Why Anthropology Matters: Part Two

There has been a definite resurgence of feminism of late. Most media outlets now feature feminist issues with a degree of prominence and seriousness that quite possibly has never been seen or felt before. What strain of feminism you subscribe to depends largely on each individual personal disposition and experience. There are those who lean-to the more militant variety, for want of a better word, who see all men and quite a number of women as the enemy, while at the other end of the spectrum are those who are perhaps a little more lenient with regard to the other sex and may even welcome the support of men in overcoming gender prejudice. As can be expected there is much dogma in support of and in opposition to every shade of feminism, both of which are used by feminists against feminists, as-well-as by those who would attack the “movement” as a whole, which goes a long way to explaining why genuine change has been so elusive.

It is possible that things could very different though. If more people knew about what is, quite possibly, the most powerful of all feminist arguments, which was developed, ironically, by a male anthropologist. Employing both social and physical anthropology in his book Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture, Chris Knight suggests that the creation of culture was the product of a social revolution by our female ancestors.

It is most likely that our early ancestors had developed a social system akin to those found in high order primates, such as chimpanzees; the harem system allowed the most dominant alpha male to jealously monopolize sexual access to ovulating females. Given that only a few females with a group would be ovulating at anyone time, this was a relatively straightforward task, he could with a high degree of confidence ensure that any offspring produced in the group were his; that this suits the dominant male is obvious, it is, however, not so good news if you were a subordinate male or especially if you were female. The development of our large brains meant that certain physical concessions had to be made: in order for females to give birth our brain must develop after birth. The result of this is that our offspring are far more dependent on their parents than those of other animals. This put our female ancestors under huge pressures – it is virtually impossible to forage for food and carry a baby at the same time. The only way for both mother and offspring to survive was an increased investment from a male. It was paramount that the alpha male system be smashed; to achieve this our female ancestors employed landscape-wide solidarity, at the centre of which was a revolutionary strategy, what Knight terms: the sex strike.

As a result of living in close physical proximity female reproductive cycles synchronized, this enabled them to deny dominant males the chance to guard and mate with females as they began to ovulate, he simply could not mate with all of them at once. This strategy, therefore, did not only benefit females but also the subordinate males, as they were now afforded the opportunity to procreate with the unguarded females, so it was in their interest to cooperate with the females, to support the sex strike. Initially this would have all relied entirely on actual physiological signals: real menstrual blood. However, Camilla Power, a colleague of Knight’s, has extended the theory. She realized that women did not always need to physically synchronize their cycles or display real blood. Once the groundwork had been laid, once that the signal was recognizable and the system accepted, women could fake menstruation using red ochre and elaborate symbolic display to state their intentions, displays that showed that while they bled, or pretended to bleed, they were also not human and male. The act of “becoming” another species and another sex only serves to make the messages even more unambiguous. There could be no mixed signals, no mistake in what is being asserted: an emphatic NO!

We can glimpse what may be recordings of this type of ritual action. Cave paintings in various sites in southern Africa show female figures with penises and horns; while samples of red ochre suggest an explosion in its use dated to between 100,000 and 120,000 thousand years ago. This combined with detailed analysis of female initiation rituals amongst various traditional African societies (the Khoisan for example), many of which feature neophytes dancing as if they were the male Eland (a large antelope), while the other women of the camp move as if mating with her. It is most improbable that this striking similarity is coincidental – there are far too many examples of rituals at the time of puberty which link menstrual taboos and hunting for that to be the case.

Having broken the shackles of the alpha males’ system of domination the females had to ensure that the males would stick around and provide the food that both they and their children needed. It was vital that they continue to act collectively: in doing so they could force the males to hunt and bring home the precious spoils. In playing their part males had to police their own and each others behavior through what can be seen as peer group pressure. Thus any infringement of the new social rules by any male, especially in relation to the food they were responsible for supplying and/or the temptation of illicit sexual relationships, would result in the sex strike being reinstated – in short if one male were to break the rules all males are punished. What is perhaps most important here, is that it was in the majority of male’s interest to support the action of the females; for in doing so they greatly improved their chances of mating, thus improving their own reproductive fitness. The crucial point of this theory is that society benefits when females are in full control of their bodies.

This may sound farfetched but in 2009, during a period of political instability, various Kenyan women’s organization organized a sex strike to force a resolution to the troublesome situation (Even prostitutes were offered financial compensation to join in). While the sex strikes’ impact has not been scientifically examined, Kenya did have a stable government after one week of the strike. There was also a call for a sex strike in Belgium, in 2011, after no stable government could be formed.

Perhaps if the work by Knight and Power was more well-known, or, dare I say it taught as part of a compulsory anthropology course in British schools, we may begin to see, not only genuinely empowered young women but also young men who could, and I’m sure would, act in solidarity with them. Why? because it would be in their interest to do so. Rather than today’s sham “left wing”, with its fragmented self-interest groups and divisive identity politics, there would be a united front of groups who realize that they have more in common with each other than many in their ranks would think or care to admit too, if only they could see past the dogma. First and foremost it would be clear that they are all the subject of social repression largely by the same groups. With this realization and the creation of a true, critically thinking – rather than purely reactionary – opposition, perhaps there would be a genuine chance for real and meaningful social change that benefits the many, not the few.

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