The Sambia are a people inhabiting remote Papua New Guinea. Little known until the 1970s, they have since become the subject of extensive study by the American anthropologist Gilbert Herdt. One of the most striking features of Sambia society is its sexual culture, particularly the sexual practices during the life-cycle of male tribal members.
For his first few years of life a Sambia boy is brought up by his mother within the family home. Then, at the age of about seven, he is separated from his mother and taken deep into the forest to an all-male hut. There he will live for the next twelve to fifteen years, within an exclusive all-male society, having no contact at all with women. Several initiation rites occur within this period. Upon arrival in the male community, the young newcomer has canes forced up his nose to induce bleeding. In addition, for the next few years until he reaches puberty, the boy has to perform oral sex on older males. Once he has reached puberty (about the age of thirteen) the boy is tied to a tree, beaten, and once again nose-bled with canes. The first stage in his life within the all-male community is now complete.
The second stage involves a role reversal: as one of the older males in the community he is now fellated by the younger males. During these years he is also receiving instruction in the secrets of sexual intercourse with women, a necessary preparation for him taking a wife. At about the age of twenty he leaves the all-male society to return to the village and marry; his wife, who will usually be at the age where she has begun menstruating, has usually been arranged for him by his father or a tribal elder within the village.
Sexual relations between the man and his wife begin with the husband orally inseminating his wife. Other ritualistic aspects characterize the sex between man and wife: when his wife is menstruating, her husband will bleed his own nose; during intercourse he will push mint leaves up his nose and chew on bark; he will refrain from penetrating too deeply during sex; and after sex he will take a mud bath. Once his wife has conceived the man will refrain from sexual relations with her until the baby has weaned—generally for several years. He may have other wives to attend to during this time.
Fatherhood completes the crucial lifecycle transition from boy to man in Sambia society—full rights of manhood within the tribe are assumed upon becoming a father. The Sambia male will remain in his family home but will have little involvement in the domestic life of his family; most of his time will be spent in the company of other men. However, from the point of fatherhood his sexual relations will be exclusively with his wife or wives.
The practice of ritualized homosexual relations is not unique to the Sambia. It can also be found in other groups across Melanesia, including another tribe from Papua New Guinea, the Etoro (or Edolo) people. Among the Etoro homosexual relations apparently continue after a man has commenced sexual relations with his wife.
To many westerners this process is likely to seem bizarre or ‘weird’. It may well defy comprehension and possibly evokes feelings of disgust and moral shock—after all, the practices include what, to western eyes, would be considered paedophilia, (enforced) homosexuality and physical assault, all occurring within an intensely patriarchal society. How might the gulf of understanding be bridged?
It is important to grasp Sambia sexual practices within the context of the Sambia belief system. Central to Sambia beliefs is the notion that males and masculinity are superior to females and femininity. In addition, there are contrasting ideas of the reproductive potential of the two sexes. Female Sambia are considered to have full procreative power at the onset of menstruation; male Sambia, on the other hand, have an imperfect, shrivelled procreative power until such time as they have achieved masculinity. This masculinity has nothing to do with biological puberty; rather it is something that is attained several years after the onset of puberty and is realized in fatherhood and in the possession of a warrior spirit.
But how is masculinity to be acquired? By ingesting semen. In Sambia culture, semen is regarded as having vital powers, a life-giving spirit; only by consuming sufficient quantities of it through ritualized fellatio is a boy able to make the transition to manhood. The power of semen is also the reason why wives must fellate their husbands, since the Sambia believe the ingested semen will be transformed into breastmilk. In effect, therefore, the infant at the breast is consuming semen and its vital powers. Furthermore, it is notable that neither the practice nor even the concept of masturbation appears to exist in Sambia society, ensuring that the life-giving resource is not ‘wasted’.
The path to masculinity is not, however, simply about ingesting the vital spirits contained within semen. Crucial to the journey is avoidance of female impurities. This is why male Sambia spend their entire boyhood and adolescence apart from women, and why it is considered necessary for them to receive instruction in the secrets of sexual intercourse with women. Purification and defence against the impurities of the female also underpin the ritualized aspects of male-female intercourse. Nose-bleeding and the mud bath are purifying acts; the use of mint leaves and bark during intercourse is intended to ward off the odour of female genitalia; and the avoidance of deep penetration during sex reflects the deep and persistent concern for male Sambia to avoid the debilitating, life-sapping effects of female impurity.
The Sambia mental universe is undoubtedly a long way removed from most western belief systems. Nevertheless, it constitutes a coherent set of ideas by which Sambia sexual practices can be explained. Those practices make sense given the beliefs of those who perform them. What makes less sense is an attempt to understand the practices in relation to western notions of sexuality. Certainly it is tempting to describe Sambia sexual culture, in terms familiar to western observers, as consisting (for men) of two stages: a homosexual stage until adulthood, and then an enduring heterosexual stage. But are we right to do so? And beyond that, what might we learn from studying the Sambia?
The problem with trying to understand Sambia sexual practices in western terms is that sex has a different place and role in Sambia society than it does in the West. The procreative requirement for sexual intercourse is, of course, shared, but the social and cultural meaning of sex differs markedly between western and Sambia societies. What is most striking about Sambia sexual practices is how closely related they are to social relationships rather than individual preferences. For the Sambia, the organization of society—rooted in ideas of an exclusively male warrior mentality, male superiority over female, the hierarchy of age, and the elevated social status that comes from fatherhood—shapes sexual practices. As Herdt has commented:
Sambia cultural ontology privileges social relationships over individuals, the position of the inseminator over the recipient, and men over women… Sexuality [among the Sambia] is always an expression of the structure of particular relationships across time: in the case of the same sex, it is usually casual [‘growth’ and ‘play’] and nonexclusive; in marital relationships it is usually intense [‘work’] and exclusive. (Gilbert Herdt, ‘Representations of Homosexuality: An Essay on Cultural Ontology and Historical Comparison, Part II’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 1 (1991), p. 612.)
In the West the connection between social relations and sex is more likely to be seen as working in the opposite way. Whereas for the Sambia social relations shape sexuality, in the West sexuality shapes social relations. The sexual choices made in the West (marriage, monogamy, multiple partners, same-sex or opposite-sex relations, etc.) are usually thought to stem from individual sexual identity. This is because modern, western culture has thought of sexuality as an essential feature of an individual’s identity. Western thought predominantly takes an object-relations approach to sex: following Freud, sexual drive is to be understood in terms of an individual subject desiring an object (e.g. in relation to heterosexuality, one individual desiring another of the opposite sex). For the Sambia, however, sexual practices are organized not by a subject/object analysis of erotic desire but by life-stage and social position.
If we apply western ideas of sexuality to the Sambia then we are likely to view their sexual practices as both abusive, for their denial of individual freedom and choice, and as downright bizarre for failing to conform to established ideas of homosexuality and heterosexuality. Clearly the Sambia engage in a range of homosexual and heterosexual acts in the sense that sex takes place between both members of the same sex and members of the opposite sex. What seems odd (to western minds) is their practice of restricting these acts to particular life stages—odd, because homosexuality and heterosexuality are usually thought to refer to core features of individual identity, not to life stages or ritualized acts. But by seeing Sambia sexual practices in their own culturally and socially specific context—and setting aside familiar, western ideas of homosexuality and heterosexuality—it is possible to regard these practices as making complete sense.
The sexual practices of the Sambia challenge essentialist ideas about sex and sexuality. For many people, it would seem to be both natural and universally true that sex can be understood as an individual’s erotic desire for an object; and, furthermore, that erotic desire stems from an equally natural and universally true inner sexuality (or sexual orientation). The sexual culture of the Sambia suggests, however, that sexual thought, feeling and behaviour—far from following supposed biological truths that are universal and unvaried across time and culture—are in fact shaped by the society and culture in which they occur and hence are socially and culturally varied.
It is not necessary to think highly of Sambia sexual culture to learn from it that the West is not in possession of the ‘truth’ about sexuality—and, indeed, that there may be no single truth about sexuality in the first place.
Further reading (all the following are by Gilbert Herdt)
Guardians of the Flutes: Idioms of Masculinity (New York, 1981)
Rituals of Manhood: Male Initiation in Papua New Guinea (Berkeley, 1982)
Sambia Sexual Cultures: Essays from the Field (Chicago, 1999)
(ed.) Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia (1993)
‘Representations of Homosexuality: An Essay on Cultural Ontology and Historical Comparison, Part I’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 1 (1991), pp. 481-504
‘Representations of Homosexuality: An Essay on Cultural Ontology and Historical Comparison, Part II’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 1 (1991), pp. 603-32
‘Notes and Queries on Sexual Excitement in Sambia Culture’, Etnofoor, 7 (1994), pp. 25-41