Demographics and a Historical Perspective
1. Basic Sexological Premises
2. Religious and Ethnic Factors Affecting Sexuality
3. Sexual Knowledge and Education
4. Autoerotic Behaviors and Patterns
5. Interpersonal Heterosexual Behaviors
6. Homoerotic, Homosexual, and Ambisexual Behaviors
7. Gender Conflicted Persons
8. Significant Unconventional Sexual Behaviors
9. Contraception, Abortion, and Population Planning
10. Sexually Transmitted Diseases
12. Sexual Dysfunctions, Counseling, and Therapies
13. Research and Advanced Education
References and Suggested Readings

(Polynésie Française)

Anne Bolin, Ph.D.

Demographics and a Historical Perspective

A. Demographics

French Polynesia encompasses five administrative areas representing five archipelagos with 130 islands and atolls in the South Pacific, approximately 5,000 miles east of Australia. The Society Islands, the Gambier Islands, the Austral Islands, and the Marquesas are primarily volcanic islands, while the majority of the Tuamotu Islands are atolls. Oceania is divided into three broad cultural groupings, with Melanesia and Micronesia to the west and Polynesia to the east. French Polynesia as a political entity is situated within the indigenous culture area of Polynesia, which includes all the islands in a “triangle” stretching from Easter Island in the east to the Hawaiian Islands in the north and New Zealand in the southwest. It incorporates diverse societies of Polynesian peoples colonized by the French and declared a French Protectorate in 1842 (Stanley 1992). In 1957, this area became officially known as Polynésie Française. It is important to note that French Polynesia is not an indigenous or cultural subdivision, but is rather a modern political entity.

European culture has impacted the indigenous culture of French Polynesia in a number of ways for over two hundred years. This chapter presents an overview integrating historically situated accounts of the traditional culture with perspectives on the influence of colonization and missionary activity on the cultural expression, beliefs, and values related to Polynesian sexuality. When available, contemporary sexual data will be presented. The focus is specifically on the sexuality of the indigenous peoples of French Polynesia and does not address that of the Europeans or the other minorities unless otherwise stated.

The Society Islands consist of fourteen atolls and volcanic islands and include the Windward Islands of Tahiti, Moorea, Maiao, Tetiaroa and Mehetia; and the Leeward Islands of Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, Bora Bora, Maupiti, Tubai, Maupihaa/Mopelia, Manuae/Scilly, and Motu One/Bellingshausen. Tahiti has a mountainous interior surrounded by a fertile coastline where cane and coconut are grown. The Marquesas Islands, popularized by Melville in Typee, consist of eleven islands, six of which are inhabited. Gauguin is buried on Hiva Oa, the most populated of the Marquesas Islands. Other inhabited islands include Tahuata, Fatuiva, Ua Pou, Nuku Hiva, Ua Huka, and Hova Oa. The Tuamotu Archipelago, which means “cloud of islands,” situated north and east of the Society Islands, spans an arc of eighty coral atolls covering 1,100 miles. Included among the seventy-eight atolls in this group are: Tepoto, Napuka, Pukarua, Takaroa, Manihi, Rangiroa, Raroia, Rotoava, Tatakoto, Hao, Reao, and Pukapuka, among others. Copra and mother-of-pearl are important exports. The Gambier Islands are southeast of the Tuamotus and include three inhabited islands of which Mangareva is best known (Suggs 1960). According to a 1987 report, it is estimated that only 1,600 speakers of Mangarevan remained on the inhabited islands, a result in part of heavy out-migration. Their livelihood consists of horticulture with crops such as coconuts, taro, and bananas along with fishing (HRAF 1991:172). The Austral Islands include five inhabited volcanic islands. One of these is Tubuai, and the group is sometimes called the Tubuai Islands. Islands include Rimatara, Rurutu, Ra’ivavae, and Rapa. The Rapanese cash crops are coffee and potatoes, which are exported, while farming and fishing are primary subsistence activities (Hanson 1991:274). The Austral Island peoples are well known for their indigenous arts and temples.

Over half of the indigenous French Polynesians live on the island of Tahiti, along with French, Chinese, and genetic intermixtures of these groups. The total population of French Polynesia is 188,814 (Stanley 1992). The most recent population figures available by island groups are from the 1988 census (Institut Territorial de la Statistique) and are presented in Table 1.

Table 1
1988 Population by Larger Islands and Groups of Islands

















Bora Bora




















Nuku Hiva


Hiva Oa




Ethnic divisions include 78 percent Eastern Polynesian (Mã’ohi), 12 percent Chinese, 6 percent local French, and 4 percent metropolitan French. This ethnic-identity breakdown has been critiqued and remains a major obstacle to interpretation of the data. It is difficult to ascertain the precolonial population of these five island groups, because European contact resulted in a massive population decline throughout French Polynesia, both indirectly through disease and directly through European attacks, e.g., in 1595, Mendana’s crew was responsible for killing over 200 Marquesans. Thomas (1991:188) estimates that the population of the Marquesas declined from 35,000 to 2,000 between the eighteenth century and 1920s. By the mid-1980s, the population had increased to about 5,500. The Mangarevan population may have once been 8,000 people, but by 1824, it was only 1,275 (HRAF 1991:172). According to Hanson (1991:273), the island of Rapa at contact had a population of 1,500-2,000, but by 1867, it reached a low of 120. Today, there are only an estimated 400 remaining Rapan speakers. The population of the Tuamotu Islands was estimated at 6,588 in 1863, but declined by almost 2,200 by the 1920s. A report in 1987 establishes the Tuamotuan population at 14,400, with 7,000 of these in the Tuamotu, but most of the remainder living in Tahiti. The Raroian population declined from 260 in 1897 to 60 in 1926. It rose to 120 in 1950 (HRAF 1991:276). Tahiti’s population is believed to have declined from a 1767 estimate of 35,000 to 16,050 in the first missionary census in 1797. By 1869, it had declined to 7,169 (Oliver 1974, 1989:67, 117).

The official languages of French Polynesia are French and Tahitian or reo Mã’ohi. The Tahitians refer to themselves as Mã’ohi or Ta’ata Tahiti. Indigenously Polynesian languages form two major divisions: Western and Eastern Polynesian. The current population has an annual growth rate of 2.3 percent. The annual birth rate is 28 births per 1,000 with a total fertility rate of 3.3 children (1988 data; Stanley 1992). The death rate is 5 deaths per 1000 in the population, with an infant mortality rate of 15 deaths per 1,000 live births. Life expectancy is 68 years for males and 73 years for females. The 1988 census claims about 87 percent literacy in French and 64 to 68 percent in one of the Polynesian languages. In 1986-87, educational institutions included 176 primary schools, 7 secondary schools, and 18 high schools; the Université Française du Pacifique was established in 1987. The curriculum in public and private church schools alike is a French one. Of the 64,000 persons counted in the 1988 census as “having employment” out of the total population of 188,814, two thirds of the employed were men and three out of four worked on the Windward Islands of Moorea and Tahiti. In the outer Leeward Islands, 80 percent of the women and no more than 73 percent of the men had jobs. Most employed Mã’ohi work either as civil servants or in the tourist industry. Most Tahitians, even in the rural areas, are involved to varying degrees in the market economy, either in independent enterprises such as craft production, periodic wage labor, and/or cash cropping (Hooper 1985:161; Elliston, 1996).

B. A Brief Historical Perspective

The beauty of these islands have been captured in the paintings of Paul Gauguin and the writings of Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, and W. Somerset Maugham, among other notables. Early explorers, such as Captain James Cook (1769) and Captain Bligh of Bounty fame (1788-89), contributed to Tahiti’s reputation as a sexual paradise. Indeed, the peoples of the area, particularly the Society Islands, became distinguished for their sex-positive attitudes and known by Europeans for taking a casual approach to sex. Although the Polynesian sexual mores varied greatly from those of the Europeans, they were not unregulated. Polynesians had clearly defined cultural rules structuring sexuality and marriage, including exogamy, hierarchy, chiefly structure, genealogy, and incest rules.

The Polynesians’ ancestors arrived in the frontier areas of Fiji, then reached Tonga and Samoa about 3,300 to 5,000 years ago (Oliver 1974, 1989:67, 117). Eastern Polynesian occupation occurred by 200 B.C.E. The Tuamotu Archipelago was probably occupied by voyagers from the Society Islands by about the ninth century, as were the Austral Islands (Suggs 1960:140-141).

The 1,544 square miles of area became a French overseas territory under the French constitution in 1957 and is currently administered by a French High Commissioner assigned by France, and a 48-member Territorial Assembly, both in the capital city of Papeete on Tahiti, the largest of the Society Islands. The Territorial Assembly is composed of locally elected representatives from the Windward and Leeward Islands of the Society Islands, the Austral Islands, Tuamotu Islands, Gambier Islands, and the Marquesan Islands (Elliston, 1996). “The Territorial Assembly has been granted more powers over internal affairs over the past twenty years, as a result of Tahitian calls for more ‘internal autonomy’; the French High Commissioner, however, retains the right to overrule or modify any Assembly decision” (quote from von Strokirch 1993; Henningham 1992; Elliston, 1996).

The islands that now constitute French Polynesia are linguistically of the Eastern division and originally included proto-Marquesan and proto-Tahitian. Dialects of Tahitian are spoken on the Austral, Tuamotu, Gambier, and Marquesas Islands. (Tahitian is part of the Austronesian language family that spread and diversified 6,000 years ago.) This linguistic division is also replicated in terms of two cultural groupings: Western and Eastern Polynesia, with the Marquesas and the Society Islands identified as the cultural epicenters of Eastern Polynesia (Goldman 1970:xxvii). Robert C. Suggs suggests that these two archipelagos were centers of population dispersion for the other islands in Eastern Polynesia (1960:107, 137).

1. Basic Sexological Premises

A. Character of Gender Roles

Because cultures operate as integrated systems, the basic sexological premises, such as gender roles, social status, general concepts, and constructs of sexuality and love, must be considered within the broader Polynesian cultural context. Research on the status of women in traditional Polynesian societies supports the view that their position was regarded as high (Howard and Kirkpatrick 1989:82-83). High status prevailed in the face of a tapu system in which women and men were segregated and women were regarded as less powerful. (See Section 2A for a discussion of the concepts of tapu and mana.) In addition, although there was a division of labor between Polynesian women and men, it was different from the traditional Western gender bifurcation of public/domestic or inside/outside. In traditional Tahiti, men hunted pigs and fished, engaged in warfare, and built temples, while women fished for shellfish, gardened, and produced mats and bark cloth (Oliver 1974). However, role flexibility was differentially enacted among the various Polynesian societies (Howard and Kirkpatrick 1989:82-83). To fully understand women’s position in pre-colonial Polynesia, the context of the “chiefly structure” must be considered. Chiefly status could take precedence over gender, and consequently, women could also assume positions of power as chiefs (Elliston, 1996).

Levy’s work among the Tahitians from 1962 to 1964 suggests a culture in which attention to gender distinctions continues the precolonial trajectory (1973:230-237). Evidence of this is found in the Tahitian language in which gender is linguistically underplayed. While gender-specific occupational divisions do occur, there is a great deal of role pliability and cross-over, e.g., although women do not hold office in the formal political sector, they have an important voice and interest in politics (Levy 1973:233). The high position of Tahitian women continues a pattern reported early on by explorers. The traditional descent system of reckoning through either matrilineal or patrilineal lines provided women access to powerful positions in the social order. Levy’s research concluded that a blurring of gender boundaries continues as a contemporary pattern in rural Tahiti. However, he found that in the more urbanized and Westernized setting of Papeete, this pattern of gender equality and blending was becoming polarized by the wage-labor economy in which men are the breadwinners and women the homemakers (Levy 1973:232-237). Elliston (1996) suggests that this pattern has not come to fruition, but rather women’s employability is increasing while men’s is decreasing.

Some researchers have proposed that in traditional times, in Eastern Polynesia (including the Marquesas and Society Islands), women’s status was considered low because they were noa: common, impure, and polluting in regard to mama. Shore’s examination of the literature suggests this may be an oversimplification. He cites considerable evidence to the contrary (1989:146-147). For example, Hanson and Hanson argue that women’s menstruation was not regarded as “simply polluting, but as inherently dangerous because it represents a heightened time of female activity as the conduit between the worlds of gods and human” (1983:93 in Shore 1989:147).

In-depth discussions of gender roles in recent times are presented in Douglas Oliver’s Two Tahitian Villages (1981), Greg Dening’s Islands and Beachers (1980), and Robert Levy’s Tahitians: Mind and Experience in the Society Islands (1983), among others.

Thomas (1987) has discussed Polynesian gender roles in order to highlight the dramatic effect of colonization and missionization on contemporary Marquesan women and men. Depopulation has impacted the Marquesans, as has the introduction of wage labor, which, in some areas, continues today as a mixed economy with subsistence, occasional copra sales, and/or intermittent wage work. The work of Marquesan women is haka ha’e propa, which means “to make the house clean.” This includes a variety of domestic chores, child care, clothes washing, and cooking. Men engage in agriculture and horticulture, fishing, cutting coconuts for copra sales, and/or paid manual work. The division of labor is flexible, and women may work in gardens or collect Tahitian chestnuts, while men may do some work in the house which consists primarily of cooking. Unlike Western practices, cooking, washing dishes, and clothes washing in the nonurban areas are done outside the home. Even if a family has a gas stove or washing machine, this is placed outside the home.

But this model of gender roles that continues in more rural areas is changing in the more central, Westernized, and urbanized island locales, where the presence of schools, hospitals, post offices, and other administrative services, as well as greater opportunities for continuous employment, affect traditional patterns. Women participate in the workforce in these areas to a high degree, particularly in clerical positions, while men are employed primarily in the highway department with road maintenance. Women’s pattern of employment is typically one in which they quit work to have children, but may later return to part-time positions. In contrast, men have a more consistent pattern of long-term, wage-labor employment (Thomas 1987).

Thomas (1987) suggests that these gender-role patterns and the division of labor is more likely a result of colonialism than a traditional Polynesian cultural pattern. The traditional pattern of gender roles in the early contact period (1790-1830) was quite different according to Thomas. Like Polynesian societies generally, the tapu system was an important part of the social organization of the Marquesas, and it frequently involved segregation of the sexes.

Traditional activities for men included fishing from canoes, which continues today, while traditional women’s activities included gardening, preparation of bark cloth, and making mats. Prior to missionization, women had other opportunities for enhancement of their status. Coexisting with a class of male chiefs and priests was a class of women shamans whose importance varied throughout Polynesia. In the Marquesas, these women priests occupied a privileged position in society as curers and diviners who received food or pigs as payment for their services. The old Marquesan role parameters provided women with opportunities and access to prestige and power.

The Western disparity in gender roles delineated by separate but unequal domains of the public and the domestic was not expressed in traditional Marquesan gender roles. The tapu system also mitigated against such a Western public/domestic split, since typically men ate meals with men, not with women. As Thomas (1987) has noted, today Marquesan gender roles reflect Western tradition and the imposed Christian gender polarization of men-public-provider and women-domestic-nurturer. The demise of the tapu system occurred unevenly, but seemed to have been eliminated by the 1880s, facilitated by French colonial rule in 1842, the political efforts of the Catholic and Protestant missions, and the decline of the indigenous population. Colonialism and missionization disrupted the hierarchical aspects of the social system and eroded the chiefly structure, along with the system of tapu and mana that sustained it (Elliston 1996). By the late nineteenth century, polyandry, which was probably only practiced by the highest ranking females, had become almost extinct (Thomas 1987).

Major changes in the political economy resulted in the replacement of traditional landholding units and mechanisms of redistribution by autonomous groups engaged in their own subsistence. Missionaries felt that the traditional Marquesan practice in which women gardened was improper and unseemly to their sex. According to Christian dictates, the women should be confined to their homes while the men should work as the cultivators. This was successfully imposed on the Marquesan peoples and others in French Polynesia. Lockwood reports a similar pattern in the division of labor, in which men are the farmers while women are responsible for the household and child care on Tubuai (1989:199).

The impact of Western missionization on gender roles was particularly effective in French Polynesia because of the large-scale disruption in the indigenous way of life. All these factors converged to influence indigenous gender roles. Yet, the continuity of women’s precolonial status vis à vis men cannot be underestimated (Elliston, 1996). However, this does not now mean that women cannot surmount the Christian ideologies that place men at the head of the household. Lockwood observes that Tahitian women are “socially assertive and are frequently willing to challenge male authority when in a position to do so.” Oliver’s description of ancient Tahitian women as “anything but a passive, deferential, submissive lot; certainly not in domestic matters and often not in ‘public’ affairs either” (1974:604) could be applied equally to contemporary Tahitian peasant women (1989:207).

B. Sociolegal Status of Males and Females

The sociocultural status of Polynesians throughout the life course varies in terms of ages and expectations. Oliver’s (1981) and Levy’s (1973) work on Tahitian life stages is particularly valuable in this regard. The infant, an ‘aiu (“milk eater”) gradually becomes a child (tamãri’i) between 1 and 3 or 4 years old (also tamaroa, boy child, or tamãhine, girl child). Childhood is followed by taure’are’a, the period of pleasure. This stage is ushered in by signs of approaching puberty. Between the mid-20s and early 30s, one becomes ta’ata pa’ari (“a wise or mature person”). Old age is ru’au (old) and/or if an individual becomes senile, he or she is ‘aru ‘aru, “weak and helpless” (Levy 1973:25), see also Oliver (1981:340-400).

Traditionally, the status of individuals in many areas of French Polynesia was defined by a hierarchical pattern of genealogical ranking sustained by the belief in mana and encountered through the tapu system of behavioral rules and restrictions. The Polynesian system of genealogical ranking was one in which the firstborn child was of higher status than his or her siblings. Those in such a position, regardless of their gender, were in a state of mana and, according to some reports, were therefore secluded for certain periods. The aura of mana also extended to a lesser extent to other siblings as well.

In traditional Polynesian societies prior to disruption of the tapu system, children were regarded as highly potent and potentially dangerous. As a result, they had to undergo certain rituals to prepare them to interact in the secular world. All upper- and lower-echelon children were apparently imbued with this divinity. The Polynesian cosmology regarded this sacred-ness as a highly charged force that required precautions lest harm could befall the unprotected individual.

Jane and James Ritchie (1983) noted that the precolonial pattern of early childhood indulgence, community concern, and an extended-family concept of parenting has continued, especially in the more traditional areas at the time of their research. Children learn to be autonomous and responsible for tasks and chores at an early age. This transition to responsibility and autonomy occurs when the child is around 2 to 3 years old. By the middle years of childhood, peers are accountable for most of the child care. Polynesian groups, and French Polynesia is no exception, were noted for a pattern of fluid child adoption. This pattern still occurs today. Adoption may occur informally through kin networks that may bypass the legal adoption process. (See discussion below of marriage and the family.)

Gender was also conceived as an integral part of generalized Polynesian hierarchy, genealogy, and the status of the individual as adolescent and adult. Thomas (1987) has described Marquesan men as traditionally having mana, while women were me’ie (common or free of tapu in relation to men). The term noa is used in other parts of Polynesia. However, there were numerous situations in which women could become subject to tapu prohibitions. This represents the contextual aspects of the tapu system described earlier. Such contexts required precautions as well as certain restrictions on the individual, his or her possessions, and tasks. Certain kinds of activities were segregated by sex and locale, e.g., women learning a new chant, men making a net, or a woman placing herself under tapu to conceive or prevent a miscarriage. This kind of tapu involved communal eating, sleeping, and prohibitions on sexual activity for a particular period of time, or until the project was completed.

Thomas (1987) has also pointed out that tapu and me’ie were relational constructs, and that in the Marquesas, a man who was tapu in relation to a particular woman might be me’ie in relation to other men who were in a tapu grade above him. This same man would be me’ie in relation to women of chiefly status.

In addition to the elites in the Polynesian hierarchy, there were people who were low-status servants of the elites, as well as those who were nonlandholding tenant farmers. It was the commoners in the Marquesas who were most affected by the tapu restrictions, e.g., common men could only eat what was produced by women. Persons at the lowest level of the hierarchy were not affected by the tapu on food, since they were the servants and produced food for not only themselves but for the elite they served. The elite were less affected, because they neither produced nor prepared the food they ate.

C. General Concepts of Sexuality and Love

While sailors on the early European exploring ships regarded Polynesia as a sexual paradise, the missionaries they brought viewed the same cultures as dens of debauchery. Oliver (1989) cites a 1778 report of J. Forster who stated: “The great plenty of good and nourishing food, together with fine climate, the beauty and unreserved behavior of their females, invite them powerfully to the enjoyments and pleasures of love. They begin early to abandon themselves to the most libidinous scenes.” Tahitians specifically, and Polynesians generally, became known for their sex-positive attitudes and open valuing of sexuality, although the cultural structuring and tacit rules for sexual expressions were not apparent to the Europeans. Sexual experience and expression for many Polynesians began early and continued throughout the life course.

Needless to say, the various explorers and colonial ship crews visiting the islands misunderstood Polynesian sexuality. For example, in the Marquesas, young naked girls swam out to the ships to engage in sexual trysts with the sailors. While the sailors took advantage of the sexual liberation of these young girls, they experienced some ambiguity because their own Western sexual paradigm had no comparable framework or referent. While Polynesian girls were similar in some respects to the prostitutes or sex workers who typically greeted these sailors at other ports, they were also very different due to their youth, nakedness, and willingness to swim out to greet the boats. In addition, not all young women swam out to the boats or engaged in sex with the sailors. The young girls that came out to the ships were outside the tapu classes, so their relations with the visitors provided them access to status and wealth that they would not normally have. Foreign sailors and observers were not aware of the situational and contextual factors behind this behavior (Dening 1980).

Others who swam out to the ships were the Marquesan Ka’ioi. These were adolescents who were separated at puberty in order to be educated in the social conventions and skills necessary to become singers and dancers at koina (feasts). For girls, this was a period of intense sexual play and display. It involved learning songs and dances for the feasts as well as the art of beautification, which included the application of oils and bleaches. High-status girls were not educated as Ka’ioi, nor did they swim out to the ships. However, it was this behavior among the Marquesans that also contributed to the Western stereotype of Polynesian sexual license (Dening 1980).

In their massive cross-cultural review of the ethnographic literature, Ford and Beach (1951) classified the Mangarevans, the Marquesans, and the Pukapukans as “permissive societies,” characterized by tolerant attitudes toward sexual expression in the lifespan of the individual. According to Gregersen (1983), Polynesia is known for “public copulation, erotic festivals, ceremonial orgies and sex expeditions,” which had disappeared by modern times. It should be pointed out that this does not imply a sexual free-for-all by any means, as noted by Douglas Oliver’s account in Ancient Tahitian Society (1974). While missionaries were immediately struck by the Polynesian variance from Western Christian standards of sexual morality, it should not be assumed that Polynesian sexuality was without cultural rules. Like sexuality everywhere, Polynesian sexuality was structured and bound by norms, regulations, and sanctions - although these were different from those of the explorers, missionaries, and colonials. It was primarily the young and unmarried people who had the greatest sexual freedom; married people and the elite class had much less.

Although Polynesian societies condoned premarital sexual expression, access to partners was strictly structured. Gregersen (1983), for example, reported that on the island of Raroia in the Tuamotu Archipelago, there were only 109 people in 1951. Such a small population meant that seven of the nine women of marriageable age were prohibited from having sexual partners because of incest regulations. In the neighboring atoll of Tepuka in the 1930s, the young people were all related and had to journey to other islands or await the arrival of visitors to find a partner.

Specific laws were enacted with French colonization. In 1863, for example, the French administrators banned much of the traditional cultural practices that involved tapu, the religion, traditional songs and dances, warfare, naked bathing, wearing of perfumed oils, polygyny, polyandry, and other practices at variance with Christian morality. These laws did much to repress the precolonial culture, but, as Elliston (1996) point out, “Polynesians found ways around both the Church teachings against sex-outside-marriage, and against French laws.”

2. Religious and Ethnic Factors Affecting Sexuality

A. Source and Character of Religious Values

Polynesians today are primarily Christian with 54 percent Protestant, 30 percent Roman Catholic, and 16 percent other, including Mormon, animist (the indigenous system), and Buddhist. The impact of missionary activity in the Pacific is reflected in the high percentage of Christian religious affiliation. Depending on the particular historical situation, different denominations may predominate in an area, e.g., the Marquesas Islands are over 90 percent Catholic; Protestantism dominates the Austral Islands and the Leeward Islands, while the Tuamotu Islands are two-thirds Catholic and one-third Mormon. Although Thomas (1987) suggests that Catholicism’s antagonism to contraceptive use has resulted in typically large families, large families are more probably a continuation of an earlier pattern that existed prior to depopulation, rather than as the consequence of Catholic religious attitudes.

It is important to remember that once the Europeans arrived in Polynesia, the traditional culture began to undergo major change and disruption. Archival and historical research can provide important clues in unraveling the traditional patterns that have persisted despite European colonialism and missionary activity. Broadly speaking, the various denominations of missionaries found the Polynesian sex-positive cultures repugnant. They were appalled by the Polynesian joy of sex, and repelled by the marital practices that allowed for polygyny and even polyandry.

In discussing religion, it is inappropriate to segregate the sacred aspects of indigenous Polynesian life from the wider culture, since these societies are unlike the West where there is a clear division between the sacred and the secular. In contrast, the sacred and secular are interwoven in an integrated fashion within Polynesian cultures. An attitude in which sex was highly valued was reproduced as part of the synthesis of the social and the sacred in Polynesian life. Sacred aspects of sexuality incorporated beliefs about reproduction, fertility, and fecundity that were symbolically expressed through ceremonial sex. Marshall (1961) reports evidence of public sex associated with sacred temples on the Island of Ra’ivavae. This was also recorded for Tahiti. Among Tahitians, the sacred temples, or marae, served as the center of daily life. The religious system was based on beliefs in spirits and gods. Humans and gods were in a relationship that permeated all aspects of the Tahitian’s daily life. Even the gods were regarded as joyous and sexually playful in concert with the positive-sex ethos of the culture.

The tapu (taboo) system regulated social behavior. It was based upon an important religious element, mana, a fundamental principal of divinity and sacredness, that has been likened to electricity, prevalent among some Polynesian societies. Mana provided a relational and contextual structure, as well as demarcated sacred boundaries around class, time, events, space, and people. “Theoretically mana is an inherited potential, transmitted genealogically, with greater proportions going to firstborn children. It is therefore a matter of degree - a gradient ideally coincident with kinship seniority. Ultimately it stems from the gods” (Howard and Kirkpatrick 1989:614). Mana, however, must be demonstrated through acts and activities of an individual. Success demonstrated the strength of one’s mana, while failure signified weak mana (Howard and Kirkpatrick 1989:64). Mana was also associated with fertility, fecundity, and abundance - both reproductive and agricultural, according to Shore (1989:142).

Shore suggests that this aspect of mana may account for the traditional Polynesian emphasis on the genitals of the chief. In the mana, relational and contextual construct power was somatically embodied in the head and the genitals, which were regarded as sacred. For the Marquesans, these were the bodily sites for the protection of the self (Dening 1980). Linton reports that in traditional times, “there was constant mention of the genital organs of the chief, which were given names indicating their vigor and size” (Linton 1939:159 in Shore 1989:142). The Marquesan concepts of sacred personhood and the autonomy of the individual apparently also transcended class and gender in some respects. All individuals were credited with an inherent divinity that granted them inalienable social respect. However, in terms of ranking, the chiefly group held a higher position because it was believed that their personal mana far exceeded others. Nevertheless, regardless of rank or status, the individual was endangered if the tapu regions around the head and groin were violated.

Bradd Shore (1989:137-173) has described tapu in depth. Tapu is a difficult concept for Westerners to understand. It is not directly translatable into our concept of taboo. Tapu has multiple referents. According to Shore,

First, the term has two quite distinct usages, one active, the other passive. As an active quality, tapu suggests a contained potency of some thing, place, or person. In its passive usage, it means forbidden or dangerous for someone who is noa [not divine, common]. Moreover, it seems to combine contradictory properties, suggesting on the one hand sacred-ness, reverence, and distinctiveness and, on the other, danger, dread, and pollution. (1989:144)
When people were engulfed by tapu, they were in sacred states, and consequently, restrictions and prohibitions were placed on their behavior as well as their person. Tapu was the system that structured behavior in relation to mana. For example, according to Nicholas Thomas (1987), females were considered me’ie, common or free of tapu in relation to men. This classification, however, did not mean that women could not have a high status or could not enter mana states. However, mana was a fundamental spiritual rationalization for segregation of the sexes that resulted in tapu, or restrictions on the interaction between the genders in certain domains.

Marquesan women were also regarded as potentially dangerous when menstruating, which provided them with certain kinds of power. For example, a woman could curse an object by naming it for her genitals or by placing the object beneath her buttocks. Similarly, tapu could be assigned to an object by naming it for one’s head or placing the item above one’s head. Among the Marquesans, who believed women were potentially dangerous, sexual restrictions were also placed on intercourse at various times. According to Thomas (1990:67) “some aspects of femaleness seem to be at the center of the tapu system.” This was not, however, a universal pattern in French Polynesia.

The religious aspects of indigenous sexuality were also evident in the Tahitian arioi cult (discussed later in greater detail and described by Oliver (1974).) Members of the arioi society, an organization of traveling Tahitian entertainers, dancers, and athletes, were permitted unrestricted sexuality. Their roles as entertainers included sexual titillation and celebration for the public. The sexual element of this cult was permeated by the religious, as the arioi were dedicated to the Tahitian god, ‘Oro (Oliver, 1974).

B. Source and Character of Ethnic Values

The peoples of French Polynesia are part of the larger culture area of Polynesia, sharing linguistic and many other cultural characteristics (Burrows 1968:179). However, in precontact times, there was much cultural variation and diversity among the five island groups making up French Polynesia. Today, unification by the French has provided “the Polynesians living in these different archipelagos and islands... new grounds for relating to one another, including the use of French and Tahitian languages (Elliston 1996). However, it should not be assumed that variation has been lost. For example, Oliver’s study in 1954-55 of two Tahitian villages, one on Huahine and the other on Mo’orea, led him to state: “I came to recognize that there were almost as many subspecific varieties of Tahitian societal cultures as there were communities” (1981:xii). In Elliston’s (1996) words, “Polynesians throughout the archipelagos continue to have a very strong sense of their own locally-based identities by which I mean that their contemporary identities are strikingly based on their islands and archipelagos of origin.” Elliston explains this as “in part because Polynesians associate different characters, economic practices, even different cultures with different islands and archipelagos; where one is from encodes a great deal of information in the local signifying systems,” noting that Polynesians themselves generally see a great deal of diversity in the islands.

Oliver spearheaded a research project in which the social organization of eight Tahitian communities were studied, two each by Douglas Oliver, Ben Finney, Antony Hooper, and Paul Kay. The social organization of these island peoples varied, as did their methods of food production, as adaptive responses to different environmental riches. In Eastern Polynesia, as in Western Polynesia, social organization was a ranked system. The precolonial social system was a chiefly structure and within it variance occurred. Therefore, unlike Western Polynesia in which rank was graded, Eastern Polynesia was stratified by class (Burrows 1968:185). Four major kinds of socioeconomic ranking or “degrees of stratification” existed in the traditional chiefly structures of what is now constituted as French Polynesia.

Tahiti had a very complex ranking system that usually included hereditary statuses consisting of ari’i (aristocracy), ra’atira (gentry), manahune (commoners), teuteu (servant class), and a small nonhereditary slave class of titi, captured during warfare. The people of Mangareva had “two basic status levels with tendency to form a third,” while the Marquesas had “two status levels,” and the Pukapukans “two status levels; the upper containing very few members” (Sahlins 1967; Stanley 1992; Ferdon 1991). While class stratification continues in modern times, the traditional categories have been abandoned (Oliver 1981:37).

These hierarchical aspects of Polynesian society were permeated with religious meaning since the chiefs and other elites were regarded as divine and rich in mana. Tapu, mana, the arioi, and a hierarchical chiefly structure were interconnected as aspects of the sexual system. For example, in Tahiti, as elsewhere, hierarchy was mandated by the gods and manifested in all levels of social organization. The kin-congregation or extended family had small marae to make offerings to spirits. Extended-family households were organized into neighborhoods that had larger marae with the chief’s marae, which was the largest and most potent (Scupin and DeGorse 1992). It was believed that “the highest ranking chiefly family... was... descended from the first humans created by the creator god, Ta’aroa,” and was therefore the most powerful spiritually (Scupin and DeCorse 1992:31).

The bilateral kinship system was one in which the chiefly status and sibling order (first-born siblings ranked in status above others) determined one’s social position. This was not necessarily limited through the patrilineage. Women, like men, could have access to chiefly positions. The practice of bilateral reckoning provided for flexibility in status and rank, facilitating affiliation through either the paternal or maternal line (Scupin and DeCorse 1992:313). As a result of colonialism and Christianization, the traditional social-political organization of inherited rank no longer exists (Hooper 1985:161).

3. Sexual Knowledge and Education

A. Government Policies and Programs for Sex Education

Because Tahiti contains over 70 percent of the population, public health efforts are focused in this area. Not currently available at the time of this writing is information from a sexual survey conducted in Tahiti in November 1993 under the auspices of La Direction de la Santé Publique.

B. Informal Sources of Sexual Knowledge

Informally, spatial organization and sleeping arrangements may contribute to sexuality education of the young. Ford and Beach (1951) reported that among the Pukapukans and Marquesans, families often slept in one room, thereby providing children an opportunity for sexuality education through clandestine observation. This, however, must be placed in cultural context. Parents were not putting on an open display for children; but, because families slept in close proximity, this provided children an opportunity to secretly observe their parents copulating. In these societies, discussions about sex with children were also very open and frank as part of a pattern of sex positiveness. For example, among the Ra’ivavaens studied by Marshall (1961:241), children were aware of orgasm, the role of the penis (ure) and the clitoris (tira) in sexual arousal.

Other avenues for sexuality education included practices around childbirth. Oliver (1989) recounts that on old Raroia in the Tuamotu Archipelago, childbirth was a social event in which the whole community attended, including children, and even male members who also assisted in childbirth. This custom of including males in childbirth as assistants is notable, for in many parts of Oceania, as elsewhere, men are prohibited from participating in childbirth.

Indigenous beliefs about conception in French Polynesia are part of the informal system of education. In a study of the Marquesas in the late 1970s, Kirkpatrick (1983) reported the then-current belief that, although babies were conceived through the copulation of males and females, this was not sufficient. Divine intervention was also a necessary component.

The Tahitian ethnotheory of conception asserted that the fetus received physical and divine characteristics from both parents. The infant’s sacred attributes were regarded as cynosure of its birth. In old Tahiti, the genealogical system of ranking reckoned that the degree of divinity in each child was directly proportional to the degree of descent from his or her ancestral deities. The firstborn inherited more divinity or mana than the subsequent children, so that a genealogical line consisting of all firstborn children had more divinity than others. The amount of divinity was also synergistic, so that a firstborn of parents of equal divinity possessed more sacredness that either parent.

F. Allan Hanson (1970: 1444-1446) has written on the “Rapan Theory of Conception.” This analysis focuses on the Rapanese ethnotheory that conception is most likely to occur in the three to four days following menstruation when it is believed women are most fertile. In order to prevent pregnancy, Rapanese couples abstain from sex during this three- to four-day period. While this practice is not an effective method for limiting family size, it can be understood as articulating with Rapan theories of physiology and reproduction.

The Rapanese woman, based on Hanson’s survey of 85 percent of the population, has an average of 6.3 births and raises about five children per woman. This is considered burdensome by the Rapanese who would like to reduce family size to ideally two to three children. The Rapanese say that:

a fetus is formed when semen enters the uterus and coalesces with the blood harbored there. The existence of ovaries, Fallopian tubes, and ova is not recognized. Menstruation ceases after conception, because all the blood goes to building the fetus. If conception has not occurred, the blood becomes stale after a month, is expelled in menstruation and is replaced with a fresh supply. The uterus opens and closes periodically, opening each month to allow the old blood to flow out... Semen cannot enter when the uterus is closed, so there is no possibility of conception during the greater part of the cycle. (Hanson 1970:1445)
This theory is also found in the Tuamotu archipelago on Pukapuka. In the Huahine and Mo’orea villages studied by Oliver (1981:334), as elsewhere in Tahiti, children were highly valued. Problems in conception were treated by a woman specialist who used an indigenous medication of hibiscus and green coconut.

4. Autoerotic Behaviors and Patterns

A. Children and Adolescents

Among the Pukapukans, Mangarevans, and the Marquesans, during indigenous times prior to Christianization, a tolerant attitude was taken toward childhood sexual expression. Among the Pukapukans, children masturbated in public with no opprobrium. The parents apparently ignored their behavior (Ford and Beach 1953). Levy’s research among Tahitians from 1962-64, cites early explorer and missionary accounts of masturbation among adults and children (1973:113-116). His work among rural Tahitians indicates children masturbate, although the Tahitian term used to describe masturbation refers to males, since it includes the morpheme for uncircumcised penis. Levy notes that “the emphasis on prepubertal male masturbation is striking” (1973:115). It is considered a boy’s activity outgrown with adolescence. However, adult censure of masturbation does occur and seems to be centered on the fear that the boy’s foreskin might tear. Masturbation by post-superincised males is criticized as an indication that he cannot attract a female.

B. Adults

According to William Davenport (1973), in traditional pre-Christian Tahiti, masturbation was sanctioned positively for young women and men.

5. Interpersonal Heterosexual Behaviors

It needs to be noted here that the three Euro-American developmental stages of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood may be of limited utility when encountering non-Western peoples. Adolescence is a fairly recent Western construct whose relevance and meaning cross-culturally will vary. For example, Kirkpatrick (1983) notes that the contemporary Marquesas islanders have an ethnotheory that encompasses four stages of human development: infancy, childhood, youth, and age.

A. Children

During the traditional times, the Pukapukans, Mangarevans, and Marquesans permitted children open sex play (Ford and Beach 1953). The cultural practices of Marquesans and Pukapukans not only allowed open sex play among children but, as mentioned earlier, provided children clandestine opportunities to observe adult sexual behavior due to sleeping arrangements. According to Oliver (1974) on Tahiti, coital simulation became actual penetration as soon as young boys were physiologically able. The Tahitians found children’s imitation of copulation humorous. Other evidence suggests that young girls may have engaged in copulation before age 10 (Gregersen 1983).

Kirkpatrick’s research (1983), based on twenty-five months of fieldwork in the Marquesas (primarily on Ua Pou and Tahiti during the late 1970s) provides much information on the life cycle, gender identities, and the integration of traditional patterns with new cultural influences. According to John Kirkpatrick, babies are massaged with oils and herbal lotions to make their skin smooth, and baby girls are given vaginal astringents to make the genital area sweet smelling. Such treatments for girls continue through puberty and include menstrual preparations as well. The application of fragrant oils, and the concern with cleanliness and personal hygiene, is tied into a wider Polynesian valuing of beauty and the body embedded in the traditional precontact culture. Suggs (1966:25) comments that in traditional Marquesan society, girls may have had their first coital experience by age 10, and boys were circumcised between 7 and 12 years old.

Oliver’s (1981) ethnography includes in-depth discussion of infancy, childhood, and other life-course stages in Tahiti (see the chapter on “Passing Through Life,” pp. 342-400). In this regard, he notes that children played in mixed-gender groups until 13 or 14 years old. The Tahitian attitudes to children playing at copulation was one of amusement (1981:366). However, as children approached the age of 11, adult parental attitudes shifted in regard to young females but not males. Oliver points out that parents objected to girls engaging in sex prior to marriage, an ideal that coexisted with an open and sex-positive attitude. Given Atean and Fatatan flexible definitions of marriage and the cohabitation of young people as a kind of trial marriage, the ideal of chastity in veiled-bride weddings accounted for only 8.9 percent of Atean and 22.5 percent of Fatatan weddings.

B. Adolescents

In discussing adolescents, it is especially important to avoid ethnocentrism. Adolescence is a Western construct with specific age and social concomitants that is of limited use cross-culturally. A more culturally relevant approach for a discussion of Polynesian sexuality is marital status and hierarchy rather than age.

Rites of Passage

Puberty rituals were practiced in traditional times among the Polynesians, including ceremonies in which male genitals were altered surgically, and females and males were both tattooed. These rituals defined the individual as having reached the age of procreation. Traditionally, superincision, along with tattooing, occurred some time after childhood, but before adulthood in the Society Islands.

Superincision continues to be part of contemporary Polynesian practices among some societies. One of the functions of the superincision is to make the penis hygienic and clean, just as vaginal astringents are used for cleanliness in young girls. This is part of the continuing traditional Polynesian cultural emphasis on beauty and cleanliness. It is believed that clean and sweet-smelling genitals make one more attractive as a partner (Kirkpatrick 1983).

However, the puberty ceremonies were and continue to be much more than male genital surgery. They are markers of a process of social-identity transformation as the youth approaches competence and adulthood. Kirkpatrick (1987) discusses Marquesan superincision as a “freeing or enabling event. It results in emergence into the world, rather than the incorporation of the subject into a new group or status” (1987:389). Young Marquesan males take pride in being superincised for these reasons. Additionally, it is not considered proper for an unsuperincised male to have intercourse. In the old Society Islands, Oliver (1974) notes that sex was allowed prior to the completion of the tattooing or superincision.

The superincision was traditionally done in the Marquesas by a local indigenous specialist. In the Old Marquesas, the superincision was performed after puberty, although Kirkpatrick (1983) found that in the late 1970s, the age of superincision was expanded to include 11- to 18-year-old boys. Frequently, a boy or group of boys would request that a superincision be performed.

Levy (1973) describes Tahitian superincision in very similar terms. Superincision among Tahitians is part of a boy’s entré into taure’are’a (“the time or period of pleasure”). Levy points out that this precontact pattern continues in modern times because of its association with Christian circumcision. Peer pressure, such as teasing about smegma, is the reason boys gave when asked why they pursued superincision. Reinforcing this is a belief that superincision enhances sexual pleasure. Linguistic evidence includes an indigenous term for “skin orgasm,” which describes the unsuperincised male’s orgasm as quick and unsatisfying (Levy 1973:118-119).

In superincision, the foreskin is cut, various preparations may be applied on the wound, and then the penis is exposed to heat and salt water to heal. Young men will go to rock pools in the sea and expose their penis to the heat from sun-warmed rocks and then alternately bathe in the sea. When the incision is healed, the boys may return to their daily activities and wear shorts. This pattern is similar to the Tahitian regimen that has changed very little from traditional times. A group of boys gets together and asks a man known for his ability to operate on them. Parents are not told beforehand of the boys’ plan to do this. A razor blade is now used to cut the skin, followed by bathing in the sea and application of herbal medicines. A fire is made with leaves and the boys heat the penis from the vapors and then bandage it (Levy 1973:118-119).

Marshall (1961, see below) reports that superincision, practiced among the ancient Ra’ivavaens, included sexuality education by a priest, as well as a training component in which the superincision scab was removed by copulation with an experienced woman. A boy cannot become a man, even among contemporary Ra’ivavaens, without the supercision. While specialists performed the superincision traditionally, any male with knowledge of the procedure may do so today. However, traditional elements persist in the technique, as well as in the removal of the scab through intercourse with the older experienced woman (Marshall 1961:248).

Superincision is a characteristic Polynesian practice. Although the foreskin is only slit, the outcome of exposing the boy’s penis is the same as in circumcision, according to Davenport (1977:115-163). Although Davenport maintains that the dramatic ritual aspects of superincision have been lost, the genital operation continued at the time of his writing in 1976 in Polynesia.

Generally speaking, in the Polynesian area, women were not rigidly isolated when menstruating as in Melanesian groups. Like female puberty rituals throughout the world, the Marquesan girl’s rite of passage is more continuous and less dramatic than the boys. Reproduction readiness was recognized by the growth of pubic hair. Kirkpatrick (1983) notes that if a menstruating female climbs a breadfruit tree, it is believed that the fruit will have blotched skin. In die old Society Islands, there was no ritual around menstruation, although at puberty, girls did receive tattoos on the buttocks. Menstruating women were not to enter gardens or touch plants. Levy reports in his early 1960s research that some traditional beliefs persist regarding menstruation among Tahitians. Apparently, young women who were menstruating were told to avoid getting chilled or eating cold foods, as this could result in ma’i fa’a’i (the filled sickness). It is believed that if a girl does not menstruate, and/or if she remains a virgin, the blood will fill her body and head and make her crazy, also leading to ma’i fa’a’i. One act of intercourse was believed necessary to ensure good menstruation (Levy 1973:124-126).

Premarital Sexual Activities and Relationships

Among traditional French Polynesian societies, and for Polynesia generally, there were two standards for premarital sex that varied by status and rank, according to Davenport (1976). For example, among the Tahitians, firstborn daughters in lineages of firstborns were very sacred. As a consequence, their virginity was valued and protected until a marriage with a partner of suitably high status was arranged. Among these elite daughters, virginity was demonstrated, for example, by the display of a stained white bark cloth following coitus. Subsequent to the birth of their firstborn child, females of high rank were permitted to establish extramarital liaisons. On Pukapuka, according to Marshall Sahlins (1967), the chief kept a sacred virgin in his retinue as a symbol of his spiritual power.

Among the Margarevans and Marquesans, the only apparent restrictions on adolescent sexuality were incest, exogamy regulations, and/or the upper-class status of certain females. Premarital virginity was required for a chiefs daughters but not for other youths. This pattern, according to Kirkpatrick (1983), continues even today, where concern for rules of exogamy and relatedness still persist among Marquesans. However, Marquesan youths may not be aware of their degree of relatedness to a potential partner when they begin a relationship, a source of concern to their elders.

Marshall’s study of Ra’ivavae (1961), based on reports from the archives of ethnographer J. Frank Stimson, his own ethnographic research with elderly consultants, archaeological, and linguistic analysis, presents a picture of a highly eroticized Tahitian culture that has been largely dismantled by colonialism and Christianity.

The clitoris, among ancient Ra’ivavaens, received a great deal of cultural attention. Marshall reports that the clitoris was elongated by the child’s mother through oral techniques as well as tying it with an hibiscus cord. An elongated clitoris was considered a mark of beauty. According to Marshall’s research, the king would inspect a girl’s clitoris to see if it was sufficiently elongated for her to marry. The girls who were ready for marriage would display their genital attributes at a sacred marae (Marshall 1961:272-273). Both cunnilingus and fellatio were practiced among traditional Marquesan youth and adults (Gregersen 1994:272; Marshall 1961). Suggs (1966:71-73) describes contemporary Marquesan sex as including virtually no foreplay and lasting five or less minutes.

For the indigenous population of French Polynesia, the taure’are’a period in the life cycle is demarcated as a special status. Taure’are’a is part of a traditional pattern that continues today primarily in rural areas. In the Marquesas, adolescence includes a category known as taure’are’a that operates as a transitional period between childhood, to’iki (kid), and adulthood ‘enana motua (parent person). Kirkpatrick describes it as “errant youth” (1987:383-385). Taure’are’a are characterized by their sexual adventures and same-gender peer orientation. Taure’are’a are known for brief sexual liaisons in contrast to adult sexuality, which is integrated within the larger context of domesticity. As a period in the life cycle, taure’are’a is characterized by its pleasure-seeking goal and is looked back upon fondly by adults (Kirkpatrick 1987:387). Taure’are’a is regarded as a temporary status that gradually evolves into adulthood. It has one in which brief sexual encounters are replaced by relations and cohabitation with their partners (Levy 1973:123). It has also been argued that taure’are’a is a time of “testing relationships” through cohabitation with one or more partners serially (Elliston 1996).

According to Kirkpatrick (1983), peers are very important for die Marquesan youth, especially the finding of a confidant with whom one can share secrets, including sexual ones. Of apparent equal interest is the establishment of heterosexual relationships. These sexual liaisons must remain secret due to the rigid Christian sexual prohibition against premarital sex. For example, if pregnancy were to occur, the girl would be either forced into marriage or her relationship would be ended, although this is not true of Tahiti or other areas of French Polynesia. Peer relations are not severed with marriage, although one’s behavior is expected to mature. Sexual gossip is considered normal for youths but not for adults. There is some expectation of a double standard for youthful males and females. Youthful females are expected to act more coy than their male counterparts. In the Marquesas of the late 1970s, males were the sexual initiators, while it was considered inappropriate for girls to take the lead. However, it is a cultural value that both partners should desire and enjoy sex.

Levy also reports on the taure’are’a period among rural Tahitians. Taure’are’a for Tahitians during the 1960s was very similar to that described for the Marquesans. For girls, taure’are’a status converged with menstruation and the development of secondary sexual characteristics. According to Levy, the girls’ taure’are’a period is less distinctive than the boys in terms of role contrast with childhood norms (Levy 1973:117-122). For boys, taure’are’a status does not begin with superincision, but occurs gradually over the next year or two following it.

In Piri (a pseudonym), Levy notes that most youngsters had sexual intercourse between 13 and 16 years of age. Virginity was regarded as unusual for taure’are’a males and females, although shifting demographics, with the migration of taure’are’a girls to Papeete, seems to be having an impact on the prevalence of virginity. At the time of Levy’s research (1962-64), the taure’are’a male was the initiator in terms of making the arrangements for a sexual encounter (Levy 1973:122-124).

Douglas Oliver’s Two Tahitian Villages (1981), historically situated in 1954-1955, offers a detailed enthnography of social life, life stages, sexual behavior, courtship, marriage, and relationships in two rural villages on Huahine and Mo’orea. Oliver’s male Tahitian consultants began having intercourse between the ages of 12- and 15-years old. According to Oliver, the standard position was male on top. Male foreplay, which typically lasted from five minutes to half an hour, included: “breast fondling and kissing, clitoral manipulation, and cunnilingus; mutual orgasms were expected and... nearly always achieved” (1981:274).

Night crawling/creeping is a traditional practice that continues even today in various forms throughout Polynesia. It is known as moe totolo among Samoans and motoro among Mangaians and Tahitians. There is some controversy among anthropologists as to the function and meaning of this institution. Oliver (1989) regards night crawling/creeping as resulting from sleeping arrangements in which family members shared the same sleeping quarters. It seems to be embedded in the taure’are’a pattern for adventure by both females and males.

Night crawling is characterized by the efforts of a young man to sneak into the house of a sleeping young woman and copulate with her without her parents finding out. Apparently, this could be accomplished either with collusion from the young female or without her prior consent. In the latter case, the belief was that the suitor would penetrate the young female while she was asleep; and, if she awoke, she would enjoy it so much she would not want to scream and alert her parents. Oliver (1989) offers a different explanation, suggesting that the parents may have abetted the situation if their daughter was without suitors by making arrangements for a young man to sneak into their home, and then deliberately catching the couple and forcing them to get married. Levy reported that motoro continued among Tahitians in Piri at the time of his research, but that the pattern was on the decline (1973:123).

C. Adults

Cohabitation, Marriage, Family, and Sex

Adult interpersonal heterosexual behaviors, like other aspects of French Polynesian sexuality, must be placed within its cultural context. Oliver (1974, 1981, 1989) has reported that the traditional Tahitians, both premaritally and maritally, experienced sexuality with great joy and gusto, and that this value was expressed in the wider culture through styles of interaction and verbal banter, religion, entertainments, mythology, etc. This ties in with William Davenport’s analysis of the “erotic codes” of Polynesia, defined as those symbolic aspects of culture that “both arouse sexuality and enhance its expression” (1977:127). Davenport’s 1977 essay on “Sex in Cross-Cultural Perspective” is very useful in summarizing this cultural framework and describing intracultural variations.

Marriage was traditionally restricted between individuals by status in the chiefly structure and lineage. Upper ranks were not permitted to marry lower ranks. Formal marriages were relegated to the upper and perhaps middle echelons (Oliver 1989b). Although couples of disparate status were not usually permitted to marry, they could cohabit, although they were dissuaded from having children (Oliver 1974). Divorce was traditionally handled flexibly with the couple returning to her or his own family. They were then free to remarry. There was no formal legal divorce in premodern Polynesia, according to Weckler (1943).

Beauty and sex were closely linked in Polynesia, although in Old Tahiti it was most pronounced. In Tahiti, because large size was a symbol of beauty, higher ranked boys and girls were secluded, overfed, and prevented from exercise so that they could put on weight. Subsequently, they were displayed in all their pale and fat beauty so as to attract a potential spouse. According to Ford and Beach (1951), Pukapukans also liked plump builds on men and women. Apparently, the Tahitian’s value on beauty was reiterated in the belief that a baby could have several biological fathers who would contribute their respective physical traits. Since extramarital, as well as premarital sex was accepted, women would select attractive and athletic young men as sexual partners. In the traditional Marquesas, Ford and Beach (1951) noted that elongated labia majora were considered attractive. Levy has uncovered an ethnotheory of relationships that suggests couples must have a physical compatibility. This is in contrast to one-night trysts in which one person may be as good as another (1973:129).

In the mid-1950s Aeta and Fatata, Tahitian attractiveness norms favored physical types that were neither too thin nor too fat. Aside from the veiled-bride weddings in which chastity, or at least evidence of strong parental control over the daughter’s social behavior, was a prerequisite, previous sexual experience was not unexpected (Oliver 1981:291-292). See below for Oliver’s (1981) typology of Tahitian weddings.

The sexual practices of indigenous French Polynesians include cultural-religious institutions. Gregersen’s (1983) review of Oceanic sexual practices makes note of the arioi cult. This was an organization of Tahitian men and women divided into sects, located throughout the Society Islands, who traveled within the archipelago as singers, dancers, athletes, and sexual exhibitionists. Eroticism pervaded the Tahitian songs and dances of the arioi entertainers. The arioi members were allowed free sexual expression on their journeys, but they were not allowed to marry or have children. This organization was embedded with religious meaning and has been interpreted as a fertility cult. The arioi practiced abortion and infanticide, because having children was not permitted for the member. Should an arioi become a parent, he or she was humiliated and their participation in the cult limited. The arioi were well known for their sexual pursuits with one another and with noncult members encountered on their journeys. Members were selected on the basis of physical beauty and talent that transcended chiefly boundaries to include commoners as well.

Sex and eroticism were made public in other ways as well. Linton’s 1939 report of the Marquesans revealed that naked dancing, along with public group copulation, was practiced as part of feasting and festivals as a pre-Christian traditional pattern. Linton disclosed that women would pride themselves on the number of men they had sex with. In ancient times, Pukapukans of the Tuamotu Archipelago would reserve places called ati, where men and women could go for sex parties. These were organized by a person who also acted as a guard, to prevent conflict by angry ex-lovers and husbands (Gregerson 1983).

One of Marshall’s (1961:273) Ra’ivavaen consultants contended that, in traditional times, public sex followed men’s prayers in the sacred temples. According to this particular consultant, various positions were used, cunnilingus was practiced, and “sperm was smeared upon the face and in the hair as a kind of mono ‘i’ (coconut oil)” (Marshall 1961:273; Elliston 1996). Ceremonial copulation was integrated within the spiritual ethos, which, according to Marshall, was saturated with eroticism as a central theme. The erotic was related to fertility, reproduction, and the sacred.

Polynesian societies have been distinguished by a position for coitus at variance from the Western “missionary” position, as the Polynesians refer to the male-prone-above-prone-female position. According to Oliver (1989b), the “Oceanic position” was traditionally far more popular than the missionary position. The “Oceanic position” is one in which the couple sat facing each other. Other positions included the man squatting or kneeling between the woman’s legs and pulling her toward him, lying side-by-side facing one another, or with the woman’s back to the man’s front. In the Marquesas, a sitting position was reported where the woman sat astride the man’s lap or assumed a side-to-side lying position. A variety of sexual positions were used, although the woman on top seems to have been the more-prevalent position related to the generalized Polynesian concern for the sexual pleasure of women. The most common position taken today seems to be the missionary position, which is undoubtedly a result of Christian missionary efforts (Gregersen 1983).

Delayed ejaculation for the man was considered a valued expertise in Old Polynesia because it facilitated the female partner’s pleasure. Multiple orgasms were valued by both partners in traditional Polynesia as well. Although there was a lesser emphasis on foreplay and more concern with intercourse, the Marquesans were known for practicing cunnilingus and fellatio. Coitus interruptus was also reported among the Marquesans. According to Ford and Beach (1951), the Pukapukans had no preference for sex during the day or at night; each was just as likely.

Kissing among Polynesians is a Western custom. The traditional Tahitian/Polynesian kiss (ho’i) consisted of mutual sniffing and rubbing of noses on the face. According to Levy (1973:128),

kissing on the mouth is still considered a mild perversion. Contemporary Tahitian foreplay according to younger male Pirians includes: “kissing, fondling the woman’s breasts, and occasionally cunnilingus.” Fellatio was considered a practice of “bad girls” in Papeete. (Levy 1973:123)
Intercourse among Pirian youth continues the traditional pattern that emphasizes the female orgasm. A man is humiliated by not bringing his partner to orgasm. The role of the clitoris in women’s pleasure, as in traditional times, still is part of people’s sexual knowledge. In Piri, it is referred to as teo. Linguistic evidence provided by the term ‘ami’ami suggests a precontact focus on eroticism. It is considered a unique capability of some women who can contract and relax the vaginal muscles during coitus (Levy 1973:128). Elliston (1996) notes that Sahlins makes reference to the Hawaiian term ‘amo’amo in Islands of History, writing: “Girls were taught the ‘amo’amo[,] the ‘wink-wink’ of the vulva, and the other techniques that ‘make the thighs rejoice’” (p. 10).

Surveys on the frequencies of sex for traditional indigenous French Polynesians at various points in history are sparse, although qualitative reports found in the ethnographic literature are available for some of this area. Suggs’s 1956-58 study, Marquesan Sexual Behavior (1966), combines qualitative and quantitative data. Frequencies for Marquesan adolescents are sometimes said to be more than ten times in a single night. This may be compared to frequencies for older married couples that are reported of from five times a night to two to three times a week. Questions of accuracy and bias must be considered in evaluating this data. Levy’s Pirian male consultants reported that sex occurred daily in the first year or two of a steady relationship, but dropped to about one to three times a week, declining after several years to once every two or three weeks or once a month. A sex-positive attitude is evident as there is no indication of sanctioning of sex among the elderly. Sex continues up to two to three weeks prior to childbirth and is resumed in one to two months. However, sex is prohibited during menstruation (Levy 1973:125-126).

Data on contemporary sexuality in French Polynesia are not abundant. A sexual survey was considered in Tahiti under Le Direction de la Santé Publique in 1993, but had not been initiated as of early 1997. Spiegel and colleagues (1991) have provided recent sexual data collected between October and December 1990 on seventy-four sexually active women between the ages of 18 and 44 who were working in bars or nightclubs. It must be noted that this sample is not at all representative of the population at large. The median number of sexual partners among this group was 3 (range 1 to 200), and the median number of sexual encounters was 104 (range 12 to 1,095). This segment of the population is important because of their risk for contacting and spreading sexually transmitted diseases.

Marriage patterns in traditional French Polynesia included monogamy, serial monogamy, polygyny, and polyandry. For example, Oliver (1974) observes that elite chiefs were required to engage in monogamy; lower male chiefs could have two to three wives, although only one wife’s children could inherit titles and property. The middle and lower classes of Tahiti were known to have been polygynous. The Marquesas were known for polyandry. An elite woman’s household might include a primary as well as secondary husbands (pekio). The secondary husbands were subordinate to the primary husband and performed menial duties, although as members of elite households, they had privileges associated with the aristocracy (Goldman 1970:142). According to Thomas’s 1987 review of gender in the Marquesas, polyandry is better understood as part of domestic relations rather than conjugal relations per se. However, Goldman asserts that an unequal sex ratio of 2.5 men to one woman may account for the pattern (1970:142). Commoners practiced cohabitation rather than the formalized marriages of the privileged classes.

The Marquesans traditionally engaged in a ritual in which the husband was required to have intercourse with his wife almost immediately after childbirth. Following expulsion of the afterbirth, the wife would bathe in a stream. It was believed that intercourse should then occur while the wife was in the stream in order to stifle the flow of the bleeding.

In contemporary French Polynesia, marriage is legitimized by the Church although most people are not formally married. The Protestant Marquesans must be married before membership in the Church is granted. The transition from the secret liaison to marriage signals a dramatic change from youth to adulthood (Kirkpatrick 1983). On Ra’ivavae, Marshall found that of thirty-one marriages, twenty-nine couples had cohabited (1961:275). This continues the traditional pattern of premarital sex despite a Christian overlay.

Nonlegalized adoption, a common pattern throughout Polynesia, must be interpreted in the context of the social organization of the family. Kirkpatrick (1983) has noted that the traditional Marquesans had a pattern of large multicouple households that included not only extended families, but also others not closely related. Such households may have been indicative of wealth. This pattern would also include children whose biological parents were unable to raise them for a variety of reasons. Although this kind of adoption or fosterage is not legal in colonial French Polynesia, it is socially instituted and informally practiced. It represents an old and more widespread Polynesian pattern of fluid adoption that may include close kin, more-distant kin, and even those not directly related.

The trend in the Marquesas in the late 1970s was toward nuclear conjugal family dwellings. This represents the influence of Catholicism as well as broader Western trends. However, the traditional pattern of foster parents and casual adoption still continues today. Kirkpatrick (1983) found that on Ua Pou, 19 percent of the individuals in the households were unrelated to the household head. Tahitians have a similar pattern of fosterage. Levy reports that 25 percent of the Tahitian children were not residing with their biological parents at the time of his research (1973:474-483).

Polynesian childrearing patterns have continued to persist despite the social disruption caused by exploitation, missionization, and colonialism. The Ritchie’s (1983) have identified several common themes delineating traditional Polynesian childrearing. Among these are fosterage and adoption as part of a wider pattern of community investment in children. Because the community was traditionally composed of lineages of related people, parenting was a collective endeavor, unlike that in the West where it is exclusive to the nuclear family. Howard and Kirkpatrick note that adoption continues today to function as a mechanism to foster relationships between families at the community level and to create alliances at a more macro level (1989:87). There are economic and ecological implications as well. Adoption of children may help a family with domestic labor since children have certain tasks to do. As they mature, they become important economic contributors for a household. Adoption is also “a powerful adaptive mechanism for equitably distributing people relative to resources, including land, in island environments” (Howard and Kirkpatrick 1989). In addition, early indulgence of infants was followed by an expectation of autonomy for children beginning around 2 to 3 years of age. Peer socialization began with sibling care and responsibility for younger siblings, and included larger community groups of peers who spanned a broad age range from 2 to 20 years old.

Extramarital Sex

Extramarital sex was also part of precolonial French Polynesian cultures. The Pukapukans celebrated a successful fishing expedition with extramarital sex. Apparently, women would initiate sexual joking as the men returned with their catch. This was followed by trysts in the bush. Both single and married people participated in these extramarital opportunities with no opposition from their spouse, provided they respected class and incest prohibitions (Oliver 1989b). Among the Tahitians, restrictions on sexuality occurred for upper-class women, sometimes before as well as after marriage, although men and women of common status were free to participate in extramarital sex (Oliver 1989b; Davenport 1977).

There were, therefore, two standards in effect for traditional Tahitians - one for commoners and others, and one for the very elite. Firstborn children, in genealogical lines of Firstborns, were regarded as very high ranking and sacred. Purity of the genealogical line was important and controlled through rules against premarital and extramarital sex until, at least, the woman gave birth to a successor. Then, she was permitted extramarital freedom. For example, Douglas Oliver notes that married ari’i women were notoriously promiscuous (Personal communication with Oliver 1994). Elite women were known to separate from their husbands and to establish their own residence and have lovers (Oliver 1974). Men and women of common status faced no restrictions on extramarital sex (Davenport 1976, Oliver 1989).

On Tahiti, according to Sahlins (1976), a male chief who produced an illegitimate heir practiced infanticide unless measures were taken to alter the status of the mother to be equal to that of the chief. On Mangareva, the chief’s power was such that the rule of prohibition against marriage to a first cousin was often disregarded.

Extramarital sex was also institutionalized in the Society Islands in terms of sexual hospitality. Male taiõ participated in a form of formal friendship relations where sexual intercourse was permitted with one’s married taiõ’s wife. Taw of the opposite sex were not permitted intercourse because their relationship was a social siblinghood and prevented by the incest taboo (Oliver 1974; Ferdon 1981). Sexual hospitality is regarded by some researchers as a widespread Polynesian pattern (Gregerson 1983).

Among the Pukapukans, adultery was believed to cause delayed delivery, and women in such situations were expected to confess (Gregersen 1983:255). Kirkpatrick (1983) did not find extramarital affairs practiced on Ua Pou, although Suggs (1966) reported that extramarital affairs were common in the Marquesas during his sojourn there. However, according to Goldman (1970:585) precontact adultery could have dire consequences, resulting in murder by jealous husbands and possible suicide by the wife of an adulterous husband. Suggs (1966:119-120) reveals that at the time of his research, although adultery was condemned, it still occurred. However, it caused jealousy and hard feelings among both sexes if found out.

Although adultery was the primary cause of breakups and divorce in Aeta and Fatata in the mid-1950s, it was not reason enough by itself. Oliver’s Tahitian consultants regarded adultery as something any Tahitian, given an opportunity, would be likely to do (1981:317). While church pastors in both villages declared adultery as a sin and cause for explusion, the Tahitian attitude was more relaxed, reflecting a double standard of greater tolerance of male adultery than female (p. 334).

6. Homoerotic, Homosexual, and Ambisexual Behaviors

A. Children and Adolescents

Some Tahitian upper-class men, according to Douglas Oliver, kept boys in their household for sex, although this was not a widespread practice. Suggs (1966:24) states that homosexual experiences among boys, and possibly girls, were common among Marquesan adolescents.

B. Adults

Since first colonial contact, the indigenous peoples of Polynesia have been engaged in culture change and transformation. Indigenous systems of homosexual options may be influenced, or even reinvigorated, by the advent of Western homosexual identities. For French Polynesia, it is necessary to point to this complexity in order to understand homosexuality/bi-sexuality from a cultural perspective that is not a Western-based psychological model.

There were two forms of homosexual behavior in ancient Tahiti. Some Tahitian ari’i men, according to Oliver (1989), kept boys in their household for sex. The other context for homosexual expression was associated with the mãhu status. The mãhu was a transvestic tradition that included homosexual practices with nontransvestic males. It is important to note that since the mãhu is a transgendered category, the term homosexual is not really an appropriate descriptor for mãhu sexuality. Swallowing semen was believed by Tahitians to foster masculine vigor (Gregersen 1994:274). The indigenous pattern of the mãhu is not an equivalent to Western subcultural homosexuality or Western transvestism, but was an integrated part of the wider Tahitian culture. The homosexual aspects of the mãhu status were not its most significant features, but rather it was the cross-gendered aspects of dress and behaviors that identified one as a mãhu. The mãhu is reported throughout Polynesia and was found among the Marquesans, where it was very similar to the Tahitian form, according to Oliver (1989). Ferdon (1981) found evidence that the mãhu began dressing in women’s attire while very young. (See Section 7 on gender variation for further discussion.)

Data on Western-type homosexuality in contemporary French Polynesia is sparse. Chanteau et al. (1986) distinguish the presence of a male homosexual community of Polynesian men that frequented hotels, bars, restaurants, and night clubs of Tahiti (presumably in Papeete). This population was considered at high risk for LAV/HTLV-III infection by Chanteau et al. who conducted a serological survey. (See discussion on HIV/AIDS below.) The population recruited for the serological survey consisted of fifty transvestite homosexuals known as raerae. Forty percent of this population had only one partner and frequency of intercourse was once a week. Eighty-five percent of this group had intercourse only once a month. Some of this population had had plastic surgery and female hormone therapy. It is difficult from this report to assess the character of this population, since there are a number of possible gendered identities.

Spiegel and colleagues (1991) collected data from 156 male homosexuals aged 13 to 54 between October and December 1990. The annual median number of sexual partners was 9.5 (range 1 to 600) and the median number of sexual encounters was 156 (range 2 to 5,810). Of this population, 56.4 percent were transvestites. Unfortunately, it is not possible to place the transvestites in the cultural milieu, as sampling information was not provided by the researchers. Nor is it possible to determine the social identity of the transvestites in terms of the mãhu, Western gay transvestism, a modern synthesis of both patterns, or some other identity (Williams 1986:255-258). These transvestites are employed in bars, hotels, and nightclubs. Apparently a raerae subcultural expression is found in the Miss Tane and Miss Male beauty contests. It should be noted here that the Western term transvestite is not really appropriate in describing the complexity of transgendered identities and homosexualities of French Polynesia.

Levy also records the introduction of the term raerae to refer to homosexual and lesbian behavior. While Pirians maintained lesbian behavior (oral and mutual masturbation) did not occur on Piri, it was believed common in Papeete in the bar scene. It was not considered part of a lesbian orientation but rather context-specific. Women who engaged in lesbian encounters were not stigmatized, according to Levy 1973:139-141, but more recent research indicates that lesbian lifestyles are problematic in Tahiti (Elliston 1996).

7. Gender Conflicted Persons

In discussing transgendered individuals among indigenous populations, Western-based terminology, such as “transsexualism” or gender dysphoria, are inappropriate since they refer to twentieth-century Western psychiatrically derived categories. The expression of cross-gender or transgender roles needs to be understood in the sociocultural context and not viewed from the Western perspective as “deviant” behavior. Levy (1971, 1973) has provided some of the most significant research on this subject in his study of the mãhu of Tahiti. The mãhu was a transgendered role for males who dressed and took on the social and occupational roles of Tahitian women including taboos and restrictions. According to Levy, the mãhu tradition has continued from precontact times, although attributes of the status have changed somewhat, so that today the mãhu no longer cross-dresses, but still engages in work that is considered traditionally female, such as household activities. Levy considers the mãhu a role variant for men. An interesting parameter of the mãhu in rural Tahiti is that a man can be “mãhu-ish” without being mãhu. Mãhu are regarded as being “natural,” yet one does not have to remain mãhu throughout the life course. There is a conception of effeminacy associated with mãhu. Mãhu are not stigmatized nor are their heterosexual male partners. According to Levy, “a mãhu is seen as a substitute female” (1973:34). In Piri, the mãhu are not believed to practice sodomy, but are fellators of other men.

As mentioned previously, this institution was widespread throughout Polynesia. The mãhu engaged in fellatio with nontransvestite male partners, but these partners were not considered mãhu or homosexual. Mãhus were also reported to have been sex partners of chiefs. This suggests that the Polynesian gender paradigm is one in which sex and gender are discrete categories and the mãhu identity functioned to highlight gender differences. Levy suggests that the mãhu may be analyzed as an embodied warning to other males on how to avoid nonmale behavior.

In Tahiti, the mãhu continues to be regarded as a natural phenomenon. While various explanations are offered for its occurrence, the mãhu is generally a nonstigmatized status and accepted within wider Tahitian society. According to Kirkpatrick (1983), the Ua Pou Marquesans note that there are no mãhu in their area today because the mãhu have migrated to Tahiti. Kirkpatrick describes the mãhu as an ambiguously or disvalued status. The Marquesans also have a more recently introduced term, raerae, which is used interchangeably with mãhu. The Marquesan mãhu are not considered women, but rather men who want to act as women. The significant attributes for the Marquesan gender paradigm in terms of mãhu status relate to occupation and appropriate peer relations, rather than homosexual behavior per se.

Kirkpatrick (1983) reports on the Marquesan vehine mako, or shark woman, which is a gender-variant identity for females. Unlike the mãhu, the vehine mako is not based on relational or occupational criteria. Instead, the shark woman is characterized by an aggressive and vigorous sexuality. The defining feature of vehine mako woman is that she is a sexual initiator, an activity defined as masculine. Thus, both the mãhu and vehine mako are defined in terms of the reversal of gender-role attributes. However, vehine mako is not a female equivalent of the mãhu, or recognized as a form of female homosexuality. Levy regards the institution of the mãhu as a boundary-maintenance mechanism that identifies the limits of what is considered conventional male and female gender behavior, i.e., masculinity and femininity. Whether this applies to the vehine mako must be determined by further research.

8. Significant Unconventional Sexual Behaviors

A. Coercive Sex

Douglas Oliver’s (1974) intensive research could not find evidence of rape in the precolonial Society Islands and according to J. E. Weckler, “rape is practically unknown in (traditional) Polynesia” (1943:57). However, today, rape does occur. According to one anthropologist with a research background in Tahitian culture, first encounters with a young girl are often forced by the young man. Levy’s consultants argued mat haree (rape) may have occurred in the past on Piri, but it does not occur today. Levy found no reports of violent rape on the island of Huahine in which Piri is located (1973:124). More recently, Elliston (1996) reported rape and attempted rape on Huahine and in Papeete.

B. Prostitution

Oliver reports that prostitution, as defined in the West, was associated with European contact and exploitation of the Pacific. In Old Polynesia, there were opportunities for women in the royal courts to entertain visitors sexually. These positions were not stigmatized in the least. One consultant reports that today, in the Westernized and urbanized city of Papeete, prostitution is not uncommon, although statistics were not available at the time of this writing. Stanley also reported that today there is evidence of male prostitution among some transvestites (1992:34).

C. Pornography and Erotica

Information was not available at the time of this writing. The sexual survey of La Direction de la Santé Publique (1995: see address in Section 13B) is expected to address this.

D. Paraphilia

It is especially important here to specify the culture of derivation in discussing unconventional behaviors. What is unconventional from Western perspectives is not necessarily regarded so from the indigenous view. Generally, the Pacific peoples have a low incidence of Western categories of paraphilia. In fact, Gregersen’s review of the literature of Oceania revealed only the two rather suspicious reports described below. Archival data on which these reports are based may be inaccurate and even fanciful. It is with caution that these are presented here.

According to Gregersen (1983; 1987:278), among the precolonial Pukapukans, a form of sexual contact with corpses was said to have occurred. In this group, a strong aversion to corpses was expressed in tabu. Contact with corpses was prohibited and friends were not even permitted to look at the dead. This tabu was mitigated in certain circumstances by the belief that the “grief of a cousin will be naturally so intense that the tabus will be broken - not only by looking at the corpse but even embracing it and sometimes having intercourse with it.” This violation of the corpse tabu was referred to with a special term, wakaavanga. Although contact with corpses was tabu, such behavior was expected of cousins. Archival data on which this report is based may or may not be inaccurate and is subject to Western and historical bias.

Gregerson (1983) also notes that sexual contact with animals occurred among the Marquesans when partners were unavailable. Men were known to have sex with chickens, dogs, and even horses, while women were said to have lured dogs into performing cunnilingus on them. However, this account may also be in need of further investigation of its accuracy.

From the vantage of the indigenous peoples of French Polynesia, there was one behavior that was considered sexually deviant. The celibate role of the priest is considered at great variance with male Marquesan ways of being, according to Kirkpatrick (1983). This role is considered distinctive and deviant with the nature of Marquesan masculinity.

9. Contraception, Abortion, and Population Planning

A/B/C. Attitudes, Practices, Teenage Pregnancies, and Abortion

In precolonial Tahitian times of the latter 1700s, discussion of teen pregnancies must be situated within the cultural and historical context. The taure’are’a was a period of sexual freedom during adolescence, and this, combined with fosterage, testifies that teenage pregnancy was not problematic and should not be interpreted in terms of Western concerns over teenage pregnancy, where the cultural ideal is delayed pregnancy until young adulthood. It was not unusual among traditional indigenous societies for pregnancy to occur during the teenage years; in many cultures it was the norm. Today, according to one consultant with Tahitian cultural experience, grandparents may adopt the child, while teenage marriage is much rarer.

The precontact Tahitians practiced infanticide and abortion on occasion. The stratification by class was castelike and intermixing was strictly prohibited. The offspring of parents who were respectively from an upper-and lower-class status was strangled at birth. The arioi society members were prohibited from producing offspring, since children would be a hinderance to the many religious activities required by cult membership (Ferdon 1981). Abortion and infanticide were practiced not only by arioi members, but also in cases where arioi couples of two different class levels conceived. In these cases, infanticide had no connection with population control, but was practiced instead to counter a violation of interclass marriage. This was tied to the status system in which titles and positions were inherited through chiefly lineages. Infanticide was practiced in situations in which either a woman’s child was conceived with a male of lower rank or in which a man’s child was conceived with a woman of lower rank. Although, according to Goldman, male infanticide was more common on Tahiti, Marquesan female infanticide was prevalent enough to result in a ratio in which men far outnumbered women (1970:563).

In the villages of Aeta and Fatata, mixed attitudes were voiced on contraception, although few, if any, used contraceptives regularly. According to Oliver, only “some [from both villages]... knew of the existence of contraceptive devices, mainly condoms (1981:341).

While attitudes about abortion was varied in these two Tahitian villages, it was generally viewed as the concern of the individual. A folk abortificient, a blend of green pineapple and lemon juices, was available from older women specialists and believed to cause miscarriage within two months (Oliver 1981:34).

D. Population Control Efforts

Information could not be obtained by the author at the time of this publication. See La Direction de la Santé Publique “Sexual Survey” (1995: see address in Section 13B).

10. Sexually Transmitted Diseases

In Tahiti, testing for STDs is available at STD and maternity public clinics. There is a dearth of information on the epidemiological study of chlamydia in the Pacific Islands, with the exception of one study in New Caledonia. Chungue et al. (1988) have examined the rate of chlamydia trachomatis in three populations of at-risk individuals in order to illustrate the importance of specific diagnostic testing for monitoring of this infection. Chlamydia was found in 53 percent of fifty-three bar women (ages 15 to 45), 24 percent of seventy-five women attending a public maternity clinic for routine care (ages 14 to 40), and 37 percent of seventy-one men attending a sexually transmitted disease clinic with acute or subacute urethritis (ages 17 to 37).

Neisseria gonorrhoea infection was associated with chlamydia infection in 11.4 percent of the bar women and 18.3 percent of the men with urethritis. Of the chlamydia-positive women, 58.3 percent of the bar women and 23.2 percent of the women at the maternity clinic were without clinical complaints. Eight bar women (15 percent) were infected with trichomonas vaginalis. This study proves that chlamydia trachomatis is common in Tahiti and warns that asymptomatic women who are chlamydia-positive may be vectors for the spread of the disease. The authors have proposed routine testing for chlamydia trachomatis in STD or maternity clinics.

According to a 1984 public health report by John A. R. Miles, in 1971 three cases of syphilis were reported, but by 1977, the rate was 23 per 10,000. The rate of gonorrhea is 27 per 10,000.


A. Incidence, Patterns, and Trends

Several important surveys have been conducted regarding HIV in the French Polynesian population. Chanteau et al. (1986) conducted a serological survey screening for anti-LAV/HTLV-III antibodies using Institut Pasteur and Abbot Laboratories immunoassay kits. Four populations considered high risk were tested. These included eighty homosexual and transvestite men of low-SES (socioeconomic status); thirty-seven homosexual/bisexual men of Polynesian, European, and Chinese ethnic background of middle-or upper-SES, thirty-five female prostitutes, and thirty-three blood transfusion patients. Four positive results were obtained from the group of thirty-seven homosexual/bisexual men; three Europeans and one Chinese were positive. This group was a highly traveled population that appears to be the source of the introduction of LAV/HTLV-III in French Polynesia. Nicholson and colleagues (1992) measured the prevalence of HTLV-I using the ELISA test and confirmation by Western Blot in 19,975 blood samples from Australia and the western Pacific. No antibody was detected in the 198 sera from the French Polynesian population. However, a 1989 study by Alandry et al., a 1991 report by Spiegel et al., and research by Gras et al. (1992) all report evidence of HIV and AIDS in French Polynesia.

These researchers suggest that HIV was introduced in French Polynesia as early as 1973. Factors contributing to the introduction and spread of HIV include blood transfusions prior to August 1985, tourism primarily from continental France and the United States, and certain groups of individuals whose behaviors put them at risk.

The Allandry (1991) report on HIV is based on data collected over three years. In June 1988, 27,000 HIV tests were given, including 16,881 blood donors. Of the 27,000, forty-five were seropositive; none of the blood donors were HIV-positive. While an additional two children not older than 18 months were HIV-positive, these were not included in the study per se. The age breakdowns for the HIV-positive individuals are: 18 months to 6 years, 1; 20 to 29 years old, 24; 30 to 39 years, 10; 40 to 49 years, 8; 50 years and over, 2.

Of the thirty-two HIV-positive men and thirteen HIV-positive women, twenty-two are of Polynesian ancestry, nineteen are European, and four are Asiatic. Twenty-two are homosexual or bisexual males (48.8 percent), twelve are polytransfusions recipients (26.6 percent), six are partners of HIV-positive people (13.3 percent), three are heterosexuals with multiple partners, and two are former drug users. Based on this data, the rate of HIV-positives is 2.4 per 10,000.

Only 1 (0.7 percent) of the 147 homosexuals screened by Spiegel et al (1991) showed a positive result. A subsequent screening of 156 male homosexuals, among whom 56.4 percent are transvestites working in hotels, night clubs, and restaurants, and seventy-four sexually active females working in bars, was conducted between October and December, 1990. Among the male homosexuals 13- to 54-years old, 3, (1.9 percent) are positive for HTLV-I. Among the seventy-four females 18- to 44-years old, 3 (4.1 percent) are positive. The median number of sexual partners was 9.5 and the median number of sexual encounters was 156 in male homosexuals, while for the female population, the median number of partners was 3 and the median number of sexual encounters was 104 for the period of October to December, 1990. Among the total population of 230 subjects, 2 are IV drug users, but both are HTLV-I negative. The authors concluded that the risk for HTLV-I infection among male homosexuals is increasing, and the infection is also present in a female population at risk.

Gras et al. (1992) reported on ninety-six cases of HIV-positive and AIDS-infected persons. Of these, 78 percent were between 21 and 40 years old, seventy-two of the ninety-six had acquired HIV through sexual contact, and 94 percent live in Tahiti. The sex ratio was 2.8 males/1 female. Fifty-five percent were Europeans, 38 percent Polynesians, and 7 percent Asiatic. Gras estimates the rate of new HIV infection at 20 new cases per year in a French Polynesian population of 200,000, with 150 cases of AIDS per 1 million inhabitants. The rate of prevalence of HIV-positive cases between 1987 and 1990 per 100,000 was a mean of 9.45, a median of 9.65, and the extremes of 7.2 and 11.4. As of June 21, 1993, thirty cases of AIDS were reported for French Polynesia, according to the regional office for the Western Pacific of the World Health Organization (1993:9). Twenty-two cases were reported for 1979-90, five AIDs cases for 1991 with a rate of 2.7, and three in 1992 for a rate of 1.6, with no cases reported as of July, 1993.

The ELISA test can be performed in only six laboratories on the Island of Tahiti. A Western Blot confirmation test is required for the HIV-positive cases. HIV-positive patients are provided sex education on condom use and follow-up of asymptomatic individuals continues for six months. Treatment may be either by a private physician or under the Chef du Service de Medecine du Centre Hospitalier Territorial. A medical exam for the occurrence of opportunistic diseases is also available. Individuals with AIDS may be treated with AZT and pentamidine.

B. Availability of Treatment and Prevention Programs

Government policies contribute to the tracking of HIV through readily available testing at hospitals and public health centers. Testing may be done at the following centers: Le Centre de Transfusion Sanguine, Le Centre Hospitalier Territorial, L’Institut Territorial de Recherches Medicale Louis Malarde (Centre des Maladies Sexuellement Transmissibles, Centre de Lutte contre la Tuberculose). La Direction de la Santé Publique en Polynésie Française has been mandated by the Bureau d’Education to teach safe sex practices. A December 1985 law requires testing of blood donors. In 1986, a consulting commission for HIV was formed along with efforts at follow-up. Since 1987, condoms may be imported tax-free. In 1990, free and anonymous testing was made available to the public. In monitoring HIV, the French Polynesian Public Health Service and health authorities have implemented HIV-serum surveillance following World Health Organization guidelines. Twenty thousand screening tests for both HIV I and HIV II are done on a population of less than 200,000. Thus far, only HIV I has been found.

12. Sexual Dysfunctions, Counseling, and Therapies

A. Concepts of Sexual Dysfunction

Sexual dysfunction must be considered within the cultural context. For example, sexual dreams with orgasm among Levy’s rural Tahitians were thought to be the work of spirits and were regarded as “dangerous” (Levy 1973:129). The concept of “dangerous” is not translatable as a sexual dysfunction, but neither is it considered desirable.

Hooper (1985:158-198) collected ethnomedical data in two rural Tahitian communities on the lies Sou-le-Vent, a group of islands northwest of Tahiti in the 1960s. Indigenous folk medicine continues despite the cultural disruption caused by missionization and colonialism and the introduction of Western medicine. Hooper describes a form of “ghost sickness” with sexual implications. Ghost sickness, mai tupapa’u, is a special category of illness that is believed to be caused by tupapa’u. Such illnesses are characterized by their “bizarre” aspects and can only be cured by an indigenous healer, a tahu’a. Tupapa’u is an incorporal aspect of the self, distinct yet coexisting along with the Christian notion of the soul. Each person has a tupapa’u that can travel during one’s dreams. When an individual dies, his tupapa’u continues to remain in the vicinity watching over his kin. The tupapa’u is regarded as having a personality and can be protective, but also vengeful and playful.

One form of ghost sickness entails visitations from tupapa’u of the opposite sex. While erotic dreams are regarded as encounters with tupapa’u of the opposite sex (no mention of same sex was made) and are therefore not really dreams at all, these are not regarded as problematic if they are occasional and the partners are varied. However, illness can occur if an individual becomes obsessed with a particular visiting tupapa’u. In such a case of ghost sickness, the individual may lose weight, refuse sex with his or her spouse, and may be seen chatting and laughing with invisible tupapa’u. Hooper describes the case of B, who refused sex with her husband. “She would bathe in the evenings, put on scented oil and special clothes, and lie on a separate bed, talking and laughing with a tupapa’u lane (male ghost).” A healer was called in who “commanded the tupapa’u to leave and never return. B slept soundly for the rest of the night and had no more dealings with the male ghost again. According to... the healer... the ghost was ‘ripped up’ by his familiar” (Hooper 1985:178).

Levy’s Pirian consultants reported that frigidity and impotence did not occur. The only conditions acknowledged as leading to impotence were illness or getting chilled. The Tahitian theory of sexual attraction may explain this, and clearly points to the importance of a relativistic perspective when regarding Western categories of sexual dysfunction. A Tahitian man who does not have an erection with a woman in an intimate situation, assumes that he must not want to have intercourse (Levy 1973:128-129).

13. Research and Advanced Education

A. Sexological Research

Sexual research concerning indigenous peoples of the area of French Polynesia includes the work of Richard Levy, as well as Douglas Oliver (1989a and 1989b, 1974), I. Goldman (1970), W. H. Davenport (1977), R. Linton (1939), and R. C. Suggs (1966) among others. In addition, contemporary sex research with a focus on HIV and at-risk sexual behaviors has been conducted by G. Alandry et al. (1989), C. Gras et al. (1992), and Spiegel et al. (1991). La Direction de la Santé Publique conducted a sexual survey in November, 1993. The results were to be available in 1995, but were not published at the time of this writing. The interested reader is encouraged to write for the survey. There is no organized advanced education in sexuality in French Polynesia.

B. Major Sexological Surveys, Journals, and Organizations

Journals and periodicals in which sexological information, research, and reports on French Polynesia may be found include:

La Direction de la Santé Publique “Sexual Survey,” Epistat CMRS Laure Yen, BP 611, Papeete-Tahiti, Polynésie Française

Counseil Economique Social et Cultural, Avenue Bruat, BP 1657, Papeete, Tahiti, Polynésie Française

Ministry of Social Affairs, P. O. Box 2551, Papeete, Tahiti, Polynésie Française

Institut Territorial de la Statistique, BP 395, Papeete, Tahiti, Polynésie Française

Service d’Information et de Documentation, BP 255, Papeete, Tahiti, Polynésie Française

Institut Territorial de Recherches Medicales, Louis Malarde, BP 30, Papeete, Tahiti, Polynésie Française

The Medical Journal of Australia, Australasian Medical Publishing Company, 1-5 Commercial Road, P. O. Box 410, Kingsgrove, New South Wales, 2208 Australia

Medecine Tropicale, Institut de Medecine Tropicale, Marseille Armee, France

Oceania University of Sydney, Oceania Publishing, Mackie Building, Sydney, New South Wales, 2006 Australia

Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletins, 1525 Bernice Street, Box 19000-A, Honolulu, HI 96817-0916, U.S.A.

Journal of the Polynesian Society, University of Auckland, Anthropology Department, Polynesian Society, Private Bag, Auckland, New Zealand

Journal de la Société des Océanistes, The Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania.

The Journal of Pacific History

Pacific Studies

Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology


I am deeply indebted to Dr. Douglas Oliver who gave generously of his time in reading and commenting on this manuscript. His expertise and many works have been an invaluable source of knowledge and inspiration to me.

I would also like to thank Dr. Victoria Lockwood and Dr. Paul Shankman for their helpful suggestions for researching this subject. Dr. Deborah A. Elliston provided an extremely detailed commentary on this paper. Her research among the Tahitians has been critical in this review, as she provided thoughtful and up-to-date feedback. I am grateful to Linda Martin-dale for manuscript preparation, editing, computer magic, and reference research.

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