Attitudes Toward Sex Range of Variation

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The variation in attitudes toward sex across cultures is striking. This variability is reflected in the degree to which sex is viewed as a perilous or harmless pursuit.

The belief that sex is dangerous at least some of the time is shared by a majority of societies for which information on attitudes toward sex is available. In only 41% of a worldwide sample of 34 cultures is sex viewed as safe all of the time (Broude & Greene, 1976). Thus, for instance, sex is viewed as normal and natural among societies such as the Tibetan Lepcha, who think of sexual activity as wholesome, fun, and even necessary, much like food or drink (Gorer, 1938).

Sexual secretions are seen as dangerous in 6% of the same 34 cultures (Broude & Greene, 1976). For the Kurd, is it not sex itself that is dangerous, but the body fluids produced during sexual activity are viewed as dirty, and therefore Kurd men bathe after sex (Broude, 1994). The Kimam of New Guinea believe that sperm has healing qualities, but sex can stunt the growth of boys (Serpenti, 1965).

Sexual activity is always considered dangerous in 15% of the sample of 34 societies (Broude & Greene, 1976). For instance, Ethiopian Konso males believe that the vaginas of some girls can literally snap off a man's penis (Hallpike, 1972). Similarly, the Azande of Zaire claim that the mere sight of a woman's anus or genitals can have injurious effects on a man (Leighton & Kluckhohn, 1969).

Finally, unusual or unsanctioned sex, for instance, sex at the wrong time, or in the wrong place, or using the wrong technique, is dangerous in 26% of the same sample. Sex is dangerous to specific categories of persons, for instance, shamans or unmarried people, in 12% of these cultures (Broude & Greene, 1976). (See sex taboos below for further discussion.)

Societies also differ with regard to the meaning that they impute to sexual activity. Thus, for example, for the Bhil of India sex is sacred and should not be engaged in for pleasure. For the Lepcha, by contrast, sex is merely a diversion. And among the Cayapa of Ecuador, sex is "a little like work" (Gorer, 1938). In some places, sex is an occasion for expressing hostility. For instance, the Gusii of Kenya treat sexual intercourse, even between spouses, as a contest in which the male attempts to conquer and cause pain to the female (LeVine & LeVine, 1966).

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