Were Samoans Promiscuous?

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

The mutiny on the HMS Bounty in 1789 was prompted in part by the recent experience of the crew who had spent five months ashore in Tahiti—where they found the women alluring and available. In Typee, Herman Melville’s fictionalized account of his captivity in the Marquesan Islands, Tommo, the protagonist, is enticed by a native maiden, Fayaway. By the early decades of the 19th century, American whalers and other South Sea voyagers had brought home enough tales of South Seas eroticism to establish once and for all the reputation of the inhabitants—especially the young girls—as exceptionally lascivious.

Was it a myth? Hardly. The documentary record starts with Captain Cook who, when he found the Marquesans, had to deal with swarms of young girls climbing aboard to invite members of his crew to have sex. When missionaries arrived in the region they were appalled by what they saw as extreme sexual license.

By the time anthropology gathered itself into an academic discipline, the customs that had inflamed the Western imagination were mostly gone, but some questions remained. For one thing, the societies in which children and adolescents were so sexually precocious and where adults didn’t seem to mind all appeared to be in eastern Polynesia. Reports from the Western Pacific included the usual missionary disapproval of things like polygamy among the chiefs and erotic dancing, but nothing like the sexual freedom of the Tahitians or the Marquesans.

The discrepancy caught the eye of Franz Boas, the German-born scholar who had organized anthropology as an academic discipline in the United States. Boas had personally trained most of the important American anthropologists of the first quarter of the 20th century and was still going strong when he assigned one of his graduate students the task of finding out whether the sexual freedoms of eastern Polynesia had in fact extended to the western Pacific but had gone unreported. His emissary was a young married woman named Margaret Mead, and her destination was rural Samoa. The rest is history.

Well, not just history. Rather, the sort of history that takes the form of acrimony, tirades, and vehement assertion on all sides. This is, in contemporary parlance, “contested” history. The 23-year-old Margaret Mead claimed to have found what her mentor had been looking for: evidence that western Polynesians were, like their eastern cousins, pretty relaxed about the sexual behavior of teenagers. Her report eventually took the form of a popular book, Coming of Age in Samoa, in which Mead drew even larger conclusions. She held that the Samoan ease with sexuality made the adolescent years of Samoans free of the kinds of psychological turmoil familiar to Americans of the period; and she forcefully advanced the idea that cultural patterning, not natural development, was the deep source of the difficulty of adolescence among Americans.

I am of course repeating a story than everyone, more or less, knows; and we know the next chapter as well, in which in 1983, several years after Mead’s death, Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman published the first of several books debunking Mead’s Samoan ethnography. The central part of Freeman’s argument is that Samoans in the 1920s and in a long tradition before that placed a high value on premarital female chastity, symbolized in a ceremonial complex that celebrated the virginity of the taupou, a designated daughter (usually the eldest) of an important chief. The taupou headed an association of unmarried women, was exempt from women’s labor, dressed distinctively, organized village entertainments, and was destined to be married to a chief as part of her father’s efforts to build political alliances.

For Mead, the taupou complex was the exception that proved the rule. The taupou took up the burden of virginity while all the other boys and girls were engaging pretty freely in sexual exploits. In Mead’s view, Samoan teenagers generally employed only slight subterfuge in an atmosphere of general tolerance. For Freeman, the taupou was the most vigorous expression of a cultural ideal that pervaded Samoan life. Samoan boys definitely sought to evade the sexual taboos, but if caught in an attempted seduction or rape, they faced severe reprisals.

So which is it? The Mead vs. Freeman controversy doesn’t look like it has much room for an in-between answer. Either Samoan teenagers of that time were free and easy with their sexuality or they were hemmed in by a social system that strongly repressed pre-marital sexual activity.

Anthropology as a science ought to be able to answer such a straightforward question. It says something about anthropology that the issue is still controversial 27 years after Freeman declared that Mead was provably wrong. The latest salvo comes from Paul Shankman, professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and longtime Samoan field researcher. Last year, Shankman published The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy. It might have been given the alternative title, “Trashing Derek Freeman: The Realization of an Anthropological Revenge Fantasy.” Shankman and Freeman crossed swords back in the 1980s, with Shankman defending Mead’s conclusions and Freeman belittling Shankman’s contributions as “a disgrace to the profession of anthropology.” 

Shankman’s new book is full of score-settling but it is certainly not all polemic. He ably summarizes the complicated historical record. There are differences between cultural ideals and actual behavior. There are tensions and fractures between ideals, as when Samoan boys are fierce in attempting to protect their sisters’ chastity but proud of their successes in seducing the sisters of other boys. There are the complications that arose from missionaries who attempted to undermine the taupou system with its public defloration of the bride at her wedding while simultaneously extolling the importance of sexual continence. There are the effects of colonialism which turned the Samoan port of Apia into a center of prostitution in the late 19th century. And there was the huge influx of American and Allied soldiers into Samoa during World War II. 

If the victory goes to him who can most convincingly say, “Things are more complicated than you might have thought,” the prize goes to Shankman. His own view is that Samoans had a two-track system of social mores. One track focused on the virginaltaupou, the other on avaga, “marriages based on elopement and individual choice.” Shankman writes, “So there were two marriage systems in practice, the taupou system for elite chiefly families and avaga for almost everyone else.” Female chastity was in principle prescribed for the avaga system too but the rules did not have as much force. How much force they did have, however, remains unsettled.

Between the aspiration and the fact, there is often some distance, but that doesn’t make the aspiration irrelevant. The behavior of the Tahitians towards the crew of the Bounty, Cook’s amazed encounter with the Marquesan girls, and Melville’s sojourn among the Typee are glimpses of a Polynesian world in which chastity wasn’t even a consideration. In <Samoa, by contrast, the idea was a powerful presence that shaped experience and behavior, even if people still broke the rules. People aren’t robots, but rules still matter.

In light of the chasm that sometimes opens up between our cultural ideals and our stumbling behavior, should we embrace a more pragmatic view of life as groping in the dark for what we want?  The Samoans have a word for that too:  the moetotolo, the “sleep crawler,” who steals into a girl’s hut at night and tries to seduce her without awakening her family.

The moetotolo isn’t just a sneak.  He is a man conniving to live outside the rules for his own vanity and pleasure, a sort of Samoan citizen of the world, who makes the same mistake as all citizens of the world do.  He shrinks the world to his own self-image and then prides himself on his expansiveness.  There is a lesson about contemporary higher ed in there somewhere. 

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