Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Polynesian Sexual Customs

The subject of sexual customs in Polynesia is permeated with misunderstandings, one of the true curiosities of the Modern Age is the historical revision being attempted on the reputation for sexual liberation of Polynesians. Strange phd thesis advance bizarre apologies for the sexual practices customary in the Pacific and so called Women's Studies writers attempt to downplay the promiscuity of Polynesian women. While it is very true many Contact Period Europeans mistakenly assumed the young girls who swam out to their ships and displayed themselves willing and ready to engage in all forms of sexual activity represented all the women on the islands. But in reality Polynesia really deserved its reputation for a Golden Age of unrepressive morality and sexual liberation. Polynesians were the Bonobo of the human species, for sexual intercourse between almost all members of the group played a very important role in the cohesion and health of their society. One of the most interesting observations below is the reference to the Polynesians non-practice of foreplay, because they simply had no need of these techniques for both parties to enjoy a successful outcome to sexual intercourse.

Much of the appeal European felt for the Pacific had at its core the dream of complete sexual liberty. However, not only was Polynesian Society more complicated than that, I believe the attraction of Westerners to Polynesia is more than merely sexual. It has at its core the longing for a Lost World, the world we in our hearts believe existed when we too belonged to the Natural World. A world that existed for millions of years before agriculture and towns and cities; before the settled life, before the dirt and filth and poverty of the Industrial World, before the plagues of infectious diseases, and the greatest plague of all ; the repressive iron grip of Judea/ Christian religions, with its angry misogynistic ,all seeing, all vengeful God. Polynesia and Polynesian sexual customs held up before Europeans eyes a different world, one without their repressed and closeted and deeply ingrained sociopathic attitude towards sex, a world that we were once also a part of, before we were banished from the Garden.

Marriage In Polynesia, the concept of marriage as we in the West consider it, did not exist. For Chiefly families marriages were tactical, but all marriages could be absolved with little or no ceremony. The real bonds that held two people together in Polynesia were emotional, or involved the bond of family, as family was the glue of all Pacific societies. However, attitudes to fidelity varied across Polynesia. In Eastern Polynesia, female infidelity was tolerated as it was in Hawaii, while in New Zealand it was more complicated, a chief might have multiple wives but he possessed the right to kill his wife if she was unfaithful, and the contact period is full of tales of Maori men exercising that right. The key is probably whether a man saw the infidelity of his wife as an attack on his mana or not. I suspect that class also played a role, did the commoners share the same morals as their chiefly and aristocratic brethren? Probably not. But it would be a mistake to think that Polynesians are not sentimental about love, to the contrary their love songs and poetry is highly sensitive and profoundly emotional.

In traditional Polynesian society nudity had nothing to do with sexuality, female traditionally were bare breasted and children under five ran naked and men often stripped for certain tasks. Polynesians bathed frequently unlike I might point out Europeans. Once the pubic hair began to grow, the genitals were covered, but not through prudery, but to protect the organs that gave progeny. Nudity among adults had important nonsexual significance, such as being a symbol of death or punishment or of lamentation. Individuals who were slated for sacrifice or who were banished were stripped naked. A dream of nudity, it was claimed, was a portent of death.

The genitals were considered holy and were appreciated as being good. They were treated with respect and worship, and ostensibly they were covered for protection, not shame. Also, it was believed that the genitals possessed mana (spiritual power), and this belief was expressed with clarity in the traditional woodcarvings of the powerful gods, whose genitals were shown to be prominent.

Genital Chant
Within the culture, genitals were addressed in song and story. Traditional Hawaiians had public names for their private parts, and they were proud of their endowments. Hawaiian royalty, and commoners as well, had their own mele mai, a genital chant. These chants described, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally and openly, the individuals sexual organs.

Genital Preparation
Subincision of the foreskin was practiced, and ostensibly, to prepare for this practice, the penis was blown into daily starting from birth. The blowing was said to loosen and balloon the foreskin and separate it from the glans, so that when the time of subincision came, the skin was quickly and easily slit. The blowing continued daily until the infant was old enough to urinate in an arch, wetting the blower, then it was done less often, perhaps three times a week until the young male was 6 or 7. A makua hine (aunt) or kupuna wahine (grandmother) did the blowing. The penis-blowing procedure was said to guarantee health and efficient coitus.

In Hawaii when a young male was 6 or 7, penile subincision was performed by a specially trained priest. In the Mangaia Islands (Cook Islands) this was performed at puberty as a special procedure within an initiation rite.

While a female was still an infant, mothers breast milk was squirted into her vagina, and the labia were pressed together. The mons was rubbed with kukui (candlenut) oil and pressed with the palm of the hand to flatten it and make it less prominent. The molding continued until the labia did not separate. This chore usually was done by the mother or an aunt or grandmother.

In the Marquesas, similar attention was given to the vulva, but in addition, the young females labia minor were stretched to make them longer. This practice often was done orally by the caretaking adult females. While in the Society and Austral Islands the clitoris of young females were lengthened by manipulation

Sex Education
Until the age of 4-6, young males and females played together. Between 4 and 6, young males went to live in the hale nua, where, through observation, they learned sex roles and sex-related expectations from adult males. Unlike traditions that were present in some other parts of Oceania, there is no evidence that ritualized adult-male/adolescent-male sexual activities were practiced in traditional Hawaii.

Similarly, young females learned from the older women, with whom they remained. They were taught to look forward to sex and appreciate its pleasures. Both sexes heard the sex-positive conversations, songs, and stories of their elders and learned accordingly. By the age of puberty sexual exploration with same-sex age mates was actively encouraged.

Young males learned to fish, plant, cook, and fight and to honour the ali'i, the gods and spirits, and work. Young females, too, learned of the ali'i, the gods and spirits, and female related tasks, such as mat weaving, feather-garment and fibre crafts, dance, attending to births. In regard to sex, the occupation of a young woman was to procreate, which in the Hawaian culture implies all that relates to seduction, in which it is said that women play a more active role than men. Feminine activities are chanting, dancing, and other activities that promote eroticism. It is the women who often compose and chant the "mele inoa" (name chants) with their deliberately erotic content, and even the "mele mai" (chants praising the genitals).

Sex training was direct and firsthand. Young individuals learned of coitus and sex play from instruction, direct observation, and practice. As they slept in the family house (hale noa), they observed their parents having coitus. In the Mangaian Islands, any person may copulate at any age, in the single room of a hut that contains from five to fifteen family members of all ages. A daughter may receive and make love with each of her varied nightly suitors in the same room. But under most conditions, all of this takes place without social notice: everyone seems to be looking in another direction.

The young observed dogs, pigs, and other animals mating, and these activities were discussed openly with parents or other adults. Parturition was not a secret event and was well attended by the young and by adults, all of whom observed traditions that included the washing and burying of the placenta and, usually, the disposing of the umbilical cord.

Young Polynesians acquired sex education in day-by-day exposure to precepts, practices, and attitudes concerning sex. Childish curiosity about sex was satisfied, with neither guilt nor shame instilled. With variations depending upon rank, region, and social circumstances, the young individual learned the lore of Tapu, social restraints and preferences, and attitudes toward both sex for procreation or love and sex for fun and pleasure. Each kind of sex was appreciated for its own value.

Age and Preparation for First Coitus
Individuals of both sexes were expected to initiate and participate in coitus at puberty, although sexual activity, play, instruction, and so forth occurred much earlier. For instance, as part of exploratory play, the young investigated each others genitals, and young males and females might masturbate each other heterosexually or homosexually. This activity occurred without adult disapproval, and it was considered to be an introduction to adulthood. Casual intercourse before adolescence was not an uncommon experience both for males and females.

The time considered appropriate to start coitus was not so much based on chronological age as on ability or maturity. A male doing adult work or holding adult responsibilities was considered to be old enough. A young male who could grow taro or catch many fish was considered mature. A females first menses usually signalled she was ready for coitus if she had not already experienced it.

In Hawaii as physical signs of maturity appeared, the young received more formal sex education. Among commoners, this education was traditionally and usually the responsibility of the wahine for the females and the kane (grandfather) for the males. In the Marquesas Islands, early sexual experiences of pubertal males was with married females in their 30s and 40s who take special pains to be pleasing and patient with them and this was a source of enjoyment for many Marquesan women. For young females of the Marquesas Islands, the first coital experience reportedly is earlier than it is for young males before menarche and occurs unplanned with an adult male.

A young male was taught and how to please a female in order to help her attain orgasm. A young female was taught how to touch and caress a male and move her body to please them both. She was taught how to constrict and rhythmically contract her vaginal muscles.

An important element of Polynesian society was sexual humour., for sex was and remains a rich source of humour and enjoyment. In everyday conversation and in song and story, it was considered to be an art form to speak using sexual double entendres. Erotic imagery was, and remains, common in speech, poetry, and songs: coconut tree bending over a female; a digging stick spreading a females legs.

Early manifestations of infantile and childhood sexual behaviour, including sexual behaviour with adults, to be among the most distinguishing features of Marquesan sexual behaviour. Many of the activities described, however, are similar to activities that were present in Hawaii and elsewhere in Oceania. Adult/nonadult sexual behaviour in Tahiti was common and the missionary Orsmond stated in 1832;In all Tahitians as well as officers who come in ships there is a cry for little girls, and older females, when in a position to choose, preferred younger males. On Mangaia it was routine early sexual encounters of young males and females in as being with older, experienced males and females.

Rules for Intercourse
As long as the individuals involved were of the appropriate social class, just about any type of sexual behaviour between them for was sanctioned. If a pregnancy resulted, it was welcome. If a socially inferior male had sex with a female of royalty, however, her family might demand his death or exile, and if a baby was born, it might be killed immediately. A higher class males having sex with a lower class female was seen as being good, on the other hand, in that it added to her status. However, if the two participants were too far apart in class, any offspring was killed or sent into exile. Neither physical appearance nor age mattered where coitus-for-genealogy was involved. The main concern in such instances was to preserve the highest level of mana and rank and to not dilute the family prestige if no offspring resulted, the sexual behaviour itself was considered to be inconsequential.

In Hawaiian the word for orgasm, also means fun and joy, an appropriate term in the Hawaiian language because the object of sexual interactions was mutual happiness and pleasure. There were no restrictions regarding any positions for intercourse.

Sexual positions rarely are mentioned in ethnographies of Hawaii, while other potentially curious or uncouth matters are. For example, oral, anal, masturbatory, and other kinds of sexual behaviour were documented practices. Types of homosexual behaviour were accepted and, reportedly, were unstigmatized; many of the royalty were known for their ambisexual activities

According to the reports of Westerners. extensive foreplay was not a standard part of coitus. Many reports and stories tell of an adult male and an adult female meeting on a trail, in the bush, or on a secluded beach and engaging in coitus immediately, with little conversation and few preliminaries. This kind of behaviour also has been reported as having been the norm elsewhere in Oceania, e.g. among Mangaian Islanders and Marquesas Islanders. Note-worthy in regard to such behaviour is that orgasm for both the female and the male was not reported to be a problem despite the briefness of the encounter. Both males and females reportedly climaxed easily and frequently in traditional societies of Oceania.

It is possible that some of the reports of seemingly promiscuous and nonrelational sex that occurred in Oceania might reflect sampling and Western-oriented biases. This possibility has to be considered, because such interactions are not consistent with contemporary versions of traditional songs, which speak of erotic and sensual courtship and foreplay.

Virginity, Promiscuity, and Monogamy
Aside from restrictions of class and family, there were few sex tapu for common people. Masturbation, sex between uncommitted individuals, paired individuals having lovers, liaisons, polyandry, polygamy, homosexual patterns of behaviour, and such were all accepted practices. Sex was considered to be good and healthy for all, young and old included.

Virginity was considered to be a virtue only for female chiefs where genealogy was crucial. With this point in mind, chiefs particularly the first-born of either sex, with special status rights were often were betrothed while they were quite young. Sometimes the age difference between the betrothed was significant.

In Eastern Polynesia once paired with a chief, the chiefess, like the commoners she ruled over, could have as many lovers or additional permanent sexual partners as she desired. One missionary, Reverend Thurston in 1828, described a secondary wife of Kalaniopuu, Ruling Chief of the Island of Hawaii in Cook's time. By her own admission, she had not fewer than 40 sexual partners and usually several concurrently, while King Kamehameha had 21 known wives and regarding age disparity, it was noted; When he was an old man well on in years ... he took two young chiefesses to warm Kamehamehas old age.

Peripubertal females, in many cultures of Oceania, were noted to often be publicly sexually active with adults Cook reported copulation in public in Hawaii between an adult male and a female estimated to be 11 or 12 without the least sense of it being indecent or improper. The disapproval implicit in Cook's report probably was caused as much by the public nature of the activity as by the age-related aspects. In Tahiti, one missionary noted in his diary that the High Priest Manimani, though nearly blind with age, is as libidinous now as when thirty years younger;[he] has frequently upwards of a dozen females with him, some of them apparently not above twelve or thirteen years of age. Gauguin credited the inspiration for his famous painting Manao tupapau (The Specter Watches Over Her), completed in 1892, to his 13-year-old Tahitian wife Tehamana.

Many writers cited cases of full heterosexual intercourse in public between adults and prepubertal individuals in Polynesia. The crews of the visiting ships showed no compunction against the activities, and the natives assisted in the efforts. Cunnilingus with young females was recorded without accompanying remarks that this kind of behaviour was unusual or disapproved of for the participants. Occasions were recorded of elders assisting youngsters in having sex with other elders. Among the Marquesas Islanders in particular, extramarital relations were frequent and often involved older males with young virginal females and older females with young virginal males.

Until fairly recently, the birth of an infant to an unmarried female in Hawaii, as elsewhere in Polynesia, was not a problem for her or society. Her fertility was proven, and the infant was wanted and taken care of by the extended ohana (family). illegitimacy, in the Western sense, is inapplicable in regard to traditional Hawaii.

While betrothals occurred, occasionally arranged by parents of chiefs or by other prominent persons, such formalized relationships were uncommon. Specific words for husband and wife did not exist; he was simply called kane (man) and she wahine (woman).

Individuals stayed together or not by choice rather than by commitment or obligation. One member of a pair could be monogamous while the other was polygamous. While public announcements of intentions to stay together among ali'i were noteworthy and often elaborate affairs, they were uncommon. David Malo, an advisor to King Kalakaua III and an Hawaiian convert to Christianity, wrote in 1839: Of the people about court there were few who lived in marriage. The number of those who had no legitimate relations with women was greatly in the majority. Sodomy and other unnatural vices in which men were the correspondents, fornication and hired prostitution were practiced about court pairing ceremony among commoners was even more rare. Couples that wanted to sleep and live together just did so. Typically, no contract was expressed openly, although there probably was a vague set of expectations that linked the couple.

Monogamy, polygyny, and polyandry coexisted among ali'i and among commoners. Often, polygamy involved siblings. Taking another sexual partner usually was acceptable if the first mate knew about the relationship and sanctioned it. Secret relationships were not approved of, however, although the discovery of such a relationship usually was disruptive only temporarily. Such sexual license greatly disturbed the early Christian missionaries. The most commonly reported by the haole to occur among the Hawaiians, recorded as being 4-5times more common than theft or property crimes, were fornication and adultery; these terms, of course, had no meaning to the Hawaiians. Adultery came to be defined by the Hawaiians as sexual activity with a nonregular partner within the hale. If the coitus occurred outside the house in private, it was not a problem to the Hawaiian, since it did not disrupt the status quo.

Sexual exclusivity was not associated with marriage. Such an idea would have been unusual to Eastern Polynesian Society. Monogamy was common in only 30 of 127 Pacific island cultures studied, the rest of the cultures being polygamous.

Relationships were dissolved at the desire of one or both partners. Sex with others was not seen as a cause for separation. Jealousy was considered unwarranted. Where love of one man by two women were involved [and vice versa], it was considered bad manners (maikaole, not good) for apunalua (lover) to hold spite or malice in their hearts towards each other. The very existence of the formal [punalua] relationship worked against ill feeling.

I have always thought it fortunate for Polynesians that the Contact period was primarily the late 18th Century, the time of Europe's Age of Enlightenment. The English Georgeian gentleman of the British Navy along with his French equivalant were either educated or at least as in the case of James Cook aspired to be educated. These men were by sentiment humane individuals, even if humanity was not a thing that their crew in the lower decks aspired to. The instructions issued to Cook by his superiors at the Admiralty were to endeavour by every fair means to cultivate a friendship with the Natives and to treat them with all imaginable humanity. Could one imagine such intructions being given by the Spainish Government to a Cortez or a Pizarro or them following such an instruction if issued? The 18th Century gentleman was as well no prude, the cities of Europe being well supplied with all form of debauchery, but Polynesian sexual mores still managed to shock and as in the case of Joseph Banks, to excite their visitors.

Tragically, as the 18th century gave way to the 19th, a new morality invaded Europe and this morality gave licence to a new breed of individual to decend on the Isles of Polynesia; the missionary. We would be hard put to discover a more violent comparision of world views, that the sexually liberated Polynesians and the psychotically repressed missionaries, especially the Protestant London Missionary Society variety. But thanks to their influence and connections with fellow zealots within the British Government soon the madmen were in charge of the asylum all over the Pacific. This attempt by missionaries to interfer with the sexual practices of Polynesians is all apiece with their attack on all other aspects of Polynesian Culture the most obvious and fanatical attack being reserved for Polynesian's native religious beliefs which resulted in a massive destruction by burning of their art.


Sales Enquires This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Academic, Insitutional and Artist Enquires This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Unfortunately due to being a small institution without paid staff we have no facility to answer general inquiries or comments.