Breaking the Bonobo Alliance

May 23, 11 Breaking the Bonobo Alliance

Diane Rosenfeld (a law lecturer at Harvard Law School who specializes in legal policy on violence against women) advocates for the potential of women working collectively to physically resist sexual coercion and aggression in a way that reflects social associations within bonobo communities.

Observation of chimpanzee behaviour reveals similarities to cases of gender-based violence (GBV), especially rape in this context, in which the victim is most likely to be isolated from her support structures and other women.  However, female bonobos have shown an inspiring model of a female-female or bonobo alliance. In a bonobo alliance, if a male bonobo tries to harass, isolate or becomes aggressive towards one female, then all females band together to chase him off and restrict his access to food sources. Female bonobos seem to instinctively understand that if one female is the victim of coercion and aggression, then all of them could be too.

On a human level, in cases of GBV women tend to subscribe to myths which blame the victim rather than the perpetrator. By blaming and isolating the victim, women fail to recognize the universal incidence of rape. This approach towards the victim is a self-protection mechanism in that it distances women from the possibility of GBV. It preserves the idea that rape and GBV are incidents which fall within her own control and, therefore, cannot happen to her. Culturally ingrained scripts that create divisions between women include the idea that a victim was ‘asking for it’ by dressing provocatively.  

Divisions along the lines of clothing or physical appearance may have been socially embedded from the earliest civilizations who wanted to differentiate between prostitutes and respectable women, often through dress codes, clothing and hairstyles.

For example, as early as the 6th Century BC, Athenian law-giver Solon formulated extensive legislation covering many aspects of daily life including prostitution and specified dress codes for women working as prostitutes. The fabrics associated with respectable ancient Greek women were usually wool or linen, whereas, prostitutes wore saffron-dyed fabric of gauze-like transparency. The definitive feature of an ancient Greek prostitute was her hair, often dyed flaxen or blonde.

Similarly, European cultures of the 16th and 17th Century differentiated prostitutes from other women through regulating the hairstyles and head-dress of prostitutes. Although,  unlike the ancient Greeks, prostitutes were required to shave their heads (or, at least have very short hair) and wear veils in societies that did not usually prescribe them.  

Ancient Roman laws specifically addressing sex work date from the reign of Emperor Augustus (44 BC) although Roman women began working as prostitutes as early as the 3rd Century BC.  Like ancient Greece, the law prescribed a dress code for prostitutes (usually in the form of short silk garments) with the purpose of distinguishing prostitutes from ‘respectable’ Roman women.

Now, with all of the theory and history in mind, look at what the women around you are wearing. In any given situation, certain well-used phrases may come to mind: “That skirt is too short. It really is just a belt. Shows more than it hides! She looks like a whore!”

This kind of dialogue, whether it is internal or external, seems to differentiate women according to ancient legal ideas that regulate and separate the clothing aspect of women’s lives into two groups: those who subscribe to a ‘respectable’ socially acceptable dress-code and those who resemble sex workers. These ancient differences in clothing, employed in a more modern context, foster similar divisions between women and fuel GBV myths. Most importantly though, such ideas create a division that hinders the formation bonobo alliances as a collective integrated approach to GBV.

Image by Ed Yourdon