Alice Dreger has a short piece up at The Atlantic entitled “Where Masturbation and Homosexuality Do Not Exist.” I personally find the title to be misleading, but the article itself is a fascinating highlight of a study done by Washington State University anthropologists Barry and Bonnie Hewlett into the sexual practices of two distinct central African tribe societies, the Aka and Ngandu people. The article focuses on interviews the Hewletts conducted into the sexual practices and behavior of the two tribes – focusing on the seeming non-existence of homosexuality and masturbation (auto eroticism) at the conceptual level for these peoples.
Dreger notes at one point in the article that “the Aka and Ngandu speak of sex as ‘searching for children.’” And that they associate sexual activity not only with conception, but also with the health of unborn fetuses, and that these views play a role in the cultural understanding of intercourse as the “work of the night” through which children are created and unborn children nurtured. She suggests that the absence of homosexuality and masturbation could have something to do with this view of sexuality:
…while the individuals the Hewletts interviewed — like the song — made it clear that sex is pleasurable for these folks, and something that brings couples closer, they also made clear that babies are the goal of sex. Said one Aka woman, “It is fun to have sex, but it is to look for a child.” Meanwhile, a Ngandu woman confessed, “after losing so many infants I lost courage to have sex.”
Is the strong cultural focus on sex as a reproductive tool the reason masturbation and homosexual practices seem to be virtually unknown among the Aka and Ngandu? That isn’t clear. But the Hewletts did find that their informants — whom they knew well from years of field work — “were not aware of these practices, did not have terms for them,” and, in the case of the Aka, had a hard time even understanding about what the researchers were asking when they asked about homosexual behaviors.
The article goes on to discuss how sexuality as a genetic and socially conditioned trait can lead to societies where expressions of homosexuality are almost non-existent. It is noted that the absence of homosexual behavior and identity are not the same as the absence of same-sex attractions and desires, just that the society does not have a developed conceptual language to describe these desires or their behavioral manifestations, nor does it appear that same-sex attracted individuals in these cultures have conduits to express their desires in a meaningful way through behavior:
When I put this [question about the existence of homosexual desire] to the Hewletts, they replied that indeed, the desire may exist in some individuals in these groups, but we simply do not know. They added that although the Aka and Ngandu live in small groups, “They travel extensively and our studies suggest each person knows about 400-500 individuals,” which means that, theoretically, a person with homosexual desires might find another person with the same. But in a culture in which the general idea of a desire doesn’t exist, such a desire might remain unarticulated, even if two people who share it find each other.
The absence of masturbation is harder to explain. It is noted that it is not a forbidden, socially taboo behavior that individual tribe members might conceal out of shame or fear, but rather the very concept of auto eroticism is alien. This is a striking finding, and one that raises questions. Dreger suggests that the mysterious absence of masturbation, something most westerners assume is a nearly universal sexual activity, might be due to the fact that it is not certain that masturbation is actually a universal sexual activity:
This finding recalls a much-discussed 2010 Behavioral and Brain Sciences paper called “The WEIRDest people in the world?” in which the authors argued that far too many sweeping claims about “human nature” are drawn exclusively from samples of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies.
Studies of small-scale, rural, non-Western cultures like the Aka and Ngandu paint a more complicated picture of human variation. The Hewletts remark that, “the Western cultural emphasis on recreational sex has … led some researchers to suggest that human sexuality is similar to bonobo apes because they have frequent non-reproductive sex, engage in sex throughout the female cycle, and use sex to reduce social tensions.” But, the Hewletts suggest, “The bonobo view may apply to Euro-Americans (plural), but from an Aka or Ngandu viewpoint, sex is linked to reproduction and building a family.” Where sex is work, sex may just work differently.
Does this thesis, that a “more complicated picture of human variation” is at play than generally western biased sociology suggests resonate with anyone? I’d love to know your thoughts on the role of WEIRD biases in sociology.
I am also curious to hear reactions to this article generally; especially the sections that speculate on the genetic and sociological aspects of sexuality and sexual formation. I was struck by, and remain curious about the idea that individuals experiencing same-sex attraction in a society with no concept of homosexuality would never integrate those attractions and desires into their personal conceptions of their identity, even if they never acted out their attractions as behaviors. That seemed unrealistic to me – I can imagine a person with no formal theoretical understanding of homosexuality still internally understanding “these attractions a part of who I am, and make different from many (or all) of my neighbors.” It seems like any self aware individual would necessarily integrate this into their identity, even if they thought it was an odd personal quirk which didn’t relate to their sexual expression. I wonder if anyone has ever studied issues of sexual identity in depth for people living in these cultures, or if the Hewletts are right when they note that it is something we simply can’t know because the vocabulary doesn’t exist to ask probing questions. I’d love to know your thoughts.
h/t to Michael Hannon at Fordham Univ., a link he posted led me to this article.