What Our Primate Ancestors Can Teach Us About Dismantling the Patriarchy: The Ms. Q&A with Diane Rosenfeld

The Bonobo Sisterhood cover by Shepard Fairey and a bonobo, human’s closest evolutionary cousins. In stark contrast to other primates, by forming female alliances, they have evolutionarily eliminated male sexual coercion. (Jason Coleman / Flickr)

Women’s organized resistance to male dominance continues to make headlines around the world, from young women leading an uprising against the restrictive policies of the theocratic regime in Iran, to feminist activism in the U.S. in response to the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade

A new book shines an intriguing new light on the possibilities for alliances among women in the ongoing struggle to end men’s violence against women by examining the social organization of one of our closest primate relatives. In The Bonobo Sisterhood, Harvard Law School professor Diane Rosenfeld shows how we have much to learn from the bonobos about how to eliminate male sexual coercion.  

In a Ms. exclusive interview, contributing writer Jackson Katz, a long-time friend and colleague of Rosenfeld, asked her about her book’s provocative thesis and its relevance to contemporary debates about how to prevent gender violence and advance gender and sexual equality.  

Jackson Katz: You’re a law professor who teaches about gender violence and the law, and yet your book takes its title and organizing principle from bonobos, a relatively obscure primate species. Can you explain how a legal theorist came to learn about issues of sex and violence in bonobo culture, and how that helped shape your thinking?

Diane Rosenfeld: It blew my mind when I learned from my friend and colleague Richard Wrangham, the renowned anthropologist, about how bonobos protect one another from male aggression. I saw how this connects directly to my work on domestic violence and sexual assault law.

For those who don’t know, bonobos are primates that look like but are a separate species from chimpanzees. They share 98.7 percent of our DNA, like chimpanzees, but have a completely different social order. If a female bonobo is aggressed upon, she lets out a special cry and all the other females within earshot come rushing to her aid, forming an instantaneous coalition to defend her. They come whether they know her, like her, or are related to her. We can take a critical lesson from that as humans! Evolutionarily, they have eliminated male sexual coercion.

If a female bonobo is aggressed upon, she lets out a special cry and all the other females within earshot come rushing to her aid … Evolutionarily, they have eliminated male sexual coercion.

Katz: You’ve been teaching gender violence and the law at Harvard Law School since 2004. Can you say something about your students, who they are, why they take your class (it is still an elective), what they have done with the knowledge they’ve acquired?

Rosenfeld: My students represent a wide range of identities who want to think more deeply about how law intersects with issues of gender and violence. Many of them have gone on to do phenomenal work in the area of gender justice. Some have created their own organizations, some are leading other organizations. Many former students are going to be contributing to the pro-bonobo legal action network that we’ll be developing over the next year. This is a way to multiply exponentially our efforts to protect endangered women.

Diane L. Rosenfeld is the founding director of the Harvard Law School Gender Violence Program and a lecturer on law. (Courtesy of Diane Rosenfeld)

Katz: Also, how has your experience teaching gender violence law informed what you write about in The Bonobo Sisterhood

Rosenfeld: My scholarship and teaching have been the proving ground for the central idea that patriarchy is not inevitable; the bonobos are living proof of that. This matters greatly when considering how patriarchal the legal system is at its base and how this informs the need for a strategy at the level of patriarchy—a bonobo sisterhood alliance.

Patriarchy is not inevitable; the bonobos are living proof of that.

Katz: The actor-activist Ashley Judd wrote the foreword to your book. Over the years you have been a friend and mentor to her. Can you share anything about how you met and how she ended up writing the foreword?

Rosenfeld: Of course! Ashley is the high priestess of the Bonobo Sisterhood! She was a student at the Harvard Kennedy School when she cross-registered for my class, “Gender Violence, Law and Social Justice.” She was an outstanding student who also knew about bonobos. Ashley metabolized everything she learned in that class and won the Dean’s Scholar Prize for her work that semester. She went on to use her voice to come out personally and publicly about her experience with Harvey Weinstein, which blew the lid off the long-simmering pot of inappropriate sexual coercion and assault by men with power, leading to the reinvigoration of the #MeToo movement

Katz: Sisterhood is Powerful is one of the famous feminist slogans of the 1970s. Is it fair to say that the “Bonobo sisterhood” is an update of that concept, with a slight twist based on new information about the ways in which one of our closest primate cousins long ago figured out how to actually put it into practice?

Rosenfeld: The Bonobo Sisterhood definitely builds on the important history of the feminist legal, social and racial justice movements and gives us a roadmap to carry forward. I see it as a vehicle to move the connections forged through the #MeToo movement into a dynamic new action plan. This moment in history is so auspicious for the arrival of the Bonobo sisterhood: We are in a demonstrably better place. We know more, we are more connected, the possibilities for global connection abound. 

Katz: It is hardly a secret that some of the greatest challenges to alliances between women are the intersecting realities of race, ethnicity and socioeconomics, as well as issues that relate to gender identity beyond binary categories. Despite their collective and historical disadvantage, “women” hardly constitute a homogenous category. How do you address this conundrum in your book?

Rosenfeld: Great question. The Bonobo Sisterhood offers a new framework that articulates how everyone—women, men, nonbinary people, any gender identity, is harmed in a patriarchy, and how we all stand to benefit in the sisterhood. All women are affected by male sexual coercion, and we will all benefit when we act as collective self-defenders. We need to stop tolerating coercion and violence against us and our sisters. I know it will take hard work and many uncomfortable conversations.

A new idea of the bonobo sisterhood is to think about equality among women, not measuring our equality solely in relation to men.  This calls for a serious reckoning—especially among white women—about racism and white supremacy. My hope is that this can contribute to a huge leap forward for humankind.

Protesters set their scarves on fire while marching down on Oct. 1, 2022 in Tehran, Iran. Protests over the death of 22-year-old Iranian Mahsa Amini have continued to intensify despite crackdowns by the authorities. (Getty Images)

Katz: There are ongoing uprisings in Iran in response to the killing in police custody of a young woman, Mahsa Amini. Thousands of schoolgirls and young women are leading a widespread movement in defiance of the theocratic leaders of that country—in what seems to be a classic example of the bonobo sisterhood concept in practice.

Rosenfeld: Yes, the uprising in Iran over this tragic murder is like a bonobo sisterhood of women and their allies standing together to challenge the enforcement of patriarchal morality rules. The more we can illuminate the underlying patriarchal structure of our governments, laws, and social order, the more we can understand the need for a macro-level response to change it.

What we must do now is link arms between Iranian women, women in the U.S. fighting for our rights to reproductive autonomy, and women around the world. The bonobos show us that this strategy can be successful when we break down the divisions between women and create a truly united front.

Katz: You have a chapter intriguingly entitled “compliance sex.” Can you explain what that is, and how hot-button issues like porn and prostitution figure into your arguments?   

Rosenfeld: The term ‘compliance sex’ describes sex that is not affirmatively wanted but is assented to for a number of reasons that include fear, coercion and unequal power. It describes much sex that currently takes place in hookup culture. Naming it gives us a new way to talk about this gray area of unwanted sex. We are in a moment in time where “sex positivity” is colliding with an often-toxic hookup culture in unintended ways. Instead of participating in our porn-saturated sexual culture, the chapter provides readers with a critical distance to imagine a more pleasure-centric, mutually satisfying sexual paradigm. Bonobos offer us a model for female sexuality outside of patriarchy.

‘Compliance sex’ describes sex that is not affirmatively wanted but is assented to for a number of reasons that include fear, coercion and unequal power. … Bonobos offer us a model for female sexuality outside of patriarchy.

Abortion rights activists at the Women’s March on Oct. 8, 2022 in Los Angeles. (Sarah Morris / Getty Images)

Katz: You write that you explicitly invite men into the Bonobo Sisterhood. Can you elaborate on how men and people of all genders can be part of a movement that prioritizes coalitions among women?

Rosenfeld: Jackson, as you’ve pointed out so brilliantly in your decades of work, men and allies have such an essential role in stopping men’s violence. My work builds upon yours to let men know that stepping outside the harmful tropes of masculinity will be liberating and better for all. 

Katz: Ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs in June that reversed Roe v. Wade, the general public has gotten a glimpse into the ways in which legal theory helps to shape everyday life.

Among other notable features of that historic and deeply controversial decision, Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the conservative majority, invoked the deeply misogynous 17th century English jurist and legal theorist Matthew Hale.

You discuss some critical Supreme Court rulings that have served to maintain the patriarchal status quo and tragically failed to protect victims of gender violence. Can you say something about the Court’s role in either advancing or blocking progress in this area?

Rosenfeld: Sure. Even before Dobbs, the Supreme Court had quietly eviscerated democratic attempts led by women’s groups to challenge male sexual violence. Women have no right to be free from gender-motivated violence, even after that important federal civil right was enacted as part of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). An endangered woman has no right to enforcement of her order of protection despite a state law mandating police enforcement of these orders.

I think it’s fair to say that looking to the Supreme Court to protect women from patriarchal violence is barking up the wrong tree. Indeed, the Court’s toleration of such extreme forms of male sexual coercion is what led to my development of the term patriarchal violence.

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Jackson Katz, Ph.D., is internationally renowned for his pioneering scholarship and activism on issues of gender, race and violence. He is the creator and co-producer of the documentary The Man Card: White Male Identity Politics from Nixon to Trump, which is streaming free through the end of December 2022. Katz has long been a major figure and thought leader in the growing global movement of men working to promote gender equality and prevent gender violence. He is co-founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), one of the longest-running and most widely influential gender violence prevention programs in North America and beyond. He is the author of two acclaimed books and creator of the award-winning Tough Guise educational documentary series. His TEDx talk, "Violence Against Women Is a Men's Issue," has over 5 million total views.