Sexual beliefs and their social implications vary widely from culture to culture.
In some cases, sexual rituals may act as a means of initiating adolescents into adulthood. In others, the practices may have a more practical, economic purpose — controlling an increasing population, for example, or ensuring that an estate survives for generations. Whatever the purpose, sexual beliefs and rituals, though sometimes shocking to outsiders, have a distinct function within their particular culture or tribe. Here are a few unique practices and rituals from around the world.
1. Polygamy (Wodaabe tribe of Niger in West Africa)
In the Islamic Wodaabe tribe of Niger in West Africa, polygamy is not only accepted; it’s encouraged. In September, near the end of the rainy season, members of tribe gather to celebrate Gerewol, a festival of music and dance, which lasts for seven days and nights. The primary highlight of the festival is a dance segment (judged by the three most beautiful women of the tribe), which essentially involves the men of the tribe competing against one another for sexual supremacy. Designed to test the male prowess of the tribesmen, the elaborate pageant involves a dance called the Yakke. Tribesmen spend hours preparing for the performance, painting their faces with red clay. Because the Wodaabe believe bright eyes, white teeth and a sharp nose make a man beautiful, they even highlight their teeth and eyes with black makeup derived from colorful desert plants. In addition to sporting long braids and cowrie shells (which symbolize fertility and wealth), they also wear ostrich plumes to make themselves appear taller. During the dance, the men begin by mimicking the posture and movements of the birds before standing shoulder to shoulder, baring their teeth, slowly moving in a circle while the women of the tribe line up to watch — among them, eligible married women searching for their next husband. In the Wodaabe tribe, women have complete sexual freedom and are allowed more than one husband. If they find a man attractive, they can choose to leave their husbands and be “stolen” by one of the men. Women who desire to be stolen simply watch until they identify a man they prefer, simply tapping the man’s shoulder to signal her interest. “You know, stealing wives is not an easy thing,” one tribesman told National Geographic. “Only the Wodaabe know! You steal a woman from others and she will give sons to your lineage, even grandsons. Only the Wodaabe know how to do that.”
2. Fraternal Polyandry (Himalayas)
Among the people living in the regions of the Western Himalayas of north India, fraternal polyandry (a form of fraternal polygamy in which a woman takes two or more husbands who are brothers) is fairly common. Interestingly, the children of such relationships are not always certain of their biological fathers. While traditionally women lived with one brother at a time while the others were away fighting or herding, more contemporary households are populated with two or more men, the oldest brother generally regarded as the father of the children, and the other brothers referred to as uncles. Though the practice may seem strange to Westerners, it’s been accepted and utilized in the region for centuries, with origins in Hindu mythology. Today the practice is mainly one of practicality. Primarily, the custom functions to make the process of inheriting property easier and to prevent the loss of generational land. For some villages, the practice acts as a form of birth control, limiting the number of times women can become pregnant and thus decreasing the chances of drastic population growth, which in resource-deprived regions can lead to tragedy. In addition, it’s more practical for families to live together since resources (namely farmland) in the Himalayan mountains are scarce. Many also see the practice as an added security for women and children, the arrangement guaranteeing they will never be left alone if one husband dies. “Things are easier this way because everything we have stays in one family,” said a tribesman named Tashi Sangmo to Radio Netherlands Worldwide. “Polyandry is about keeping family together when life is hard,” said another tribesman named Choyocap Gurung in the same interview. “With many brothers the household is stronger and the children have a better chance for the future.” Though the practice may seem somewhat sexist to many foreigners, it’s interesting to note that husbands in polyandrous marriages are responsible for all domestic duties, including cooking and child care, while women manage all aspects of the finances.
3. The Mardudjara: “Man Birth” (Australia)
Though many cultures across the world perform rites of passage to transition males from boyhood to manhood, the Mardudjara (an indigenous tribe of Australia) takes the rite to a far more elaborate and gory level. The circumcision rite of passage typically begins when the boy turns 15. After being led by the tribal elders to a fire in the woods, the boy lies in a “holy spot” (selected by the elders), and tribal members surround the boy while singing and dancing. The tribal elder in charge sits on the boy’s chest, extending the boy’s foreskin while two other men cut at it with “magical knives.” All the while, the boy bites down on a boomerang while a group of men called Mourners wail and cry. When the procedure is complete, the boy kneels on a shield that’s been placed over the fire, allowing smoke to purify the wound. When the wound has been sufficiently purified, the tribal elders then force the boy to ingest the foreskin without chewing. Though researchers are not completely certain, the symbolism of this act seems to be that eating the foreskin signifies the death of the boy and that the digested foreskin will successfully transition the boy into manhood. Following a brief healing period, the second part of the initiation (the sub-incision) begins (typically a few months later). Once again, the boy is led into the woods by tribal elders to a fire, and again the elder sits on the boy’s chest and takes hold of the boy’s penis while the men sing and the Mourners wail. This time, however, a small wooden rod is inserted into the boy’s urethra, and the boy’s penis is cut (lengthwise on the underside) from the frenulum to the scrotum. Again, the blood from the incision is dripped over a fire in order to purify it. From that point on, the boy will urinate from the underside of his penis instead of the urethra. As a result of the procedure, the boy will be forced to squat (like a woman) whenever he urinates. Interestingly, some anthropologists have asserted that the ceremony is a means of forcing men to sympathize with the females of the tribe.