“I maintain that sex is regarded as dangerous by the savage, that it is tabooed and ritualized, surrounded by moral and legal norms – not because of any superstition of primitive man, or emotional view of or instinct about strangeness, but for the simple reason that sex really is dangerous.” – Bronislaw Malinowski, anthropologist (1928)
“Young or old, don’t delude yourself. You don’t have sex. Sex has you. Buckle up.” – Dan Savage, author, giver of advice, Twitter friend (2013: 52)
“According to Irish folk belief, there are two ways of achieving certain salvation. The first is through a red martyrdom, or dying for one’s faith in the tradition of the early Christians and the great missionary saints. The second path to sainthood, and the one chosen by most ordinary people, is the white martyrdom (ban-martra), a slow ‘death to self’ through acts of self-denial – fasting, penance – and, above all, a life characterized by sexual purity.” – Nancy Scheper-Hughes, anthropologist (2001: 206)
“You can’t just let nature run wild.” – Walter Hickel, former Governor of Alaska (1992)
Quote #1 suggests that sex is potentially dangerous for all people, regardless of cultural background. Note that Malinowski’s use of the word ‘savage’ was acceptable at the time. Today, it obviously isn’t. (#2) However, despite that danger, sex is powerful and has a hold over people. (#3) They can assert control over sexual impulses, but to suppress them entirely is difficult enough to be considered equivalent to martyrdom. (#4) All societies need regulation, including for sexuality. (I took some license with this last quote, one of my favorites. The actual context was that Hickel was defending the state’s controversial aerial wolf control program, apparently said without irony).
The young wife, Isakapu, put on her best jewelry and climbed to the top of a coconut tree near her village. From there she shouted down to her husband, Kabwaynaka, and to any other witnesses below that his accusations of adultery against her were false, and that she resented that he had beaten and insulted her out of jealousy a few days earlier. Kabwaynaka climbed up after her to bring her down, but before he could reach the top she jumped, throwing herself to her own death (Malinowski 1929: 120).
In Bronislaw Malinowski’s classic ethnography The Sexual Lives of Savages, suicide in the Trobriand Islands was an acceptable means of escape from the shame of breaking various sexual taboos (even if the accusations were false). This was the case not only for adultery, but also for bestiality, or for having sex within the clan. Consuming the poisonous gallbladder of a pufferfish was one method for taking one’s own life, but the option chosen by Isakapu, jumping from a tree (known as lo’u), was also common at the time. Malinowski wrote that while the sexual lives of Trobrianders might seem “easy and carnal” to an outsider, in reality they were often marked by “strong passions and complex sentiments” and sometimes filled with strife (p. 119-21).
A Harvest Scene in the Trobriands (Malinowski 1929, plate 57).
A look at the ethnographic record reveals that strong and complex emotions surrounding sex are not unique to the Trobianders, or to any single culture. Some historical narratives of human sexuality have wondered whether non-Western cultures, or perhaps our distant ancestors, have had a less stressful time with this part of life, placing the blame for any modern sexual malaise at the feet of various culprits. These include (1) religion, particularly the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths (Ray 2012); or (2) capitalism and ‘the Protestant ethic,’ with its emphasis on guilt, self-control, and the frustration of delayed marriage before sufficient resources could be accumulated (Albee 1977); or (3) agriculture, with its emphasis on fixed settlements, the accumulation of private property, and a more intense guarding of paternity and property rights (Ryan and Jethá 2010). Continue reading