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Introduction To Cultural Anthropology: The Sambia Dec. 22nd, 2018|03:26 am

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by Michael Moffatt

Today we are talking about our last, and 6th or 7th, Famous Culture -- the "Sambia" of New Guinea. On Weds. we're having our second hourly. I'll devote the last 20 minutes of today's lecture to a brief summary of the relevant readings for that hourly.


I discussed last time how the Yanomamo as studied by Chagnon were in almost the last place in western hemisphere still unreached by global civilization in the mid-1960s -- the Parime highlands between Venezuela and Brazil.. The only other place so remote -- perhaps the very last place in the world where one could still find relatively unknown cultures as late as the early 1970s -- was New Guinea (Viz). There is no such place today as far as I know, in the late-1990s. Even New Guinea, by much ethnographic evidence, has now very much joined the global world. Dozens of exotic cultures were documented by anthropologists in New Guinea at this very last moment, in the 1960s and 70s. Perhaps the best known of them are the Sambia of the eastern Highlands. Why? Because they led such odd sex lives, their men at least -- a mix of homosexuality and heterosexuality otherwise unknown to anthropology, and more than a little challenging to western psychology.

The Sambia are not famous because they were the only such culture in New Guinea. It turns out another 20 or 30 nearby cultures had similar odd sexual beliefs and practices. It also turns out that this had been quietly known among NG specialists in anthropology since the 1930s.. Only in the 1970s, however, did anyone feel free to conduct extensive research in one such culture, and to write it up (as Guardian of the Flutes, 1981, by Gilbert Herdt). Before that, prior to the western sexual revolution of the 1960s, sexuality, especially homosexuality, was apparently considered just too indecent and inappropriate for intellectual study and academic writing in the English-speaking world (50s, Latin).

Gilbert Herdt, our Famous anthropologist in this case, just happened to document these practices among the Sambia. A number of other NG cultures could be equally famous if somebody else had managed to study and write up their odd men's sex lifes in them first.

What were these practices, in any case? How did they fit into wider Sambian culture? And what sorts of challenges do they offer to wider concepts of human sexuality cross-culturally? I'll switch into the ethnographic present, 1974-1976, the years of Herdt's field research with the Sambia.


Politically and in social structure, as Herdt knows the Sambia in these years, they are somewhat like the Yanomamo. They are simple farmers, shifting horticulturalists who move around from time to time, to avoid their enemies and to keep their jungle gardens from getting exhausted. Herdt is trying to keep their identity as a group confidential in his 1981, so there are few photos of them in it -- here is about the only one, a rather dim black and white of their villages in their jungly envirnoment (viz). They live in an isolated highly forested area on the edge of the Highlands. They live in patrilineally organized small villages and clusters of villages, with headmen but no strong political leaders. These clusters of villages either exchange women in marriage with one another, in which case they are allies (once again, like the Y., often favoring cross-cousin marriage), or they fight with one another they engage in ongoing war against one another (and possibly against some other groups it's not clear in H.).

The sexual beliefs and practices we're about to outline are believed by the Sambia to make men who are capable of having babies with women ‚ they're about sexual reproduction of children. But they're also men's rites of passage, rituals of collective ordeals intended to build the strong and brave men who can be good warriors defending their own villages and families against their enemies. So here we go:

In ways Herdt gives you multiple examples of in the reading I've assigned, the Sambia believe that semen, male sexual fluid, is all important to human life, is in short supply, and must therefore be circulated through people, through both males and females, very carefully.

Semen is male essence of course; A female's sexual essence is her menstrual blood ‚ which is very scarey to men ‚ it along with vaginal secretions and lubricants during sex are the stuff of elaborate prohibitions and avoidances for men ‚ but menstrual blood is also an indication of the sexual and reproductive power of women (in ways H. also details in your reading, an opposition betwene women and men based in part on fears of one anothers sexual substancescuts all the way through the culture. Here's one of the few drawings in Herdt's book, of how a married family and their children sleep at night, in their hut (viz)

Both women and men, the S. believe, are born with an internal organ called a tingu, somewhere in the lower body cavity, that secretes their sexual substance . The tingu of females is believed to be full of blood at birth; it is believed to develop naturally, with no ritual help; it is believed to become fuller and fuller of blood that by late teenage years, this blood suddenly bursts out of a girl, at her first menstruation, signally that she is more or less ready to reproduce ‚ she is, without elaborate initiation, 'naturally' ready for sex, marriage, and having babies (there is a brief woman's secret initiation just before her first act of sexual intercourse with a man, however, about which H. could find out nothing)

The poor old male tingu, on the other hand, the Sambia believe, is born shrivled and dry -- its ability to produce semen is developed slowly through childhood and adolescence, through certain practices. These practices take place in a lengthy male initiation process, which literally takes years, and proceeds as follows.

  1. A baby, male or female, is believed to be formed in its mother's womb by regular infusions of semen from its father. Since according to S. culture, it's very dangerous for men to have sex with a women (though they believe it is sexually pleasurable) -- since it's dangerous and they also believe that a man must have penis-in-vagina sex many times with his wife to make a baby -- these two things contributes to the notion -- discussed at length in your reading ‚ that the S. see some sex as "work" [sex like this] and some as "play" [examples to follow].

    The only substance contribute the mother makes to the baby in the womb, it is believed, is blood, which passes from mother to baby. Everything else is built up from the father from his strong and life-giving semen

    After birth, the baby gets all its nourishment for a while from the mother, from her milk. The mother's ability to have lots of breast milk, however -- and the physical toughness she needs to get through childbirth -- are given to her in part by male semen, whose route into her body for this purpose will be explained later.

  2. At the age of 7 to 10, Sambia boys are taken away from their mothers (girls continue to live at home); boys are taken to a men's house in the village, where they will live for the next ten or so years of their lives. In their first three or four years in this house, mature men start teaching them men's ritual secrets, threatening them with death if they tell these secrets to women. They introduce them to complex ritual associations between the penis, sacred flutes played only by the men and associated with powerful spirits, and nose bleeding (mature males often get rid of the pollution they believe they take in when they sleep with women by forcing themselves to have violent nose-bleeds). And they introduce them to the key act by which they are given what they need to mature (older teenage boys in later stages of male initiation are inforcers of all this men's knowledge, beating up younger boys who don't concentrate or go along with all they're being taught).

    What is this key act by which their maturation is insured? Regular fellatio ‚ putting the penis of another male in their mouth ‚ regular fellatio of an older youth, physically and sexually mature, aged roughly 14-18 [we'll come to their point of view when we get to later stages of this] ‚ the younger boys are taught to fellate the older teenagers, and -- all important, to bring them to orgasm and to ingest (swallow) the semen or sexual fluid the older boys' penises produce.

    For this is the whole point of S. initiation ‚ or one of its main points ‚ to build up the poor little dry baby tingus of the young boys by feeding them the semen of older, stronger, late-teenage young men.

    The Sambian technique, one-way fellatio (young boys always fellate older boys; an older boy never fellates a younger boy) ‚ Sambian ritual fellatio is not a casual business. It's supposedly very secret. When it's done, it's not done around other males in the men's house: it's done very privately out in the bush at night between an older and younger boy who have agreed to met. The older boy -- the fellated -- represents his superior position by standing, while the fellator represents his youth and status inferiority by kneeling in front of him.

    At first, the older partner demands the fellatio, or older boys tell younger boys to find someone to fellate or they'll get beaten up.. Later, juniors regular initiate fellatio. Juniors are reluctant at first, eventually becoming used to it, H. reports. They are motivated by fear of punishment, but they are also typically soon motivated by what might be called cultural desire -- by the pervasive cultural instruction that they must do it to become men, which is of course what they want to become. Once you learn and accept S. men's culture, in fact, the older fellated male is actually doing the younger fellator the bigger favor. The fellated is only getting a little sexual pleasure from the act. The younger fellator is acquiring the the much more valuable, all important, semen -- at a certain risk on the part of the older partner -- any male can have his semen depleted if he's not careful.

    Another part of the Sambian cultural justification of fellatio at this early stage of initiation is, the yonger bosy are told: just as very little S. boys sucked white milk from their mother's breast when they were infants, now too they're sucking white semen from the older boys penises. In various instructions and cultural symbolism to which they're exposed, the penis of the older boy = mother's breast; semen = mother's milk

    The younger males rarely report any particular sexual pleasure from being fellators -- this is their introduction to sex as "work," as something difficult you must do for aanother important reason. As trhey approach puberty, however, some of them begin to find it stimulating ‚ they report getting their own erections while doing it (they presumably just have to let this early male erections subside; given the S. concern with the value of semen, masturbation is virtually unthinkable among them, H suggests -- also, the S. believe that male wet-dreams, involuntary orgasms while asleep, are equally regretable, and have to do with bad spirits coming and seducing them in their sleep, and making them waste their semen.

    While engaging in this initial fellatio, the younger males are repeatedly told to avoid all contacts with mature females; women's sexual substances are believe to be especially dangerous to males at this fragile developmental period in partiuclar -- only when you've gone most of the way through this process, they are told, and have a well-functioning tingu, and know a lot of male secrets, will you be ready for dangerous but exciting business of mature adult sex with women.

    Fellatio as initiating males practice it must always be non-reciprocal -- older males must always be fellated, younger males must fellate -- but between groups of older and younger boys, fellatio follows a relatively collective or promiscuous pattern; fellators and fellateds can switch off regularly; there's no particular person-to-person bonding reported. But: you can only fellate a non-kinsman, the Sambians say, someone in the same category of male from whom you might get a wife in marriage. To have homosexual relations with a male kinsman is the same as -- and as bad as -- incestuous sex with a close female relative; it's believe to be as bad as sex with a sister. One of the big points of the article I've given you as that, according to Herdt's analysis in it,: semen flows through the same channels as hetersexuality and marriage; it defines the same group relations as heterosexuality and marriage.

  3. After learning all they have to learn and practicing fellatio several times a week for 3 to 6 years, around the ages of 13 or14 the younger boys start to mature physically and sexually -- their bodies develop, their sexual organs get bigger, their muscles get stronger, and the Sambians say, in effect, "hey, look, it works; this is why we do it!"

    So the older men in charge of boy's initiation throw a big public intiation ceremony for all the boys of this age, to report that they've made it to junior adult, as it were -- to a phase which Herdt calls "bachelor"; this status is also considered "junior warrior" in the prestigous Sambian adult male warfare complex. Soon these older male teenagers will be physical authorities over a new crop of younger boys being taken into stage 2 at the ages of 7 to 10. And they now switch positions in the fellatio of maturation -- they going from being the weak and inferior fellators to the strong and virile fellated.

    Now, in exchange for the semen they can donate to the younger males -- now, for the first time, not too surprisingly, these older teenage males talk of experiencing significant sexual pleasure on a regular basis for the first time. From now on, as your reading indicates, sex starts being "play," for fun, as much as it was "work" before (to develop), and will be again (with your wife, to make a child).. According to psychological work H reports elsewhere in the book from which this article was taken -- H has also had training in psychoanalysis --now adolescent Sambian and adult males report being erotically turned on by images of younger male's mouths -- they "fetischize" them, they compare them, they fantasize about them, Herdt tells us. But they also do the same about women in their sexual fantasies even at these years, even when they're still engaged in exclusively male homosexual practices.

    As I noted before, however, older adolesent males being fellated lose valuable semen to younger men. How can the older males tolerate this? First of all, with their maturity, it is believed that their tingus are really working, strongly enough to sustain some semen withdrawals for a good collective purpose like helping younger males develop. And by now these older youths have learned some mens ritual secrets about things other than penises that help them build their semen - the nuts and sap of certain trees, one or two meats, a few magical practices. Nevertheless, these older youths are also advised to limit the duties and pleasures of being fellated somewhat -- to be moderate in the good works of their fellatio to the masses.

  4. Still another 3-4 years after this, at the ages of 17-18, as late as 21 -- after years of being fellated bachelors, the men are now married. This is only marriage, stage 1, however. Their wife is typically a woman arranged to be their wife from birth (men arrange their children's marriages at birth in many cases, often agreeing to exchange daughters between sons when all the parties involved are still infants or children) -- the wife is typically married (stage 1) when she is 14 or 15, two or three years before her first menstruation (which in a typical third-world, non-modern nutrition pattern occurs at the ages of 17 or 18).

    Couples married stage 1 don't set up housekeeping together -- the young man stays in the men's house, the woman with her family. But they do meet quietly to talk and for regular sex. Only it's oral sex, the husband now being fellated by his wife -- who ingests his semen, and this semen is believed to toughen her up on the eve of her own maturity -- for menstruation itself, for the rigors of childbirth, and to have abundant milk thereafter (I told you women would be getting semen too, other than through sexual intercourse -- here's how).

    During this stage 1 of marriage, Sambian males also go on being fellated by younger males, so this is acutally a period of bisexuality for them, when it comes to oral sex -- being the all-powerful fellated for younger and weaker females and males alike. How come yonger males can go on fellating these older half-married males if female substance is so dangerous to younger males. Shouldn't a penis that is being regularly fellated by a female be very polluting to any male who approaches it? Apparently not, because the female has made contact with it with her mouth, not nearly as polluting as her vagina. And a premenstrual female is far less dangerous to a maturing Sambian male than a menstrual one is.

  5. Which is related to the logic of why, stage 5, a male must suddenly stop engaging in any homosexual fellatio at all, now and for the rest of his life -- once his maturing wife has her first menstruation, once they celebrate Sambian marriage part 2, once they move in together to set up household on a fulltime basis, and once they experience -- for the first time in either of their lives -- man-woman penis-in-vagina sexual intercourse.

    Now the man is considered strong enough and knowledgeable enough to engage in the work of sex with a woman for the purpose of procreating his own children. Now he must no longer allow younger males access to his nuturing penis, for it will now be a threatening penis -- too polluted by sex with women to ever be safe for men again.

    As a little transtion for him, his wife can go on fellating him, for her own toughening and his own pleasure, presumably. And sometimes young husband go on sneaking a little male fellatio for a year or two, Herdt discovers.. But on the whole, Herdt reports, this odd pattern of homo- heterosexual development is so carefully taught, so culturally supported, so natural in Sambian assumptions that almost everyone goes along with it, quite strictly; H. estimates about 95% compliance, with the 5% deviants deviating in both directions -- too much heterosex when they're supposed to be homosex, too much homo sex when they';re supposed to be heterosex. But the compliance rate again is, in H's educated guess, a very impressive 95%.


This Sambian pattern ought not to be possible by most western assumptions of sexual development. Most western psychologists would probably argue that, whatever way a maturing male has enjoyed sex during his first ten years of sexual experience -- whatever his basic 'orientations' have proven to be, or been encouraged, during these years -- however he has been sexually in his formative years, so he should go on wanting to be for the rest of his life. Homosexuals just do not turn into heterosexuals like this, most westerners would probably assume

But maybe most westerners would be wrong. Maybe human sexual nature is more flexible, more susceptable to cultural conditioning, than common western suggest. The great founder of modern psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud himself believed that human sexual nature was 'naturally' bisexual, or polysexual; Sambian patterns seem to leave the possiblities of both homosexual and heterosexual pleasure equally wide open, though distributing them carefully across the phases of the male life cycle in very different proportions.

Even when the female claimed that she was above the age of consent, if she was shown to be younger, then the accused could be convicted.17 What about when the girl was just slightly above the legal age? The Georgia Supreme Court argued that in such cases the jury should take into account the mental and physical development of the girl. In Pounds v. State (1898), the court said that, although the girl assaulted was over ten years old, if the jury concluded that "she was a child in stature, constitution and physical and mental development, and they believed from her age and appearance that she was incapable of consenting," then the accused should be convicted of rape, "although she made no objection to the intercourse."18 The southern appellate judiciary insisted, however, that the indictment had to indicate the age of the girl and the prosecution had to present sufficient evidence of her age; otherwise, the judges would not hesitate to grant defendants a new trial.19

Or possibly, as Herdt himself believes, though Sambian men enjoy their homosexual pleasures, they enjoy their heterosexuality even more. The opposition between homosexuality and heterosexuality is our problem. As they construct male sexual development, what we see as HS they see as their youthful way of getting ready for women. They don't deny these can be erotically enjoyable. And as mature adults they often rememeber their boy-to-boy erotic pleasures happily, almost as though they were parts of their innocent youth. But the whole point of all their activities, as their culture defines them, is to get them ready as strong developed men for the much more exciting and reproductively and culturally important bueinss of sex with women, the stuff of real adult life, and the stuff in male sexual fantasy even more exciting that youthful sex with boys (Herdt works on this through analysis of dreams, listening in on male sex talk, and free assocation techniques -- they have happy memories of sex with one another, but their real lust is for women).

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