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The Cross-Cultural Study of Human Sexuality Author(s): D. L. Davis and R. G.

Source: Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 16 (1987), pp. 69-98
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Ann. Rev. Anthropol. 1987. 16:69-98
Copyright 1987 by Annual Reviews Inc. All rights reserved



D. L. Davis
Anthropology Program, Department of Social Behavior, University of South Dakota,
Vermillion, South Dakota 57069

R. G. Whitten
Clinical Psychology Program, Psychology Department, University of North Dakota,
Grand Forks, North Dakota 58202

Anthropology has long had a love-hate relationship with the study of human
sexuality. Although the origins of anthropology were marked by concems and
debates over the topic (275, 356), contemporary anthropologists have gener- ally
moved away from consideration of the erotic and exotic into more respectable
and less controversial kinds of topics. Meanwhile sexuality re- mains an
intrinsic, if rarely studied, aspect of human experience (124).
This essay is a brief review of cross-cultural human sexuality and the typical
concems anthropologists have brought to the study of sexual practices. In order
to present the range of areas that anthropologists have investigated, detail has
been sacrificed for comprehensive coverage. Following discussions of history,
methods, and ethics, the review is divided into a discussion of two major topics:
heterosexual behavior and homosexual behavior. Although we have attempted
to inelude examples of the wide-ranging concems and in- terests of
anthropologists, it has been necessary to neglect equally important approaches.
Excluded are discussions of human biology and evolution, repro- ductive health
and hygiene, gender role and status (297), the psychodynamic approach to
understanding human sexual behavior, and historical surveys of Western sexual
practice (65, 130). Instead we focus on cross-cultural studies of sexual practice
that attempt to deal with human sexual arousal, attraction, and customary means
of dealing with sexuality in non-Westem cultures.


Sex and Anthropology: A Brief History

According to Gebhard (141), former director of the Kinsey Institute, an-
thropology did not officially recognize the importance of cross-cultural sex
research until 1961. At that time a Plenary Session of the American An-
thropological Association was devoted to human sexual behavior. Actually,
despite this belated official recognition, anthropologists had studied and
published on sexual practice throughout the previous century (151).
Earlier cross-cultural sex research was undertaken for two widely disparate
reasons. One perspective, which focused on problems of cultural evolution,
suggested that early human society was typified by sexual promiscuity and
group marriage (20, 136, 262, 276, 315, 376). Malinowski (250, 252, 275) and
Westermarck (390) argued against this view and the evidence for it. Other early
writers perpetuated a long-standing tradition of anthropological pomog- raphy,
in which cross-cultural data on sexual practice is presented to titillate a Western
audience. Titles or publishing houses may even contain anthropolo- gy,
ethnography, or ethnopomography in their ames (11, 52, 61-63, 71, 198,
324,326, 355, 363). Some texts may have begun as serious works but were
adulterated through many subsequent editions (e.g. 318, 383).
The 19th-century association of sex research with cultural evolution was
replaced in the 20th century by an association with a succession of general issues
including cultural relativism, feminism, reproduction, and minority rights (98).
The specific nature of cross-cultural sex research has typically been a function
of how the West views sexuality at a given time. Current popular Western
concems with such phenomena as premarital sex, prostitu- tion, child
molestation, or homosexuality influence the specific customs that become the
focus of research (336). Malinowskis (252) fictional debate between a flapper,
a feminist, a communist, and an od man is a good example of how current
concems have directed anthropological research.
Cross-Cultural Methods of Sex Research
Cultural anthropologists have relied on both primary and secondary methods to
study human sexual behavior. Primary methods inelude the use of tradition- al
fieldwork or participant observation and the collection of data with struc- tured
personal interviews or questionnaire surveys. Secondary methods in- clude
literature reviews and use of the Human Relation Area Files (HRAF).
Although sexuality remains an intrinsic aspect of human experience in every
culture, ethnographic descriptions of sexual behavior are often limited to
accounts of marriage and family. Yet methodological guidelines do exist for the
treatment of erotic behavior as legitimate topic of research. Trager (372)
suggests some complex, linguistically derived guidelines for the study of
cultural activities concemed with sex. These inelude the systematic an- alysis of
the setting, content, and function of sexual behavior. Marshall &
Suggs (257) list 353 tems known to the cross-cultural erotic repertoire that can
be used as a guide to data collection in fieldwork. Such guidelines have been
largely ignored. However, many of the pitfalls and problems of fieldwork have

been brought to light, both by those who have criticized the methods and
behavior of other anthropologists (12, 133, 163, 359) and by those who have
retrospectively evaluated their own fieldwork (269, 393).
As an altemative to field research, the Kinsey interview, modified or even
adapted to a survey questionnaire format, has been used in the cross-cultural
setting, most typically by nonanthropologists (2, 18, 213, 216, 298, 299, 309,
348, 362). An advcate of Kinsey-type direct questioning, Gregersen (162)
maintains that this method allows the researcher to collect highly specific
statistical information from individual members of a society, produces cross-
culturally comparable data, and allows one to distinguish real from ideal
behavior. Critics (25, 134) maintain that the problem of sorting the real from the
ideal also exists in the questionnaire format; some refuse to accept numbers as
justifying or defining norms (154). Others concede that although such data can
be useful for the construction of hypotheses, the results are purely descriptive
and leave unexplored the more meaningful aspects of human sexual practice
(132, 188, 310). For example, Symington (362) found that 66% of married
Rhodesians have intercourse that lasts less than five minutes. Although
interesting, this finding does seem to rob Rhodesian sexual practice of its
vitality. Moreover, high respondent-refusal rates, inadequate sampling, and
incomplete and modified use of the questionnaire compromise the comparability
of the data generated.
A substantial body of anthropological data on human sexuality comes from
the comparative analysis of traits coded in the HRAF (56, 58, 59, 89, 114, 119,
148, 173, 189, 215, 235, 259, 271, 279, 282, 321-323, 349, 400). Over the years
the HRAF have been used to test for correlations to support or negate a wide
range of hypotheses. Most hypotheses seek to account for variation in the
restrictiveness of sexual practices (235) and tend to reflect popular concems in
our own society, such as adolescent sexuality, rape, or homosexuality. The
problems and advantages of the HRAF for sex research have been discussed
elsewhere (57, 132, 354).
The most glaring omission in professional research on sexual practice is
certainly in the area of homosexuality. Although early attempts were made to
describe some sex pattems of arousal and attraction (70, 363, 391), this topic
quickly went underground and is only today receiving the serious attention it
deserves (e.g. 48, 175).
Ethics and Sex Research
Related to the methodological issues are the question of ethics and problems of
ethnocentric and androcentric bias. Sexual practices always involve some
degree of privacy, and the ethical implications of their scientifc study and of
the publication of findings are myriad. Issues of informed consent (24, 269) and
reifcation of negative Western stereotypes of savages are extremely
problematic (19). Moreover, an anthropologists own sexual behavior in the
field can present many ethical dilemmas (42, 253, 367, 393).
Another ethical question concems the use of anthropological data. Marshall

& Suggs (257, 360) take anthropologists to task for tending to publish only in
anthropological joumals for anthropological audiences. They suggest it is
ethically imperative that anthropological materials on human sexual behavior
reach a wider audience. Yet publishing for a nonprofessional audience also
involves risks and is even the subject of a recent satiric novel (314). Mali-
nowski (252) was accused of using anthropological descriptions of the Trob-
riand Islanders to pervert the youth of his own culture. Messenger (269) and
Scheper-Hughes (342) have both described the negative backlash generated by
their depictions of Irish sexuality. In a more constructive vein, James (199) has
made a plea for anthropologists to become more informed about how their
research is being used by others, especially those in a position to make policy
Anthropology has also helped to publicly expose many of the ethnocentric
biases of Western society (141, 143, 203, 257). Typical biases inelude the beliefs
that: sexual practice is constant through history and across cultures; anything
other than procreative sex is bad; sexual acts can be universally graded from
natural and good to unnatural and dangerous or bad; and unusual erotic behavior
is always associated with psychiatric and social ills (336). However,
anthropologists, along with sexologists in general, have also been criticized for
their androcentric, patriarchal, phallocentric (49, 230, 371, 377), and
homophobic (12) orientations and for equating sex with a series of acts rather
than with an experience deeply rooted in the social or gender constructs of a
society (306, 335, 378).
Throughout its history the anthropology of sex research has remained a
highly provocative undertaking. Methodological and ethical issues continu to
plague the subject area. Some anthropologists even feel that entering the field
of sex research will jeopardize their professional careers (P. Gebhard,
unpublished observation). However, given the tremendous variation in sexual
behavior across the ethnographic spectrum, and the growing interests of other
disciplines in this behavior (97), anthropologists have the responsibility to
provide up-to-date description and analysis of the cultural dimensions of sexual

As used here the term heterosexual behavior refers to activities involving sexual
arousal and attraction between two or more people, at least two of whom are of
opposite sexes. The focus of the arousal and attraction is on gratification found
in an opposite-sex partner. Such activities may inelude but are not limited to
vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, interfemoral in- tercourse, cunnilingus,
fellatio, masturbation, and mutual masturbation. Heterosexual behavior may
occur in or outside the context of marriage, and may or may not have procreation
as a goal (402, 329). The significance of heterosexual behavior vares widely
between cultures, and little is known conceming intracultural variation in non-
Western societies.

Background and General Resources

Although research on sexuality has been described as a vulnerable and neglected
enterprise (141), a surprisingly large number of specialized ethnographic
sources exist. Three introductory texts have recently been pub- lished (132, 163,
329). A large part of the literature consists of encyclopedic accounts of the cross-
cultural distribution of various sexual practices (126, 128, 142, 167, 174a, 203,
254, 271, 304, 318). Basing their work on firsthand participant observation,
others attempt to go beyond mere listing of sexual curiosities to demnstrate
how sexual activities relate to a wider cultural context. Studies based on Pacific
cultures following Malinowskis (249, 251) early works, which contain a wealth
of information on childhood, premarital sexual practice, erotic games, and
amorous adventures, are partic- ularly notable. In this tradition the work of many
others (37, 38, 93, 95, 96, 146, 185, 243, 255, 256, 264, 358, 359, 361) may be
mentioned. As advocates of the doctrine of cultural relativism, these authors
have stressed that although permissive by Western standards, native Pacific
sexual practices do function within a native moral framework. Similar book-
length sexual ethnographies exist for other culture areas (118, 155, 165, 350,
Other researchers have included discussion of sexual practice in ethnogra-
phy chapters dealing with courtship and marriage (228, 301) but provide little
other information on the cultural context of sexuality. Schaperas (341) and
Junods (205) books on marriage are recommended for their thorough dis-
cussions of sexual practice and native views about it. In a similar vein, brief
descriptions of local sexual practice have been published by a number of
fieldworkers (9, 33, 84, 104-106, 112, 121, 149, 172, 184, 187, 207, 332). These
descriptions, although candid and important, are necessarily brief and present
sexual practice as somehow removed from everyday life and cultural context. In
contrast, the collection of brief essays edited by Marshall & Suggs (257) stands
as a model of the discussion of sexual behavior in an ethnographic setting.
Messengers (269) and Marshalls (256) essays are particu- larly accessible and
have repeatedly been cited concerning sexually permissive and sexually
restrictive societies in general human sexuality textbooks (97).
Cross-Cultural Studies of Normative Sexual Behavior
Many cross-cultural studies have sought to define the local norms of sexual
practice and discuss the cultural means by which normative behavior is
maintained. Anthropologists continu to identify pattems of sexual behavior in
terms of permissive and restrictive sex rules (89, 114). Fray ser (132) uses
HRAF data to arge that the nature of sex rules in any society is directly related
to the extent to which sexual and reproductive relations overlap. Using the same
data, Reiss (329) suggests that cultural scripts for high and low permissiveness
stem from a linkage of marital sexuality, power relations, and an innate human
tendency towards jealousy. Broude (57), however, questions the assumption that
cultures can be categorized as either permissive or restrictive in their overall
orientation. Less comprehensive discussions of norms and the regulation of
sexual behavior tend to fall into four categories: marriage and sexuality,

socialization, initiations and ceremonies, and aging.

SEXUALITY AND MARRIAGEFor Western societies the custom of marriage is usually

thought of as the social institution that legitimizes heterosexual practice. Early
in the century, however, Malinowski (252) pointed out that sex cannot always
be equated with marriage because in many societies a range of extramarital
sexual practice is part of normal behavior (e.g. premarital activity, concubinage,
ceremonial sexual behavior, prostitution, or sexual practice outside of otherwise
exclusive relationships). or is marriage always associated with sexual rights
(74, 151). In any case, although a huge literature on various forms of marriage
exists, little of it directly addresses sexual behavior (39, 135, 307, 325).
Exceptions to this omission inelude Junod (205), Schapera (341), and Evans-
Pritchard (121), who offer explicit discussions of marital sexual practices.

Premarital sexual practice Anthropology has had a long-standing interest in

premarital sexuality, and the topic contines to be a focus of lively debate (133,
263). Some of the disciplines interest in the practice probably stems from
current Western concems (26, 174a, 316, 336). Many authors have described
local premarital sexual practice (66, 85, 145, 150, 164, 165, 181, 190, 196, 277,
300, 379, 399, 403). Zem (403) has argued that this is one topic where the reality
of local behavior is likely different from the normative ideal of behavior.
A large number of HRAF studies on premarital sexual practice exist (148,
259, 334, 389). Broude (56) has critically reviewed these and apparently agrees
with Murdocks (282) conclusin that the more complex a society, the more
restrictions are likely to be found involving premarital sexuality. However the
details of the relationship remain unclear.
Extramarital sexual practice Both case studies and HRAF studies have been
undertaken on this topic. With certain exceptions [e.g. the Nayar (157) and
Eskimo (165a)], extramarital heterosexual behavior is rarely culturally sanc-
tioned. However, the local normative ideis of extramarital sexual practice
probably differ widely from practical reality (90). Ethnographic case studies
reveal a variety of circumstances where extramarital sexual relations occur (22-
24, 146, 164, 165, 206, 345). Broudes (57) review of HRAF studies on the topic
suggests that the prevalence of extramarital heterosexual behavior may be
related the intimate versus aloof nature of a cultures marital rela- tionships.
Referring to HRAF data, Frayser (132) concludes that in most societies rules
goveming premarital and extramarital sex are generally con- sistent for male and
females; however, societies that do have double standards always allow greater
sexual freedom to the male.

Intrafamilial sexual practice Incestheterosexual behavior within the fami- ly

involving partners who are not marriedhas been described for specific
societies in only a few sources (102, 152, 169, 333). Anthropologys concern
with incest has ranged from its meaning for human evolution (131, 132) to its
meaning for kinship (171, 236, 329). Surprisingly little is known about incest as

a strictly sexual phenomenon. Parker & Parker (311) have summarized how an
anthropological perspective on father-daughter incest can be relevant for the
development of social policies involving child molestation.

Studies of child rearing and sexual- ity are typically


informed by the notion that adult attitudes about sexuality are the result of how
children are presented with and trained in sexual matters. The archetypal study
in this regard is Meads (263). Like Mead, other anthropologists have presented
cross-cultural data on child rearing in order to point out difficiencies in Western
methods (182). More detailed approaches to the study of child rearing and its
meaning for adult sexuality are also available (234, 272, 340, 395).
HRAF studies relating child rearing to adult sexuality have been attempted
(26, 173, 280, 321-323). Barry & Schlegels (26) results are notable for the
suggestion that a societys views on a childs sexual behavior are a function of
both the childs genetic sex and whether the child typically undergoes abrupt
changes in status via initiation ceremonies. Broude (57) concludes that child
training can have a profound effect on adult sexual orientation.

Initiation rites and religious ceremonies may inelude


elements that can be viewed as directly or indirectly sexual (e.g, 21, 40, 156,
174a). Genital mutilation may be part of such rites of passage (158, 163, 169,
193, 246, 274, 324, 394). Intercourse, real or simulated, may be an important
part of various ceremonies (32, 110, 209, 223, 330, 374). Frayser (132) relates
elabrate marriage ceremonies to sexual restrictiveness. Brain (53) has
discussed the role of such ceremonies in the public instruction of sexual conduct
among a number of different societies. Ceremonial sexual practice and
ceremonially defined occasions for sexual license were common themes in the
early literature on human sexual practices (69, 91, 254, 318).

Anthropologists have rarely studied the degree to which


aging affects sexuality. Kemss (212) study of Black Belizian women is an

exception. Two HRAF studies have also addressed the issue. Apparently it is
common to find that men and women continu to be sexually active throughout
od age (189, 400).

Sexual Variation
Because every human society has normative expectations about sexual practice,
certain practices are by definition at variance with the norm. Some individuis
find variant behavior arousing. Cultures differ in how serious a threat they
consider variations from the norm to be, and in the fervor with which normality
is enforced. Needless to say, sexual deviance is a relative concept (267).
Anthropologists have made an effort to point out this fact to a wider audience
ever since Ruth Benedicts (35) pioneering essay in 1939. By comparison with
many other societies, Western cultures appear to be particu- larly concemed with
sexual norms and variation, and have taken extreme measures to enforce
normality (65, 373). Henee in the West there are emic categories like sex

crimes, paraphilias, and sexual deviants. Individuis may as a result be

extremely distressed if the habitual object of their sexual arousal is widely
viewed as at variance with common or traditional arousal pattems.
Cross-cultural data has been used by anthropologists (35, 116, 127, 191, 202,
221, 381) to place deviant practices as defined in the West into a broader human
perspective. Browns (59) research focused on why certain types of sexual
behavior are considered deviant in some cultures but acceptable or tolerable in
others. Incest, rape, and abduction were found to be the most commonly
unacceptable practices and the practices resulting in the most severe
punishment. Reiss (329) has developed a complex biological, psycho- logical,
and sociological model to explain sexual variation and social sanc- tions
worldwide. More specific topics of anthropological interest inelude prostitution,
rape, child molestation, and bestiality.

PROSTITUTIONThe few anthropological sources available on this topic are of

considerable interest and demnstrate the kind of contribution the cross- cultural
method can make to the study of human sexuality. Although prostitu- tion is
generally considered to involve casual sexual activities for pay (163), it is clear
that the custom is generally more complex (113, 153). Prostitution can be a part-
or fulltime endeavor, and the social status of the prostitute vares considerably.
Henriques (174) has offered a comparison and summary of prostitution practices
in a number of Western and non-Westem societies. In the United States James
(200, 201) has studied the subcultural aspects of the practice and the factors
leading up to its adoption. Bujra (64) and Little (244, 245) have described the
entrepreneurial aspects of formally organized women prostitutes associations
in Africa. Sociobiological analyses of prostitution have been offered by Wemer
(388) and Burley & Symanski (68). One typical argument claims prostitution
exists to assure that women will mate in spite of a shortage of marriageable
males. Pouillon (319) describes how modemiza- tion has led to the practice of
female prostitution in Ethiopia. Other dis- cussions of prostitution are available
(17, 92, 113, 214, 218, 370).
RAPE Although ethnographers have mentioned the practice of rape in many
societies (256, 301), the current concern with the topic in the United States has
led to a number of cross-cultural analyses (81, 308, 327, 338, 382). Generally
defined as forced heterosexual behavior, rape may be a sanctioned or
unsanctioned practice. Raymond (327) has noted examples of gang (mltiple
males) rape as instances of social control. Male rape by females is apparently a
rare phenomenon. Edgerton & Conant (117) describe sexual humiliation of a
male by a group of females among the Pokot of Africa.
Rape is not apparent in all human cultures. Anthropologists have attempted
to explain the presence or absence of the practice and found factors like unequal
sexual relationships (58, 329, 382), degree of Western contact (81, 233), degree
of likely punishment, and the presence of fraternal interest groups (308) to be
important. Sandays (338) HRAF study suggests that high degrees of
interpersonal violence, sexual segregation, and generally disturbed relationships

with the native environment may be key factors in the pre- valence of rape.
Heterosexual behavior between a child and an adult that involves

some degree of coercin is referred to as child molestation. Discussions of the

practice may be found in Law (229), Weatherford (381), and Tuteur (375).
Scheper-Hughes & Stein (343) and Rubin (336) have attempted to put Western
concems over the practice into a wider culture context and have viewed the
practice as an example of exploitation in general. Uncoerced sexual behavior
between a child and adult occurs as well (155, 256, 325, 381).
Research on bestiality or zoophilia is rare. Two exceptions are the

comments by Beidelman (31) for the Kuguru and by Devereux (103) for the
Mohave. The Kuguru consider the practice of human intercourse with another
persons cows as an example of inappropriate use of personal prop- erty.
Devereux (103) suggests sanctions against bestiality may stem from
uncertainties conceming the distinctions between humans and other animis.
Sexual Anxiety and Pollution
It is not ethnocentric to conclude that a degree of ambivalence typifies much
sexual behavior (41, 115, 165, 186, 329, 371, 378). As a central issue in the
relations between men and women, heterosexual behavior is often accom-
panied by elements of personal anxiety and gender-role concerns (3, 13, 226).
Heterosexual behavior is rarely a merely physical act but is generally associ-
ated with a panoply of social and symbolic phenomena. As in the United States,
heterosexual behavior elsewhere is often viewed as personally or socially
dangerous; that is, the acts are thought to have negative ramifications for
humans, the culture, and nature (27, 28, 242) and may also be associated with
sickness and pollution (166, 305). Bodily fluids associated with the genitals
(semen and menstrual fluids) may as a result of this attitude come to have
important symbolic valu (107, 222). Examples of such symbolism have been
reported for a range of different cultures (122, 210, 216, 265, 266, 290). In the
West, sexual anxiety and pollution have been associated with the notions of
obscenity and pornography (179). This association has been stud- ied by Clark
& Davis (87) and in Weatherfords (381) description of a pornographic
HRAF studies on sexual anxiety have focused on the psychodynamic aspects
of the response (119), its relation to the incidence of magic (349), and its
relationship to rape and homosexuality (271). Broude (57) has argued, however,
that sexual anxiety is not a unitary phenomenon and that any study of anxiety
should be regarded with caution. In the United States, sexual anxiety has been
associated with a range of sexual dysfunctions (211). Welch & Kartub (386)
have found male impotence to be cross-culturally associated with high degrees
of sexual restrictiveness, but levels of female sexual demands are not widely
associated with impotence.
Culture Change and Heterosexual Behavior
As might be expected, assimilation, acculturation, and urbanization generally

result in changes in sexual practice. Using the HRAF, Reiss (329) presents a
sociological theory to explain how universal linkages among kinship, power,
and ideology oprate in different societies to effect change in sexual customs.
More descriptive accounts of the effects of cultural change on sexual practice
have been presented for the Eskimo (298, 299), Pacific Islanders (256, 260), US
Chinese immigrants (385), Ethiopians (319), the Gusii (233), New Guin- eans
(195), Australian Aborigines (34), and in East Africa (244, 248).
Heterosexual Behavior: Conclusions
This discussion does not exhaust the wealth of materials available to a researcher
interested in the cross-cultural study of heterosexual behavior. Folklorists and
linguists have for instance made valuable contributions to the study of human
sexual behavior (30, 36, 167, 232). Undoubtedly other important contributions
have been overlooked, but enough is known to sug- gest some of the richness
and variety that typify heterosexual behavior around the world.
Both strengths and weaknesses exist in the current State of anthropological
analysis. Several suggestions for further research can be made. First, an-
thropology needs an open, sensitive, and thorough debate on the ethics of sex
research. Related are issues involving publication and dissemination of mate-
rials related to non-Westem sexual practice. Second, more emphasis must be
placed on combining studies of heterosexual practices with studies of gender
and symbolism; or should the erotic and pleasurable aspects of sex be ignored.
Third, anthropologists should study sexual practice in terms of both local norms
and local variation. The typologies of sexually restrictive and sexually
permissive societies are ethnocentric, and they obscure the sociocultural
complexity of sexual behavior in a particular setting. Relatedly, anthropologists
have too often regarded the ideal as the real practice. Dis- cussions of modesty,
chastity, sexual anxiety, and pollution might benefit from a more critical
analysis of actual practice. Fourth, more fieldwork is needed. HRAF studies,
literature reviews, and mass surveys are no substitute for participant
observation. Too many societies have been described in the literature without
mention of local sexual practice. How such celibate cultures thrive is a mystery.
However, if discussions of heterosexual practice are typically weak or
lacking in general ethnographies, discussions of local homosexual practice can
be described as nearly nonexistent.

As used here the term homosexual behavior refers to erotic activity between two
or more individuis of the same genetic sex. The definition may be extended to
inelude the erotic feelings and pattems of sexual arousal focusing on individuis
of the same genetic sex, but little is known cross-culturally about the affective
component of homosexuality. Depending upon the genetic sex of the
individuis, these activities may inelude fellatio, cunnilingus, interfemoral
intercourse, anal intercourse, parallel masturbation, mutual masturbation, and
the use of artificial phalli. Participants in homosexual activity vary in age, status,

degree of interpersonal interest and commitment, level of sexual activity and

experience, level of sexual arousal, financial involvement, degree of bisexuality,
identification with normative gender roles, and desire for public display. These
same factors vary in heterosexual activity (387).
Two special elements are common to homosexual activity and its study. First,
it is by definition nonreproductive sexual activity; no offspring result from
homosexual liaisons. This fact may have repercussions for the social system (7).
Second, it is considered a deviant, abnormal, or even dangerous activity in many
societies. This may be one reason why anthropologists, in keeping with the
apparently taboo nature of the topic, have paid considerably less attention to
homosexuality than to heterosexual behavior. Indeed, it has been argued that
extreme homophobia is a distinctly Anglo-American trait (283, 373).
Background: Anthropology and Homosexuality
Anthropology has failed to devise its own theory of homosexuality (328); as a
result, anthropologists have been heavy borrowers of theories and ideas from
other disciplines on this topic (392). Since such borrowed ideas are inevitably
based upon studies of European or United States homosexual activities and
expectations of what is normal homosexual activity, they may not be relevant
to cross-cultural analysis (67, 79). Contemporary evidence de- monstrates that
there is a much greater range of homosexual behavior (and local attitudes about
it) elsewhere in the world than is typically found in Euro-American cultures
In the West, for instance, it may be common to expect that a homosexual
preference is life-long, exclusive, and may even be genetic in origin. Mcln- tosh
(261) has argued, however, that this kind of homosexuality is a relatively new
Western cultural phenomenon, and Weatherford (381) questions the extent to
which exclusive homosexual preferences are even characteristic of present day
US culture. The cross-cultural evidence suggests that life-long or exclusive
homosexuality is a rare phenomenon. Bisexuality and situational or ad hoc
homosexual behavior are more common. Neither is it apparent that among male
homosexuals one partner is inevitably the insertor (active) and the other the
insertee (passive). Such roles may be important in ad hoc or prostitution
situations, but considerably less is known about them in long- term dyadic
relationships, even for the United States (289).
Much variation is apparent in the degree of same-sex eroticism and
romanticism involved in homosexual activity (54). Individual variation un-
doubtedly exists in every culture, but the degree to which a same-sex partner is
seen as sexually arousing and the degree to which the partner is romanti- cized
and idealized vary considerably. For instance in New Guinea, male mentors
apparently do not fall in love with their youthful partners (175); while in Japan,
samurai warriors did incorprate romance and idealism into homosexual
partnerships (194). In both cases, however, the individuis involved are
undeniably masculine, and the relationship is based upon their maleness.
In certain homosexual situations one partner does undertake cross-gender

behavior and to some degree a cross-gender identity. Cross-gender behavior

refers here to the adoption of behavior locally viewed as appropriate to members
of the opposite genetic sex (73). In contradistinction to same-sex attraction, the
attractiveness of the homosexual partner may lie in his (or her) adoption of
opposite-sex characteristics. Not all homosexual partnerships or dyads
inevitably mimic the heterosexual roles of the larger society; one partner is not
inevitably masculinized (or feminized). It has been suggested that differences in
age, experience, and status may be of greater importance for the formation of
homosexual dyads than gender-role mimicry and its erotic appeal (4, 294, 296).
Nevertheless, extreme cases of cross-gender behavior are widespread (78).
In many societies there are males or females who adopt the dress and customs
traditionally ascribed to the opposite sex. Perhaps the best known examples are
the Berdache and the manly-hearted woman of Native North America (46,
72). This phenomenon has proved a major problem for anthropologists and the
cause of lively debate. Extreme cross-gender behavior exists, but Euro-
American ideas and terminology may be inappropriate to describe the reality of
the local situation. Similar kinds of cross-gender homosexual behavior in the
United States are viewed as fetishistic cross-dressing (transvestism), as comic
relief or gender parody (291), or as a gender identity disorder (transsexualism).
Placing non-Western cross-gender behavior into any of these categories may do
a disservice to the cross-cultural phenomena. New terminology for the roles has
been suggested (273).
Some anthropologists have suggested that extreme cross-gender behavior
should be understood in terms of a third sex (258, 396). The individual may
be locally understood, and may understand him or herself, as incorporating
aspects of both maleness and femaleness into a distinct kind of person. The
person is not parody, not fetishistic, and not a woman trapped in a mans body,
but rather a unique sexual and social being (138, 287, 288, 312). If this is the
case, even the term homosexual may be inappropriate for the individual or for
his or her sexual partners.
The cross-cultural study of female homosexuality is considerably less
developed than the study of male homosexuality. This may be a function of the
opportunities and concems of a typically male fieldworker rather than the result
of a low incidence of female homosexuality. Not only do fewer ethnographic
accounts exist, but fewer attempts at theoretical understanding have been made.
Blackwoods (43-48) pioneering work is exceptional here. She has cautioned
that researchers should not see female homosexuality as a mirror image of male
homosexuality. Because cultures typically expect differ- ent behavior of the two
sexes, the origins and maintaining factors of female homosexuality likely differ
from those of the male phenomenon.

major problem confronting the researcher in- terested in cross-
cultural homosexual behavior is the lack of thorough bibliographies. Although
many sources are available, no single resource deais with either male or female
homosexuality on a global basis. Westermarck (391) remains a special source

in this regard. Other bibliographies are either specialized for place and culture
[e.g. for Australia (317)], or for specific research sources [e.g. the HRAF (5)].
We (100) have compiled a bibliography for the cross-cultural combined study
of homosexuality and heterosexuality. Introductory materials are also scarce.
Back issues of the Anthropology Research Group on Homosexuality
Newsletter (ARGOH) do inelude refer- ences and discussions on this topic.
Blackwoods (48) recent compilation of articles is a major contribution. Most
summaries and overviews focus on the cross-cultural range of homosexual
behavior and the limitations of a Western perspective (12, 48, 86, 94, 125, 128,
163, 217, 302, 352, 353, 364). Unfortunately, the purposes of these reviews are
limited, and they tend to cite the same small number of anthropological studies.

APPROACHES TO STUDYSeveral approaches to the study of homosexuality are apparent

in the literature; but so few specialists have worked in the area, and so little has
been published, that it is impossible to delinate true trends or paradigms. A
number of HRAF studies seek to correlate the existence of male homosexuality
with factors such as child rearing, social structure, and rigidity of gender roles
(160, 278-281). The usual problems with operational de- finitions and statistics
are apparent in these studies. A recent HRAF style study of human sexuality
does not discuss homosexuality at all (e.g. 132).
A second group of studies is made up of ethnographies and case studies.
These inelude varying levels of theoretical analysis. Herdts (175-177, 178)
recent work on New Guinea homosexual behavior is informed by a heavy
psychodynamic perspective. Gay life ethnographies, whether dealing with the
United States (18, 328, 401) or with urban Latn America (14, 76, 138, 364,
365), tend to focus on the social dynamics, social networks, and emic categories
of homosexual behavior. In both cases the generally antagonistic valu system
of the wider society tends to forc homosexual individuis to band together to
fulfill mutual needs. Examples of homosexual behavior have been reported that
apparently spring from gender antagonism and strict sexual segregation (6, 88,
175, 176). In some societies homosexuals form a subculture because they are a
stigmatized minority defined by their sexual preference; in other societies the
sexual segregation of men and women can apparently lead to customary
homosexual behavior.
Some anthropologists have focused on homosexuality as an example of wider
concems involving gender and differential empowerment (15, 16, 46, 306).
Studies may involve either cross-gender behavior (50, 241, 339) or recent
Western issues of womens rights. Wolfs (401) ethnography of an urban female
homosexual network in the United States focuses upon the utopian and separatist
nature of the community (see also 109, 247). Bolins (50, 51) studies of
transsexuals focus upon the normative gender expectations of physicians.
Newton & Waltons analysis (293) based on personal experi- ence, attempts to
place sexual preference and experience in the context of US culture (see also
Another subtopic of interest to anthropologists is the homosexual mentor-

ship (175-177). Mentorships are a much more common form of homosexual

behavior than previously considered. These relationships usually form be- tween
a preadolescent and either an older adolescent or an adult. Adams (4) has
summarized the ethnographic data for male mentorships. Gay (140) has
identified a similar custom among Lesotho women. Although sexual in nature,
the relationships have other economic and social functions. Ethically this is a
particularly touchy issue. There is an enormous cultural prejudice against
similar kinds of partnerships in the United States (indeed they are typically
illegal), and the older partner is usually defined as mentally ill or as a sexual
Finally the literature on extreme cases of cross-gender behavior and sexual
indentification is growing (278, 281). The notion of a third sex has already been
mentioned, as has Bolins (50-5la) studies of US transsexuals. Further sources
are cited in the areal summaries, below. Examples of extreme cross- gender
behavior have been noted in North America, Latin America, Indonesia, the
Philippines, India, and the Saudi Peninsula.
Areal Overviews
No single source is available that can introduce the researcher to the cross-
cultural variation apparent in homosexual behavior. In the foliowing brief
comments we review selected studies from various cultural areas.
CONTEMPORARY UNITED STATES As members of a stigmatized minority group, it is not
uncommon for US male and female homosexuals to band together for mutual
support. Anthropological studies of US homosexual behavior have therefore
tended to focus on small-group behavior (8, 29, 284, 285, 328) and social
networks (328, 401). Nevertheless the problem of homosexual preference and
identity in US culture is an intrinsic part of all such studies. Studies focused
upon homosexual behavior and normative US gender roles are rare (82). Newton
(291, 292) has presented studies of male homosexual cross-dressing as parodies
of normative gender roles. Bolns (50-5 la) research also addresses this issue.

NATIVE NORTH AMERICAProbably no homosexual research topic has received as much

attention as that of the Native American Berdache. Recent reviews of historical
evidence for male cross-gender behavior in Native North America (10, 73, 101,
108, 129, 161, 197, 208, 270, 369, 392) have all stressed the normality of the
cross-gender role. Investigators have focused upon how cross-gender behavior
was incorporated into (rather than set apart from) normal social, mythological,
and religious Systems. This perspective suggests that although a Berdache was
recognizably different from other people, the individual was not necessarily
considered deviant. Indeed in some cases Berdache was recognized as a third
sex. Nevertheless, the roles and status of the Berdache were not uniform across
Native North America; and although homosexual behavior exists in
contemporary native societies, there is little local agreement on the persons
status, role, and nature (398, 398a). Some Native Americans have accepted a
medicalized view of their situation and have even sought sex reassignment (240,

Less well known than the Berdache is the manly-hearted woman (46, 101,
239). Blackwood (46) has identified manly-hearted women in five native
societies and has suggested that the acceptance of a genetic female in other- wise
male activities may be related to nonhierarchical social systems; it may also
expand the sexual options open to women.

LATN AMERICAStudies of homosexual behavior have focused upon male behavior

in urban Mxico and Brazil. Although there is some evidence that homosexual
behavior existed in pre-Columbian Latin America [at least in Per (227)], few
studies are available. An exception, from Mxico, is Rymphs (337) description
of native Zapotee Indian transvestism (better termed cross-gender behavior).
In contemporary urban Brazil homosexual behavior (male and female) has been
noted in Afro-Brazilian possession cults (138, 224, 312, 313). Although males
often take a passive, feminized, or cross-gender role (bichas), their male partners
are not defined locally as homosexual. The importance of an active versus
passive role in homosexual behavior for the identity of the participants has also
been noted for Per (14). In urban Mxico, Carrier (75) and Taylor (364, 366,
368) have both reported on fieldwork undertaken among male homosexuals.
The low status and stigma attached to homosexual behavior (especially cross-
gender behavior) in the face of normative Mexican gender ideis, apparently
leads to special gay life subcultures. Other discussion are available for
Guatamala (285) and Costa Rica (220).

JAVA AND INDONESIAAlthough female homosexual behavior may exist in village

Indonesia, male homosexuality is much better documented (111, 385).
Historically, older males contracted for a mentorship with a young male
(gemblakau). This relationship was sexual in nature and at least somewhat based
on a male warriors fear of female pollution. Contemporary versions of this
relationship still exist and are reported by Weis (384). Duff-Cooper (111) also
reports on cases of extreme cross-gender behavior and cross-dressing among
males who may not undertake any kind of sexual behavior with males or
females. Hamonic (168) has also identified extreme cross-gender behavior in
the South Celebes. As is the case with Afro-Brazilian cults and among the
Navaho (183), these males are incorporated into the religious system as
spiritually powerful individuis.

Extreme cases of male cross-gender behavior have been noted in the


Philippines (170, 320). Some male prostitution exists, although a romantic

relationship with a real man (one not considered homosexual) is an important
goal. These individuis vary in their sense of cross-gender identity, do not
appear to play any special religious roles, and are not usually stigmatized.
Poutenila (320) ineludes several life-histories of such bayots.

AUSTRALIA AND POLYNESIA Australian aborigines appear notable for their lack of male

homosexual activities (60, 204, 272). Others disagree with this appraisal (380).
Gluckman (147) has reported that although homosexual behavior was rare
among the Maori prior to European contact, male and female homosexuality is
common today. Blackwood (45) has reviewed early ethnographic accounts of
Pacific Island cultures and speculates that female homosexuality was common.
She identifies female homosexuality in common adolescent sex play, among
cise female friends, extreme cross-gender behavior, and ritualized female
homosexuality. Levy (237, 238) has identified extreme cross-gender behavior
among Tahitian males. The Tahitian village Mahu conducts fellatio as the
insertor with village boys. The Mahu role is apparently common and
institutionalized, but only one Mahu may live in a single village at any given

NEW GUINEA Although male homosexual behavior among Nati ve New Guineans
was noted earlier (e.g. 139, 225, 231), Herdts publications (175- 178) are
clearly responsible for a renewed interest in the phenomenon. Considerable
intercultural variation exists (e.g. 344), but there is a notably widespread custom
of male mentorship in the presence of overt or covert gender antagonism.
Extreme cross-gender behavior appears to be rare, as indeed is some sex
eroticism and romanticism. Instead fellatio and the power of semen to
masculinize boys is focused upon. Semen may also be viewed as a growth
regulator for crops (159). One goal of the homosexual mentorship is therefore
the ritual use of powerful male body fluids rather than homoeroti- cism per se.
These customs are better understood by far than other ethnographic instances of
homosexual behavior, and Herdts work should serve as a model for the
investigation of these phenomena in other parts of the world.

In contemporary China overt homosexuality is reported- ly rare,


although no laws exist forbidding homosexual practice (137, 241). Prior to the
revolution one notable example of female homosexuality is evident. Sankar
(339) describes an all-women commune in Kwangtung Prov- ince. The single-
sex commune did inelude female partnerships but also served to keep womens
wages under their own control. In 17th-century Japan, male samurai formed
homosexual partnerships (4). These liaisons involved com- plex systems of
personal honor and friendships as well as romanticism and idealism. It is not
clear whether the novice-and-tutor arrangement common to other warrior cults
was also a part of the relationship.

INDIAMost information on homosexual behavior in contemporary India involves

the Hijras (Hijara, Hijada, Hingra). Hijras are males who undertake extreme
cross-gender behavior. The nature of Hijra sexuality has generated a
considerable controversey (80, 303, 346, 351). Nanda (286-289) claims that up
to 50,000 Hijras exist today in India and that rather than being a homogeneous
group, the Hijra ranks are filled by genetic males who are homosexuals,
homosexual prostitutes, castrati, hermaphrodites, transsexuals, and
transvestites. Hijras usually form a community and are associated with the

Hind goddess Mata. As such, they take part in religious ceremonies and have
their own rites of membership.

NORTH AFRICA AND THE NEAR EASTBurtons (70) work on the sexual customs of this
regin remains a valuable resource. Homosexual male pro- stitution has a
lengthy tradition in many parts of the Near East, although the male customer or
sponsor is not generally considered homosexual. Examples of extreme cross-
gender behavior in Ornan were originally brought to the attention of
anthropologists by Wikan (396, 397). Omani Xanith are male prostitutes who
adopt the dress and manner of females. As is the case elsewhere, the Xanith may
later undertake a male role and marry. Wikans use of the term transsexual, very
innovative analysis of the Xanith as a third sex, and comments upon Omani
systems of power and gender have been a cause for lively debate (55, 123, 347).
Carrier (75) has used the controversy to underline the problems inherent in doing
fieldwork and cultural analysis of homosexual behavior.
Sexual segregation apparently plays a role in the homosexual behavior
reported for Siwan males in Libya (1, 4, 88). Members of an all-male warrior
association reportedly contracted with parents for the sexual Services of their
sons. Althogh no New Guinea-style ritual or ceremonials are noted (the
relationship was financial), semen was considered a potent medicinal fluid.
Apparently the boy was the insertor during anal intercourse, but some confusin
in the literature is evident about active and passive roles.

SUBSAHARAN AFRICA A wide variety of homosexual behavior is reported for

Subsaharan Africa. Evans-Pritchards (120) description of Azande boy
marriage may be seen as an example of the mentorship pattern (4). The
relationship is of the novice-tutor variety and contractural. Ad hoc
homosexuality for Azande princes is also reported. Evans-Pritchard (120) also
reports on the presence of female homosexuality in polygynous households.
Male informants apparently knew of, but did not condone the practice. Evans-
Pritchard believes that the use of artificial phalli was a compensation for rare
heterosexual intercourse in large households. Gay (140) has reported on girl
partnerships in Lesotho. Althogh little is known of these rela- tionships, they
appear to be a combination of cise friendships and men- torships.
A number of anthropologists have described woman marriage in East
Africa. The custom appears among the Nuer, Lovedu, Dahomey Igbo, and Zulu.
One of the major issues in the analysis is whether the partnership is in fact
homoerotic or whether it is strictly socioeconomic (77). Herskovits (180)
identified the partnership as an opportunity for elite women to gain their own
household and prestige; he suggested a homosexual element in the custom.
Various authorities (192, 219, 294-296) have argued against seeing this custom
in strictly sexual terms.

Homosexual Behavior: Conclusions

Researchers concerned with homosexual practice have typically sacrificed

breadth of coverage for depth of analysis. In many ways this approach is the
opposite of that taken by researchers interested in heterosexual behavior. As a
result, excellent studies of specific local customs are available. In con-
tradistinction to the case with heterosexual research, investigators have at-
tempted to place local homosexual behavior in its proper social, domestic,
religious, and political context. If improvements could be suggested they might
lie in the limited discussion of local heterosexual behavior that typically
accompany these analyses. In many cases homosexual behavior exists in a
bisexual context, and little is known of customary heterosexual practices in

cultures that contain vigorous homosexual traditions. The topic would also
benefit from more research into female homosexuality. This practice is likely
more widespread in general, and is certainly so among adolescents and in
polygynous households, than is currently acknowledged.

This review began with the comment that anthropologists have rarely studied
human sexuality. The number of sources cited may seem to belie this apprais-
al. However, the literature is widely scattered over time and among cultures.
Few serious attempts have been made to bring the literature together or even to
foliow up on previous studies (97, 99). Typically a researcher makes a single
specialized contribution to the field. Regional and topical summaries and
analyses are rare. Human sexuality is not yet a coherent subspeciality of
anthropology. There is need for further open discussion of human sexuality and
for the development of uniquely anthropological theories of the relevant
phenomena. With its cross-cultural, holistic, and relativistic approach, an-
thropology is in a singular position to attempt such analyses. Worthy in their
own right, such discussions would also serve to improve the public and
professional understanding of human sexuality in general.
Research was made possible by a University of South Dakota Bush Foundation
Faculty Development Grant for summer study at the Kinsey Institute.
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