'The Raft': The true story behind one of the strangest social experiments of all time which had sex, aggression and mutiny

In 1973, a Mexican anthropologist called Santiago Genoves decided to test out a hypothesis on the connection between violence and sexuality


                            'The Raft': The true story behind one of the strangest social experiments of all time which had sex, aggression and mutiny

In 1973, Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genoves decided to test out a hypothesis that was really bugging him. He wanted to know what drove people to become violent and if it was related to sexuality in any way. To test this theory, he started researching the behavior of monkeys and focused especially on the connection between violence and sexuality in their troops.

Genoves soon noted: "Most conflicts are about sexual access to ovulating females." This startling discovery made the anthropologist think about what the result would be for humans. Thus, The Acali Experiment was born.

Genoves asked a British boat builder for help and together they came up with a 12x7-meter raft that was named The Acali.

It was on this boat that Genoves planned to sail from the Canary Islands to Mexico with 10 people who were considered to be sexually attractive. The experiment is now the subject of a documentary by Swedish filmmaker Marcus Lindeen titled 'The Raft'. The documentary seamlessly merges video footage from the actual experiment in the '70s to the studio with the replica of the boat where surviving members had a reunion and reflected on their crazy experience.

(Source: IMDb)
(Source: IMDb)

Genoves loved extreme rafting and was a member of a multinational crew on Thor Heyerdahl's two Ra expeditions where they sailed reed rafts across the Atlantic. The Norwegian adventurer wanted to show the world that people of different races could cooperate efficiently and they proved that the ancient Egyptians could have used rafts made of reed to cross the ocean to the other side.

The young Spanish anthropologist, however, had much bigger plans when it came to an epic voyage. His aim was to cure world violence. It was for this purpose that he placed ads in various international newspapers and chose a crew of strangers who all came from various races.

This was so that he could prove that everyone can work together on a task such as sailing across the ocean in a small raft. The crew consisted of five men and six women including a Japanese photographer, an Angolan priest, a French scuba diver, a Swedish ship captain, an Israeli doctor and an Alaskan waitress who was on the run from her abusive husband. Genoves had initially named the boat The Peace Project, but it soon became known in the news as The Sex Raft.

Was The Peace Project a failure? Fé, one of the surviving crew members, argues it was a great success, even though the anthropologist couldn’t see it: "He was so focused on the violence and conflict, but he had it right in his hands. We started out as them and us and we became us."

For Lindeen, it’s poignant that Fé praises the experiment.

The Acali with her crew on the 101-day journey across the Atlantic (Source: IMDb)
The Acali with her crew on the 101-day journey across the Atlantic (Source: IMDb)

To make sure that conflict would happen on board the vessel, Genoves took away almost all opportunities for privacy. His "test subjects" were also not given anything to read and when they wanted to use the toilet, they would have to sit on a hole that was in full view of the rest of the crew.

Sex was also quite tricky because you either did it in front of everyone or waited for night to fall. Even in this situation, it was difficult because there were always two people on duty aboard the raft, one who was the lookout and the other who steered.

The boat did not have any engines and was due to sail to the Caribbean just when hurricane season was to begin. Genoves put the women in charge and the raft was captained by Maria Bjornstam and Edna Reves was the doctor on board. He wrote in his 1980 book 'The Acali Experiment': "I wonder if having women in power will lead to less violence or more. Maybe men will become more frustrated when women are in charge, and try to take over power."

The crew sitting down for a meal (Source: IMDb)
The crew sitting down for a meal (Source: IMDb)

Genoves kept a detailed note of the experiment which consisted of questionnaires and spreadsheets that matched the rise in aggression and sexual activity with the phases of the moon and wave height. This was all done in an effort to cure world violence.

Not everything in the experiment was smooth sailing and it turned out that Genoves was the one who caused all the problems on the boat. The 10 people who signed up for the project realized that the anthropologist was going to sabotage the mission and ended up overthrowing him after he mutinied and took control of the raft from Maria.

At one point the members even considered murdering Genoves. One of the surviving members says in the documentary that everyone planned to put their hands on a knife and "plunge it into him so everybody was guilty. We would wrap him in a sheet, carry him over the railing and drop him."

The surviving members of the Acali Experiment (Source: IMDb)
The surviving members of the Acali Experiment (Source: IMDb)

After he was overthrown by the crew, Genoves is said to have spiraled into depression and this was made worse by news spreading on the radio that his university, the University of Cambridge, did not want to be associated with a sex raft.

The scientist lay below deck crying to himself for the first time since his childhood and that's when he had a brilliant thought which he wrote down. It read: "Only one has shown any kind of aggression and that is me, a man trying to control everyone else, including himself."

Just as Genoves had his epiphany in the '80s aboard The Acali, the documentary's director Lindeen also had a moment when he was making the film. He said: "I was raising the money, making a full-size model of the raft, getting the crew back together, all the filming, a year editing the film – a really crazy project. It was painful to realize this, but I see something of myself in him. He was a master of manipulation, a control freak, and a dictator. I am like him more than I want to admit."

'The Raft' will release in theaters across the UK on January 18.