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Some Thoughts on Sexuality and Indigenous Cultures (Aidan Rankin)

Some Thoughts on Sexuality and Indigenous Cultures

Aidan Rankin


For the past fifteen years, Peter Tatchell has occupied the cutting edge of gay rights activism in Britain. Few causes have been too unpopular for him, few questions too daring to ask. Tatchell has paid a high price for being so outspoken. To some he is a hero, to others a political pariah. In defending “inter-generational sex”, he rushes in where others (angels or not) will tread with extreme fear… But is he right?

When I was working for Survival International, I came into contact with cultures where inter-generational sex is practised, and where Judeao-Christian taboos about homosexuality, nakedness and oral sex were notably absent. Yet it is a kind of Eurocentrism to argue that such societies are “liberated”, for they are likely to have taboos and customs which are stricter than our own. Few Maasai, Tuareg or (to use Tatchell’s example) Papuan Samba are free to marry or live with the person of their choice. The ethos of the tribe takes precedence over individual whim, and disobedience brings dire consequences. Tribal peoples have collective or communal notions of property, and this extends to individuals, too. Freedom is balanced by loyalty, creative and sexual urges by acceptance of convention.

Tatchell correctly identifies the role of inter-generational sex in rites of passage. But he is unwise, perhaps, to conclude that the boys “enjoy” the experience. After all, the nearest we have to initiation is the “exam”, and few enjoy this ritual. Among the Samba, and other New Guinea peoples, the semen of adult warriors is believed to give manly strength to pubescent boys. Sex between men and boys takes place on ritual occasions and no other; the question of adult homosexuality does not arise because it is not acknowledged to exist. In other tribal cultures, Native American and African especially, male homosexuals are regarded as different but “special”. They become shamans and medicine-men, whose insights and connections with the spirit world are valued. This form of “liberation” would not, I suspect, satisfy the gay campaigners of the “developed” world.

Since the time of Rousseau, Western dissidents have projected onto “primitive” peoples all their hopes for freedom and human possibility, assuming that Europeans have a monopoly on narrow-mindedness and greed. The reasons for these are not scarcely difficult to uncover. Principal among them is that the West has devised an economic system that is out of kilter with basic human need, that devalues creativity and craftsmanship, dissolves the extended family, isolates the individual and erects a division between “work” and “life”. Consumer-capitalism sprang from Christian culture — but gradually dethroned it, profits and “growth” being more important than community or sexual taboo. In this post-Christian age, where hedonism is the official religion, attitudes towards sex, towards relationships in general, are marked by insecurity, paranoia but also the possibility of far-reaching change. Tribal societies, by contrast, are characterised by certainty. Their members do not need to be cultural relativists, except when their lives are disrupted by missionaries (Christian or secular-liberal), transnational corporations, or inappropriate “development” policies. In this context, it is arguably disingenuous of Peter Tatchell — and contributors to Dares to Speak — to use tribal societies as a litmus test for Western sexual mores. Tatchell might do well to consider the following two points :

  1. Inter-generational sex among tribal peoples is a strictly-controlled force that binds communities together. Western paedophilia, in most cases, is a symptom of social breakdown, owing much to consumer-capitalism’s inhuman approach to economics, work and child-care. Decentralisation and community empowerment (which this magazine supports) should give us the chance to reinvent initiation, and to value masculinity once again without equating it with patriarchy.
  2. Indigenous peoples are fighting back increasingly against attempts to lock them into a uniform culture dominated by the West. They are, for example, learning to defend their sexual practices against missionaries who impose a universalist view of morality. This does not mean that we European peoples should adopt their values-systems as our own. The initiation rituals of the Samba have little relevance to the working-class of Bermondsey, for example, or indeed to any people other than the Samba. Tribal peoples show us that we must look for solutions within our own cultures to the ecological crisis, to concentrations of wealth and power, and to our crisis over sexuality. There is a rich vein of sexual tolerance in the West, reflected in poetry, literature, folklore and popular culture. Like awareness of nature, it has pagan roots. Our task is to resurrect this, not to borrow pieces of other cultures that might temporarily take our fancy.

Finally, a problem with the gay movement today is that it is universalist par excellence. It thinks nothing of imposing North American values on Europe and — in particular — the “developing” world. When we hear of gay pride parades in Asuncion or Ulan Bator, we are asked to think of this as “progress”. We are not told that “gay liberation” is part of a package that includes McDonalds. We are not told that “developing” societies have their own traditions of same-sex love which do not need to be changed. There is a danger that “gay rights” could become another form of cultural imperialism.

Tatchell has raised pertinent questions about inter-generational sex. He has shown that it is not always oppressive and is sometimes initiated by children themselves. Yet it is, for the most part, exploitative in our society, because it is so often linked with deprivation — be it emotional or economic.


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