Does homosexuality exist in every human society?
Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images.
At a press event two weeks ago, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to elaborate on his notorious assertion from 2007 that there were no homosexuals in Iran. “My position hasn’t changed,” replied the defiant Ahmadinejad. He then acknowledged to Blitzer, begrudgingly, the tiny sliver of a possibility that there could be such monsters living amongst even the Sharia-centric Iranians. “Perhaps there are those who engage in [homosexual] activities … but these are not known elements within Iranian society. Rest assured, this is one of the ugliest behaviors in our society … but as the government, I cannot go out in the street and ask [my people] about their specific orientation.”
I’d take considerable pleasure in using this column to expound on Ahmadinejad’s intellectual deficiencies. (Let’s be honest, any leader who believes in a supernatural entity that finds gay people icky isn’t exactly the deepest thinker.) Yet this arrogant theocrat unwittingly raises a more interesting issue for us to consider: Does homosexuality exist in every human society?
For anyone with even a modest scientific background, the answer seems obvious —hence the widespread disbelief of Ahmadinejad’s initial claim of a gay-free Iran. Although LGBT Iranians live under constant threat of severe legal and social sanctions, we do know that there is no shortage of them. Still, that doesn’t mean that homosexuality can be found in every other corner in the world. A husband-and-wife team of anthropologists at Washington State University named Barry and Bonnie Hewlett believe that they’ve found a society without gay sex—and that there other societies, too, in which some presumably universal behaviors, such as homosexuality and masturbation, are nonexistent at all levels of analysis.
The Hewletts work amid a group of peaceful net-hunting foragers in central Africa known as the Aka, who live in migratory camps of about 25 to 35 individuals. Other ethnographic details, such as the Aka’s sociopolitical organization (minimal-control chiefdoms) and gender relations (men and women are relatively equal) certainly aren’t irrelevant to their sex lives, but in a report published last year in African Study Monographs, the researchers focused on the Aka’s bedroom behaviors. It was the Aka’s apparent hypersexuality that inspired the Hewletts’ research. “We decided to systematically study sexual behavior,” they explain, “after several campfire discussions with married middle-aged Aka men who mentioned in passing that they had sex three or four times during the night. At first we thought it was just men telling their stories, but we talked to women and they verified the men’s assertions.” That’s right—three or four times per night.
But campfire talk is one thing, actual behaviors quite another. So the anthropologists conducted a more rigorous series of interviews in the Aka’s native language (Diaka) using a local interpreter. They also interviewed nearby farmer-villagers known collectively as the Ngandu. To get at the patterns of sexuality in these two groups, the Hewletts interviewed 56 people, ages 18 to 70, who’d been married at least once. Given the sensitive subject matter, the husbands were interviewed by the male anthropologist, Barry Hewlett, while Bonnie Hewlett spoke with the wives. “The Aka and Ngandu were very open and willing to talk to us about sexual behavior,” note the authors, “but this was in part due to our long-term relationships in these communities.” (At the time of their interviews, 35 years for Barry and a decade for Bonnie.)
Now, before we get to the nitty-gritty, there a few important things to first point out about the Aka and Ngandu—and indeed, about the anthropologists’ motives in examining these people’s sexuality in the first place. Over the past half-century or so, a lot of impressive work has been done on cross-cultural differences in sexuality. But for a host of reasons—ethical, practical, personal and professional—it’s still a subject area at the outermost margins of mainstream anthropology. Anthropologists who choose to study sexuality, writes Carole Vance of Columbia University, are often cornered into the world of sexology, itself “an intellectual ghetto of disciplinary refugees.” As a result, enormous gaps in our knowledge remain, particularly with regard to sex in small foraging societies like the Aka. That we know so very little about sex in other cultures, however, hasn’t stopped many scientists from claiming that there are indisputable sexual universals on the basis of data collected from large Euro-American samples, such as the famous Kinsey findings.
“One of our fears in writing this paper,” emphasize the Hewletts, “was that the Aka and Ngandu might be viewed as ‘others’ with unusual and exotic sexual practices … [but] overall, the Euro-American patterns are relatively unusual by cross-cultural standards.” In other words, although widespread Westernization creates the impression of a species-wide sexual homogeneity, when one takes the sheer number of living and extinct cultures into perspective, it’s us—not them—who are weird.
The other important thing to note with the Aka and Ngandu is that, by Western standards, they are extremely open with respect to sexuality. Children mimic intercourse publicly and without being reproached by their parents, the lyrics to a popular Aka children’s song are the orgasmic vocalizations of two people having sex, and adults discuss sexual matters freely in camp. Furthermore, the Aka are known for their extremely flexible gender roles and near absent gender stereotypes. The women are just as likely to hunt as are the men, and men are heavily involved in childrearing. (In fact, the Guardian dubbed Aka men “best fathers in the world” a few years ago.) This is hardly an oppressive environment, which is why the apparent absence of homosexuality and masturbation in these societies came as a surprise to the Hewletts. “[These behaviors] are rare or nonexistent,” observe the authors, “not because they are frowned upon or punished, but because they are not part of the cultural models of sexuality in either group.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s have a closer look at what the Aka and Ngandu are (and are not) doing with their genitals. To begin with, they’re having a lot of married sex. On average—and remember, this isn’t just newlywed teenagers, but also middle-aged couples we’re talking about—the Aka reported having sex three times per night, and the Ngandu twice per night. According to the Hewletts, these groups consider sex as being more like work than recreational activity. Given the importance placed on having many children—coupled with a high infant mortality rate—the Aka and Ngandu view sex as an exercise in gathering offspring, a form of nocturnal labor that is just as important as their subsistence activities during daylight. “The work of the penis is the work to find a child,” said one Aka informant. “I am now doing it five times a night to search for a child,” said another. “If I do not do it five times my wife will not be happy because she wants children quickly.” It’s not that sex isn’t pleasurable to these people, the Hewletts emphasize. Rather, pleasure just isn’t their primary motive.
As evidence of this secondary role of pleasure, there’s not a lot of foreplay in Aka sexuality. For example, one woman remarked that a man never puts the clitoris in his mouth; “if he does he will vomit.” That's not necessarily a sign of prudery. Given their general attitude toward the subject of sex, it’s more likely an indication that such nonreproductive behaviors just aren’t part of their script. This is relevant to current debates in our own culture about sexual libertarianism, such as those dealing with the “naturalness” of monogamy. “The Western cultural emphasis on recreational sex,” the investigators observe, “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. The bonobo view may apply to Euro-Americans, but from the Aka and Ngandu viewpoint sex is linked to reproduction and building a family.”
Another reason the Aka, especially, are having so much sex is because they’re convinced that semen is a nutritive substance that enhances fetal development and leads to healthy babies. This helps to explain why Aka women report that they do not have orgasms with each bout of intercourse overnight, but Aka men are ejaculating into them every few hours. The concept of “seminal nurture”—that semen is a kind of milk for developing embryos—is found in many other cultures across the world as well, most notably in South America. Still, that’s a lot of semen being churned out by your average set of middle-aged testes. (Couples take a few nights off during the week, presumably for men to replenish their seed.) Fortunately, the Aka do have access to some natural, and seemingly potent Viagra in the form of a chewable tree bark they call bolumba, which goes down best while drinking palm wine. Ngandu men also say that simple enemas are effective sexual stimulants.
But while they may be comfortable enough infusing liquid into their anuses to “give force to the penis,” it’s apparently never occurred to them to insert an actual penis into that particular orifice. The tribespeople, like Ahmadinejad, claimed there was no homosexuality of any kind in their culture. “The Aka, in particular, had a difficult time understanding the concept and mechanics of same-sex relationships," the Hewletts write. "No word existed and it was necessary to repeatedly describe the sexual act … we thought that maybe they were shy or embarrassed, but this would have been uncharacteristic of the Aka that we had known for so long.” Apparently, the Aka aren’t alone in their homo-naivete. In 1976, another team of anthropologists sifted through the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample data for attitudes toward homosexuality and found that people in five of 42 cultures listed had no concept of same-sex desire or behaviors. It’s not that these cultures penalized or disapproved of homosexuality. Rather, they didn't even know what it was.
The absence of homosexuality in the Aka and Ngandu is hard enough to fathom, yet consider their unfamiliarity with another “natural” sexual behavior, masturbation. “Like homosexuality,” explain the Hewletts, “it was difficult to explain self-stimulation to the Aka. They found it unusual and said it may happen far away in Congo, but they did not know it.” People from other ethnic groups, too, are deeply confused about this mysterious principle of self-induced orgasm. The anthropologists mention a colleague of theirs who was tracking fertility among the Lese people in the Ituri forest of central Africa, and found it extremely difficult to instruct men how to collect their own semen samples by masturbating. Even with rather explicit instructions, nearly all of the samples that were brought back to him were mixed with vaginal secretions! The only reasonable assumption to make here is that such frequent copulation, at least among married Aka adults, has obviated the need for self-gratification. Still, one would think that masturbation would occur in adolescents and that, like riding a bike, adults would remember the general motor pattern. But alas, no luck.
In any event, the point is not to suggest that homosexuality and masturbation are unnatural and therefore wrong, but that "deviance” is a relative term. Let’s not forget there are certainly cultures for which homosexual behavior is the norm rather than the exception. In the 1980s, anthropologist Gilbert Herdt stunned the Western world with his reports on the “semen ingestion ritual” of the Sambia of Papua New Guinea. In that society, boys are separated from their families from the ages of 7 to 10 and forced to fellate older adolescent boys and ingest their semen. Ironically, the Sambia haven’t really a concept of “homosexuality,” either. Rather, they believe that only by swallowing prodigious amounts of semen can boys become fierce warriors. Not until they've completed several years of semen-swallowing and then another four or five years of being fellated by boys themselves can Sambia males become fully adult and enter into exclusively heterosexual marriages. And in certain parts of Lesotho, South Africa, a related, albeit semen-free pattern of sex between adolescent females and younger girls has been reported as the norm.
The examples above should remind us that there are as many sexual differences between cultures as there are similarities. It may astonish Westerners to realize that societies with these practices exist elsewhere in the world, but just imagine all of the other variations in human sexuality that must have been lost through the ages. Even today, there really are societies in which homosexuality does not exist; Iran’s just not one of them. Still, I’m sure there are more than a few Iranians who wouldn’t mind dropping Ahmadinejad into the jungles of the Central African Republic, so he might live out his days in the perfect, gay-free world of his dreams. But how cruel that would be to those peaceful Aka.
Jesse Bering is the author of The Belief Instinct and Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (July 2012). He is a frequent contributor to Slate and writes the "Bering in Mind" column for scientificamerican.com. His next book will be on the curiously scandalous science of human sexuality. Follow him at www.jessebering.com, on Twitter @JesseBering, or try adding him on Facebook.