Used with permission of Professor Michael Moffatt,
Rutgers, The State University of New
- I discussed
last time how the Yanomamo as studied by Chagnon were in almost the last place
in western hemisphere still unreached by global civilization in the mid-1960s --
the Parime highlands between Venezuela and Brazil.
- The only other place so
remote -- perhaps the very last place in the world where one could still find
relatively unknown cultures as late as the early 1970s -- was New Guinea
There is no such place today as far as I know, in the late-1990s. Even New
Guinea, by much ethnographic evidence, has now very much joined the global
world. Dozens of exotic cultures were documented by anthropologists in New
Guinea at this very last moment, in the 1960s and 70s.
- Perhaps the best known of
them are the Sambia
of the eastern Highlands. Why? Because they led such odd sex
lives, their men at least -- a mix of homosexuality and heterosexuality
otherwise unknown to anthropology, and more than a little challenging to western
The Sambia are
not famous because they were the only such culture in New Guinea. It turns out
another 20 or 30 nearby cultures had similar odd sexual beliefs and practices.
It also turns out that this had been quietly known among New Guinea specialists in
anthropology since the 1930s.. Only in the 1970s, however, did anyone feel free
to conduct extensive research in one such culture, and to write it up (as
Guardian of the Flutes, 1981, by Gilbert Herdt).
Before that, prior to the
western sexual revolution of the 1960s, sexuality, especially homosexuality, was
apparently considered just too indecent and inappropriate for intellectual study
and academic writing in the English-speaking world (50s, Latin).
our famous anthropologist in this case, just happened to document these
practices among the Sambia. A number of other New Guinea cultures could be equally
famous if somebody else had managed to study and write up their odd men's sex
lives in them first.
these practices, in any case? How did they fit into wider Sambian culture? And
what sorts of challenges do they offer to wider concepts of human sexuality
cross-culturally? I'll switch into the ethnographic present, 1974-1976, the
years of Herdt's field research with the Sambia.
and in social structure, as Herdt knows the Sambia in these years, they are
somewhat like the Yanomamo.
- They are simple farmers, shifting horticulturalists
who move around from time to time, to avoid their enemies and to keep their
jungle gardens from getting exhausted. Herdt is trying to keep their identity as
a group confidential in his 1981, so there are few photos of them in it -- here
is about the only one, a rather dim black and white of their villages in their
jungle envirnoment (viz).
- They live in an isolated highly forested area on the
edge of the Highlands. They live in patrilineally organized small villages and
clusters of villages, with headmen but no strong political leaders. These
clusters of villages either exchange women in marriage with one another, in
which case they are allies (once again, like the Yanomamo, often favoring cross-cousin
marriage), or they fight with one another ‚ they engage in ongoing war against
one another (and possibly against some other groups ‚ it's not clear in Herdt).
beliefs and practices we're about to outline are believed by the Sambia
- to make
men who are capable of having babies with women ‚ they're about sexual
reproduction of children.
- But they're also men's rites of passage, rituals of
collective ordeals intended to build the strong and brave men who can be good
warriors defending their own villages and families against their enemies. So
here we go:
In ways Herdt
gives you multiple examples of in the reading I've assigned,
- the Sambia believe
that semen, male sexual fluid, is all important to human life, is in short
supply, and must therefore be circulated through people, through both males and
females, very carefully.
- Semen is male
essence of course;
- A female's sexual essence is her menstrual blood ‚ which is
very scary to men ‚ it along with vaginal secretions and lubricants during sex
are the stuff of elaborate prohibitions and avoidances for men ‚ but menstrual
blood is also an indication of the sexual and reproductive power of women (in
ways Herdt. also details in your reading, an opposition between women and men based
in part on fears of one another's sexual substances cuts all the way through the
Both women and
men, the Sambia believe, are born with an internal organ called a tingu,
in the lower body cavity, that secretes their sexual substance .
tingu of females is believed to be full of blood at birth; it is believed to
develop naturally, with no ritual help; it is believed to become fuller and
fuller of blood that by late teenage years, this blood suddenly bursts out
of a girl, at her first menstruation, signally that she is more or less
ready to reproduce ‚ she is, without elaborate initiation, 'naturally'
ready for sex, marriage, and having babies. (there is a brief woman's secret initiation just before her first
act of sexual intercourse with a man, however, about which Herdt could find out
The poor old
male tingu, on the other hand, the Sambia believe, is born
shriveled and dry --
its ability to produce semen is developed slowly through childhood and
adolescence, through certain practices. These practices take place in a lengthy
male initiation process, which literally takes years, and proceeds as
- A baby,
male or female, is believed to be formed in its mother's womb by regular
infusions of semen from its father. Since according to Sambian culture, it's very
dangerous for men to have sex with a women (though they believe it is sexually
pleasurable) -- since it's dangerous and they also believe that a man must have
penis-in-vagina sex many times with his wife to make a baby -- these two things
contributes to the notion -- discussed at length in your reading ‚ that the Sambian
see some sex as "work" [sex like this] and some as "play" [examples to
- The only
substance contribution the mother makes to the baby in the womb, it is believed,
is blood, which passes from mother to baby. Everything else is built up from the
father from his strong and life-giving semen.
- After birth,
the baby gets all its nourishment for a while from the mother, from her milk.
The mother's ability to have lots of breast milk, however -- and the physical
toughness she needs to get through childbirth -- are given to her in part by
male semen, whose route into her body for this purpose will be explained
- At the age
of 7 to 10, Sambia boys are taken away from their mothers (girls continue to
live at home);
- Boys are taken to a men's house in the village, where they will
live for the next ten or so years of their lives.
- In their first three or four
years in this house, mature men start teaching them men's ritual secrets,
threatening them with death if they tell these secrets to women.
- They introduce
them to complex ritual associations between the penis, sacred flutes played only
by the men and associated with powerful spirits, and nose bleeding (mature males
often get rid of the pollution they believe they take in when they sleep with
women by forcing themselves to have violent nose-bleeds).
- And they introduce
them to the key act by which they are given what they need to mature (older
teenage boys in later stages of male initiation are enforcers of all this men's
knowledge, beating up younger boys who don't concentrate or go along with all
they're being taught).
- What is this
key act by which their maturation is insured?
- Regular fellatio ‚ putting the
penis of another male in their mouth ‚ regular fellatio of an older youth,
physically and sexually mature, aged roughly 14-18 [we'll come to their point of
view when we get to later stages of this] ‚
- the younger boys are taught to
fellate the older teenagers, and -- all important, to bring them to orgasm and
to ingest (swallow) the semen or sexual fluid the older boys' penises
For this is
the whole point of Sambian initiation ‚ or one of its main points ‚ to build up the
poor little dry baby tingus of the young boys by feeding them the semen of
older, stronger, late-teenage young men.
technique, one-way fellatio (young boys always fellate older boys; an older boy
never fellates a younger boy) ‚
- Sambian ritual fellatio is not a casual
business. It's supposedly very secret. When it's done, it's not done around
other males in the men's house: it's done very privately out in the bush at
night between an older and younger boy who have agreed to meet.
- The older boy --
the fellated -- represents his superior position by standing,
- while the fellator
represents his youth and status inferiority by kneeling in front of
- At first, the
older partner demands the fellatio, or older boys tell younger boys to find
someone to fellate or they'll get beaten up. Later, juniors regular initiate
- Juniors are reluctant at first, eventually becoming used to it,
reports. They are motivated by fear of punishment,
- but they are also typically
soon motivated by what might be called cultural desire -- by the pervasive
cultural instruction that they must do it to become men, which is of course what
they want to become.
- Once you learn and accept
Sambian men's culture, in fact, the
older fellated male is actually doing the younger fellator the bigger favor.
fellated is only getting a little sexual pleasure from the act.
- The younger
fellator is acquiring the much more valuable, all important, semen -- at a
certain risk on the part of the older partner -- any male can have his semen
depleted if he's not careful.
- Another part
of the Sambian cultural justification of fellatio at this early stage of
initiation is, the younger boys are told:
- just as very little
Sambian boys sucked
white milk from their mother's breast when they were infants, now too they're
sucking white semen from the older boys penises.
- In various instructions and
cultural symbolism to which they're exposed, the penis of the older boy =
mother's breast; semen = mother's milk
- The younger
males rarely report any particular sexual pleasure from being fellators --
is their introduction to sex as "work," as something difficult you must do for
another important reason.
they approach puberty, however, some of them
begin to find it stimulating ‚ they report getting their own erections while
doing it (they presumably just have to let this early male erections subside;
given the Sambian concern with the value of semen, masturbation is virtually
unthinkable among them, Herdt suggests -- also,
Sambians believe that male wet-dreams,
involuntary orgasms while asleep, are equally regrettable, and have to do with
bad spirits coming and seducing them in their sleep, and making them waste their
- While engaging
in this initial fellatio, the younger males are repeatedly told to avoid all
contacts with mature females; women's sexual substances are believe to be
especially dangerous to males at this fragile developmental period in particular
-- only when you've gone most of the way through this process, they are told,
and have a well-functioning tingu, and know a lot of male secrets, will you be
ready for dangerous but exciting business of mature adult sex with
- Fellatio as
initiating males practice it must always be non-reciprocal -- older males must
always be fellated, younger males must fellate --
- but between groups of older
and younger boys, fellatio follows a relatively collective or promiscuous
- fellators and fellateds can switch off regularly; there's no particular
person-to-person bonding reported.
- But: you can only fellate a non-kinsman, the
Sambians say, someone in the same category of male from whom you might get a
wife in marriage.
- To have homosexual relations with a male kinsman is the same
as -- and as bad as -- incestuous sex with a close female relative; it's believe
to be as bad as sex with a sister.
- One of the big points of the article I've
given you as that, according to Herdt's analysis in it,: semen flows through the
same channels as hetersexuality and marriage; it defines the same group
relations as heterosexuality and marriage.
learning all they have to learn and practicing fellatio several times a week for
3 to 6 years, around the ages of 13 or14 the younger boys start to mature
physically and sexually -- their bodies develop, their sexual organs get bigger,
their muscles get stronger, and the Sambians say, in effect, "hey, look, it
works; this is why we do it!"
- So the older
men in charge of boy's initiation throw a big public initiation ceremony for all
the boys of this age, to report that they've made it to junior adult, as it were
-- to a phase which Herdt calls "bachelor";
- this status is also considered
"junior warrior" in the prestigous Sambian adult male warfare complex.
these older male teenagers will be physical authorities over a new crop of
younger boys being taken into stage 2 at the ages of 7 to 10. And they now
switch positions in the fellatio of maturation -- they going from being the weak
and inferior fellators to the strong and virile fellated.
- Now, in
exchange for the semen they can donate to the younger males -- now, for the
first time, not too surprisingly, these older teenage males talk of experiencing
significant sexual pleasure on a regular basis for the first time.
- From now on,
as your reading indicates, sex starts being "play," for fun, as much as it was
"work" before (to develop), and will be again (with your wife, to make a
- According to psychological work Herdt reports elsewhere in the book from
which this article was taken -- Herdt has also had training in psychoanalysis --now
adolescent Sambian and adult males report being erotically turned on by images
of younger male's mouths -- they "fetischize" them, they compare them, they
fantasize about them, Herdt tells us.
- But they also do the same about women in
their sexual fantasies even at these years, even when they're still engaged in
exclusively male homosexual practices.,
- As I noted
before, however, older adolesent males being fellated lose valuable semen to
younger men. How can the older males tolerate this?
- First of all, with their
maturity, it is believed that their tingus are really working, strongly enough
to sustain some semen withdrawals for a good collective purpose like helping
younger males develop.
- And by now these older youths have learned some
ritual secrets about things other than penises that help them build their semen
- the nuts and sap of certain trees, one or two meats, a few magical practices.
Nevertheless, these older youths are also advised to limit the duties and
pleasures of being fellated somewhat -- to be moderate in the good works of
their fellatio to the masses.
another 3-4 years after this, at the ages of 17-18, as late as 21 -- after years
of being fellated bachelors, the men are now married. This is only marriage,
stage 1, however. Their wife is typically a woman arranged to be their wife from
birth (men arrange their children's marriages at birth in many cases, often
agreeing to exchange daughters between sons when all the parties involved are
still infants or children) -- the wife is typically married (stage 1) when she
is 14 or 15, two or three years before her first menstruation (which in a
typical third-world, non-modern nutrition pattern occurs at the ages of 17 or
married stage 1 don't set up housekeeping together -- the young man stays in the
men's house, the woman with her family. But they do meet quietly to talk and for
regular sex. Only it's oral sex, the husband now being fellated by his wife --
who ingests his semen, and this semen is believed to toughen her up on the eve
of her own maturity -- for menstruation itself, for the rigors of childbirth,
and to have abundant milk thereafter (I told you women would be getting semen
too, other than through sexual intercourse -- here's how).
- During this
stage 1 of marriage, Sambian males also go on being fellated by younger males,
so this is actually a period of bisexuality for them, when it comes to oral sex
-- being the all-powerful fellated for younger and weaker females and males
alike. How come younger males can go on fellating these older half-married males
if female substance is so dangerous to younger males. Shouldn't a penis that is
being regularly fellated by a female be very polluting to any male who
approaches it? Apparently not, because the female has made contact with it with
her mouth, not nearly as polluting as her vagina. And a premenstrual female is
far less dangerous to a maturing Sambian male than a menstrual one
- Which is
related to the logic of why, stage 5, a male must suddenly stop engaging in any
homosexual fellatio at all, now and for the rest of his life -- once his
maturing wife has her first menstruation, once they celebrate Sambian marriage
part 2, once they move in together to set up household on a fulltime basis, and
once they experience -- for the first time in either of their lives -- man-woman
penis-in-vagina sexual intercourse.
Now the man is
considered strong enough and knowledgeable enough to engage in the work of sex
with a woman for the purpose of procreating his own children. Now he must no
longer allow younger males access to his nurturing penis, for it will now be a
threatening penis -- too polluted by sex with women to ever be safe for men
- As a little
transition for him, his wife can go on fellating him, for her own toughening and
his own pleasure, presumably. And sometimes young husbands go on sneaking a
little male fellatio for a year or two, Herdt discovers..
- But on the whole,
Herdt reports, this odd pattern of homo- heterosexual development is so
carefully taught, so culturally supported, so natural in Sambian assumptions
that almost everyone goes along with it, quite strictly;
- Herdt estimates about 95%
compliance, with the 5% deviants deviating in both directions -- too much
heterosex when they're supposed to be homosex, too much homo sex when they';re
supposed to be heterosex.
pattern ought not to be possible by most western assumptions of sexual
development. Most western psychologists would probably argue that, whatever way
a maturing male has enjoyed sex during his first ten years of sexual experience
-- whatever his basic 'orientations' have proven to be, or been encouraged,
during these years -- however he has been sexually in his formative years, so he
should go on wanting to be for the rest of his life. Homosexuals just do not
turn into heterosexuals like this, most westerners would probably
- But maybe most
westerners would be wrong. Maybe human sexual nature is more flexible, more
susceptible to cultural conditioning, than common western ideast suggest. The great
founder of modern psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud himself believed that human
sexual nature was 'naturally' bisexual, or polysexual;
- Sambian patterns seem to
leave the possiblities of both homosexual and heterosexual pleasure equally wide
open, though distributing them carefully across the phases of the male life
cycle in very different proportions.
- Or possibly,
as Herdt himself believes, though Sambian
men enjoy their homosexual pleasures,
they enjoy their heterosexuality even more. The opposition between homosexuality
and heterosexuality is our problem.
- As they construct male sexual development,
what we see as homosexual they see as their youthful way of getting ready for women.
They don't deny these can be erotically enjoyable. And as mature adults they
often remember their boy-to-boy erotic pleasures happily, almost as though they
were parts of their innocent youth.
- But the whole point of all their activities,
as their culture defines them, is to get them ready as strong developed men for
the much more exciting and reproductively and culturally important business of
sex with women, the stuff of real adult life, and the stuff in male sexual
fantasy even more exciting that youthful sex with boys (Herdt works on this
through analysis of dreams, listening in on male sex talk, and free assocation
techniques -- they have happy memories of sex with one another, but their real
lust is for women).
updated: Monday, October 04, 1999