Used with permission of Professor Michael Moffatt, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

The Sambia

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).

Gilbert Herdt, 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.

What were 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.


Politically and in social structure, as Herdt knows the Sambia in these years, they are somewhat like the Yanomamo. 

The sexual beliefs and practices we're about to outline are believed by the Sambia 

In ways Herdt gives you multiple examples of in the reading I've assigned, 

Both women and men, the Sambia believe, are born with an internal organ called a tingu, somewhere in the lower body cavity, that secretes their sexual substance

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 follows.

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.

The Sambian technique, one-way fellatio (young boys always fellate older boys; an older boy never fellates a younger boy) ‚ 




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 again.

This Sambian 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 assume.


Last updated: Monday, October 04, 1999