Growing Up Sexually


MAYA (Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico,Guatemala)


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Redfield (1934 [1962:p191])[1] on Maya parental sexual enlightment:


“It is regarded as unwise and improper to explain matters of sex and procreation to children, and no deliberate instruction in the subject is given. All the older people think it best that children should remain ignorant of the changes of puberty, of sexual intercourse, pregnancy and childbirth until they actually experience these phenomena in their own persons. A phrase often used is, “Children ought not to be where the grown-ups are”, and sexual matters are before them covered with veils of silence and secrecy. […] this policy of secrecy with regard to the young people is impossible of exercise in the intimacy and simplicity of the village life. Both girls and boys, at nine and ten years of age, begin to learn and make use of phrases and stories of double meaning or illicit suggestion[2]. Many, probably most, young children have understanding of the nature of sexual intercourse. This knowledge depends upon individual circumstances. One or two young girls of the village had no knowledge of the sexual act before their marriage, except for the vague explanations of their mothers just before the marriages took place[3]. But in most cases, in spite of the policy of secrecy, because they sleep beside their married brothers, children come early to know something of the nature of sexual intercourse, and will sometimes joke with or ask questions of their married elders with a view to embarrass them. It is also true that in the context of animal husbandry sexual matters are subject to scarcely any taboo. An entire family will gather to watch with satisfaction the impregnation of a sow by a boar rented for the purpose. While as a rule children reach adolescence with a strong interest in and usually a fair knowledge of sexual intercourse, they know next to nothing about the changes of puberty or of pregnancy and parturition. The first menstruation comes to the girl as a surprise attended with fear. In the cases known to us the girl secreted herself in alarm or even terror, until found by some older woman who explained the meaning of her soiled garments, and instructed her not to speak of it to anyone. So little do young people know of the course of child-bearing that in many cases the young husband, as well as the wife, will fail to suspect the first pregnancy in its early stages for what it is. Then the girl’s mother or some older person will instruct her, or will turn her over to the care of the midwife” (p191-2).


Redfield later (1962:p133)[4] would note stability in this respect: “As was the case in 1931, the concern of parents over their children is greatest in connection with marriage and first sexual relations, although no particular age is recognized as an age of difficulty; and I do not think that there is any concept of adolescence. […] Nothing was said to me to suggest that any attempt is made now, as none was made before, to instruct young people in matters of sex; some learn such matters early by observation and chance information; others learn little about it until marriage”. Villa Rojas (1945)[5]:


“From the age of seven onward, differences of character and interest between the sexes begin to be marked. […] Topics dealing with sex or reproduction are discussed more privately, or at least such is the intention of adults, in order that they do not come to the knowledge of children […]. Menstruation appears between the ages of twelve and fourteen and is often regarded by the girls as an unfortunate and unforeseen event. Generally, after it occurs, the mother tries to reassure the girl, and in private explains to her its significance. No ceremony or rite marks this physiological change. […] By the time they reach adolescence, boys and girls know about sexual relations. Married couples and unmarried members of the household occupy the same room, and sleep in adjacent hammocks, so that children do not tremain ignorant of sexual matters for very long” (p146).


Children are given no information about sex prior to marriage (Nash, 1970:p113, 275)[6].


No different view is offered by Elmendorf (1976)[7] “I didn’t think that they told their children directly, but it seemed impossible for a child not to learn something about it, living together in such close quarters. I had asked Anita where she and her husband had their sexual life—in the room with the children, or in another room”. The women considered it a sin to inform a girl of menstruation before it occurrred, or to explain sex before marriage (p7). Pubescent girls begin “pronounced sexual activity” at fourteen, typically with older boys and men (p70).

None of the mentioned authors make statements on sexual behaviour before puberty.


“The genitalia of girls are covered either by short underpants, long huipil, or both. Boys are allowed to run about naked or with short shirts only. By three, however, they are fully clothed. A naked or partially exposed child of three or four is a matter for negative comment by elders” (Press, 1975)[8]. “By the time they reach adolescence, boys and girls know about sexual relations. Married couples and unmarried members of the household occupy the same room, and sleep in adjacent hammocks, so that children do not remain ignorant of sexual matters for very long. It is a matter of great concern, however, to see that one never exposes the sexual organs. Both sexes maintain the strictest privacy when bathing or performing natural functions” (Villa Rojas).








Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. VolumeI. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Sept 2004


[1] Redfield, R. (1934) Chan Kom: A MayaVillage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press [1962 printing]

[2] For example, a child in school upon reading a story with the title “Why is it Done at Night?” volunteered an answer to the question as he understood it: “Because it would be seen during the daytime”. [orig.footnote]

[3] “I didn’t know anything about it till I married. Then my mother explained it all to me. She said I had to sleep with Doso, because now I was a grown woman; and she said I shouldn’t tell anyone what was going to happen to me. But I didn’t understand well what my mother wanted to tell me, until after I was married.” [orig.footnote]

[4] Redfield, R. (1962) A Village That Chose Progress: Chan Kom Revisited. Chicago ; London: Phoenix Books, The University of Chicago Press

[5] Villa Rojas, A. (1945) The Maya of East Central Quintana Roo. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington

[6] Nash, J. (1970) In the Eyes of the Ancestors. New Haven: YaleUniversity Press

[7] Elmendorf, M. L. (1976) Nine Mayan Women: A Village Faces Change. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Pub. Co.

[8] Press, I. (1975) Tradition and Adaptation: Life in a ModernYucatanMayaVillage. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press