Sex is a difficult subject to discuss, especially here in the US. Though we’re viewed as being exceptionally prudish about the topic, most societies more or less treat it as an impolite or vulgar thing to talk about, especially in a frank or open way. This is very curious given how much sexuality pervades every aspect of our lives. Like it or not, we’re sexual beings, and all aspects of sex – relationships, self-pleasure, fetishes, fantasies, etc – occupy our minds and dreams at one point or another.
Unfortunately, this ambivalent and ambiguous approach leaves us ignorant to a comprehensive understanding of sexual issues, despite how much they concern us deep down. Much of what we do learn about sex tends to be novel and unscientific, or based on folk tales and mere intuition. This partly accounts for why Americans seem particularly more uncomfortable about homosexuality, transgender people, and other manifestations of so-called “abnormal” or “deviant” sexuality. We hardly know sex well enough in general to truly know what accounts for “acceptable” sexual behavior.
For all these reasons, I took great interest in a recent article in Slate that followed a very unique anthropological study of the subject (I’m a huge anthropology buff to boot). Even the basic introduction presents and intriguing claim:
A husband-and-wife team of anthropologists at Washington State University named Barry and Bonnie Hewlett believe that they’ve found a society without gay sex—and that there other societies, too, in which some presumably universal behaviors, such as homosexuality and masturbation, are nonexistent at all levels of analysis.
Almost immediately, many of you may believe that this would claim to validate the position held by religious conservatives thatf non-heterosexual copulation is aberrant. As it turns out, however, the conclusion of this study ends up, surprisingly, pointing to the opposite direction.
The Hewletts work amid a group of peaceful net-hunting foragers in central Africa known as the Aka, who live in migratory camps of about 25 to 35 individuals. Other ethnographic details, such as the Aka’s sociopolitical organization (minimal-control chiefdoms) and gender relations (men and women are relatively equal) certainly aren’t irrelevant to their sex lives, but in a report published last year in African Study Monographs, the researchers focused on the Aka’s bedroom behaviors. It was the Aka’s apparent hypersexuality that inspired the Hewletts’ research. “We decided to systematically study sexual behavior,” they explain, “after several campfire discussions with married middle-aged Aka men who mentioned in passing that they had sex three or four times during the night. At first we thought it was just men telling their stories, but we talked to women and they verified the men’s assertions.” That’s right—three or four times per night.
Indeed, these people are not as stuffy about sex as the initial impression may have suggested. They’re remarkably sexual, and that is reflected in more than just their rate of intercourse. It permeates throughout their very fabric of society.
The other important thing to note with the Aka and Ngandu is that, by Western standards, they are extremely open with respect to sexuality. Children mimic intercourse publicly and without being reproached by their parents, the lyrics to a popular Aka children’s song are the orgasmic vocalizations of two people having sex, and adults discuss sexual matters freely in camp.
Furthermore, the Aka are known for their extremely flexible gender roles and near absent gender stereotypes. The women are just as likely to hunt as are the men, and men are heavily involved in childrearing. (In fact, the Guardiandubbed Aka men “best fathers in the world” a few years ago.)
This is hardly an oppressive environment, which is why the apparent absence of homosexuality and masturbation in these societies came as a surprise to the Hewletts. “[These behaviors] are rare or nonexistent,” observe the authors, “not because they are frowned upon or punished, but because they are not part of the cultural models of sexuality in either group.”
Given this uniquely progressive attitude to both sexual expression and gender roles, it may seem contradictory to imagine that the Aka do not engage in many other kinds of sexual acts: oral and anal sex is absent, as is any notion of foreplay. As noted before, same-sex relationships are unknown to them: the Aka people don’t see homosexuality as taboo or unacceptable, because it is literally an alien concept to them. The same applies to “self-stimulation,” of which even the mechanics, as simple as they are, simply don’t translate. In fact, no words remotely exist to describe these acts (and they’re not alone in this regard either).
Much of this stems from their attitudes towards sex, which isn’t as carnal as you might think.
To begin with, they’re having a lot of married sex. On average—and remember, this isn’t just newlywed teenagers, but also middle-aged couples we’re talking about—the Aka reported having sex three times per night, and the Ngandu twice per night. According to the Hewletts, these groups consider sex as being more like work than recreational activity. Given the importance placed on having many children—coupled with a high infant mortality rate—the Aka and Ngandu view sex as an exercise in gathering offspring, a form of nocturnal labor that is just as important as their subsistence activities during daylight. “The work of the penis is the work to find a child,” said one Aka informant. “I am now doing it five times a night to search for a child,” said another. “If I do not do it five times my wife will not be happy because she wants children quickly.” It’s not that sex isn’t pleasurable to these people, the Hewletts emphasize. Rather, pleasure just isn’t their primary motive.
It may seem unusual to imagine that such a hyper-sexual society would view pleasure as a secondary concern, if not merely a by-product, let alone see it as actual labor. But that’s just it: what is strange as far as sexual norms are concerned is largely a subjective and relativistic matter, something that wasn’t lost on the researchers, given that they’re anthropologists.
“One of our fears in writing this paper,” emphasize the Hewletts, “was that the Aka and Ngandu might be viewed as ‘others’ with unusual and exotic sexual practices … [but] overall, the Euro-American patterns are relatively unusual by cross-cultural standards.” In other words, although widespread Westernization creates the impression of a species-wide sexual homogeneity, when one takes the sheer number of living and extinct cultures into perspective, it’s us—not them—who are weird.
This is pretty much the crux of most anthropological studies. While some universal norms exist, the sheer diversity of human culture and experience leaves us with very little in the way of objective standards of what is “natural” or “normal.” Most of us unknowingly view the world through our own social and cultural prism, and construct our notions of what is “right” or “ideal” based on this benchmark. Every society does this, and even those of us that try to be conscious of this bias and overcome it have a difficult time doing so in practice (bear in mind that morality is a different matter for me entirely – I am not a moral relativist).
I think the article wraps it up rather well as far as attitudes to sex in particular, and views of different cultural mores in general.
In any event, the point is not to suggest that homosexuality and masturbation are unnatural and therefore wrong, but that “deviance” is a relative term. Let’s not forget there are certainly cultures for which homosexual behavior is the norm rather than the exception…The examples above should remind us that there are as many sexual differences between cultures as there are similarities. It may astonish Westerners to realize that societies with these practices exist elsewhere in the world, but just imagine all of the other variations in human sexuality that must have been lost through the ages. Even today, there really are societies in which homosexuality does not exist.
Basically, there’s a lot about our very nature we simply don’t know, and we should keep this in mind before we make any generalizations or assumptions concerning who we’re “supposed to be.”