The Cure for Male Violence Against Women: Female Alliances

July 3, 2011

Muller and Wrangham (Eds.)

In the magazine American Scientist, Craig Stanford (2009) reviewed a book with a rather imposing, and also fascinating, title: Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans: an Evolutionary Perspective on Male Aggression Against Females. It is a collection of contributions by noted anthropologists and primatologists, edited by Martin M. Muller and Harvard professor Richard W. Wrangham (2009).

The book has chapters devoted to male behavior in a wide cross section of primates. All the contributions are given special credibility because they are written by noted experts in each field.

Rape of the Sabine Women

As Stanford points out, the entire volume, while being written in solidly academic terms, addresses a very hot social problem: is rape a crime of sex, or violence? Or is it actually part of a very broad male pattern to control women’s sexuality in general?

The book begins by clarifying the definition of sexual coercion. There is direct coercion…when a male uses force and intimidation to immediately perform a sexual act with a female. This is what we generally regard as “rape.”

But it becomes very clear that there is also indirect coercion, and this can take many forms. For example, when a female chimpanzee or baboon comes into reproductive condition (i.e., heat), many male primates, typically those of high status, “guard” the female against approach to or contact with any other males. Other males foolish enough to approach are driven off. Or if a female approaches and has sex with a male of her choosing and the dominant male discovers this, he may chase and bite her, a punishment for her straying behavior.

 The bottom line is that male primates not only coerce females directly, they use a variety of indirect behaviors to coerce the physically less powerful sex. Rape, it seems, is part of a general male concern with controlling female sexuality.

Males that may not rape may engage in other forms of coercion. In other words, socially coercive males are not just attempting to have sex with a particular female, they are trying to control female sexuality in general. (Anyone who follows the abortion debates, fights, and murders should hear the mental bong of a bell).

Now we come to a chapter I find especially fascinating. It is by Tommaso Paoli. Dr. Paoli studies that most unusual of primates, the bonobo. Bonobos are famous as the “peaceful” ape (a Google search will net you a number of books about them).

 They do not appear to engage in the “primitive warfare” that some of our equally close relatives, the chimpanzees, do. A gang of chimps (overwhelmingly males) will get together and go into the territory of a neighboring troop and kill any lone individual they encounter.

And when there is social stress or tension within a bonobo group, a common solution is to engage in sex to reduce it. The usual male/female sex we are used to, but they also engage in female/female sex, male/male sex, and even adult/young sex. Another name for them is the “sexy” ape. Moreover, males do not “guard” females, and inter-male aggression from fighting is rare compared to what happens between male chimpanzees.

Many others, including Dr. Wrangham (1996), have pointed out that female bonobos form very tight alliances. Bonobo female alliances, Paoli also confirms, are very strong. And here is the fascinating kicker. He offers his assessment that it is highly likely that these strong female alliances are what keep down the rates of aggression in bonobo society! Or as Stanford phrases it, low levels of male coercive behavior.

Strong female alliances! Anyone who reads my work is aware that as an evolutionary biologist I look for the roots of human behavior, its biological origins. We can learn much by studying the behavior of species both closely and distantly related to us. And there is little that is more enlightening to consider than the stark contrasts between chimpanzee and bonobo lives.

Chapters in this book are shared information about other male primates that can suggest insights into our own dilemmas with male sexual violence. They give us much to think about…and even much to act upon.

Long live female alliances! Let us strengthen them among the world’s women in order to help prevent so much violence in our social lives.

Muller M M & R W Wrangham. 2009. Sexual Coercion in Primates and  Humans: an Evolutionary Perspective on Male Aggression Against Females. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Stanford C. 2009. Review of Primates and Humans: an Evolutionary Perspective on Male Aggression Against Females. American Scientist 2009: 498-500.
Wrangham R W & D Peterson. 1996. Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. NY: Houghton Mifflin.

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