Violent experiment or the original Love Island? The 1970s “sex raft” where women were in power

A group of attractive strangers floated 5,000 miles to see if having female leaders would make for a more peaceful society.

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In May 1973, just after the collapse of the Paris Peace Accords, a Mexican anthropologist, Santiago Genovés, set out to create the perfect laboratory to study the human instinct for violence. This laboratory was a raft, 40 foot long and 24 foot wide. It would float the 5,000 miles from Las Palmas in the Canary Islands to the Mexican port of Cozumel, with a small but attractive cargo of humans.Would an isolated group of people on a raft co-operate to survive, or would they fight each other?” he asked.

He posted a "general vacancy" in the international newspapers, asking for young people, preferably married: the ad made clear they would be participating without their spouses, so hundreds wanted to go. Genovés selected six women from across the world to join him, and four men, including an Angolan priest, whom he hoped would add an element of guilt and shame to the sexual tension on board. They would sleep side by side, male next to female. But, while Genovés was sponsored by Mexican TV and tabloids the world over picked up on the story of his “sex raft”, he had higher designs than Love Island. He’d chosen women for all the principal roles – Edna, from Israel, was the ship’s doctor; Frenchwoman Servane was diver and maintenance girl; and Swedish Maria, the first woman in the world with a professional sea-captain’s degree, was the boat’s bikini’d boss. “Would having women in power lead to less violence, or would there be more?” he wondered. The UN wished them luck on their mission for world peace, and Genovés chose a bunk between the two hottest girls.

The story of the Acali (the vessel’s name) is told in a new film, The Raft, by Marcus Lindeen. There is footage of Genovés rotating a skull in his fingers, his first-person logbook voiced by an actor like a warped professor from Cannibal Holocaust. Forty-five years on, reflecting a general trend in humanity, only the women, and a Japanese man, are alive to discuss their experience (Genovés died in 2013). Warmly, they recall their relationships, while sitting in a mock-up boat. One signed up to escape an abusive husband. Another communed with her slave ancestors, feeling their voices vibrating through the waves. Of course, they didn’t speak of these things back when they were young and cool. “You should have told me,” they all say. “We knew so little about each other...”

To Genovés’s distress, there was no violence on his sex raft. There was sex, but it wasn’t very convenient: “If you were both on the watch at night, you could, but you had to be quick, and you had to use one hand for steering.” Genovés’s log spins drama from his drifting odyssey. The crew catch a shark, and he watches José Maria from Uruguay pass round its beating heart. “Crowd frenzy!” he records. “They are acting as part of a dangerous collective!” They weren’t.

Fifty days on and bored, Genovés spilled the contents of the 46 questionnaires he’d made his crew answer – the 1970s equivalent of playing the tapes from the Big Brother diary room. His stirring had little effect. A tropical storm approached – “a dangerous hurricane might be exactly what we need for the experiment to evolve!” – but it turned at the last minute.

He gave up, and languished in bed, while his crew, who’d weathered little more than the usual frustrations of group-living, partied in defiance.

I participated in many voluntary projects in my youth, hatching turtles in Mexico and digging ditches in Thailand. The small international crowds were festivals of accord, the broken English a language of pure sweetness. The only person who ever pissed anyone off was the leader.

From his bed, Genovés imagined a new raft, “big enough for just one person, lying down. And the bottom should be made of glass. So that I can drift across the ocean one more time, looking through into the depths of the water. Just by myself.” When he came into port, he pulled himself together and flipped his hypothesis. The experiment had been a success, he claimed. He’d found “a new kind of man – free from all fateful territorial ambitions, and all aggressive or sadistic impulses”. 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article appears in the 04 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, 2019: The big questions