Sexuality

Like many Melanesians, Islanders worry about the dangers of sex. Intercourse is necessary to conceive children, but too many ejaculations can weaken and age men's bodies. Fathers warn unmarried sons about losing semen too early in life. In addition, female fluids and essences—menstrual blood, in particular—can make men ill. People usually have sex in garden plots rather than in their houses. The island's thatched houses are small and open. They provide little privacy and, moreover, sexual fluids would pollute the living space. Customarily, couples abstained from sex during pregnancy and they also observed a postpartum sex taboo that endured as long as the baby nursed, or at least until it could walk. Children often nurse until age 2 or 3, and this period of abstinence could be lengthy. Nowadays, couples do not always abstain, as curers sometimes determine that a nursing child's illness has resulted from her parents having had sex. However, despite cultural worries about the medical and social dangers of uncontrolled sexuality, people are by no means prudish. Premarital sex, unmarried but pregnant daughters, and adultery are regular causes of dispute addressed at village moots.

Island modesty demands that women cover their thighs, a typical Pacific sensibility. Nowadays, they usually also cover their breasts, especially in front of strangers. A woman working without her blouse in her garden may grab a wrap if a truck comes along a nearby road. Young girls and uncircumcised boys often go naked. Before conversion to Christianity, men wore ninhim—leaf wrappers cinched to a belt that held their penises in upright position. Contemporary observers noted that men, although mostly naked, were nonetheless extremely modest about exposing their circumcised penis heads (Humphreys, 1926, p. 38). Several island political organizations, concerned to protect kastom (tradition), have revived use of men's penis wrappers and women's bark skirts with bared breasts, particularly during ritual occasions.

In men's perspective, men are active while women are passive. In cases of adultery, for example, people primarily blame the man involved. If a man "pulls" a woman, people expect that she is not able to refuse. Islanders are understandably mistrustful of situations when an unmarried man and woman somehow find themselves alone, suspecting the worst of them. Etiquette demands that women avert their eyes when they encounter unrelated men. Island men sometimes press woman tourists for sex, having misinterpreted their direct friendly gaze.

There is no "third-gender" category, nor a traditional concept of any sort of homosexual identity (as opposed to homosexual behaviors). Islanders do have a word for hermaphrodite (kaprankerman), a condition they recognize occasionally among animals, particularly hermaphroditic pigs (which are especially prized in the northern parts of Vanuatu). Occasionally, men put on women's bark skirts during dance festivals; people find this sort of clowning to be hilarious and hugely entertaining.

Tannese culture incorporates one carnivalesque period when sexual license may occur. This is the first night of nakwiari dance festivals. Women's dance teams perform throughout the night, singing as they vigorously beat hand-held basket drums. Raucous groups of chanting young men (kauas) with clubs—many carved into phalli—circle around the dancers, attempting to interrupt and break the teams' routines. Older men patrol the dancing grounds, standing between the women and young men to keep some semblance of order. During the pandemonium, men and women slip into the night for sexual encounters. Village leaders and church elders often exhort married people not to partake in the licentiousness, but many do so alongside the younger and unmarried.

COURTSHIP AND MARRIAGE

Parents arrange the marriage of their children. The most appropriate partner is a mother's brother's child (who may simultaneously also be a father's sister's child, if mother's brother married father's sister), and first-cousin marriage of this sort is common. Because of this, people typically have grown up with their future spouses, and may have known whom they must eventually marry since they were young children. Before the 20th century, powerful men often married more than one wife but monogamy has long since been the norm.

Almost everyone except the mentally ill or seriously disabled marries. In "sister-exchange" systems, one marriage depends on a second. A marrying boy owes a "sister" to the family of his new wife, who may marry one of his new brothers-in-law. If men lack marriageable sisters, they often promise to return one of their future daughters to their wife's family. Marriage negotiations typically are complicated. Several families may hinge marriages, so that family A promises a girl to family B which promises one to family C which gives one to family A. Divorce rates are very low (less than 5%) in that the dissolution of one marriage threatens the stability of a second. People come under much pressure to stay married, even if the relationship is not happy. Women, too, have few independent resources. Those who divorce must return to their father and brothers' estate. Widows often remain with their husband's people and may eventually marry one of his brothers, or another man from his family. During the 19th century, missionaries claimed that some Tannese had borrowed the custom of strangling widows at the death of their husbands from the neighbor island of Aneityum (Turner, 1884, p. 324). However, this was likely Christian propaganda to encourage support of the mission.

Marriage ceremony is flexible. Depending on resources, families may mark a marriage with three sequential ceremonies: the "doorway," the "basket," and the "big feast." "Doorway" is a small exchange (perhaps including a pig from each side) that occurs when an agreement to exchange women between two families is made. "Basket" celebrates the physical exchange of a girl from one family to another. This may be a double exchange, with two girls moving in opposite directions. The "basket" refers to the baskets (and nowadays suitcases) in which a girl carries her belongings. Her family also gather together exchange goods (food, kava, mats, skirts) and usually at least one pig, and heap these in the center of the local kava-drinking ground. A man of the girl's side leads her by arm, often sobbing miserably and hiding her head under a piece of cloth, out onto the ground. He circles her around the heap of goods and there passes her to a representative of the future husband's family, seated on the opposite side of the clearing. The "big feast" marks marriage itself. If a woman marries immediately into the receiving family, men may organize this feast simultaneously with basket, although it often follows sometime later, especially if the girl is still young.

Western notions of love are increasingly popular among the young. Many string band songs celebrate romance. Although marrying couples eventually may come to love one another, romance disrupts systems of arranged marriage. Young lovers sometimes elope, running away to relatives or leaving the island for Port Vila. If caught, their parents may break off the affair or, if possible, conduct the negotiations to convert elopement into a sister-exchange. Young people occasionally fall in love with someone they call "brother" or "sister" in the island's classificatory kinship system. Such incest is particularly troubling but, if there is no other alternative, people will change the husband's kin category to legitimate the marriage.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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