Monday, October 24, 2011

The Bonobo Sisterhood or How to Deal with Jerks


My friend Roberta Sachs told me some time ago about the Bonobo Sisterhood, a concept she learned from Diane Rosenfeld, a researcher and professor at Harvard.  I have been thinking about it ever since. 

Bonobos are a type of primate who are very closely related to the chimpanzees.  Rather than being patriarchal, though, like the chimps, theirs is a matriarchal  society, and they have very, very little reported, observed violence, unlike chimps, who will kill males from other groups, unprovoked, simply to defend their territory.

What Roberta told me that has stuck with me is the way the Bonobos deal with male violence and aggression - if a male bonobo starts messing with a female, she will call and scream for the other females.  They will come and surround the male and fuss at him and let him know in no uncertain terms that his behavior was totally uncool.  I have not been able to find any documentation to back up this information, but that is almost irrelevant to me - I have decided to adopt that technique as my own and to give the bonobos credit for it!  Why not?

Here's how I've used the technique a couple of times lately:

When I was at an art opening several months ago, I went up to speak with a friend who was speaking with a male acquaintance I've known for about 20 years but had only spoken with 2-3 times previously.  He, let's call him Johnny, came up to me, heavily put his thick and husky forearms on my shoulders and said, "Hey, babe, let's go out in the alley and make love."  My friend laughed and said, "Oh, Johnny!"  I told him, "I don't think my husband would like that at all."  He said we could send my husband up on ladders to fix the downed power lines (it was around the time of a hurricane).  I told him no thanks.  My friend and I laughed uncomfortably and made light of it all then went on talking, the three of us, about innocuous things like the hurricane and downed power lines, but all the while I was disgusted by the way Johnny spoke to me.

The next day I decided to do something about it because it really pissed me off.  And besides, I was thinking about those female Bonobos.  I wrote Johnny an email which said,
Dear Johnny,
I don't know if you remember our interaction at [the art opening] the other night or not.  I came over to speak to you and [my friend], and you put your arms heavily on my shoulders and said, "Let's go outside in the alley and make love."  I laughed uncomfortably, trying to let the remark pass, and said, "I don't think my husband would like that." to which you replied "We'll send him to put up power lines."

Johnny, I want to let you know that your comment made me feel very uncomfortable.  Your arms on my shoulders were also unwelcome.  In the future, I would like you to please refrain from such behavior and such comments in my presence.  I do not welcome them at all.  They are not flirtatious.  They are not cute or funny.  They make me feel uncomfortable.

Thank you for your kind regard in this matter.

Susan Singer

I could feel my adrenaline pulsing through me as I wrote the note and couldn't decide whether I had the courage to send it or not - until I thought about cc'ing my friend who was also there.  Doing that made it something Johnny couldn't ignore because my friend was involved also.  I wrote my friend an additional note to explain what I'd done and why.  She was cool with it because she'd known this man a long time and had experienced his unwelcome attentions herself and had seen him behave similarly to many other people.

To his credit, a few days later Johnny wrote me a brief note of apology.  Then, even more to his credit, when I saw him a week or so later, he didn't mention my note at all - that was fine with me - it would have been very awkward if he had - but he was friendly and appropriate.  It was a giant relief.  I felt elated that I had written him, told him that his behavior was NOT OK with me, and had caused a change in his behavior towards me.

I am thankful for my friend's willingness to participate with me and for Johnny's ability to take "coaching."  I think it can be scary to tell people what I don't like, but, man, it sure is empowering, especially when they change their behavior!

A few days later I had a second opportunity to use the Bonobo sisterhood.  A friend of mine had written something on Facebook about ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, taking a bath.  Someone who had friended us both, but whom neither of us knew personally (we'd only friended him because he was friends with someone else we knew), wrote a comment which made my friend, Betsy, uncomfortable, along the lines of my painting her with just her bubbles on.  That could be a cute comment - maybe - if you knew the person and your relationship was flirtatious anyway, but for a total stranger to say it felt icky to Betsy.  She deleted his comment and wrote to ask me about it and the person who'd written it.  I told her I didn't know him and had gotten some uncomfortable vibes from him too.  We decided to work together on it.  She wrote to tell him that she'd deleted his comment because it had made her feel uncomfortable, and I wrote him a lengthier note to ask him to please run his comments to me or about my posts through a strong PC (politically correct) filter before posting.  I cc'd Betsy on the note.  He responded saying he wouldn't say anything ever again.  I told him I wasn't asking him to do that - I just was asking him to please be more aware of what he said and to try to make sure what he was saying was appropriate.  Since that time, he has been a gentleman in responding to my posts.  Another friend, who friended him because she saw he was a friend of mine, asked me if he was weird or was OK, and I told her the story - I have a feeling there's something a bit off about him, but all I know for sure is that asking him to be more appropriate worked, and I think one reason it did is, again, because I did it with my friend Betsy's knowing about it - and the man knew she knew.  It's much more difficult to ignore two "crazy broads" than one isolated one.

Have you had any experiences of Bonobo Sisterhood?  I encourage you to give it a try the next time someone does or says something which makes you feel yucky.  Call out your sisters and take the confused jerk to task and ask for better behavior the next time.  The world might become a much nicer place if we do!  (And I hope you'll post your experiences here so we can all cheer for you when it happens!  And if you need some Bonobo sisters, I'll certainly be happy to be your witness!)