Behavior in Pre-Contact Hawai’i:
A Sexological Ethnography
MILTON DIAMOND, PH.D.
Universty of Hawai'i at Manoa
Honolulu Hawaii, Estados Unidos
Anthropological studies of human sexual
behavior traditionally are difficult to conduct and to interpret. Usually this
is because so much of any sexual behavior is private and must be understood
through reporting by others rather than through direct observation. Sexual behavior
between adults and nonadults or between unusual partners is especially
difficult to study but an understanding can be facilitated if one looks at such
behavior across time, species, and societies. Traditional, precontact, Hawai’i 1
has several characteristics that make it a useful society in which to view such
behaviors. For better and worse, however, present day Hawai’i is very different
from its precontact character.
Hawai’i was one of the first South Pacific societies to be visited and
written about by Westerners (Cook, 1773). What it currently lacks in cultural
purity, as a consequence of long association with foreigners, is partly
compensated for by 200-plus years of contact and recorded observations.
Furthermore, over the years since Cook’s visit, published comparisons have been
drawn between Hawai’i and lesser-known societies in other parts of Oceania and
Polynesia (e.g., Marshall anti Suggs, 1971).
This author has spent more than 35 years living and working in
Hawai’i as an academic sexologist. This chapter presents a wide range
of sexual behaviors
in the context of a non-Jucleo-Christian and non-Western society; a
that saw sex without guilt, shame or sin.
Two introductory notes of caution must be given. The first concerns the research
methods. Many of the findings reported in this chapter are derived from
historic anthropological records that were written after the late 18th century,
when contact between the Hawai’ian Islands and the outside world was
established. In addition, some of the information presented was obtained
apostrophe (‘) denotes a glottal stop in the pronunciation of Hawai’ian words.
chapter is about traditional times, this chapter uses the type of wordage
preferred by Hawai’ians.
interviews with Hawai’ians, including kupuna 2
(elders), who pass down
what they know as traditional. Contradictions that arose between research
sources, i.e., the written ethnographic records and interviews, were integrated
during the preparation of this chapter or are noted herein.
The second caution is about the term <<traditional.> Traditional
behavior patterns are the early behavior patterns of the Hawai’i described by
Captain Cook and others of the late 1700’s. While the majority of these have
disappeared, some practices continue to some degree into the 21st century. The
behavior patterns that were the most quickly lost were the ones that were part
of the kapu 3 system, an elaborate cultural pattern of rules,
resthctions, and punishments regulating interpersonal actions and relationships
to the gods, the chiefs of varying stature (ali’i), and the ‘ama (land
or homeland) (Kuykendall, 1938, Vol. 1, pp. 7-9; Valeri, 1985, pp. 90-95).
The kapu system was officially abolished in November 1819
(Kuykendall, 1938, Vol. 1, pp. 65- 70; Kamakau, 1961, pp. 2 19-228).
Under the kapu system, there were forms of bondage and slavery, human
sacrifice (Valeri, 1985), and infanticide (Malo, 1951, p. 70; Kamakau,
1961, p. 234). While adult females were afforded many rights and some had great
status, it was kapu for them to eat certain foods; they could be put to
death for eating pork, certain kinds of bananas or coconuts, and certain fish
(Malo, 1951, p. 29). Poi and taro 4
(basic staples of the Hawai’ian diet) were
not to be eaten from the same dish by males and females. Furthermore, in
certain circumstances upon threat of death, adult males and adult females were
not allowed to eat together, although they could have sex together. Religious
laws controlled eating more than they controlled sex.
The Western concept of marriage did not exist in Hawai’i (Sahlins, 1985, pp,
22-25), and even if a common definition of marriage is applied (Malinowski,
1962, p. 252; Ford and Beach, 1951, pp. 187-192), sexual) genital interactions
were socially accepted in many <<nonmarital>> and non-committed
relations. The concepts of premarital and extramarital sexual activities were
absent, and it was probably true of Hawai’i, as it was said to have been true
of much of Polynesia, that <<there are no people in the world who indulge
themselves more in their sensual appetites than these>> (Ellis, 1782,
Vol. 2, p. 153).
Italicized words in this chapter are
Hawai’ ian-Language words.
3 Kapu can mean either taboo, sacred or forbidden. Rules associated with the
Kapu system were part of an elaborate social structure that regulated much of
Hawai’ian society. Basically anything that was kapu should not be done
because it would anger the gods or Hawai’ian ali’i. Taro is a root from which
poi is made (by pounding into a paste-like food). Poi was and remains a basic
staple of Hawaiian diet comparable to rice or potatoes elsewhere.
Taro is a root from which poi is made (by pounding into a paste-like food). Poi
was and remains a basic staple of Hawaiian diet comparable to rice or potatoes
Within the framework just presented, this chapter
places human adultf nonadult sexual behavior in Hawai’i in a broader cultural
context. (For ethnography, see Davenport, 1976; Diamond, 1985; Ford and Beach,
1951; Gregersen, 1982; Handy and Pukui, 1958; Handy et al., 1965, Kamakau,
1961, 1964; Kuykendall, 1938; Malo, 1951; Marshall and Suggs, 1971; Pukui,
Haertig, and Lee, 1972, Vols. I and 2; Suggs, 1966; and Valeri, 1985.)
In traditional Hawai’i, nudity was not
seen primarily as being sexual. Warm climate often dictates less clothing. The
basic dress was a malo (loin cloth) for adult males and a leaf or tapa (bark)
skirt for adult females. The female breasts were not covered. Very young
children went uncovered. A young male was permitted to wear a malo only
after he began to live in the hale mua
usually between the ages of 4 and 6 (Handy and Pukui, 1958, P. 9). Once the
pubic hair began to grow, the genitals were covered, reportedly out of respect
for the piko ma ‘i (genitals) and to protect the organs that gave
progeny. A tapa robe might be added for protection against the cold or
sun (Handy, 1930, P. 10), not for modesty.
Adult males and adult females engaged in all water sports without clothes.
They dared not wear wet clothes on land, because to do so in the presence of
royalty was a crime punishable by death (Malo, 1951, p. 56; see
Fornander, 1916/1917-1920, Vol. 5, p. 110). <<The missionaries banned
surfing because the surfers stood unashamedly naked on their boards>>.
Nudity among adults had important nonsexual significance, such as being a
symbol of death or punishment (Fornander, 1916/1917-1920, Vol. 5, p. 324) or of
lamentation and anguish (Kamakau, 1964, pp. 34-35). Individuals who were
slated for sacrifice or who were banished were stripped naked. A dream of
nudity, it was claimed, was a portent of death.
Nudity as a ceremonial condition could be a sign of submission or of
resignation, or it could be an appeal for forgiveness. One who had wronged or
angered another might disrobe and follow the injured individual asking
forgiveness. When approached by <<night marchers>> (souls of the
departed) or in :he presence of spirits, one might disrobe and lie flat, face
up, until they passed :Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, P. 107).
Nudity also was a sign of respect. Consider this quotation from Kamakau 1961,
pp. 208-209) writing in the 1860’s of Kamehameha the Great
Ka-mehameha en hawaiano
<<Kamehameha did not ordinarily
take Keopuolani [his first coital partner] as his sleeping companion. She was
his niece and of so high a taboo that he had to take off his inalo before
he came into her presence, but he desired above everything to have children of
the highest rank.>> 5
Ceremonial nudity also could be a sign of respect extended not merely to the
Highest Chief or Chiefess but even to their bearers or possessions.
<<Whoever happened to meet the King’s calabash of water as it was brought
from the spring. .
. was required to unrobe and lie down
upon the earth, till the bearer of the vessel had gone by>> (Tyerman and
Bennet, 1832, Vol. 2, p. 69). Ceremonial nudity with prayer was also used to
avert sorcery. Hawai’ians had a ceremony called xmãnewanewa..>> At
high noon or at midnight families attempting to avert evil disrobed. One person
stayed at the doorway to the hale (house) and prayed. The others prayed
while they walked around the house. After the fifth time around, the one at the
door poured water over the heads of the others, and the ceremony ended (Pukui,
Haertig, and Lee, 1972. p. 107).
The attitude of traditional Hawai’ians toward familial nudity was different
from their attitude toward societal nudity. It was common for whole families to
bathe and swim together nude in a formalized but also sociable manner, and
often, baths or swims occurred several times a day.
On the basis of these examples, therefore, it can be seen that nudity was
ritualized in many aspects of society. In fact, an individual seen nude out of
a ritualized context was considered to be pupule (crazed) with grief,
not lustful (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, pp. 107, 183).
Mary Kawena Pukui, a highly respected kupuna, claimed, <<genital
exposure was not an indecent, or even sexually-tinged action .... To expose oneself was never perversion; it was
frequently a protection>> (Pukui, Haertig and Lee, 1972, p. 107). (See
were considered holy and were appreciated as being good. They were treated with
respect and worship, and ostensibly. they were covered for protection, not
shame (Sahlins, 1985, p. 15). Also, it was believed that the genitals possessed
inana (spiritual power), and this belief was expressed
5 The taboo was
such that Keopuolanis rank demanded that those inferior to her, even one as
highly ranked as Kamehameha the Great, had to show respect by being nude in
her presence even if for just general social interactions.
with clarity in
the traditional woodcarvings of the powerful gods, whose genitals were shown to
The positive attitudes held by the traditional Hawai’ians toward the genitals
also were conveyed in part through some of the stone carvings still present in
the Hawai’ian Islands. The most noted of the major carvings are the phallic
rocks of the Island of Moloka’i. These carvings are the penis stone named after
, a noted chief of the island, and the vulva stone named after
Kawahuna, his wife. Both of these stones stand head high or taller. Throughout
the islands, rocks configured into the shape of male and female genitals or
identified as being male or female rocks were not uncommon (Pukui, Haertig, and
Lee, 1972, p. 103). They were and still are used as totems to enhance fertility
and sexual prowess (Summers, 1971).
On the <<Big Islanth of Hawai’i, in addition, there is a cave with a
rock vagina some 20 feet in length. All of these kinds of formations, possessed
of great mana, were used to enhance fertility and sexual ability. As can
be judged by contemporary offerings (ho ‘okupu) seen at these
formations, they still are visited reverently in Hawai’i.
culture, genitals were addressed in song and story. Traditional Hawai’ians had
public names for their private parts, and they were proud of their endowments.
Hawai’ian royalty, and commoners as well, had their own mele ma’i, a genital
chant (Handy and Pukui, 1958, p. 93; Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p.
76). These chants described, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally and
openly, the individual’s sexual organs
Queen Lili’uokulani’s **
mele ma’i told of ‘Anapau (Frisky), her
frolicking genitals that went up and down. King Kalakaua’s mele ma ‘i described
large size of his penis (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 85).
These mele ma ‘i were composed with respect and affection.
Typically, the genitals of ali’i were named in infancy, and the songs
were written when the individuals were young so they might be predictive or set
role expectations. During the celebration of a young ali’i’s first
birthday, and often a young commoner’s, poets, chanters, and dancers composed dances,
chants, and songs to that individual. Among these songs and poems were mete
ma’i describing the genitals as being valuable for begetting future
generations (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 76; Sahlins, 1985, pp.
Ka-ule-o-Nanahoa en hawaiano
** Lili’u-o-ka-lani en hawaiano.
the foreskin was practiced, and ostensibly, to prepare for this practice, the
penis was blown into daily starting from birth (Handy and Pukui, 1958, p. 94;
Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972. p. 75).
The blowing was said to loosen and
balloon the foreskin and separate it from the glans, so that when the time of
subincision came, the skin was quickly and easily slit. The blowing continued
daily until the infant was old enough to urinate in an arch, wetting the
blower, then it was done less often, perhaps three times a week until the young
male was 6 or 7, 6
A makua hine (<<aunt>>) or kupuna wahine (<<grandmother>>)
did the blowing (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 80). Any number of adult
females was qualified to be the blower for a particular young male, because,
traditionally in Hawai’i, all age mates of an offspring’s parents were
considered to be <<parents>> in some way, and all individuals of
grandparental age were considered to be kupuna
(grandparent or elder). Therefore,
the same term might refer to a blood relative, a non-relative, or a neighbor.
The penis-blowing procedure was said to guarantee health and efficient coitus
(Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 75). This procedure, and the vulva treatment
to be mentioned, was said to make the genitals more beautiful and to be a form
of <<blessings with which loving relatives desired to endow the firstborn
throughout life ....
What was true for the firstborn was true
for subsequent children, to a lesser degree>> (Handy and Pukui, 1958, p.
Several informants reported this penis-blowing procedure in the 1 980s as
having been experienced personally; one Hawai’ian male received this attention
as an infant, and one Hawai’ian female reported performing it on her
grandchildren. One Caucasian male reported that his Hawai’ian mother-in- law
had performed the procedure on his own infant. The Hawai’ian-male informant
placed the procedure in its cultural setting and saw it neither as being a
sexual activity nor as potentially creating a problem. The Caucasian informant,
who had been unaware of the practice, was disturbed when he discovered what his
baby-sitting Hawai’ian mother-in-law was doing to his young son. Even after his
wife and mother-in-law put the procedure in its cultural context, he was not
placated. He did convince his mother-in-law to cease the activity,
contemporary times, pediatricians advise mothers to retract the foreskin and
wash the glans usually during the bath. This action prevents phimosis and
serves a hygienic function similar to blowing.
but she did not
appreciate his reasoning and remained concerned for her grandson’s health.
When a young male was 6 or 7, penile subincision was performed by a specially
trained kahuna (priest). Whereas the procedure was a puberty
initiation rite in the Mangaia Islands *
(Marshall, 1971), in traditional Hawai’i, it was a religious rite and de facto acceptance of the young male’ shaving reached
a certain stage of life (Malo, 1951, pp. 93-94). Hawai’i did
not have any puberty rites as such.
female was still an infant, mother’s breast milk was squirted into her vagina,
and the labia were pressed together (Handy and Pukui, 1958, p. 94). The mons
was rubbed with kukui (candlenut) oil and pressed with the palm
of the hand to flatten it and make it less prominent. The molding continued
until the labia did not separate. This chore usually was done by the mother or
by an <<aunt>> or a tütü wahine (<(grandmother>>:
a colloquial, less traditional Hawai’ian term than kupuna wahine).
Among the Marquesas Islanders, similar attention was given to the
vulva, but in addition, the young female’s labia minor were stretched to make
them longer. This practice often was done orally by the caretaking adult
females (Suggs, 1966, p. 42). Danielsson (1986, p. 74) reported similar
lengthening of the clitoris of young females in the Society and Austral Islands.
perspective of traditional Hawai’ians, the buttocks were related to sexuality
and the genitals. The buttocks of infants, males more than females, were molded
so that they became rounded and not flat (Handy and Pukui, 1958, p. 91). This
practice and all of the customs discussed in relation to the preparation of the
genitals exemplified adult/nonadult behavior that was not seen as being erotic,
sexual, or abusive. It was seen as being an appropriate aspect of adult care of
nonadults, a necessary chore. The practices were for the social benefit of the
child, not for the erotic pleasure of the adult.
EDUCATION IN GENERAL 7
Until the age of 4-6, young males and
females played together. Between 4 and 6, young males went to live in the hale nua, where, through observation, they learned sex roles and
sex-related expectations from adult males. Unlike traditions that were present
in some other parts of Oceania (see Schiefenhovel, 1990), there is no evidence
that ritualized adult-male/adolescent-male sexual activities were practiced in
Similarly, young females learned from the older women, with whom they
remained. They were taught to look forward to sex and appreciate its pleasures.
Both sexes heard the sex-positive conversations, songs, and stories of their
elders and learned accordingly. By the age of puberty sexual exploration with
same-sex age mates was actively encouraged.
Young males learned to fish, plant, cook, and fight and to honor the all ‘i, the
gods and spirits, and work. Young females, too, learned of the all ‘i, the
gods and spirits, and sex-typed tasks, such as mat weaving, feather-garment and
fiber crafts, hula, attending to births, and so on (Kuykendall, 1938. p. 6). In
regard to sex, Valeri (1985, p. 123), in a manner some consider highly
overdrawn, stated that (<the occupation of a young woman is to procreate,
which in the Hawai’ian culture implies all that relates to seduction, in which
it is said that women play a more active role than men ... properly feminine activities are . . . chanting, dancing, and other activities that promote
eroticism. It is the women who often compose and chant the ‘mele inoa’ ‘name
chants’ with their deliberately erotic content, and even the ‘mdc ma ‘i’ chants
praising the genitals.>> Actually, these sex-role stereotypes do not
reflect the complexity of the situation (see Linnekin, 1990).
Sex training was direct and firsthand. Young individuals learned of coitus
and sex play from instruction, direct observation, and practice. As they slept
in the family house (hale noa), they observed their parents having coitus.
<<Public privacy>> among the Mangaian Islanders, as it was
described by Marshall (1971, p. 108), probably is similar to the
<<privacy>> that was found in Hawai’i and elsewhere in Polynesia:
<<[A Mangaian may copulate], at any age, in the single room of a hut that
contains from five to fifteen family members of all ages — as have his ancestors before him. His daughter may
receive and make love with each of her varied nightly suitors in the same room .... But under most conditions, all of this takes place
without social notice: everyone seems to be looking in another
Much of the information presented in this section was modified from Pukui,
Haertig, and Lee (1972) and Handy and Pukui (1958).
7 Much of
the information presented in this section was modified from Pukui, Haertig, and
Lee (1792) and Handy and Pukui (1958).
The young observed dogs,
pigs, and other animals mating, and these activities were discussed openly with
parents or other adults. Parturition was not a secret event and was well
attended by the young and by adults, all of whom observed traditions that
included the washing and burying of the placenta and, usually, the disposing of
the umbilical cord (Pukui, Haertig and Lee, 1972, p. 16; Handy and Pukui, 1958,
The young Hawai’ian also acquired sex education in day-by-day exposure to
precepts, practices, and attitudes concerning sex. Traditionally, . . . childish curiosity about sex was satisfied, with
neither guilt nor shame instilled>> (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p.
249). With variations depending upon rank, region, and social circumstances,
the young individual learned the lore of kapu, social restraints and
preferences, and attitudes toward both sex for procreation or love and sex for
fun and pleasure. Each kind of sex was appreciated for its own value
(Pukui,Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 79).
AND PREPARATION FOR FIRST COITUS
both sexes were expected to initiate and participate in coitus at puberty,
although sexual activity, play, instruction, and so forth occurred much
earlier. For instance, as part of exploratory play, the young investigated each
other’s genitals, and young males and females might masturbate each other
heterosexually or homosexually. This activity occurred without adult
disapproval, and it was considered to be an introduction to adulthood. Casual
intercourse before adolescence was not an uncommon experience both for males
(Handy and Pukui, 1958, p. 95) and females (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee,
1972, p. 78).
Ellis (1782, Vol. 2, p. 153) wrote of sexual expression in Oceania: <<The ladies are very lavish of their favors ... and some of their attachments seemed purely the effects of affection.
They are initiated into this way of life at a very early period; we saw some,
who could not be more than ten years old.>>
The time considered <<right>> to start coittis was not so much
based on chronological age as on ability or maturity (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee,
1972, p. 78). A male doing adult work or holding adult responsibilities was
considered to be <<old enough.>> A young male who could grow taro or catch many fish was considered mature. A female’s
first menses usually signaled she was ready for coitus if she had not already
experienced it. Kamehameha the Great, who unified all the Hawai’ian Islands,
took his first <<wife,>> Ka’ahu-manu, when she was 13 (Pukui,
Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 78); he probably was several years older than she
(Judd, 1976, p. 71).
signs of maturity appeared. the young Hawai’ian received more formal sex
education. Among commoners, this education was traditionally and usually the
responsibility of the tütü wahine for the females and the tütü kane (<<grandfather>>)
for the males. Suggs (1966) elaborated on the early sexual experiences of
pubertal males with married females in their 30’s and 40’s in the Marquesas
Islands, who <<take special pains to be pleasing and patient with them . . . a source of enjoyment for many Marquesan women>>
(p. 61). For young females of the Marquesas Islands, the first coital
experience reportedly is earlier than it is for young males before menarche
—and occurs unplanned with an adult male (Suggs, 1966, p. 63).
Among ali’i, an experienced chiefess, usually a blood
<<aunt,>> instructed and trained the young males. Similarly, young
females were trained by their <<aunt,>> by another experienced
woman, or by a tutu kane. The training concerned not only what to expect
and what to do but also how to increase or maximize pleasure. Less formal but
similar training was afforded to commoners. There was practice as well as
theory. A young male was taught <<timing>> and how to please a
female in order to help her attain orgasm (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p.
79). A young female was taught how to touch and caress a male and move her body
to please them both. She was taught how to constrict and rhythmically contract
her vaginal muscles (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 79). Several of the
informants who were interviewed remember being so instructed. One adult female
told of being instructed on how to get her vagina to <<wink.>>
These adult/nonadult sexual interactions were socially approved behaviors. Kamehameha
the Great, again can be used as an example. Before he aligned himself with Ka’
ahu-manu, he had an infant, while <<still a beardless youth,>> by
Chiefess Kanekapoli, a wife of KalaniopuU (Judd, 1976, p. 71). The infant was
welcome and was accepted without stigma, as was any pregnancy resulting from
such unions (Handy and Pukui, 1958, p. 110). For adults not to have
given such practical education would have been unthinkable - a dereliction of duty.
Most important for Hawai’ ian society, the young learned of sexual humor.
Among the Hawai’ianS, sex was and remains a rich source of humor and enjoyment.
In everyday conversation and in song and story, it was considered to be an
<<art form>> to speak using sexual double entendres (kaona). One
well- known folk song, still sung, uses the vowels as erotic expressions; their
elongated sounds are highly sexual: aaaaaaa, eeeeeee, iiiiiii, ooooooo, uuuuuuu
(Johnson, 1983). Erotic imagery was, and remains, common in speech, poetry, and
songs: coconut tree bending over a female; a digging stick spreading a female’s
p. 39) considered the early manifestations of infantile and childhood sexual
behavior, including sexual behavior with adults, to be among the most
distinguishing features of Marquesan sexual behavior. Many of the activities he
described, however, are similar to activities that were present in Hawai’i and elsewhere in Oceania. Oliver (1974, pp. 458-459), for example, reported on adultinonadult sexual
behavior in Tahiti and quoted the missionary Orsmond from 1832: <<In all
Tahitians as well as officers who come in ships there is a cry for little
girls,>> and older females, when in a position to choose, preferred
younger males. Marshall (1971, p. 126) described the routine early sexual
encounters of young males and females in Mangaia as being with older,
experienced males and females.
As long as the
individuals involved were of the appropriate social class, just about any type
of sexual behavior between them was sanctioned. if a pregnancy resulted, it was
welcome. If a socially inferior male had sex with a female of royalty, however,
her family might demand his death or exile, and if a baby was born, it might be
killed immediately (Malo, 1951, p. 70). A higher class male’s having sex with a
lower class female was seen as being good, on the other hand, in that it added
to her status. However, if the two participants were too far apart in class,
any offspring was killed or sent into exile (Handy and Pukui, 1958, p. 79).
Neither physical appearance nor age mattered where coitus-for-genealogy was
involved. The main concern in such instances was to preserve the highest level
of mana and rank and to not dilute the family prestige (Kamakau, 1961,
p. 208). if no offspring resulted, the sexual behavior itself was considered to
The word for orgasm, le ‘a, also means <<fun>> and <<joy>>
(Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 83), an appropriate term in the Hawai’ian
language because the object of sexual interactions was mutual happiness and
pleasure. There were no restrictions regarding any positions for intercourse.
The appellation probably is undeserved, but the posture in which the male
squats between the supine female’s legs has been called the <<Oceanic
position>> since its description by Malinowski (Gregersen, 1982, p. 61).
Sexual positions rarely are mentioned in ethnographies of Hawai’i, while
other potentially curious or <<uncouth>> matters are. For example,
oral, anal, masturbatory, and other kinds of sexual behavior were documented
practices. Types of homosexual behavior were accepted and, reportedly, were unstigmatized;
many of the royalty were known for their ambisexual activities (Kamakau, 1961,
pp. 234-235; Malo, 1951, p.256).
According to the reports of Westerners. extensive foreplay was not a
part of coitus. Many reports and stories tell of an adult male and an
female meeting on a trail, in the bush, or on a secluded beach and
coitus immediately, with little conversation and few preliminaries.
of behavior also has been reported as having been the norm elsewhere in
Oceania, e.g.. among Mangaian Islanders (Marshall. 1971, pp. 118-121)
Islanders (Suggs, 1966, p. 98). Note-worthy in regard to such behavior
orgasm for both the female and the male was not reported to be a
despite the briefness of the encounter. Both males and females
climaxed easily and frequently in traditional societies of Oceania.
It is possible that some of the reports of seemingly promiscuous and nonrelational
sex that occurred in Oceania might reflect sampling and Western-oriented
biases. This possibility has to be considered, because such interactions are
not consistent with contemporary. versions of traditional songs, which speak of
erotic and sensual courtship and foreplay (Kekuni Blaisdell. personal
PROMISCUITY, AND MONOGAMY
Aside from restrictions of class and
family, there were few sex kapu for common people. Masturbation, sex
between uncommitted individuals, paired individuals having lovers, liaisons,
polyandry, polygyny, homosexual patterns of behavior, and such were all
accepted practices (Malo, 1951, p. 74). Sex was considered to be good and
healthy for all, young and old included.
Virginity was considered to be a virtue only for female chiefs where
genealogy was crucial. With this point in mind, ali’i —particularly the
first-born of either sex, with special status rights— often were betrothed
while they were quite young. Sometimes the age difference between the betrothed
was significant. Handy (1952, p. 272) reported the acceptance of pairings in
which the female was hardly of walking age and the male was old enough to be
her grandfather, as well as pairings in which tiny males were betrothed to
elderly matrons. Such young individuals obviously did not have to restrain
themselves as their libido matured, but it also is possible that mechanisms,
such as the Westermarck effect 8
, dampened eroticism if the individual was
betrothed at a very young age (see Shepher, 1971; Wolf and Huang, 1980).
8 This is the
phenomenon in which those persons that grow up together do not find each other
with a chief, the chiefess, like the commoners she ruled over, could have as
many lovers or additional permanent sexual partners as she desired. One
missionary, Reverend Thurston, described a secondary wife of Kalaniopuu, Ruling
Chief of the Island of Hawai’i in Cook’s time. By her own admission, she had
not fewer than 40 sexual partners and usually several concurrently (Thurston,
December 10, 1828, Kailua). King Kamehameha had 21 known <<wives>>
(Judd, 1976, pp. 290-292). Regarding age disparity, it was noted: <<When
he was an old man well on in years ... he
took two young chiefesses to warm Kamehameha’s old age>> (Kamakau, 1961,
Peripubertal females, in many cultures of Oceania, were noted to often be publicly
sexually active with adults (Oliver, 1974, p. 362). Cook (1773, Vol. 1, p. 128)
reported copulation in public in Hawai’i between an adult male and a female
estimated to be 11 or 12 <<without the least sense of it being indecent
or improper.>> The disapproval implicit in Cook’s report probably was
caused as much by the public nature of the activity as by the age-related
aspects. In Tahiti, one missionary noted in his diary that the High Priest
Manimani, <c.. though nearly blind with age, is as libidinous
now as when thirty years younger; …[he] has frequently upwards of a dozen
females with him, some of them apparently not above twelve or thirteen years of
age>> (cited in Danielsson, 1986, P. 57). Gauguin credited the
inspiration for his famous painting <<Manao tupapau>> (<<The
Specter Watches Over Her>>), completed in 1892, to his 13- year-old
Tahitian <<wife>> Teha’ amana (Hobhouse, 1988).
Suggs (1966, pp. 51-53) cited
many cases of full heterosexual
intercourse in public between adults and prepubertal individuals in
Polynesia. The crews of the visiting ships showed no compunction
against the activities,
and the natives assisted in the efforts. Cunnilingus with young females
recorded without accompanying remarks that this kind of behavior was
disapproved of for the participants. Occasions were recorded of elders
assisting youngsters in having sex with other elders. Among the
Islanders in particular, Suggs (1966, p. 119) reported, extramarital
were frequent and often involved older males with young virginal
older females with young virginal males.
Until fairly recently, the birth of an infant to an unmarried female
in Hawai’i, as elsewhere in Polynesia, was not a problem for her or
society. Her fertility was
proven, and the infant was wanted and taken care of by the extended ‘ohana (family).
illegitimacy, in the Western sense, is inapplicable in regard to traditional Hawai’i (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 96).
While betrothals occurred, occasionally arranged by parents of chiefs or by
other prominent persons, such formalized relationships were uncommon
(Kamakau, 1964, pp. 25-26). Specific words for <<husband> and
<<wife>> did not exist; he was
simply called kane
(man) and she wahine (woman)
(Handy and Pukui, 1958. p. 51; Sahlins, 1985, p. 23).
Individuals stayed together or not by choice rather than by commitment or
obligation. One member of a pair could be monogamous while the other was
polygamous. While public announcements of intentions to stay together among all
‘i were noteworthy and often elaborate affairs, they were uncommon. David
Malo, an advisor to King Kalakaua III and an Hawai’ ian convert to Christianity,
wrote in 1839: <<Of the people about court there were few who lived in
marriage. The number of those who had no legitimate relations with women was
greatly in the majority. Sodomy and other unnatural vices in which men were the
correspondents, fornication and hired prostitution were practiced about
court>> (Malo, 1951, p. 65). 9
A <<pairing>> ceremony among commoners was even more rare
1985, P. 23). Couples that wanted to sleep and live togetherjust did so
1985, p. 23). Typically, no contract was expressed openly, although there
probably was a vague set of expectations that linked the couple. Sahlins (1985,
23) expressed the situation thus: <<For the people as for the chiefs, the
sex was society: a shifting set of liaisons that gradually became sorted out
weighted down by the practical considerations attached to them.>>
Monogamy, polygyny, and polyandry coexisted among all ‘i and among
commoners. Often, polygamy involved siblings (Morgan, 1964, p. 361). 10
another sexual partner usually was acceptable if the first mate knew about the
relationship and sanctioned it. Secret relationships were not approved of,
however, although the discovery of such a relationship usually was disruptive
only temporarily. Such sexual license greatly disturbed the early Christian
missionaries. The <<crimes>> most commonly reported by the haole
(foreigner, now refers to Caucasians) to occur among the Hawai’ians,
recorded as being 4-5 times more common than theft or property crimes,
were fornication and adultery (Sahlins, 1985, p. 24); these terms, of course,
had no meaning to the Hawai’ians. <<Adultery>> came to be defined
by the Hawai’ians as <<sexual activity with a nonregular partner within
the hale. If the coitus occurred outside
9 Terms such as
<sodomy,>> <fomication.>> and <adultery>> were
introduced pejoratively by the missionaries and are used pejoratively in these
quotations. Among traditional Hawai’ians, however, such nuances were absent.
10 In Hawai’ian tradition, lineage rights were transmitted by females, not by
males. Thus, a male could have several wives, and each wife maintained her
individual inheritance. The inheritance
of prime importance was a genealogy that linked one to the ali’i class
and royalty. Material wealth was not <owneth as the concept exists in the
West. Private property was not a feature of traditional Hawai’ian life. (The
chief owned everything hut couldn’t take your genealogy that could grant
status and privilege.)
the house in
private, it was not a problem to the Hawai’ian, since it did not disrupt the
Sexual exclusivity was not associated with <<marriage.>> Such an
idea would have been unusual to Polynesian society (Danielsson, 1986, p. 115).
Gregersen (1982, p. 250) reported monogamy in only 30 of 127 Pacific island
cultures studied, the rest of the cultures being polygamous. Worldwide, Ford
and Beach (1951, P. 108) found multiple mateships permitted in 84% of the 185
societies in their Human Area Files sample.
Relationships were dissolved at the desire of one or both partners. Sex with
others was not seen as a cause for separation. Jealousy was considered
unwarranted. Handy and Pukui (1958, pp. 57-58) wrote: K.. . where love of one man by two women were involved [and
vice versa], it was considered bad manners (maika’i ‘ole, <<not
good>>) for apunalua (lover) to hold spite or malice in their
hearts towards each other. The very existence of the formal [punalua] relationship.
. . worked against ill feeling...
If one left a first mate for a second, the relationship to the first was not
necessarily broken, Certainly, the ties were kept to any children that came
from the union (Johnson, 1983), and often, the sexual relationship between old
partners continued. 11
In this context, the Western concentration on things
<<premarital,>> <<marital,>> and <<post marital>>
did not have comparable meaning to traditional Hawai’ians. In fact, it is only
within the last 50 years or so that a majority of native Hawai’ians have looked
to the state licensing board to legitimize their marriages. Cohabitation
without legal marriage was and is so frequent that, to encourage formal
marriage, Hawai’i state law does not recognize <<common-law>>
Considering that ali’i had much mana, commoner parents of a
young female often wanted her to be impregnated by an au ‘i male or to
be taken as his mistress. The privilege of jus primae noctis for chiefs
was often observed and was viewed with favor by a young female’s parents
(Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 91; Sahlins, 1985, p. 24). If she were
lucky, she might conceive his offspring and be allowed to keep it. This wish
for high-mona descendants and relatives prompted Hawai’ian families to
send their daughters and wives to sleep with crewmen of early visiting ships.
They thought the strange newcomers-with their large vessels and weapons that
could kill immediately and at a distance--were indeed gods (Pukui, Haertig, and
Lee, 1972, p. 92).
11 Having one or
many sexual partners had no necessary correlation with the love of one’s
primary partner. Intense love was known, and the loss of a dear one was not
just lamented but might be evidenced by self-inflicted pain and mutilation
(e.g., Whitman, 1979, p. 26) in the form of self- burning by fire, breaking of
teeth, or even blinding. One might take bones or body pasts of a dead lover to
sleep with (Malo, 1951, p. 99) or as keepsakes (Kamakau, 1964, p. 35).
a concept was not related to the number of sexual partners but rather to an improper concern with the lineage of
potential offspring. Invitations to or direct acceptance of sex from the right
strangers. on the part of males and females, were seen by the Hawai’iaflS as
good fun, good politics, good <<inana> and cross- fertilization, or just good socialization
(PukUi. Haertig. and Lee, 1972. p. 98). For a male or a female to be
<<propositioned> was considered a compliment, not an insult.
To have sex at the request of another was seen more as being passion than
compassion. To want sex with another was seen as being natural. As one
respondent put it: <Women didn’t say no because it would have been
considered <<bad form.>> a rudeness. Also, they took the invitation
as a compliment and often also wanted the sex themselves. .
Prostitution, as it now would be
defined, was nonexistent in pre-Western contact Hawai’i, because sexual
partners were readily available for mutual enjoyment. After Western contact
occurred, the females continued to want sex openly, now with the mona-loaded
sailors and traders. These males advocated bartering for sex, and with no
religious or social restrictionS against prostitution, the natives had no
hesitancy about profiting from the newcomers’ desires.
Females in traditional Hawai’i did experience intercourse that was imposed
upon them. While Westerners would interpret the forcing of intercourse on an
individual as being criminal rape, the Hawai’ians supposedly saw a romantic
abduction or passionate lust (Johnson. 1983). There also were practices known
as <<wife-capture>> and <<husband-capture>> (Sahlins,
1985. p. 10). AbductionS and imposed sex supposedly were more commonly
practiced by the au’1. In one well-known instance, a chief who forced
himself sexually upon an unwilling <<married>> female rewarded her
by offering to make an all ‘i of any possible male offspring, and this
arrangement, it was said, was satisfactory to her and her
<<husband>> (Malo, 1951, pp. 25 8-259).
There are tales of love that was unrequited for any number of reasons:
because one individual was promised to another, because one partner was
jealous, because of feuds, for example. Also, sex was rejected if the other was
thought to be extremely unattractive, if one was promised to another. if it was
solicited in an inappropriate place or with an inappropriate partner. Suicide
because of unrequited love was known (Johnson, 1983).
A Hawai’ian legend may be instructive
here. Poi, the staple food of Hawai’i, is made from the root of the taro
plant. Taro was itself considered sacred, supposedly the heavenly gift of an
incestuous union. The god Wakea, the Sky- father, mated with the god Papa, the
Earth-mother, to have their first offspring, a daughter, Ho’ohokukalani
(night-sky and stars). Wakea later mated with his daughter, and their first
offspring was the taro root, Haloa. A second incestuous union brought
forth a son, Taro. Taro is propagated by cuttings; thus, the basic taro
is considered ageless and godlike. The taro stalk, ha (ancient
one; breath of life), is the symbol of the primaiy male god, Kane. The image of
sacred offspring coming from a central stalk is considered by some to be a positive,
folklore model that rationalizes incest, at least for chiefs. 12
Some types of inbreeding were preferred for au ‘i, and sometimes
inbreeding was their obligation. An offspring of a royal full-brother!
full-sister incestuous mating was considered to have the highest mana and,
thus, to be the most sacred. <<The children born of these two were gods,
fire, heat and raging blazes>> (Kamakau, 1964, p. 4). The union would
strengthen their dynasty. The chief born of such a union, a ni ‘aupi ‘o, was
so divine he often did not travel during the day, since all who saw him had to
prostrate themselves until he left (Malo, 1951, p. 54). To prevent a
lust-inspired first mating from occurring between a member of royalty and one
of the kauwã (despised) cast, young highborn male or female chiefs might
be paired <<prophylactically>> with an older brother or sister or
another member of the family (Maio, 1951, p. 71). All ‘I were forbidden
to defile themselves by mating with members of the outcast kauwã group (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee4 1972, p. 86).
Among chiefs, the value of a relationship was measured more by its political
and genealogical significance than purely by its consanguinity. Nephew) aunt or
niece/uncle pairings were not uncommon and were approved of. It was expected
that an older chiefess would sexually train one or more of her nephews, and any
offspring of the two were warmly received into the household. Mother/son and
father/daughter incestuous unions, however, were not approved of (Pukui,
Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 86). Father/step-daughter matings also were
generally disapproved of, but exceptions were known and occasionally accepted.
The same attitude was held regarding matings between
<<father-inlaw>> and <<daughter-in-law.>>
These gods, Wakea and Papa, also had
multiple sexual partners. Wakea had at least three mates,
and Papa had at least eight (Kamakau, 1964, p. 25).
and incestuous pairings mentioned for au ‘i were forbidden to commoners.
There was a preference for exogamous matings of both male and female commoners
with individuals who were members of a higher social class (hypergamy) (Pukui.
Haertig, and Lee. 1972, p. 87), since traditional Hawai’i had several classes
or castes (Pukui. Haertig, and Lee, 1972, pp. 286- 287).
Within a given caste, first-cousin pairings were common. However, there was
cultural disapproval of the mating of an adult female with a young male whom
she had taken care of as an infant. Such behavior was not an offense against
the gods but, rather, a social faux pas, and the thinking seems to have been,
<<Why couldn’t she find someone more appropriate?>> In keeping with
the culture’s collective attitudes, the punishment was not severe; it was
characterized by ridicule and expressions of disgust (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee,
1972, p. 87). Suggs (1966, p. 128) reached a similar conclusion regarding
incest in traditional Marquesan society that it was disapproved of, but not seriously.
Traditional Hawai’ian society was
culturally complex. Sex was seen as being positive and pleasurable, and
although many cultural precepts existed concerning nonsexual aspects of life,
the attitude toward sex was comparatively open and permissive. Sexual needs and
desires were seen as being as basic as the need to eat, and the young were
instructed in matters of sex. Adults attended physically to the sexual
development of the young, including the preparation of their genitals. These sexual
interactions between adults and the young, from the society’s perspective, were
seen as benefiting the young individual rather than as gratifying the adult.
The sexual desire of an adult for a nonadult, heterosexual or homosexual, was
accepted (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 111), and the regular erotic
preference by an adult for a young individual probably was viewed more as being
unusual than as being intrinsically bad. As Sahlins (1985, p. 29) put
it, the Hawai’ian <<social system [was] constructed out of passion,
structured out of sentiment.>> Even the basic Hawai ian creation story
<<The Kumulipo,>> is highly sexual It starts with the mating
of the male god Wakea and the female god Papa and, throughout, turns to many
sexual encounters . 13
this story with the biblical concept of Creation, which is completely asexual.
The JudeoChristian god desired the formation of the world, and it came about by
approach to sex and sex education seemed to be fruitful in many ways. Sexual
dysfunctions such as impotence and inhibitions of desire or lack of orgasm
among males or females, common enough in Western society today, reportedly were
unknown or at least rare (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, pp. 84, 97). Sex was a
salve and glue for the total society.
The absence of concern with sexually transmitted disease (this affliction
arrived with the first sailors from Europe in 1778), the lack of concern with
illegitimacy, a permissive attitude toward multiple sex partners, and a feeling
of obligation to sexually instruct in deed as well as in theory, freed the
tradiional Hawai’ians from most of contemporary Western society’s great fears
associated with sexual expression. To the Hawai’ians, sex was definitely not a
subject or a set of behaviors to be avoided or reserved only for adults or
committed partners nor were sexual activities restricted to certain time, place
To know about sexual interactions between adults and the young in traditonal
Hawai’i is most instructive, because these interactions illustrate the power
that cultural tradition wields not only in contributing to the organization of
behavior but also in shaping humans’ self-reported attitudes toward behavior
<<I believe that if you really feel Hawai’ian —if in your bones you’re
[awai’ian— then you’ll enjoy intercourse without constraint and with fulfillment.
You’ll know le ‘a as your ancestors did. It’s natural. It’s beautiful d
satisfying. And its just lots of fun!>>
MARY KAWENA PUKUI
(Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 98)
For much of
this chapter I am indebted to many persons. My primary inks go to the
informants who shared their confidences and histories with . Additionally, I would like to thank the following
Hawai’i scholars of the University of Hawai’i-Manoa for contributing their
insights and advice: Professor Richard Kekuni Blaisdell, Acting Chairman,
Hawaii Studies Department; Professor Rubellite Kawena Johnson, Department of
Indo-Pacific languages; Assistant Professor Jocelyn S. Linnekin, Department of
Anthrology; Professor Joel Michael Hanna, Professor of Anthropology and Physiology;
and Karen Peacock, Hawaii and Pacific Collection Curator. Special thanks go to
‘Auntie’ Emma DeFries for the hours we visited and <<talked story.>>
Connie Brinton-Diamond deserves thanks for her library work and perspective.
An earlier version of this chapter first appeared in J.R. Feierrnan (Ed.). PL’dophilia:
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