Sexuality



 



There is no credible evidence that the members, as a whole, of any Island society differed genetically from those of any other with respect to the intensity, time span, and other details of their sexual drives. Yet, there is no domain of behavior encompassing wider differences, from society to society, in the cultural ways those drives were manifested. Some of those differences may have resulted, more or less directly, from environmental factors (such as endemic debilitating diseases or low-density population), but most were consequent upon cultural causes too indirect or remote in.

One aspect of those differences has to do with a people's consensual attitude toward sexual activity. At one extreme were societies such as Tahiti, most of whose sexually potent members copulated frequently, pleasurably, and almost openly, a penchant reflected in their everyday conversation, their public entertainments, and their myths. At the other extreme were the Mae Enga of the New Guinea Highlands. Among these diligent farmers and fierce fighters, sexual intercourse was generally considered to be debilitating and magically dangerous, especially for males, whose fear of the pollutive effects of menstrual blood approached paranoia. Reflecting that attitude (whether as cause or consequence is not now traceable), Mae Enga bachelors always, and the married men usually, slept together in male-only houses located at some distance from the household buildings where their wives and children or sisters slept. Another negative attitude toward sex was exemplified by the trade-oriented Manus people of Great Admiralty Island (north of New Guinea), but there the basis was not men's fear of menstrual pollution but a universal sense of shame, even disgust, toward most kinds of anal and genital excretion: fecal, urinal, menstrual, and sexual. Along with this society-wide prudery there were stern penalties, both social and supernatural, against adultery, and (according to their ethnographer, Margaret Mead) even conjugal intercourse was considered to be ". . . something bad, inherently shameful, something to be relegated to the darkness of the night"

A random sampling of other Islanders' attitudes toward sex would place most peoples somewhat nearer the positive, Tahiti-like extreme. For example, in the case of those I know best (i.e., the Siuai of Bougainville), although stria segregation was preserved between sexually active males and females in, most nondomestic activities, sex was generally regarded as pleasurable and was relatively free of religiously inspired fears. And although some social sanctions prevailed there against extramarital fornication, they were not very severe and not very effective.

But however negative their attitudes may have been toward sex, some members of every Island society did, at least occasionally, engage in sexual intercourse! The question is how, where, whereby, and with whom, did they do so? (In terms of a people's continuity this question is surely just as relevant as, for example, what they ate.) First, how?

What mostly distinguished Islanders (i.e., from Europeans) in this domain of behavior was how few of them engaged, as the standard practice, in what some of them have labeled the "missionary" position of intercourse: namely, the female underneath and facing the man lying on top. Much more common in many Island societies was for the couple to face one another in sitting positions (Fig. 3.4); or, in others, for the male to kneel between the female's outstretched legs; or in still others, for

them to lie facing together side by side; and in many, many societies, to lie side by side with the female's back against the man's front when wishing to escape notice by nearby sleepers. Similarly, Island peoples differed widely with respect to the amount and standardized kind of coital foreplay, from none at all to lengthy and elaborate rituals involving every erogenous area.

No less did Island cultures differ in their rules about when an individual's sex life should begin. In some places boys or both boys and girls were allowed, even encouraged, to begin at least to play at coitus during childhood; in others girls were shielded from it until well after puberty; in still others (such as some in the New Guinea Highlands) males commenced sexual activity, and that fearfully, long after the appearance of signs of puberty. Just as widely different were conventions regarding the termination of sexual activity. In some societies it was considered appropriate and seemly only among the relatively young; in others it was a matter of boastful pride to continue having sex as long as possible.

Island cultures also contained rules concerning when an individual's sexual activities should be curtailed. For example, in most societies of Melanesia and Micronesia women had to forgo copulation during their menstrual periods; in fact, in many of them they were required at such times to reside in separate and secluded huts, either alone or in company with other menstruating women. Also, conventions obtained in most Island societies about how long after parturition a woman should refrain from sex. In some places it was only a few days, until she healed; in many others it lasted until after the child was weaned, for periods of up to 3 or

The restrictions just listed usually applied only to women; their husbands had to remain continent only if they were monogamous and were unable to engage in extramarital affairs. Restrictions on men's sexual activities were of other kinds (e.g., in some societies during their participation in religious activities or before going into battle or setting out on deep-sea fishing).

We turn now to the whereby of sexual intercourse (i.e., by what signs and other means Islanders sought to attract sexual partners). Unlike Europeans, males showed little or no sexual interest in women's breasts, which nearly everywhere were left uncovered. On the other hand the vagina was everywhere a powerful erotic sign; even in societies where women wore no garments they took pains to conceal it by holding their legs together when seated or lying down. In contrast, in only a few societies did males attempt, unequivocally, to conceal their genitals; in penis sheaths, seemed rather to emphasize than to hide.

Other signs deemed erotic by this or that Island people included head hair (in some places left bushy and long, in others cut short), face hair (in some places left to grow, in others plucked clean), and obesity (which was assiduously nurtured in some Polynesian societies). Tatoo (a Polynesian word); cicatrization; artificially molded heads; and pierced ear lobes, nasal septums, or nasal tips also served here or there as erotic signs, but such operations were usually performed for other purposes as well. And to all the above should be added the special garments, flowers, feathers, leaves, oils, and pigments that were worn in this or that society for erotic enhancement.

Actions also served Islanders as erotic signs: not hand-holding, however, which usually signified only friendship, between males and between females; and not lip-to-lip kissing, which came to be regarded as a disgusting European practice. Instead, Islanders expressed their desire for sexual relations by means of surreptitious gestures, stealthy messages, and in many societies (especially Polynesian) by dance movements that were explicitly, even flauntingly, copulatory..

It will come as no surprise to read that Islanders also used magical measures to attract sexual partners. Some of the overt practices already listed, such as body painting, were believed by some peoples to achieve their ends partly through magic, but reference here is to practices that relied wholly on supernatural means. Most of these were similar to the ones used in sorcery, except that the object was not to harm the victim but to seduce her (or him; females also utilized such means). In some societies such acts were carried out surreptitiously, having been considered a form of theft; in others they were engaged in openly and either by individuals or by groups of males or females..

Every Island society had rules concerning whom one could not marry, and most of them also had rules concerning whom one should marry. Generally speaking, the categories of persons forbidden to marry were also forbidden to engage in extramarital sex, although the penalties for violating the latter were usually not as severe. We can postpone discussion of whom one should marry and focus here on the prohibited categories of sexual, including marital, partnerships..

Every Island society prohibited sexual relations in general, and marriage in particular, between a female and her uterine sons and between a female and the man commonly believed to have sired her (in one way or another). In addition, except in Hawaii, where those of very high social rank were permitted, even encouraged, to marry, every society prohibited sex (including marriage) between uterine siblings. Moreover, the social sanctions, almost universally severe, that supported these several prohibitions were usually reinforced by supernatural ones as well, including spirit-induced sickness or death. .

Beyond this nuclear-family incest zone, however, societies differed widely with respect to which other categories of kinfolk, both consanguines and affines, should not marry or engage in sex. As will be described, kinship was the primary kind of social relationship in all Island societies, but there were many differences with respect to how kinfolk, as locally defined, were categorized (and ipso facto labeled) and how far kinship extended beyond the conjugal (the nuclear) family. Thus, in many societies an individual had several "mothers" (e.g., all of his own mother's sisters and all female same-generation members of her own clan). In such societies as these a male was usually forbidden sex (and of course marriage) with any of his "mothers," and penalties usually attended violation of the rule but with diminishing severity the more distant the kinship tie..

In several societies, mostly Polynesian ones, there were additional rules that discouraged sex and prohibited marriage between persons of different social class, as will be described in chapter 4. Beyond these two factors of kinship and social class, there were few widely shared criteria concerning which persons should or should not engage in sex with one another. Peoples of many societies ridiculed, but none prohibited, marriage between persons of widely discrepant ages. In fact, it was the practice in many societies for older women to initiate callow youths, and older men young girls, into the locally favored copulation techniques. And although young persons were doubtless swayed by comeliness (as locally defined) in choice of lovers, industriousness was in most places more influential in choice of spouse—kinship, social class, and politics aside..

The norms about sexual relations just listed had to do with "everyday" sex. In addition, in many Island societies there were occasions on which many of those norms were officially suspended, when members of a community violated, without penalty, one or more of its customary sexual rules. Such violations ranged from general but furtive spouse swapping to unbridled public orgies. The kinds of events that, here or there, occasioned them included mass visits from other communities; accomplishment of some community enterprise, such as a fish-drive or battle; death of a chief; and religious ceremonies containing fertility themes..

Another institutionalized form of sexual license practiced in some Island societies was prostitution; not gift giving between lovers, which took place everywhere, but practices involving females as full-time purveyors of sexual services for subsistence or other recompense. Finally, there were several Island societies in which one or another form of homosexual relations was legitimated, and even prescribed. These ranged from occasional homosexual acts between otherwise heterosexual friends, to career prostitution by homosexual males, or to institutions (mainly in Melanesia) in which all of a community's young men went through a years-long period of group-organized homosexual activity before "graduating" to the status of adult and marriage-ready men (such practices usually were believed necessary for promoting their maturation and growth)..

In perhaps all Island societies there were some individuals who for some personal reason or other wished to avoid having any, or any more, offspring. In many of them whole categories of females were forbidden to bear offspring during certain periods of their lives (e.g., unmarried girls, nursing mothers). And in at least one society, Tahiti, the members of a cult, the Arioi, were encouraged to copulate but forbidden to procreate (i.e., any progeny produced by an active member was either aborted or killed at birth). Except for the above situations, however, the peoples of all Island societies considered the reproduction of new members to be an important and desirable activity, although ideas differed widely as to how it was accomplished..

In only two known Island societies, Trobriand and Yap, was it believed that coitus had nothing to do with procreation (i.e., that the fetus was a preexistent spirit, which entered the womb from outside to be nourished there until birth). In a few others coitus was viewed as serving only to open a path into the womb for the extraneous fetus-becoming spirit. But in most Island societies the fetus was believed to be a product (with some supernatural assistance) of the female's blood, or the male's semen, or both. (In a widespread variant of the latter the fetus' bone was believed to be produced by the semen, its flesh by undischarged menstrual blood.) Aside from the relevance of the above to a people's biological concepts, such beliefs also had a bearing on how they viewed the nature of, and the social relationships of, the resulting human being. Thus, an individual created only or mainly out of his mother's blood was ipso facto more closely related to the kin of his mother than to those of his, procreatively irrelevant, father, or so it could be logically inferred, and so in many societies it was explicitly considered to be..

Once a fetus was perceived to have been formed (say, by such signs as belly swelling or cessation of menstruation), most Island p'eoples had practices to promote its development (if it was wanted) or to end its existence (if not). The latter included use of magically acting abortifacients, or physical pummeling of the woman's abdomen, or, if these did not work, by infanticide. Conversely, measures to promote development of a wanted fetus included restrictions on the mother (e.g., prohibition of "dangerous" foods) and in some societies on the genitor as well (e.g., taboos against the killing of certain game)..

Turning back a step, in many places methods were used to avoid unwanted pregnancies or to facilitate wanted ones that were slow to occur. The former included total sexual abstinence (e.g., while a woman was still nursing her latest infant, the so-called postpartum sex taboo), coitus interruptus, or use of magic-acting brews. The latter precaution, usually blamed upon the female, was countered by religious measures or, often, by acquisition of another wife..

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