This is a guest post from Vanessa Woods, author of the new book, Bonobo Handshake. Vanessa is a Research Scientist in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University and studies the cognition of chimpanzees and bonobos in Congo.
In the US, 600 women are sexually assaulted every day. One woman is beaten by her partner every 15 seconds. Despite education campaigns and law enforcement, and penalties, violence continues to threaten women throughout America. What can we do to make women safe?
I believe bonobos may have the answer. Once I saw Tatango, an unusually aggressive bonobo male, run up to Mimi, the alpha female, and backhand her across the face. He hit her so hard he almost gave her whiplash. Within seconds, five females in the group ran to Mimi’s rescue. They chased Tatango around the night building until he fled into the forest. When he continued his aggressive outbursts, those five females beat him so badly, they damn near ripped off his testicles. After that, Tatango never caused another problem.
One male is stronger than any one female. But no male is stronger than many females. As women, we tend to isolate ourselves. At the office, we backstab our female colleagues and women are mostly bullied by other women.
In this way, we are more like chimpanzees. Like us, chimpanzees are male dominated. Females don’t form strong friendships. They tend to spend a lot of time alone. And when the males reach adolescence, they start battering every female in the group. Like in humans, most of the beatings aren’t about doing a lot of damage, they are about asserting dominance and maintaining control.
Scientific research has already shown that women are more intimate and emotional in their friendships than men, they turn to female friends in times of stress, and our very biochemistry is set up to benefit by female bonding.
The true purpose of a sisterhood isn’t to have gossip buddies, a sewing circle, or a lunch gang. It is a powerful alliance that will protect and shelter you from the battering of work, life, and the occasional chimpanzee male.
As the Czech proverb goes, don’t protect yourself with a fence, but rather with your friends.