Papua New Guinea


IES: PNG SCCS: (2,2,2,2,2-,2-;8,8;E)



TROBRIANDERS (Papua New Guinea)



More PNG: Arapesh, Ari, Barano, Baruya, Bimin-Kukusmin, Busama, Darabi, Dobu Isl., Eipo, Etoro, Foi, Gebusi, Jaquai, Keraki, Kewa, Kimam, Kiwai, Koko, Kwoma, Lesu, Manus, Marind Anim, New Britain, New Ireland, Normanby Islanders, Paiela, “Sambia”, Vanatinai, Wogeo




Celebrated pioneer of participating observation Malinowski provides a uniquely detailed account of premarital sexual behaviour trajectories (1927:p33-73ff; 1929:p51-75)[1]. There are no initiations (1927:p59). Infants could be betrothed. The classic description of Trobriand copulatory “playing house”, as quoted from Malinowski (1927:p55-6)[2], reads:

“At an early age children are initiated by each other, or sometimes by a slightly older companion, into the practices of sex. Naturally at this stage they are unable to carry out the act properly, but they content themselves with all sorts of games in which they are left quite at liberty by their elders, and thus they can satisfy their curiosity and their sensuality directly and without disguise. There can be no doubt that the dominating interest of such games is what Freud would call “genital”, that they are largely determined by the desire to imitate the acts and interests of elder children and elders, and that this period is one which is almost completely absent from the life of better-class children in Europe and which exists only to a small degree among peasants and proletarians. When speaking of these amusements of the children, the natives will frequently allude to them as “copulation amusement” (mwaygini kwayta). Or else it is said that they are playing at marriage. It must not be imagined that all games are sexual. Many do not lend themselves at all to it. But there are some particular pastimes of small children in which sex plays the predominant part. Melanesian children are fond of “playing husband and wife”. A boy and girl build a little shelter and call it their home; there they pretend to assume the functions of husband and wife, and amongst those of course the most important one of sexual intercourse. At other times, a group of children will go for a picnic where the entertainment consists of eating, fighting, and making love. Or they will carry out a mimic ceremonial trade exchange, ending up with sexual activities. Crude sensual pleasure alone does not seem to satisfy them; in such more elaborate games it must be blended with some imaginative and romantic interest”.


Thus, “[w]e cannot consider puberty as a conditio sine qua non of sexual interest or even of sexual activities, since non-nubile girls can copulate and immature boys are known to have erections and to practise immissio penis” (ibid., p59)[3]. Malinowski (1929:p57-8)[4]:


“The little ones sometimes play […] at house-building, and at family life. A small hut of sticks and boughs is constructed in a secluded part of the jungle, and a couple or more repair thither and play at husband and wife, prepare food and carry out or imitate as best they can the act of sex. Or else a band of them, in imitation of the amorous expeditions of their elders, carry food to some favourite spot on the sea-shore or in the coral ridge, cook and eat vegetables there, and “when they are full of food, the boys sometimes fight with each other, or sometimes kayta (copulate) with the girls”. When the fruit ripens on certain wild trees in the jungle they go in parties to pick it, to exchange presents, make kula (ceremonial exchange) of the fruit, and engage in erotic pastimes”.


The attitude of the grown-ups and even of the parents towards such infantile indulgence is


“either that of complete indifference or that of complacency--they find it natural, and do not see why they should scold or interfere. Usually they show a kind of tolerant and amused interest, and discuss the love affairs of their children with easy jocularity. I often heard some such benevolent gossip as this: “So-and-so (a little girl) has already had intercourse with So-and-so (a little boy)”. And if such were the case, it would be added that it was her first experience. An exchange of lovers, or some small love drama in the little world would be half-seriously, halfjokingly discussed. The infantile sexual act, or its substitute, is regarded as an innocent amusement. “It is their play to kayta (to have intercourse). They give each other a coconut, a small piece of betel-nut, a few beads or some fruits from the bush, and then they go and hide, and kayta”. But it is not considered proper for the children to carry on their affairs in the house. It has always to be done in the bush” (p56).


Malinowski is sure to document the transition to “adolescence”:


“As the boy or girl enters upon adolescence the nature of his or her sexual activity becomes more serious. It ceases to be mere child's play and assumes a prominent place among life's interests. What was before an unstable relation culminating in an exchange of erotic manipulation or an immature sexual act becomes now an absorbing passion, and a matter for serious endeavour”.


Kurtz (1991:p79-83)[5] assumes that the Trobriand mythical “erotic paradise” Tuma is a “conscious depiction of the adult Trobriander’s unconscious childhood memories” of erotic (coital) initiation in early childhood. This was contested by Spiro, but may not contrast with later reports. By 1988, Weiner[6] pretty much steps over Trobriand childhood sexuality, although writing at length about “youth”. There is one sentence, though: “By the time children are seven or eight years old, they begin playing erotic games with each other and imitating adult seductive attitudes. Four or five years later, they begin to pursue sexual partners in earnest” (p67).

Austen[7] had not disagreed with Malinowski that “intercourse between the sexes begins at such an early age”. Schiefenhövel, on the basis of personal research, likewise “essentially confirmed” Malinowski’s picture (1990:p406), but did not agree to the ages attributed to children and adolescents, given the slower pace of growth as compared to European cohorts (Bell-Kranhals and Schiefenhövel, 1986[8]; cf. Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1989:p247[9]).

Spiro (1982; 1992)[10] further discusses the psychodynamic significance of TrobriandIsland boys’ early sexual experiences.






Both Malinowski studies are available full text in French from here (1927) and here (1929) as hosted at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, and of course from the eHRAF.




·         Howes, D. (1997) Oedipus Out of the Trobriands: Sensory Order, Erotogenic Zones and Psychosexual Development in the Massim Region of Papua New Guinea, Psychoanal Psychol 14,1:43-63


  • Howes, D. (2003) Oedipus In/Out of the Trobriands: A Sensuous Critique of Freudian Theory, ch.7 in Howes, D., Sensual Relations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press


  • Schiefenhövel, W. (2003) Geschlechterverhältnisse und Sexualität auf den Trobriand-Inseln. Sexuologie 10,1:2-13


·         Schiefenhövel, W. (2004) Trobriands. In: Ember, Carol, R. & Ember, Melvin (Eds.) Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender. Men and Women in the World's Cultures, 2 Volumes. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York, Boston, Dordrecht, London, Moscow, p912-21

·         Wittman, Susanne (1998) Das letzte Paradies? Die Trobriander heute, Bukumatula [Wilhelm Reich Institut] 1/98 []



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

Last revised: Apr 2005


[1] For an illustrated account of Malinowski’s child ethnography, see Young, M. W. (1998) Malinowski’s Kiriwina. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p189-210. Malinowski’s Diary (1967:p280-1) reveals that he was “excited” by the naked bodies of playing children.

[2] Malinowski , B. (1927) Sex and Repression in Savage Society. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co. Inc. See also Jokisch, K. (1971) Das Erziehungswesen der Trobriander. Doctoral Dissertation. Bonn: Rheinischen Friedrich-Wilhemls Universität, p140-4; Ford and Beach (1951:p191); Fox, J. R. (1962) Sibling incest, J Sociol 13:128-50, p140-2; Nimkoff, M. F. (1947) Marriage and the Family. Boston [etc.]: Houghton Mifflin, p11

[3] Malinowski (1916:407,n2): “The sexual freedom of unmarried girls is complete. They begin intercourse with the other sex very early, at the age of six to eight years”. See Malinowski, B. (1916) Baloma; The Spirits of the Dead in the Trobriand Islands, J Royal Anthropol Instit Great Britain  & Ireland 46:353-430

[4] Malinowski , B. (1929) The Sexual Life of Savages in Northwestern Melanesia. New York: Horace Liveright. Critical passage reprinted in Suggs, D. N. & Miracle, A. W. (Eds., 1993) Culture and Human Sexuality: A Reader.Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/ Cole, p80-90. For a discussion of the work, see Sprenger, G. (1997) Erotik und Kultur in Melanesien. Hamburg: Lit Verlag

[5] Kurtz, S. N. (1991) Polysexualization: a new approach to Oedipus in the Trobriands, Ethos 19:68-101

[6] Weiner, A. B. (1988) The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston

[7] Austen, L. (1934/5) Procreation among the Trobriand Islanders, Oceania 5:102-13, at p103

[8] Bell-Kranhals, I. N. & Schiefenhövel, W. (1986) Repu et de bonne reputation, Bull Ecol & Ethol Hum 1/2:128-40

[9] Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1989) Human Ethology. New York: De Gruyter

[10] Spiro, M. (1982) Oepipus in the Trobriands. Chicago: ChicagoUniversity Press; Spiro, M. (1992) Oepipus Redux, Ethos 20,3:358-76