A Ms. conversation with legal scholar Diane Rosenfeld and activist Ashley Judd reveals what some of our closest relatives can teach us about preventing sexual violence.
Among Homo sapiens’ closest evolutionary cousins are primates called the bonobos. Inhabitants of the Congo Basin, these endangered great apes have a unique social order in which females protect one another from male aggression. As a result, male bonobos exhibit very little sexual aggression toward females.
Inspired by learning this about the bonobos, Harvard Law School’s Diane L. Rosenfeld has published a new book, The Bonobo Sisterhood: Revolution Through Female Alliance, in which she argues that women can protect one another from male sexual aggression by breaking down barriers among themselves and unleashing their power as a unified force.
Rosenfeld served as the first senior counsel in the Office on Violence Against Women at the U.S. Department of Justice in the 1990s. She has taught at Harvard Law School since 2004 and is the founding director of its Gender Violence Program. During the Obama administration in 2011, Rosenfeld helped inspire the Department of Education to declare that Title IX requires universities and colleges to address sexual violence on campus, leading to hundreds of investigations across the country. But she argues that patriarchal law will never end sexual violence, and that women need to come together to make the cultural change necessary to stop male sexual aggression.
Actor and activist Ashley Judd wrote the foreword to The Bonobo Sisterhood. Judd met Rosenfeld when she was a student at Harvard’s Kennedy School in 2010. A longtime advocate for gender equality and the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls, Judd was one of the first women to speak publicly against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein (convicted of sexual assault in 2020 and rape in 2022), helping to propel the #MeToo movement.
Ms. spoke with Rosenfeld and Judd, who is currently on set for her latest film, about the former’s new book and the pair’s hopes for the future.
This interview has been edited for publication.
Carrie Baker: Throughout your career, you have worked to use laws to end male sexual violence, but in this book you look outside of the law for solutions to men’s violence toward women. Why?
Diane Rosenfeld: By the time I learned about the bonobos and their unique social order among primates, I had become quite disillusioned with the law’s potential to stop sexual violence. In the United States, women have no right to challenge male sexual violence at the highest level of the law: the Supreme Court. Two decisions combine to produce this. In U.S. v. Morrison (2000), the Court struck down the federal civil right to sue perpetrators of gender-based violence in federal court. [Before the decision] that was part of the Violence Against Women Act. Five years later, the Court in Castle Rock v. Gonzales struck down an endangered woman’s right to the enforcement of her order of protection in a state [Colorado] that had a specific statute mandating such enforcement.
At issue in the two cases were gang rape and domestic violence homicide, respectively. These two types of extreme male sexual violence are uniquely human and have no precedent in primates. These are forms of patriarchal violence, which I define as “the prevalence and variation of male sexual coercion necessary to maintain a patriarchal social order.”
The cases also demonstrate the limitations of patriarchal democracy. Women’s groups acted as “good girls,” dutifully going to their legislators to gain recognition of their rights. Yet in both cases, these democratically achieved laws were struck down, leaving women at square one in what I term the “good girl trap of patriarchal democracy.” In this sense, patriarchal democracy is an oxymoron.
This book highlights the importance of recognizing that we live in a patriarchal social order that is by design meant to keep women subordinate and keep men supreme. So we’re not going to win within this legal system. The law will not come to our aid. I know that that’s an unusual thing for a law professor to say, but I have little hope for the law as a result of the Morrison, Castle Rock and Dobbs decisions stripping us of critical human rights.
I had become quite disillusioned with the law’s potential to stop sexual violence.Diane Rosenfeld
Baker: Tell me a bit about bonobos. Ashley, you’ve been visiting the bonobos in the Congo since 2008. What are they like?
Ashley Judd: What are they like? Oh, where do I start? They are matriarchal. They are egalitarian. They are undergirded by gregarious female coalitions. They are mirthful. They play. They share valuable resources. They are free from male sexual violence and coercion. There are no recorded examples of homicide or infanticide. They show that male dominance is not evolutionarily inevitable. They give me hope.
Rosenfeld: I learned about bonobos many years ago from Richard Wrangham, an anthropologist at Harvard. While most male primates use sexual coercion to control females as reproductive resources, bonobos are completely different.
Baker: Can you describe what happens when a male bonobo tries to sexually coerce a female?
Judd: Well, he never tries. So this is what happens: A female is sitting on a branch. She’s observing her world. She’s lost in introspection. She’s scratching herself. A limb is dangling akimbo, and a male decides he may want to solicit her. She watches him approach. She considers her answer. If she decides she is interested in copulating with him, she does, and if she decides she isn’t, she signals to him that her answer is no. And he ambles away. No cost. No retaliation. Females have choice in their copulations and total autonomy.
Rosenfeld: If a bonobo female is aggressed upon by a male, she lets out a special cry, and all the other females within earshot will immediately come to her aid—whether they know her, like her or are related to her. They instantaneously form a coalition to fend off the male. Sometimes they bite his ear or send him into isolation. Then he’s reintroduced into the troop after a couple of days or a couple of weeks depending on circumstances. Then they all make up and share food, and he’s learned his lesson.
Baker: What lesson do you think bonobos can teach women?
Rosenfeld: Bonobos teach us that we have the power to thwart male sexual aggression through collective self-defense. The bonobos seem to act on what I call the “bonobo principle,” which has two parts.
First: No one has the right to pimp my sister. By “pimp” I mean exploit, abuse, gaslight, coerce, assault, et cetera.
Second: Everybody is my sister. When we act on the bonobo principle, we reject the artificial divisions imposed on us in a patriarchy. Tuning your ear to the bonobo call and standing up for women is what’s going to change the whole game. We need to envision a system where women form alliances with one another instantly, without question, coming to one another’s aid whether we like, know or are related to one another. When a potential abuser knows that he’s going to face a troop of allied females, it will affect his behavior. Right now in a patriarchal calculus, it’s an isolated woman easily overcome by a male who has male alliances that control the social order and the social capital and resources.
If she decides she is interested in copulating with him, she does, and if she decides she isn’t, she signals to him that her answer is no. And he ambles away. No cost. No retaliation. Females have choice in their copulations and total autonomy.Ashley Judd
Baker: In your book, you argue that men have counted on their ability to pit women against one another to prevent them from rising up against the illegitimacy of patriarchy. How do we overcome these patriarchally constructed divisions among women?
Rosenfeld: Women and girls are socialized to depend on males for protection and to compete against one another for this protection. But the fallacy of this protection racket is that what we need protection from is other men! When we delegate our self-protection to men, we give them the power to decide who among us is worth protecting. As a result, men get to define us in terms of their sexual access to us. If you’re protected, you’re a “good girl,” and if not, you’re a “ho.”
I defy those categories. We are all worth protecting. We all have selves that are worthy of bodily integrity and sexual autonomy. The bonobo principle cuts across all race, class, gender and identity lines—[the bonobo females] simply respond. This is a critical lesson for humans.
Baker: So many women are trained to not confront men, to be fearful of men and to not stand up for each other. How do we change that?
Judd: I think the bonobos are a model. Bonobos help each other whether or not they’re related, whether or not they know each other and whether or not they like each other.
In interpersonal relationships with women where we mentor each other across generations and in closer age groups, we need to practice.
I have a niece who, when she was 14, started to work at Chick-fil-A. I thought, oh my goodness, the sexual harassment that is going to be heaped upon her. You know, “Can I have a milkshake and something else …?” I taught her to say right away, “Thank you for your order, and your comment is inappropriate and unwelcome.”
It’s what I needed growing up. It’s what my godmother did for me. It’s how I’m emotionally wired. If younger women invite me into their lives, especially women who are acting, I’m there, whether it’s about leadership on set, asking for things, saying, “Where’s our per diem?” or “We need another heater” or needing more emotional support when we’re acting. It’s about our autonomy and physical safety. I just show up. Because that’s what women do. It’s what Gloria [Steinem] has done for me all along.
Baker: There’s a chapter in the book called “A Self Worth Defending,” in which you advocate for collective self-defense. What do you mean by that?
Rosenfeld: Taking a bonobo-inspired self-worth defending course can be transformative, and I encourage all my readers to learn self-defense. Once you learn in your body that you have the ability to thwart sexual aggression, it enables you to see yourself as someone who can come to the aid of your sisters. A collective self-defense is necessary to counter the macro level of patriarchal oppression. We can do it, starting one person at a time.
Baker: Ashley, I hear you’re an avid martial arts practitioner. Why do you believe it is so important for women to learn self-defense?
Judd: Diane quotes Gloria [Steinem], who says, “The best thing about self-defense is knowing there is a self worth defending.”
This is what I have done myself so that I’m fully trained. I’m in my body. So that in the moment of being aggressed upon, I’m aware and capable of responding full-throatedly to behavior that’s inappropriate and unwelcome. I can say, “Back off,” “Fuck off,” “Get out of my face,” “You’re too close”—whatever it is I need to say so that when that moment arrives, which inevitably and invariably it does, I have fully prepared at my disposal the reserves, the resources, the energy, the vocabulary to marshal instantaneously. I think that that’s part of what Diane is suggesting becomes possible when we take those classes.
Baker: In the book, you argue that the Equal Rights Amendment would be an important tool for fighting patriarchal violence. Could the ERA be the basis for revived attempts to address patriarchal violence?
Rosenfeld: Yes. I absolutely support the ERA; it is the strongest legal action we can take to promote sex equality in our current system. If the ERA were recognized as the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, it would be much harder to strike it down, and then it could be the basis for the legal recognition of human rights that would lead to our thriving.
What happens if we start from the premise that all women are created equal? One way is to think about equality among and between women instead of viewing sex equality as a question of how women are equal to men’s status. Every woman can take an inventory of her own privileges and resources and then start to share them with other women. We have enough food in this country to feed everyone two times over every single day. We can protect one another’s children. We can invent a new system of valuing our resources that do not count in a capitalist system.
I think we’ve only begun to envision laws that could reflect a proactive approach to sexual violence that actually would prevent it. Some areas of legal reform that I think are worth pursuing in addition to the ERA would be entitling us to self-defense when we need it and authorizing collective self-defense. Also, evidentiary laws that are not based on patriarchal ideas of what rape is and what’s relevant to it.
There are certainly legal things to do, and the ERA is one of them, but we’ve been overreliant on legal solutions. This book is about bringing attention to other ways in which we should be working in addition to the legal system. And that starts with creating a bonobo sisterhood.
Baker: How do we create a bonobo sisterhood?
Rosenfeld: Start with adopting the bonobo principle and let it animate your behavior. No one harms your sister; everyone is your sister. Then think about how to break down barriers between women by confronting how much time we spend judging ourselves, and how much we are socialized to judge ourselves and one another. Instead of judging another woman for what she’s wearing, for example, replace the thought with a more generous one, such as “That might not be my fashion choice, but she has the right to wear whatever she wants.” Self-esteem is such an important component of all of this because men use the corrosion of self-esteem as a tool to keep their partners subordinated and under their control.
I’m in the process of creating the Bonobo Sisterhood Alliance to lift up each other’s work, provide resources and have a place to go to share stories and ideas. I’m also creating a Pro Bonobo Legal Action Network with my students through the years who are now working at law firms.
I hope this book inspires women to immediately create bonobo sisterhood communities starting with five people they know, then seeking out a bonobo sisterhood self-worth-defending class and getting trained in self-defense.
Baker: Is there a role for men in a bonobo sisterhood?
Rosenfeld: Absolutely. One of my students described it as a movement led by women and joined by men. The frame of patriarchal violence helps us see how gender policing harms everyone in particular ways by inscribing gender through coercion and violence. A critique of patriarchy is not the same as a critique of men. Men are absolutely harmed in horrible ways in a patriarchy, and this book is a call for everyone to disclaim patriarchy and to recognize its harm.
Baker: Do you see the #MeToo movement as an example of bonobo sisterhood?
Judd: I do. Tarana Burke talks about empowerment through empathy. Bonobos help each other. The cri de coeur of #MeToo and the shared understanding through identification very much parallels bonobos’ shared understanding that an endangerment to one is a threat to all.
Rosenfeld: I see the bonobo sisterhood as a vehicle to transform the powerful force of survivor connection of the #MeToo movement into action through a collective self-defense. Ashley has been so inspirational as a leader in all aspects of this work. It’s breathtaking!
Baker: Are you optimistic for the future?
Rosenfeld: I am. The ways in which younger folks are questioning and redefining gender exposes patriarchal harms to everyone and speaks to the need for a new way. The bonobo sisterhood offers a new frame of social relations. Everything about bonobos gives me hope. They share food. They protect each other. They protect each other’s children.
Evolutionarily, they have eliminated male sexual coercion. In their social order, an infant will outrank an adult male, and male association patterns are heavily influenced by their relationship with their mothers.
And bonobos are closely related to humans: We share 98.7 percent of our DNA with bonobos. Bonobos offer us these different, compelling, attractive ideas. They show us that patriarchal violence is not inevitable.
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Ms. magazine. Join the Ms. community today and you’ll get the Summer issue delivered straight to your mailbox.
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