat added: “Culturally, I am familiar with this. Black people have survived and lived as families of the heart. This is fictive kinship. We are groups of people biologically related and non-related, who act as a clan, act as a family. Everyone is aunties, uncles, grandparents. Communities come out with the birth and borrow cups of sugar and babysit. I grew up with that.”
Kubat indicated that Rosenfeld writes about other things that bonobos do, like comb each other’s hair and rock each other’s babies. “That’s what I have seen and done as a Black woman. That is what Black people — sistahs — have done when they could retain their cultural heritage, or out of necessity, to survive poverty, racism, and all manner of oppressions in an unjust world.”
Rosenfeld devotes a chapter to the importance of learning self-defense as a confidence booster. Values & Vision co-moderator Crystal Brown explained why this is. A study from Canada found that young people who had taken self- defense classes, compared to control group members who had not, were less likely to report being assaulted later in life.
Brown read a passage from the end of the book about how the need and desire for women to nurture each other is where our real power is. As she paraphrased, “Patriarchy fears women’s strong bonds because they are a threat to our dependence on men.”
Changemakers Alliance brings groups together into conversations that lead to solutions-based stories and action. Rosenfeld will talk with us about a Bonobo Sisterhood movement. In future Values & Vision discussions, we will explore development of a pilot program that collectively serves victims of gender-based violence.
Learn more: womenspress.com/talking-about-the-bonobo-sisterhood