The Sex Raft: Rethinking ‘One of the strangest group experiments of all time’

Doc by Marcus Lindeen revisits controversial social experiment

22 mins read

Marcus Lindeen’s latest documentary revisits a 1970s radical social experiment by way of a creative and revelatory re-enactment involving the surviving research participants. For 101 days in the summer of 1973, ten volunteer subjects and one principal researcher – Mexican-Spanish anthropologist Santiago Genovés – drifted by wind and current across the Atlantic in a 12 × 7 metre raft aptly named the Acali (an ancient Mexican word for ‘the house in the water’). Though Genovés officially presented the expedition as a “Peace Project”, this cloying epithet was misleading. Genovés’s longstanding research interests had revolved around the origins of aggression and violence. He was anticipating friction and conflict aboard the Acali, and indeed, as the voyage unfolded, he seemed increasingly determined to find it.

The inspiration behind the so-called “Acali Experiment” derived from two sources. Genovés had been an earlier participant on the Ra (1969) and Ra II (1970) expeditions, Thor Heyerdahl’s ethnohistorical attempts to prove that prehistoric civilizations could have crossed the Atlantic by means of papyrus-constructed boats. As a secondary goal, Heyerdahl had assembled a multinational seven-man crew to demonstrate how a disparate group could congenially live and work together under challenging conditions. Based on his firsthand experience aboard the Ra expeditions, however, Genovés was more intrigued with the incidents of friction that he had witnessed. Most of these, he believed, arose due to differences in personal characteristics and temperament. As formal behavioural studies of the men aboard the Ra expeditions had been limited, Genovés believed further studies of human behaviour under stressful conditions were justified.

It was an incident in November 1972 that definitively moved the Acali experiment forward. In circumstances that only Genovés would view as “too good to be true,” he was a passenger on a plane that was hijacked to Cuba. After observing how the behaviours of the other passengers differed dramatically during the hijacking versus afterwards, Genovés was now convinced that moments of crisis and serious danger were needed for individuals to reveal their authentic selves (as opposed to the roles they assumed in everyday life). With the claustrophobic and perilous nature of the Ra expeditions in mind, Genovés’s epiphany was that the perfect laboratory for his investigations would be a raft adrift at sea: isolated, inescapable and – unlike the Ra expeditions – unencumbered by other expeditionary objectives.

With financing provided by the Mexican government as well as a Mexican television station, Genovés traveled the world to personally interview and assemble his crew based on the following criteria:

“1. married and parents, or involved in a relationship — that is, people who had something to lose, who were not coming to find adventure or fame;

2. of a distinct nationality;
3. as a group, able to meet the requirements of the raft. That is, we needed one sea professional, a doctor, a radio operator, a frogman, a photographer, an expert in sea pollution, etc..”

In truth, the ‘requirements of the raft’ extended beyond utilitarian needs. Genovés was deliberately seeking individuals with dissimilar nationalities, religions and social backgrounds as well as with diverse political attitudes and beliefs. This resulted in his decision – and jarring stereotypes abound within his decision-making – to include such perceived adversaries as a white and a black American, as well as an Arab and an Israeli. In an effort to increase the likelihood of friction, Genovés had other tricks up his sleeve. Anticipating a relationship between sexual tension and violence, he deliberately recruited those women and men he had judged sexually attractive (unlike the all-male Ra expeditions). Genovés also ensured a priest was amongst the volunteers in his belief that an ecclesiastic presence might add a useful measure of guilty tension to any intimacies under consideration. The presence of females on board afforded Genovés another hypothesis: would having women in authority increase or decrease violence? Hence, Genovés’s decision to place women in the most powerful positions, most notably in the roles of sea captain, doctor, and diver. In the end, Genovés selected six women and four men, all previously strangers to each other, with an average age of 30. There were two Americans (one with boating experience; the other serving as the assistant radio operator), a Japanese cameraman, a Swedish ship’s captain, an Israeli doctor, an Arab librarian/student recently trained in pollution studies, a Uruguayan anthropologist/photographer, a British-Cypriot restauranteur/radio operator, a French scuba diver, and a celibate Angolan priest.

As for the design of the raft, it too was calculated to spur conflict. For one, it was small and there would be minimal opportunities for privacy. No reading material was allowed; the participants slept side by side, male alternating with female, in a tiny cabin with a low roof that precluded standing fully upright; the open-air toilet – a hole perched above the waves – was in full view of the others; substantial alcohol was on board and all meals were intended to be communal. More sensibly, the Acali was also designed by a marine engineer to be virtually unsinkable, likely due to Genovés experience aboard the Ra, which sank after 54 days in shark-infested waters.

Prior to departing from the Canary Islands, extensive medical, sociological, psychiatric, and psychological profiles were compiled for each participant. (It may be useful to keep in mind that the tests indicated Genovés was “authoritarian, intolerant, immature, infantile.”) These studies would provide baseline and predictive variables for the subsequent extensive data that was to be obtained on board the Acali and then again on the raft’s projected arrival in Cozumel, Mexico. Much of the data to be collected while at sea would be generated by way of the participants’ answers to 46 different questionnaires, many of these repeated at least weekly throughout the expedition, and some of which were devised en route. The most sensitive questions would gauge the shifting status of interpersonal relations and attitudes: “To whom do you feel the closest to and why?”, “Who annoys you the most on the raft?” There were less tactful versions of these enquiries as well: “With whom on the Acali have you had sexual contact?”, “If you could get rid of one of the others, who would it be?” Personal observations of the participants would also be encouraged and analyzed, including the 1042 pages that would be generated by Genovés alone. (Further details of the experiment’s methodology, along with the results and Genovése’s extensive observations, including those quoted within this review, can be found in Genovése’s book-length account titled The Acali Experiment: Five Men and Six Women on a Raft Across the Atlantic for 101 Days.)


Once the voyage was underway, the Acali attracted a great deal of media attention. To Genovés’s dismay, the Acali was almost immediately renamed ‘The Sex Raft’ by the international press, a lurid response to the scantily clad women and men on board. Even more disturbing to Genovés, however, was the actual scarcity of sex and confrontation that ensued. How could he offer a formula for peace in the absence of conflict and violence? By day 51, he had lost patience with the comfortable milieu on board. Genovés began to read out loud the supposedly confidential responses to the research questionnaires, sharing intimate relational attractions and annoyances, i.e. A liked B, but B found A annoying. He countenanced a ‘Truth Game’, which elicited verbal responses in a party-like atmosphere to such questions as “Are you in favour of generalized sexuality on the raft?” Despite these efforts and Genovés’ other acts of provocation (see below), the entire voyage tallied little sex (some furtive couplings) and virtually no acts of overt violence (there was an incident of what Genovés described as “crowd frenzy” that involved the bludgeoning of a small shark to death).

In the absence of the provocative data he was seeking, Genovés was left with some rather tepid and tentative conclusions. He would publish results suggesting that under the stressful raft conditions, there was less role-playing than in conventional life and that persons behaved more naturally. A source of conflict included the striving for power and position. In contrast, heterosexual intimacies did not significantly interfere with other interpersonal relationships within the group. Nor did the limited space or differences in language. Males and females were generally equally adaptable. Overall, “Frictions could neither be linked specifically to any postulated aggression instinct, nor to any particular biological stock.”

The more spicy results emerged from what Genovés considered the “Off the Raft” studies. These included ascertaining the public’s perception of the experiment based on the extensive media coverage. The short answer is that the Acali was largely thought of as the “sex raft,” a predictable conclusion given that 80 percent of news items referenced sexual conduct. Not surprisingly, this salacious impression about the experiment was shared by the closest relatives of the Acali volunteers when follow-up interviews were conducted.

More than 40 years later, Swedish filmmaker Marcus Lindeen has now re-examined the Acali experiment in an award-winning documentary titled The Raft. Two interweaving narratives – one historical, one contemporary – define the film. The conventional strand relies on 16mm film footage shot on board the raft. These archival clips provide an introduction to Genovés (who passed away in 2013) as well as a clear linear account of the voyage itself. An accompanying voiceover is largely drawn from Genovés’s diary of the journey and is effectively delivered by the actor Daniel Giménez Cacho. Cacho’s precise and impassioned diction adds an unexpected urgency and desperation to the scientific storyline. It is as if Genovés himself is talking in the first person to us. We learn of his hopes, dreams, and ultimately his disappointment and disillusionment as the voyage increasingly fails to incubate the aggression and violence he has predicted.

The innovative strand of the film is the contemporary re-enactment. Lindeen invited the surviving rafters –all six women and the only male still alive, Eisuke, the Japanese cameraman – to reunite in a film studio in Stockholm. There, now significantly older and frail, they gingerly board an exact, full-size wooden reconstruction of the Acali. As the participants cautiously re-engage with one another and reminisce, there are some touching moments. Intimacies are coyly referenced. We learn of Fé’s (the African American woman) previously unshared and moving account of having viscerally communed with her enslaved ancestors, their voices calling out to her from yesteryears’ slave ships.

The more disturbing memories centre upon Genovés’s behaviour. Referred to as a master manipulator and capable of Gestapo methods, we discover more of Genovés’s willful attempts to seed discontent. Beyond the incitements referred to above, there were insults, childish water-throwing incidents, and Fé’s perception of racial prejudice. Maria (the Swedish sea captain) hated Genovés with good reason. When the Acali entered the Caribbean, there were radio warnings of an approaching hurricane. On learning of Maria’s immediate intent to seek shelter, Genovés instigated a one-person mutiny and took control of the raft. It was science over safety, and confrontation with a dangerous hurricane was seemingly needed for the Acali experiment to evolve. Though the risk abated uneventfully, Maria ruefully recalls Genovés’s sedition as an act punishable by death (at least according to the law of the sea).

We then become privy to a series of confessions. After the hurricane incident, the others recognized Genovés was a serious threat to their safety. Serious discussions took place, beyond the fanciful, as to whether Genovés should be pushed overboard or lethally injected with the medications on board. These intrigues ended when Maria heroically re-emerged as captain during a frightening near-miss encounter with a large freighter. Deflated and defeated, Genovés withdrew from the others and thereafter the group flourished as a cohesive and cooperative unit. Eisuke concludes without irony that the decision not to kill Genovés was a significant collective accomplishment.

What is one now to make of the Acali experiment? While reviewing The Raft at the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wittily labelled it a cross between a reality TV pilot and the premise for an Agatha Christie thriller. Other critics use descriptors such as “weird,” “bizarre,” and “notorious.” It is one of the experiments listed in Reto Schneider’s The Mad Science Book. The ethical integrity of the experiment unquestionably merits attention. The following Canadian standards, as outlined in the most recent (2014) Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans, provides one useful template for analysis. This Policy outlines three core principles that ethically conducted research must adhere to, the first of which is ‘”Respect for Persons”. Applying this ethical principle in the conduct of research means a participant’s decision to partake in research must be voluntary, informed, ongoing and free from undue influence or coercion. The second core principle, “Concern for Welfare”, includes the maxim that researchers must consider any risks involved in any research study and make maximal efforts to identify, mitigate, and avoid any unnecessary exposure to risks. The third core principle, “Justice”, is about fairness. A key threat to Justice is the potential abuse of the inherent power imbalance between researcher and participant.

Upon consideration of the above principles, it’s now hard to know which contravention of ethical norms was most egregious. As one appalling example, Genovés acknowledged having continuous sexual interactions with at least one of the other participants. Yet, in a researcher-research subject relationship, the obvious power disparity precludes even (seemingly) consensual sexual relations, more so if a vulnerable participant is relying on the researcher for his or her physical safety. The list of other violations is extensive. There were alarming and consistent breaches of confidentiality and privacy. There was the lack of informed consent. Maria, for instance, participated despite refusing to sign what her boyfriend labelled the “slave contract,” an apparent reference to what served as the experiment’s consent form. As a final glaring example, there was the blatant disregard for participants’ physical and emotional well-being. Indeed, it’s clear that Genovés deliberately underplayed the extent of the risks involved. Numerous research studies are appropriately and abruptly stopped when previously calculated risks escalate or unexpected adverse effects occur. Yet Genovés welcomed such risks, most noticeably and recklessly when the Acali entered the Caribbean at the start of the hurricane season.

When challenged about the ethics of his undertaking before the experiment, Genovés was indignant and dismissive. “The most anti-ethical thing I know,“ he replied, “is the fact that a man dies every twenty seconds at the hand of another man in an act of violence. To discover and investigate these things, it is necessary to be more flexible concerning our concepts of what professional ethics are. The problem concerns our survival.”

Genovés was at least right about the enormity of the problem. The year was 1973 and the Vietnam War was still a lingering presence. There were the recent horrors of World War II, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb. Further understanding of the origins of violence would have been a meaningful contribution to a healthier sociopolitical landscape, as it would be today. By the end of the documentary, however, it’s obvious that the greatest source of tension on the Acali was not due to differences in race, gender, politics, religion, nationality, socioeconomic status or language – nor to boredom or sexual jealousies – but to Genovés himself. In the end, it was a problem of arrogant, deceptive and hubristic leadership. Hmm … the group flourished after its leader was disposed. Perhaps the Acali experiment has something important and highly relevant to teach us after all.

The author thanks Dr Jennifer Gibson for her helpful comments.

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