Sex and the Tribes: An Anthropological Overview

Indian Journal of Sexology (Vol.I., No. 1., July-September 2009)
S. Sumathi, M.P. Damodaran and P. Govinda Reddy
Department of Anthropology, University of Madras, Chennai-600 005

Introduction
Albeit sex is mostly viewed as a biological urge, it has a socio-cultural dimension as well. The tribal society regulates, and maintains sexual behaviour as a process of socialization through norms, and values in the name of sanction, and avoidance. Consequently, sexual bonds, and incest have existed as universal practices of human societies, and tribals in particular, through different social institutions such as, marriage, family, and kinship.
Anthropology testifies that variations exist between different cultural groups in their patterns of sexual behaviour. Every society must control potentially disruptive sexual behaviour through some systems. But it is clear that effective control can be achieved in diverse ways. Behaviour which is discouraged in one society may be tolerated in a second, and encouraged in a third. Also, substantial differences may exist between subgroups within a society (Gebhard 1971:206). The very existences of cultural practices like monogamy, polygamy, joking relationship, preferential marriage, sororate, levirate, etc are based on sexual interactions. The sexual privilege, avoidance, taboo, and incest among the members have been helping the tribals to sustain their discipline, continuity, and existence.
An Overview of the Tribal Sexuality
The most common pattern noted in the literature is to permit joking within the same generation, sometimes with alternate generations and only rarely between contiguous generations. Radcliffe-Brown regards the joking relationship as a technique of resolving problems inherent in the social structure and an alternative to extreme respect or avoidance. He says that: “a relation between two persons in which one is by custom permitted, and in some instances required, to tease or make fun of the other, who in turn is required to take no offence”. He further says that: “the joking relationship between affinal relatives close in age is that sexuality is spoken about or expressed in gestures which seems to anticipate a future sex relationship” (Radcliffe-Brown 1952:90-104). While the ethnographic literature frequently makes mention of joking, sexual license, or obligations between specified members of a society, among the Luguru of Tanganyika all three of these behavior patterns are to be found in a relationship. For example, “a man may jokingly grab a woman’s cloth and attempt to disrobe her, and a good-natured tug-of-war or wrestling may result. A woman may deride a man about his lack of sexual prowess, and imply that he is sterile or impotent. He may respond with an invitation to accompany her in order to demonstrate his virility. The fact that a man is married does not prohibit him from indulging in a jesting conversation with sexual overtones, particularly with unmarried woman. However, it is considered bad form for a man to make suggestive or obscene remarks to a married woman, unless her husband is present” (Christensen 1963:1316).
According to Eggan (1937:75) avoidance and joking were alternative solutions for resolving what could potentially be serious conflicts between kinsmen. “Avoidance and respect were likely to occur between different generations, with joking and license permitted between members of the same generation where a conflict situation is inevitable. He suggested that because of the potential for conflict, jokes, satire, and sexual play could be expected to be greatest between siblings-in-law”. It is just opposite in the case of incest behaviour. Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines incest as: “sexual intercourse between persons so closely related that they are forbidden by law to marry” (www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary). Incest rules are variable between cultures. Murdock observes that these variables are correlated with social institutions (cit.Bagley 1969:506). For Radcliffe-Brown (1950:69) incest is “properly speaking the sin or crime of sexual intimacy between immediate relatives within the family, father and daughter, mother and son, brother and sister”. Rattray (1929) had seen it as, “eating of one’s own blood”.
Different people feel differently about the place of their sexual intercourse. One of the reasons for the origin of youth dormitories in tribal societies (Ex. The Muria Ghonds of Madhya Pradesh) is that the parents do not want to be witnessed by their children during their sexual intercourse at home. While the Muria Ghonds juveniles have their sexual urge fulfilled in the youth dormitories. After the weaning has effected, The Muduvars, and the Malai Malasars children sleep in bachelor or, young maiden halls respectively, and thus, the parents are undisturbed during nights in their houses (Ehrenfels 1952:203).
In the case of Eskimos, the children learn of sex matters from their family itself, as soon as they are able to form ideas. Since they live in small dwellings, it is a matter of observation that all the family functions including sex between parents or, other elderly couples being conducted right before their eyes (Garber 1935:216). It is also very interesting to quote here the observation made by Garber (1935:216): “I found several instances in which girl’s mother, by physical manipulation, prepared her small daughter for the process of copulation in order that complete satisfaction might be assured to the prospective husband”.
Some tribals, specially the Chenchus of Andhra Pradesh, have sexual intercourse in day time since, they feel that intercourse at night lead to the birth of blind child. Also, they have sex in deep forest area as, they believe that their home is not a hygienic place to have sex (Haimendorf 1943). The Maasai of Eastern Africa are of the opinion that sex in day time can be fatal (Rouse 2002:11).
The pastoral Maasai, inhabit the savannah borderland between Kenya and Tanzania in Africa permitted their young males to have sex with immature girls. Talle (2007:351), in an article, has reported that: “This license has its rationale within a cultural logic and structural framing of hierarchically organized age and gender categories that give precedence to male seniority and male power (Jacobs 1965; Galaty 1977; Spencer 1988). This article argues that sexual prohibitions and licenses-the one implicating the other-may be fruitfully analyzed as part of ‘serious games’ (Ortner 1996), where subjects are positioned in shifting contexts of equality and inequality, power and hierarchy. Throughout their life cycles and in their practical lives, Maasai subjects participate in several sexual ‘games’, which are deeply social practices drawing people into wide and intense webs of interaction and sociality. Sexual relations, moreover, cannot be analyzed in isolation from other social relations or from the realm of economics or politics (Caplan 1987; Ortner and Whitehead 1981; Herdt 1999)”.
All sex activities of the Kadars of Cochin are some what different since, they are confined to excursions into the forest during day time. The restrictions therefore mould not only sex-habits as such, but determine also the daily routine of all married people (Ehrenfels 1952:202 and Coon 1972:158). Further, their ordinary marital sex life is also quite interesting. A husband of women would ask his wife to go, and collect firewood in the forest, either in the morning or, late afternoon. She, naturally, will accept it as the appropriate way The wife will take this as just the correct form of approach to which she will generally respond willingly, unless contemplating divorce or expecting menstruation very soon. If the two have expressed their intention to “collect firewood”, no other Kadan with the least common sense and decency in him would ever dream of accompanying them, though Kadar go for real collection expeditions generally in somewhat bigger groups to the forest. Very small babies will be taken along, by the mother, and put under a thick shrub or bamboo bush, before she lies down to unite with her husband. A certain risk for the baby is here undoubtedly involved, for jackal, hyaena, panther and tiger are more likely to snatch away a baby lying alone at some distance from its parents, than to attack these themselves but, the Kadars yet to express a fear about it (Ehrenfels 1952:203). The Kadars also believe that houses, leaf-shelters or, caves are too small, and too over crowded, and too open as to allow any enjoyable intimacy. Moreover, sexual intercourse must not take place in the presence of children (Ehrenfels 1952:203). The Native American tribe, Hopi insists that sex should take place indoors while, the Witotos, another Native American tribe insists that sex should take place outside their dwelling unit.
Even frequency of intercourse is related to cultural norms. The Keraki of New Guinea are reported to have intercourse on an average, once a week. The Aranda of Australia have sex three to five times a day; and the Chagga of Eastern Africa are alleged to manage ten sex episodes in a single night (Rouse 2002:11).
The Tre-ba of Tibet (www.buzzle.com), and the Todas of Nilgiris (Rivers 1906) are polyandrous, where all brothers in a family marry the ‘same wife’. Among the Australian aborigines (Yolngu, and Gidjangali), old men are regarded as intelligent and powerful religiously and go on adding wives, until they die, through the practice of Polygyny. The Yolngu practice mother-in-law bestowal, and the Gidjangali practice wife’s bestowal in their matrimonial alliances. Marriage of men is delayed by their induction into the religious life. This way of acquiring mate has resulted in sexual intercourse between unmarried men, and married women in dense forest during their foraging activities (Keen 1982: 621). Extramarital relations are allowed among the infertile Chenchus of A.P., in the hope of proving their fertility (Meera Guntupalli and Chenchelgudem 2004:256,258).
The Caddo, a Native American tribe permitted their women to accept gifts from men, and allowed them to engage in sex relations with different men with no repercussions (www.buzzle.com). The Calusa, also a Native American tribe was popular for their marriages among the siblings within the family (www.buzzle.com). Another Native American tribe, the Chickasaw allowed their men to have sex with all of his wife’s sisters (www.buzzle.com). Among the Haida, Native American tribe, an unmarried girl may have sexual relations with her male cross-cousins on the mother’s side; and she eventually marries one of them (Murdock 1934: 365-367).
The case of the Native American Eskimos, it has been some what different since, they have the practice of wife’s hospitality (including sex), without her consent. They also have a tradition of exchanging their wives, temporarily (Garber 1935:225; Spencer et al. 1977:88, 94). Since the Shamans are very powerful among them, who can demand either sexual relations with his patient’s wife or, the wife herself, if he has affected a cure (Spencer et al. 1977:88, 94). Garber (1935:219) reported that: “the Yukon and Kuskokwim Delta region Eskimos the young hunter takes the girl to his camp and lives with her in a state of trial marriage for a year. If children are begotten, proving the girl’s fecundity, the marriage is thereby consummated. But if the girl fails to become pregnant with child she is returned to her parents”. He also said that: “the birth of a child out of wedlock is considered very improper, and usually means a severe scolding from the parents. But a girl who has given birth prenuptially is by no means disbarred as a candidate for marriage. In fact, her fecundity is thereby proven, and since children represent the criterion of a happy marriage she has no particular difficulty in finding a husband. It is in reality a greater crime for a girl to be barren than to have children out of wedlock. A girl who is barren is wanted by no man. She may become the second or third wife of a man, but because of her inability to bear children she will have all the menial tasks about the household to perform” (Garber 1935:218).
Similar cases reveal the peculiar sex behaviour and the status of women, where whom being deemed as sex objects or, symbols. Thus, Linton (1939:138, 164-165) wrote that the Marquesan woman was mainly a sexual object; she had to concentrate on the development of sexual techniques and the maintenance of certain sexual attributes, which leave little time for the tenderness that must be given to children. He further claimed that the Marquesan women did not nurse offspring but spoon fed them in a rather cruel fashion, so as not to ruin the appearance of their breasts.
The male circumcision is not unpopular but, treated as a cross-cultural oddity is a venerable Western tradition. Scholars, anthropologists in particular, have looked it as a cultural practice (Ex. Ashley-Montagu 1937, Singer and DeSole 1967, Firth 1936, Rubel et al. 1971, Hogbin 1970, Lewis 1980, Ucko 1969, Brewster 1919, Brown 1921, and Spencer and Gillen 1899), and most of them believed that such practices were fraught with the ethnocentric perils of revulsion, admiration, and exoticism. Female circumcision, partial or, total cutting away of the external female genitalia, has been practiced for centuries in parts of Africa, generally as one element of a rite of passage preparing young girls for womanhood and marriage. Often performed without anesthetic under septic conditions by lay practitioners with little or no knowledge of human anatomy or medicine, female circumcision can cause death or permanent health problems as well as severe pain. Despite these grave risks, its practitioners look it as an integral part of their cultural and ethnic identity, and some perceive it as a religious obligation. Female circumcision is currently practiced in at least 28 countries across the centre of Africa north of equator; it is not found in southern Africa or in the Arabic-speaking nations of North Africa, with the exception of Egypt. Female circumcision occurs among Muslims, Christians, animists and one Jewish sect, although no religion requires it (Althaus 1997). However, Gordon (1991) had documented cases of female circumcision and genital operations in Egypt and Sudan. What these concerns might be brings us to he most venerated explanation for mutilation operations – the rites of passage. In this constriction, the operation serves as a marker of the movement from child to adult, in which the similarity between male and female is removed, permitting a ritual differentiation of the sexes (Vann Gennep 1960 (1908):72).
There are three types of genital excision, although practices vary widely. In the first type, clitoridectomy, part or the entire clitoris is amputed, while in the second (often referred to as excision), both the clitoris and the labia minora are removed. Inflation, the third type, is the most severe. After excision of the clitoris and the labia minora, the labia majora are cut or scraped away to create raw surfaces, which are held in contact until they heal either by stitching the edges of the wound or by tying the legs together. As the wound heals, scar tissues joins the labia and covers the urethra and most of the vaginal orifice, leaving an opening that may be as small as a match stick for the passage of urine and menstrual blood (Reddy and Chandrasekaran 2002:155). While the practice of male circumcision is acclaimed as more hygienic, female circumcision (Althaus 1997) is creating lot of problems like frequent urinary infections, severe pain during sexual intercourse, and maternal mortality for females, for instance two African tribes namely, Potok, and Yoruba who have the habit of clitoridectomy (www.buzzle.com). Thus, Beidelman (1968) rightly said: “a man’s sexuality (as perpetuator of a lineage, but also as a husband and father within a household) and a woman’s fertility (as wife and mother to a lineage, but also as wife and mother in her own household) carry very wide and complex implications”.
In view of this, Beidelman (1968) also reported that: “A Nuer woman observes prohibitions after her marriage. She may start to wear a goatskin or sheepskin apron but she is not obliged to do so until she gives birth to her first child. Evans-Pritchard states in published correspondence to Fischer: Till marriage girls are naked. After marriage they wear a special little skirt, but may take it off when they please till they have had a child. After the birth of a child only their husbands see them naked in the privacy of a hut when the spouses sleep together”. After the birth of a child no woman goes naked in public again (Fischer 1964:63 and Evans-Pritchard I940:30)”. The same author wrote another sex-behaviour of Nuer women during initiation: “They drink beer and leap about behind the bullocks and there is a lot of horseplay. The women folk seize the penises of members of their husband’s age-set, the father of an initiated boy especially being subject to this treatment. They tie cord to the penises of the men and pull them while the men retaliate by tugging at the skin aprons of the wives of their age-mates. A man of the age-set of the father of an initiate will lift up the apron of his wife (the boy’s mother) and will utter a ceremonial cry into her vagina” Beidelman (1968).
The Nuer has rules of food abstinence between feuding groups, and between affines. It associates certain forms of sexuality with the ingestion of food, a symbolic connection made in a great many societies (Beidelman 1968). This relation is clearly shown by Evans-Pritchard: A youth is particularly careful not to be seen eating by unrelated girls: ‘If he is not making love to them, he may do so some time or to one of their relatives.’ When I asked whether it would matter if your sisters saw you eating, the reply was, ‘Do you make love to your sisters?’ Food must never be mentioned in the presence of girls, and a man will endure severe hunger rather than let them know that he has not eaten for a long time. It is a strict rule of Nuer society that the sexes, unless they are close kin, avoid each other in the matter of food. Nuer does not go near persons of the other sex when they are eating. A man may mention food but not sexual matters before kinswomen, and he may mention sexual matters but not food before unrelated girls (1951:55; 1947:117). Even before a young man has started to look for a bride he will not generally eat with most senior men, unless they are kin, because one of them might become his father-in-law. Once he has asked for a girl’s hand in marriage he may in no circumstances eat in her home, and the prohibition continues, sometimes greatly to his discomfort, until two or three children have been born, when it is relaxed by a formal ceremony if the parties are on good terms with one another.
Let us see some of the interesting features of homosexuality though; heterosexuality is more universal among the humankind. Evans-Pritchard (1970) has reported that male and female homosexual relationship seems to have common among the Azande. While discussing the sex and personality in the Marquesas, Kadiner (1939:219) has interpreted homosexuality as being a “supplementary activity, a form of making good a long-felt carving for a dependency which cannot be satisfied by the women”.
The presence of proxy-fathers, and ghost-marriages among the Nuer of Africa are also worthy to note here. A Nuer marriage is considered incomplete till a child is born to it. Further, a man’s name must continue in the lineage. If a man dies without male heirs, a kinsman ought to take wife in his name. Such a marriage is precarious marriage or ghost-marriage. The precarious husband acts as a true husband in the marriage ceremonies, habitation and domestic life. But, has the Nuer say, he is only ‘kindling the fire’ of his dead kinsman, ‘who is the legal husband’ (Evans-Pritchard 1960:108-109). This results in a system of proxy-fatherhood to a child, even though the ‘same husband’ is the real biological father of the child, importance is given in the Nuer society to the social father, on whose be half he has acted as ‘the husband’.
The Onge of Little Anaman observes initiation ceremony, tanagire, for boys to initiate them into manhood. The elderly teach the initiated boys about all aspects of their culture including sex. The religion and sex is interrelated in the case of the Kurumans of Tamil Nadu. The deity, Virabadran’s festival ends with a performance called, Kosavamma Kuthu, in which the young boys identify their girls, and indulge in sex. The marriage will be solemnized latter. The Todas of Nilgiris have two kinds of sex relationships; marriage, and mogthot or mogthoty. The institutionalized sexual alliance mogthot permits men to enter into a sexual relation with a woman of opposite sub-group with the permission of her husband (Sathyanarayana 2000: 212; Sudarsen 2005:19).
Conclusion
Human sexual behaviour, one of the fundamental activities of human being, is certainly divisive in nature. It was, and is generally considered to be a biological urge of Homo sapiens sapiens. But, it also has social, and cultural significances in the day-to-day human life. In that sense, an understanding of sexual behaviour is of potential utility to understand the other aspects of human behaviour. It has clearly disclosed in the forgone discussions, that all of the sexual behaviour of human being is existed as the part and parcel of culture, and society as well. Most of this sexuality, whether universal or local, has said to be still exists, and continued among the mankind through the process of socialization, and enculturation over time and space. In consequence, we conclude that sex-interactions determine the degree of relationship, status, obligation, role, and behaviour of members of each tribal society since, sexuality has been working as a system on the basis of sex, and sex norms, and values.

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Web:
http://www.buzzle.com/editorials/3-7-2004-51357.asp
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/incest on 4-1-09

2 Comments

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