Sex in Culture – How heterosexual couples shake the sheets around the world

By Hayley White

Reading time: 11 minutes

People have been ‘getting laid’ since the dawn of time. Prehistoric sexual relationships that were primitive and focused on keeping the human race alive had further to evolve before sex became a comfortable act. Sexual reproduction itself is so enmeshed in the success of human development that it kind of lies outside of the realm of history. What is open to historical variances are the social and cultural values of sex. Over thousands of years, layers of social conditioning have created the sexual activity unique to our species. As it stands now, the Western world is a society that’s relatively sexually liberated, even though it was not always that way. And yet many other cultures where sex happens with the curtains drawn and doors closed tightly are far from sexual freedom.

The way we view sex as a Western society; our instincts, attractions, sexual relationships, and behaviour is always evolving. In other societies, sexual practices may have remained the same for hundreds of years. Regardless, shaking the sheets is done differently no matter where in the world you are.

By Hayley White

Reading time: 11 minutes

People have been ‘getting laid’ since the dawn of time. Prehistoric sexual relationships that were primitive and focused on keeping the human race alive had further to evolve before sex became a comfortable act. Sexual reproduction itself is so enmeshed in the success of human development that it kind of lies outside of the realm of history. What is open to historical variances are the social and cultural values of sex. Over thousands of years, layers of social conditioning have created the sexual activity unique to our species. As it stands now, the Western world is a society that’s relatively sexually liberated, even though it was not always that way. And yet many other cultures where sex happens with the curtains drawn and doors closed tightly are far from sexual freedom.

The way we view sex as a Western society; our instincts, attractions, sexual relationships, and behaviour is always evolving. In other societies, sexual practices may have remained the same for hundreds of years. Regardless, shaking the sheets is done differently no matter where in the world you are.

In Western cultures, there are many conflicting beliefs around sex. Some folk value liberation and tend to be more open with their sexual expression. From those with a strict religious viewpoint, sex is something that should not be spoken about except between man and woman. The advent of Christianity had a large part to play in this view, especially for its values of abstinence and virginity. Coming out of pagan civilisations that had a sense of sexual freedom, with various gods and goddesses of fertility, love, and desire leading the way, the Christian way of repressing sexual desire and sexual urge was radical. For Christians, to abstain was to be pure, and therefore closer to God.

For whatever reason, early Christians got it into their heads that women were more likely to be sexually promiscuous and more likely to fall into sexual desire than men, so women’s sexuality was swept under the rug. It was not uncommon for men to have sex both in and out of wedlock, but it was essential that women remained pure until they were married. If women were caught being sexually active before marriage, they were shunned and labelled as whores (derives from Old English hōre). Unfortunately, this opinion was one that stuck around and the term is still used for women to this day.

Jumping forward several years, it was no surprise when the sexual revolution kicked off. The sexual revolution took place between the 1960s and the 1980s. It was a social movement that focused on sexual liberation and challenged traditional behaviours towards sex. Even before the revolution, people were having premarital sex, but that was not the point. The point was to try and do away with the shame and stigma of sexual freedom, abolish rape culture, and open up the floor for gay rights.

No matter what culture you encounter, there will always be differences in attitudes towards sexual practice. For example, Broude (1996) says a Siberian Chuckchee might tell you that sex is the best thing, to which Haitians agree and call the penis the organ of joy. In contrast, the Ethiopian Konso believe that sex weakens the man and should only be practised in moderation. The New Guinea Wogeo view sex as dangerous because it exposes men and women to each other’s juices. Boys are warned to stay away from girls because a woman’s sexual organs are said to be particularly dangerous. The way the people of these cultures regard sex is a result of deep-rooted beliefs held in their society. Sex may be viewed as threatening, benign, wonderful, necessary, safe as long as it is in moderation, or completely off limits for people who are not married.

Rules and attitudes regarding premarital sex vary widely between cultures, and even more widely between girls and boys. In an analysis of 141 societies, Broude (1996) found that 44.7 percent approved of premarital sex for girls, 25.5 percent mildly disapproved, and it was condemned and restricted in the remaining 29.8 percent. For boys, it was a little more lenient. In 57 cultures, 63 percent approved of premarital sex, 14 percent mildly disapproved, and the remaining 22.5 percent strongly disapproved.

In cultures that directly oppose premarital sex, some have more severe punishments than others. For example, Canadian Kutenai adults warn unmarried girls that if they have sex before they are married, they will turn into frogs and die. An Arabian Rwala girl may be killed by her father or brother for having sex outside of marriage and her body would be cut into pieces. Other punishments may not be so severe, but death is a common penalty on women who have premarital sex.

Marriage legitimises sex in every culture, but that does not always mean that people within marriages have as much sex as they want. On the contrary, in some cultures, married sexual relationships can be uneasy and possibly even hostile. From a sample of 70 societies around the world, 17.1 percent agree that frequent sexual intercourse is desirable regardless of when it takes place. Such is the view of the pacific island Pukapuka people, who believe sex is like play. In around 60 percent of these types of cultures, abstinence is frowned upon, and cultural tradition dictates frequent sexual intercourse between husband and wife, except for specific circumstances. One such occasion might be war or battle, as is the case for the Ganda people of Uganda whose husbands avoid having sex before they engage in battle.

The Navajo of North America believe that sex is natural and normal but that too much of it is powerful and dangerous, and someone who has too much may bleed from the genitals and be struck by lightning. A further 14.3 percent view too much sex as undesirable, and abstinence is admired. The remaining 8.6 percent of cultures believed that sex is great in moderation, but frequent intercourse can be bad. This is a little unbalanced, though, because they believe that too much abstinence is also dangerous (Broude, 1996).

Another distinction that Broude (1996) makes is the way the Western world expresses love in comparison to other cultures. For most of the West, sex is a romanticised and emotional experience, and an expression of love, tenderness, and affection. This is not universal.

In some cultures, sex is less about love and emotion and more about duty and necessity. For example, the Lepcha say that sex is pleasurable but not too personal, and about as essential as food. In others, sex is known to have been an aggressive display of dominance between married partners, like in the Gusii of Kenya, regarding sex as a contest in which the man should conquer and hurt the woman. A new (and often fearful) bride was expected to resist her husband’s sexual advances and use magic to make her husband impotent. The husband had to eat a bitter mixture of herbs and coffee beans to try and counteract her magic. While the resisting her husband’s sexual advances, the groomsmen would restrain the bride so the husband can consummate the marriage. This kind of domination could continue on into their married lives.

Among the Brazilian Mundurucu, it is not quite so intense. The woman must show complete subordination and submit to her husband’s wishes because his sexual pleasure is the most important.

Of course, with premarital sex and sex within marriage comes extramarital sex. The Western world might call it cheating. Extramarital sex links back to the belief that humans are not monogamous creatures because we have never evolved to commit to just one person. No matter what culture you look at, women are just as likely to cheat as men, though the penalty for women is much greater. In some cultures, extramarital sex is allowed, or prohibitions can be lifted in special circumstances like initiation ceremonies. Broude (1996) found that if a culture restricts premarital sex, then extramarital affairs are also looked down upon and vice versa. If a culture is sexually liberated, then extramarital affairs are more likely to be tolerated.

These cultural customs come from thousands of years of traditions that will possibly never change, unlike the Western world who has seen no end to the evolution of sexual expression. It shows that no matter where you go, every single culture has different beliefs and traditions when it comes to what some call good old-fashioned ‘funny business’.

 

Source: Variations in sexual attitudes, norms and practices. Cross-cultural research for social sciences

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