Cultural differences in sexuality
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Cultural differences in sexuality (15 mins)
You might want to preface this section by saying that if people find the discussion of sexual motivation uncomfortable, they should be free to leave. Warn them that some of the material you are about to present is quite graphic.
Read the snapshots of the following three societies and then lead a class discussion on how there are many areas in which people’s sexual behavior differs including culturally.
Janet Hyde (2003) provides brief snapshots of three societies that vary in their patterns of sexual behavior. You might present them in class as an extension of the text discussion of sexual practices.
The following refers to a rural community in Ireland according to research done in 1966. Although Inis Beag is still a small and largely secluded community today, these beliefs are no longer likely to be this conservative and are definitely not representative of Ireland's beliefs as a whole.
Inis Beag, a small island off the coast of Ireland, is among the most naive and sexually repressive societies in the world. The islands abhor nudity, with adults washing only the parts of the body that extend beyond their clothing.
Even marital partners keep underclothes on during sexual activity. Premarital sex is essentially unknown, as is female orgasm. The husband invariably initiates sex, foreplay is limited to kissing and rough fondling of the buttocks, and the male-on-top position is the only position used.
The male has orgasm quickly and immediately falls asleep. Men believe that intercourse is hard on their health and will not engage in sex the night before an energy-demanding task. Moreover, they do not approach their wives sexually during menstruation or for months after childbirth.
The island women fear both menstruation and menopause. It is commonly believed that the latter can produce mental disorder. Thus, some women have retired from life in their mid-forties and a few have even confined themselves to bed until death years later.
Sex education is virtually nonexistent. Parents merely trust that, after marriage, nature will take its course.
Mangaia, an island in the South Pacific ocean, stands in sharp contrast to Inis Beag. Sex exists for both pleasure and procreation and is a principal interest and activity.
The Mangaian boy hears of masturbation at about 7 and begins the practice at age 8 or 9. At age 13, he undergoes the superincision ritual (a slit is made on the top of the penis, along its entire length) and the expert who performs the surgery gives him explicit sexual instruction.
About two weeks after the operation, the boy has intercourse with an experienced woman who provides him with practice in various acts and positions. She specifically trains him in restraint so that he can have simultaneous orgasms with his partner.
The young girl receives similar expert instruction and will typically have three or four successive boyfriends between the ages of 13 and 20. Mangaian parents encourage their daughters to have sexual experiences with several men so that they can find a marriage partner who is congenial.
Boys aggressively seek out girls, typically having coitus every night. The average boy may have ten or more girlfriends before marriage.
At around age 18, the Mangaians typically have sex most nights of the week with about three orgasms per night. All women apparently learn to experience orgasm. Bringing his partner to orgasm is one of the man’s primary sources of pleasure.
While the people of Inis Beag seem to have little sex and plenty of anxiety and those of Mangaia have plenty of sex and little anxiety, the citizens of Mehinaku, a central Brazilian village, seem to have plenty of both.
Sex is fascinating, the culture is highly eroticized, and there is an openness with children about sexual matters. For example, children typically know the names of their parents’ many extramarital lovers.
Men openly compete with each other for women’s sexual favors, often by bringing small gifts such as fish. At the same time, however, there is a high degree of gender segregation.
If a woman enters a “man’s” house and views what is forbidden, she may be taken to the woods and gang-raped. In every other respect, the culture is nonviolent.
Women are believed to have a much lower sex drive, there seems to be little recognition of female orgasm, and menstruation is understood to be dangerous. Dreams and fables speak to the culture’s sexual anxiety.
In myths, those who engage in extramarital sex typically die in fantastic ways. Although people seem to experience intense ambivalence and anxiety over sexuality, they continue their interest and vigorous pursuit of the activity.
- Hyde, J., & Delamater, J. D. (2003). Understanding human sexuality (8th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Messenger, John C. Inis Beag: Isle of Ireland. Long Grove: IL: Waveland Press, 1983. ISBN 0-88133-051-5, OCLC 10578752
- John C. Messenger, "Sex and Repression in an Irish Folk Community", in Donald S. Marshall and Robert C. Suggs, eds., Human Sexual Behavior: Variations in the Ethnographic Spectrum, 1971. Basic Books, New York.
- John C. Messenger, Ines Beag Revisited: The Anthropologist as Observant Participator. Publisher: Salem, Wisconsin: Sheffield, 1989. ISBN 0-88133-408-1
- John Messenger, Peasants, Proverbs, and Projection. Central Issues in Anthropology April 1991, Vol. 9, No. 1: pp. 99–105 
- Marshall, Donald S. Sexual behavior on Mangaia. Human sexual behavior (1971): 103-162.
- Harris, Helen. Rethinking Polynesian Heterosexual Relationships: A Case Study on Mangaia, Cook Islands in William Jankowiak ed Romantic Passion: A Universal Experience? (1997)
- Gregor, Thomas. The Mehinaku: The Dream of Daily Life in a Brazilian Indian Village. 2009