Explaining Cross Cultural Variation

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Every culture has some characteristics that are unique and others that are shared by all, but it is those characteristics that only some cultures share with some others that most interest anthropologists concerned with explaining cultural variation. So far anthropologists have tried to explain why societies vary in their frequency, acceptance, and type of homosexuality.

Frequency and Acceptance of Homosexuality.

Early cross-cultural studies of homosexuality dealt almost exclusively with the closely related variables "frequency" and "acceptance" of male homosexuality (Broude, 1976; Minturn, Grosse, & Haider, 1969; Werner, 1979). Although intercoder reliability coefficients were high, some later scholars (e.g., Bolton, 1994; Gray & Ellington, 1984) complained that these ratings were invalid because they failed to distinguish "homosexual behavior" from "homosexuals." They pointed out that most of the cultural variance comes from the homosexual behaviors of heterosexually identified men. Thus, cross-cultural comparisons of "modal" psychological characteristics would be irrelevant to theories about differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals, although they might tell us something about heterosexual males who engage in homosexual practices.

Most of the cultural variation in homosexuality recorded in these early studies probably had to do with gender-stratified cultures. Gray and Ellington (1984) showed that societies coded as having more homosexual behavior were also generally coded as having transvestism, and Werner (1975) found that societies with positive attitudes toward exclusive homosexuals also had positive attitudes toward the homosexual behaviors of typical males.

Here are the principal correlations found in these studies.1 First, homosexuality is more frequent where there are mixed-sex play groups (Werner, 1979), and transvestites are more common where there are fewer sex distinctions within a society (Munroe, Whiting, & Hally, 1969). As the authors explain, these findings suggest that social tolerance of "pathics" is at least partly a function of a more general tendency toward sexual equality.

Homosexual behaviors are also more acceptable where heterosexual outlets are less available or less attractive. They are more common in polygynous societies, where some males have difficulty attaining wives, and in societies where males marry at a later age (Barber, 1998; Werner, 1975). Homosexuality is also more common where there are arranged marriages (Minturn et al., 1969), perhaps reflecting less sexual satisfaction with wives.

Homosexual behaviors are rare in societies with monogamous nuclear families where husbands and wives sleep in the same room, and where there is close father-child contact. Homosexuality and transvestism are also rare in societies with the couvade (Carroll, 1978; Munroe, 1980). Although early researchers explained these findings with neo-Freudian theories about sex identities, a more parsimonious explanation might be that they simply reflect a society's attitude toward paternal investments. By spending more time with the children of just one wife, a father automatically devotes more of his resources to his children. And by submitting to couvade taboos around the time of birth he demonstrates to all of society his willingness to assume his paternal responsibilities. In societies with the couvade, fathers are more likely to sleep apart from their wives during the first months or even years after birth. Rather than indicate less paternal investment, this may in fact indicate greater concern with the new-born's welfare since the mother's attention would not be divided between her husband and her child during this critical period. Werner (1979) found homosexual behaviors to be less acceptable in societies where married women are punished for committing infanticide or abortion with legitimate offspring. Werner originally attributed this correlation to a "pro-natalist" social policy in which women are encouraged to bear more children. However, in light of these other studies, it may be more accurate to see intolerance of homosexuality as reflecting a desire to invest more in children rather than simply bear more. One correlation from these early studies seems to require at least some psychological theorizing about sexual identity formation: more accepting societies, and those with more homosexual behaviors, are more likely to perform male genital mutilations (Minturn et al., 1969). Bolton (1994) suggested that this might be part of the ritualization of age-stratified homosexual systems. But, as the next section shows, genital mutilations are actually associated with gender-stratified homosexuality, not with age-stratified homosexuality. Perhaps males living in gender-stratified systems are more intrigued or anxious about male genitalia because of the ever-present contradiction between the gender roles and the biological sex of their "pathics."

Different Cultural Forms of Homosexuality.

Crapo (1995) and Murray (2000) coded societies for the presence of the three principal homosexual systems. For male homosexuality, Murray was able to code 120 societies as gender-stratified, 53 as age-stratified, and 30 as egalitarian. For female homosexuality he was able to code only 19 as gender-stratified, seven as age-stratified, and six as egalitarian. Crapo and Murray compared the different types of homosexual organization with regard to other aspects of culture.

Crapo found that gender-stratified societies generally had fewer overall sex distinctions, sleeping arrangements in which husbands and wives stayed together, and more female power. Murray found that gender-stratified societies were more likely to be matrilineal, somewhat more likely to have equal participation by males and females in the principal subsistence activity, less likely to have segregation of adolescent males, and more likely to practice male genital mutilations. These associations confirm the earlier studies on male transvestism (Munroe et al., 1969) and suggest that acceptance and frequency of "pathic" homosexuality is related to greater equality between the sexes.

Crapo found age-stratified systems more common in societies with patrilocality and patrilineality, where polygyny is preferred but limited to older and wealthier men, and where boys are segregated from others. Murray noted that in age-stratified systems male age-mates are more likely to live apart from others, and people are more likely to consider virginity necessary for brides. These societies are also more likely to have social classes, and somewhat more likely to have cities. Neither Murray nor Crapo distinguished between "mentorship" societies and "catamite" societies. It seems likely that the "mentorship" systems may be part of a more general sexual segregation in society, while the "catamite" system may result from class differences that allow the wealthy and powerful to subordinate younger males for sexual purposes.

In both age- and gender-stratified systems, Crapo noted that fathers are less involved with infant care than in societies with neither of these systems, perhaps reflecting once again a less pro-natalist social policy.

In egalitarian systems most typical males (after adolescence) do not usually engage in homosexual relations. Murray found that, for males, egalitarian systems are most likely where premarital sex is most permissible, where post-partum sex taboos are longest, and where there are fewer wealth distinctions. Perhaps more generally open attitudes toward sex coupled with more egalitarian ideologies make equal male-male sexual ties more acceptable. The taboos on post-partum sex may have more to do with respect for the new mother and encouragement of fatherhood than with any sexual repression.

Murray's correlations for female homosexuality are more precarious, since he could code far fewer cases. But it is worth noting that female gender-stratified systems are most common where men and women participate equally in the major subsistence task, where there is less segregation of adolescent males, where there are fewer wealth distinctions, and where female premarital intercourse is more acceptable. These correlations are based on very few cases but do seem to indicate, once again, that fewer overall sex distinctions within a society make cross-gender roles more acceptable.

Murray found that female age-graded systems are most likely where women participate more than men in the major subsistence activity. Perhaps the importance of women's work makes it more crucial for girls to receive closer guidance from older women. His data on female egalitarian systems were based on very few cases (six or seven) and percentage differences so small that any conclusions regarding cross-cultural correlations would be premature.

These findings may lead to some tentative speculations that, of course, will require further confirmation. First, we might observe that typical males are more likely to engage in homosexual activities in age-stratified and gender-stratified systems. In egalitarian systems the homosexual behaviors of most males is usually limited to adolescence, and the number of "comrade" relationships is few. Greater general repression of homosexual activities among typical males may be partly a function of a society's natalist policy, including paternal investment in offspring. Perhaps the major question facing males is whether to invest directly in offspring or in male-male competition/cooperation. If male-male relations are more important, the next question is how they might be organized. Sexually segregated societies appear to favor age-stratified homosexuality as a way for men to compete/cooperate, while sex with cross-gendered homosexuals may be a part of male camaraderie where sex distinctions are few.

Just why the gay system appeared is under debate. Besides questions of paternal investment, Werner (1999) suggested this change may partly be due to changes from a "patron-client" political system to a "meritocratic" system in which personal qualifications are valued more than personal ties in getting ahead. In line with this theory, Cardoso's preliminary data from 79 male Brazilian slum dwellers showed that 85% of those who adopted the "pathic" homosexual ideology thought personal ties were most important to getting ahead, while only 60% of those adopting the "gay" ideology agreed with this statement.

As to the different systems for female homosexuality, data are much more precarious. Women everywhere invest more in their offspring than do men, and cooperation/competition between women is usually limited to a smaller and more intimate group. That female gender-stratified systems are more common where sex and wealth differences are fewer, and where premarital sex is more common, may simply imply a more relaxed attitude toward their behavior.

As for the more limited homosexual activities typical of "egalitarian" systems, there is still a great deal of variation with regard to tolerance. These activities appear to be most acceptable where social equalities and sexual freedoms are greatest, probably reflecting a greater sense of equal "justice" for all.

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