Sexuality and Reproduction

It is not particularly difficult for Shipibo children to obtain knowledge of sex and reproduction. Although adolescent children may have their own mosquito nets, the whole nuclear family sleeps together in one mosquito net and older but subadolescent children inevitably become aware of adult sexual activity.

Watching animals of various kinds mate in the forest or around the village is a favorite form of entertainment. A most hilarious episode of this occurred when two mating dogs could not get unstuck. The yowling dogs were surrounded by gleeful children.

The Shipibo have a certain working knowledge of what Europeans would call comparative anatomy and physiology since they dissect animals of all kinds in the process of food preparation. They know, for example, that there are embryos and fetuses in the uteri of various female animals that they kill, such as tapirs, wild boars, and monkeys, and that these features are not found in male animals.

The Shipibo like sex and are sometimes quite open about it, particularly in joking relationships. At the very least, they seem to like to think about sex. They love obscene and intimate sexual humor, especially when there is a cover of darkness to obscure the speaker (even though everyone knows from the voice who is speaking). Whether it is under the influence of Christian missionaries or reflects traditional Shipibo custom, sexuality is not flaunted or openly recognized during the day and in the midst of communal activities. Young people court and disappear into the bush. Although there is no formal marriage ceremony, young couples who are recognized as "newlyweds" are indulged as they spend long hours under the mosquito net together, even during the day. The young man is then likely to be ribbed mercilessly by his age mates about his consequent alleged weakness and incapacity for any useful work.

However, most sexual activity seems to occur in a much more furtive fashion as husbands and wives bathe together in the river at dusk and meet secretively in a remote section of the chacra, or garden, distant from the village. It is customary for whole families to sleep under one mosquito net. Sexual activity between spouses occurs during the night under the family mosquito net when the children are supposedly asleep.

Whether the sexual banter that occurs in darkness as people speak from their porches is correlated with a significant level of real interpersonal communication about intimate matters is doubtful. Some Shipibo women have told me that they did not enjoy sex very much and found it an onerous duty, whereas other women convey an attitude of affectionate intimacy with their partners. The former are likely to have been given in marriage at a very young age, whereas the latter are more likely to have had a voice in the choice of a partner. Yet most arranged marriages appear to last a lifetime.

Despite a certain openness about sexuality, both men and women exhibit modesty about genital exposure. It is perhaps impossible to know how much of this is due to exposure to Christian doctrine. Younger women, especially, are careful to keep their breasts covered in the presence of adult men, and all sexually mature women are extremely shy about genital exposure except during childbirth. A man who is bathing in the nude in the river will emerge from the water onto the river bank and cover his genitals with a hand while walking to his house, although most bathing takes place with some kind of shorts or trunks in place. Given the omnipresence of voracious carnivorous fish in the Amazon waters, this precaution may reflect prudence more than modesty.

Shipibo women have a wide variety of herbal remedies that are thought to control reproduction. The general category of these remedies is to-otirao (from tooti, "pregnancy" and rao or rau, "medicine"). A kind of tootirao is taken in order to become pregnant. Remedies to prevent pregnancy are more common. The most commonly known tootimarao (ma, negative) is tootimahuaste. Tootimahuaste is a grass-like plant (probably a sedge) that grows on the shores of a lake (huaste, "herb"). It is pounded and the juice is squeezed into a cup of hot water. This tea is taken on the first 3 days of two successive menstrual periods. This is alleged to result in permanent sterility. Tootirao works by making the baquenanuti (uterus) moist, lush, and receptive to the seed of the man. Tootimarao works in the opposite way by making the inside of the baquenanuti hard, dry, and unreceptive to the male's seed.

Pregnancy and Birth

Young Shipibo women learn about pregnancy and birth from close observation of their mothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins. Traditionally, the young woman has her first menarche at the age of 12 or 13. She has her first sexual experience and perhaps a permanent partner at 13 or 14, and has her first baby by age 15.

One type of herbal contraceptive, called navashuaste, is taken by young women in order to postpone pregnancy instead of causing permanent sterility, the effect sought by taking tootimahuaste. There is no evidence that the use of navashuaste for this purpose is successful.

When a woman is pregnant, she must observe certain dietary laws and taboos that restrict activity and foods. She must not be subjected to a frightening experience such as encountering a snake or other wild animal.

Birth occurs in the woman's home, and she is usually attended by her mother and/or close female relatives in the same age range as the woman's mother. A young woman may be surrounded by all the women neighbors in the case of a difficult delivery. Freely offered folk advice from this gathering of interested spectators is accompanied during labor contractions by a frantic chorus of Canihue

("Push!... Push!... Push!"). After delivery, the placenta is usually buried under the woman's house.

In a traditional family, sororal polygyny (in which all cowives are sisters) is the preferred and prevailing family structure. In this setting, women are able to observe postpartum sexual abstinence for longer periods of time than women who are in monogamous unions. Births are fewer, with more time between them. This has a positive effect on the health of both mothers and children.

Although the Shipibo treat children with a great deal of gentle affection, they do not express any desire for more than two or three children. The rare woman who is infertile or subfecund is regarded as unfortunate, but not tragically so. Such women and their partners readily adopt children from other households, and the children have two homes and families, almost always harmonious.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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