Where Masturbation and Homosexuality Do Not Exist

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When sex means reproduction, certain proclivities may simply not be part of cultural models of sexuality.

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Aka father carrying his daughter while out on a hunt [Courtesy of Barry Hewlett]

Barry and Bonnie Hewlett had been studying the Aka and Ngandu people of central Africa for many years before they began to specifically study the groups' sexuality. As they reported in the journal African Study Monographs, the married couple of anthropologists from Washington State University "decided to systematically study sexual behavior after several campfire discussions with married middle-aged Aka men who mentioned in passing that they had sex three or four times during the night. At first [they] thought it was just men telling their stories, but we talked to women and they verified the men's assertions."

In turning to a dedicated study of sex practices, the Hewletts formally confirmed that the campfire stories were no mere fish tales. Married Aka and Ngandu men and women consistently reported having sex multiple times in a single night. But in the process of verifying this, the Hewletts also incidentally found that homosexuality and masturbation appeared to be foreign to both groups.

A woman who is already pregnant will see having intercourse as contributing to the health of her fetus.

While the Aka and the Ngandu live in the same general region, an area in central Africa marked by tropic forest, their cultures are distinct. The Aka are foragers and, according to the Hewletts, "gender egalitarianism among the Aka is about as pronounced as human societies get." Women may hunt, even on their own, and often control distribution of resources. The Ngandu, by contrast, are slash-and-burn farmers with stable locations and significant gender inequality, with men typically dominating over women.

What the Aka and Ngandu have in common, besides geography, is this: In both cultures, men and women view sexual intercourse as a kind of "work of the night." The purpose of this work is the production of children -- a critical matter in an area with a very high infant mortality rate. Semen is understood by the Aka and Ngandu to be necessary not only to conception, but also to fetal development. A woman who is already pregnant will see having intercourse as contributing to the health of her fetus.

The Aka and Ngandu speak of sex as "searching for children." That's not to say they don't enjoy having sex. Clearly they do. The Hewletts relay a song a group of children invented after stealthily watching two lovers having sex. In the song, the man asks, "How do you want it?" and the woman answers, "Oh, I want it big." The man asks again, and the woman answers, "Oh, I want it long." The song then enters a refrain with the man thrusting and asking his partner, "Did you come?"

But while the individuals the Hewletts interviewed -- like the song -- made it clear that sex is pleasurable for these folks, and something that brings couples closer, they also made clear that babies are the goal of sex. Said one Aka woman, "It is fun to have sex, but it is to look for a child." Meanwhile, a Ngandu woman confessed, "after losing so many infants I lost courage to have sex."

Is the strong cultural focus on sex as a reproductive tool the reason masturbation and homosexual practices seem to be virtually unknown among the Aka and Ngandu? That isn't clear. But the Hewletts did find that their informants -- whom they knew well from years of field work -- "were not aware of these practices, did not have terms for them," and, in the case of the Aka, had a hard time even understanding about what the researchers were asking when they asked about homosexual behaviors.

The Ngandu "were familiar with the concept" of homosexual behavior, "but no word existed for it and they said they did not know of any such relationships in or around the village. Men who had traveled to the capital, Bangui, said it existed in the city and was called 'PD' (French for par derriere or from behind)."

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Alice Dreger is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

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