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sexual issues across cultures
> A professor of constitutional law (with whom I was making a presentation
> yesterday evening at Pymouth State University in NH on same-sex marriage)
> said that his studies show that same-sex relations within tribal units
> were acceptable throughout much of Africa and Asia until the Christian
> missionaries came along and imposed the European 19th Century strict
> definition of gender roles upon the tribes. If his understanding is
> correct, not quite the whole tribal culture got moved into the Church.
> Since sexuality was not and is not a topic of public discourse in
> African tribal cultures, there is no established social or cultural
> memory about these matters, as I understand it. I may be
> wrong to some degree, so any correction is welcome.
That's certainly the impression I got when I read Stephen Murray and Will
Roscoe's HOMOSEXUALITIES IN AFRICA. They were gracious to let me put the
draft manuscript online during the months leading to Lambeth 98, but their
publisher insisted that I remove it, understandably, when the book appeared.
It's a collection of essays by anthropologists.
Apparently epidemiology is driving some of the research, in an effort to
identify which cultural pronouncements have efficacy in those societies, so
that we can tap those to shift attitudes and save lives regarding AIDS.
Before the missionaries came, tribal customs assured that few babies were
born before marriage and assured that the tribes kept at a size sustainable
by the economy. One way they achieved this was to encourage persons at
puberty to engage in heavy petting without exchanging bodily fluids, often
in group sex with peeking adults.
When I was in South Africa in August of 1999 I spotted remnants of this
custom in two newspaper accounts of different old men in the bush caught
selling tickets for tourists to watch the young, but in most of the culture
the practice has apparently disappeared.
Missionaries scorned those practices and drove them out over time. They
replaced them with a level of hypocrisy about sex, whereby persons profess
Christian monogamy in public but, as a Ugandan priest who is a friend of
mine tells me, few Africans have actually accepted Western Christian mores
about sex. They simply think we are wrong about that.
Another factor affecting sexual behavior in all cultures was noted in the
1988 BLUE BOOK report of the Standing Commission on Human Affairs, chaired
by +George Hunt, then Bishop of Rhode Island. +Jack Spong was on the
Commission then as well. They pointed out that in each of the last four
centuries puberty had come earlier by one year in much of the world, and
that in each of the last four centuries, in the West marriage had been
delayed by another year. In 400 years time there was added an 8 year delay
between puberty and marriage that had not been there when most cultures
codified their morals about marriage and sex. It is small wonder that
systems are straining to the breaking point with the added delay at the
height of sexual energy for the human being.
In most of Africa, there is little to no sex education. Most maintain a
distinction between sex in marriage for procreation and sex for recreation.
All children are raised within families, with much responsibility for them
taken by the extended family.
Sex is presumed by many to be something one horny person does with another
willing horny person in the next pallet. Everyone is presumed heterosexual
in identity; people so inclined to have homosexual sex may do so fairly
easily; a problem arises only when a lesbigay identity is claimed. Sex is
something you do in the dark.
Friends tell me that many priests and bishops have mistresses whose names
are known in the community, and no one thinks there's anything wrong with
In province in another part of the global south, a bishop once told a
group gathered to explore issues of Christian sexuality: "Something is
wrong with this conference. The lesbians and gays are taking all the
risks. We heterosexuals have sexual histories too, and I am going to
tell you mine...." You could have heard a pin drop.
When push comes to shove, probably the greatest inhibition many feel in
talking about homosexuality is that they fear they will have to be