SEX AND SOCIETY: ACTIVE AND PASSIVE SEXUALITY; HOMOSEXUALITY

The anthropological material on homosexuality is uneven and deficient by most disciplinary standards. We find ethnography to report homosexuality to be “common throughout Polynesia” (Suggs), which contradicts Marshall’s inability to find a trace of homosexuality on the Polynesian island of Mangaia. Gladwin and Sarason inquired about homosexuality on Truk and were met, first by puzzlement, then denial. Such findings can only weakly encourage cultural inquiry.

Many reports which discuss homosexuality at all treat it as an alternative to heterosexual intercourse, a second-best option used when women are scarce (e.g., Suggs; Herskovits; Evans-Pritchard and Levy). There are similar explanations of lesbianism as a “stopgap” when men are not around (e.g., Schapera and Evans-Pritchard). With regard to male homosexuality, one male Azande told Evans-Pritchard: “What man would prefer a boy to a woman? A man would be a fool to do so. The love of boys arose from lack of women”.

Evans-Pritchard speculates that the custom of taking boy-wives arose from a combination of factors, especially a shortage of marriageable women, who were monopolized by rich noblemen able to maintain large harems through extravagant bridewealth payments. Kinsmen of boys who were taken as boy-wives were compensated with bridewealth. They assumed women’s roles and did women’s work in camp while their husbands were out fighting. Evans-Pritchard finds in all respects, “They were like wives. Their lovers did not approve of their laughing loud like men, they desired them to speak softly, as women speak”.

Levy provides us with a comprehensive analysis of the mahu, the Tahitian male who assumes a female role. He may or may not engage in homosexual behavior (although Levy was unable to determine a definitive answer for this). The mdhu in Levy’s district (apparently each district has its mahu) generally wore standard male dress, although Levy came across a picture of him, prominently displayed in the mdhus foster-mother’s house, dressed in a girl’s dancing costume. As a youngster he performed girl’s duties, such as cleaning house, braiding palm leaves, and babysitting. His primary associations were with girls, with whom he would share gossip and walk arm-in-arm, something seen otherwise only among same-sexed adolescents.

When mdhus are engaged in homosexual acts, they are cast in the active role. Similarly, males emphasize their passive participation in their contact with mdhus. Levy’s informants were well aware of the asymmetry in the relationship: “You just take it easy while he [the mdhu] does it to you,” and “you just don’t take it seriously”. Tahitian men who have been “done” by mdhus report rather matter-of-factly to others that they have been fellated, much as they would recount any other sexual escapade. The standard story Levy heard was of a young man who had been drinking, and unable to find female companionship, settled for service by a mdhu.

In his discussion of sexual identity Levy develops the importance of the mdhu role. In Tahiti there is relatively less sexual differentiation than the Westerner might expect. Gauguin observed this, describing Tahitian man as “androgynous,” and remarking that “there is something virile in the women and something feminine in the men” (cited in Levy).

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