You Can Thank Pacific Islanders for Your View of Sexuality
Zealand Herald, June 16, 2004
PO Box 32, Auckland, New Zealand
By Tapu Misa
Depending on where you stand on the homosexual debate, we
in the Pacific could either be blamed or lauded for our impact on matters gay.
Since those first European explorers sailed into the warm
waters of the Pacific and became the grateful beneficiaries of the sexual
largess of Polynesian women, we’ve had an undeniable influence on the way in
which Westerners have viewed sexuality.
Thanks to the work of countless writers, artists and
ethnographers, that influence has been assumed to be largely of the
heterosexual kind, given the Pacific’s long reputation for being something
of a heterosexual utopia.
But according to Dr Lee Wallace, a women’s studies
lecturer at Auckland University, that’s only the half of it.
The other, and less-known half of the story, is that the
Pacific has played a seminal role in the emergence of modern homosexual
identity. Yes, I know, ironic isn’t it?
Especially when you consider how pious and proper we
Pacific Islanders have become, and how fervent many of us have become in the
stand against homosexual encroachment on our churches.
Still, Dr Wallace mounts a persuasive argument in her
book Sexual Encounters when she posits that early European encounters with
Polynesians opened up new ways of viewing sexuality—particularly
Because up until then, it had indeed been a world without
homosexuals. The kind of world, in fact, that the new head of the Anglican
Church in New Zealand, Bishop Whakahuihui Vercoe, and many of his Christian
supporters seem to believe could once again exist.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time we’ve been
blamed/credited (take your pick) with sexual influence we didn’t know we
All the time we thought we were the ones being influenced
by those devout Christian missionaries, who introduced a new morality and the
idea of sin into the Pacific, and besought us in the name of the Lord to cover
up, discard our lascivious dances and love a little less indiscriminately, we
had no idea that accounts of our apparent sexual laxity were having a
liberating effect on sexual attitudes around the globe.
American anthropologist Margaret Mead didn’t help
matters when she wrote her internationally celebrated 1928 book Coming of Age
in Samoa. Her picture of an idyllic, gentle and sexually uninhibited culture
where adolescents were free to indulge in sexual activities without the
attendant guilt caught hold of imaginations already piqued by ethnographic
accounts of the Pacific as a kind of sexual free-for-all.
Whatever the weaknesses of Margaret Mead’s thesis, the
same could be said about same-sex relations witnessed by Europeans in
pre-missionary Pacific days.
In fact, says Dr Wallace, it was these encounters between
European and Pacific peoples in the 18th and 19th centuries that gave rise to
our modern understanding of homosexual possibilities and identity.
Her somewhat subversive readings of the accounts of such
historic luminaries as James Cook and his lieutenant Joseph Banks, French
artist Paul Gauguin and even the ill-fated William Bligh (of Mutiny on the
Bounty fame) reveal plenty of instances of male-male sexual practices
involving Polynesian and Melanesian males, which, in pre-missionary days
anyway, was seen as normal, openly referred to and not the least bit shameful.
She argues that these encounters forced ethnographers of
the Enlightenment era to view sex between men as being not limited merely to
the detestable and abominable act of sodomy, but as something altogether
Up till then, homosexuality simply didn’t exist. In
fact, until the late 19th century homosexuality wasn’t recognised as a
distinct category of person. The word wasn’t even invented until 1868 when
it made its appearance in the lexicon, in a German pamphlet.
What was recognised and abominated, and had been since
medieval Christian theologians of the 11th century had declared it so, was
sodomy, though that initially applied to all manner of non-procreative sexual
This was later confused with unnatural acts, which ranged
even more widely to include, among other things, procreative sexual acts in
the wrong position or with contraceptive intent.
Later Christian authors couldn’t agree on what
unnatural acts or sodomy meant, some in the 13th century defining it as every
genital contact intended to produce orgasm except intercourse in an approved
position—presumably what we’ve come to know as the missionary position.
The English Reformation Parliament of 1533 then turned
that religious injunction against sodomy into the secular and abominable crime
of buggery, punishable by death, but this wasn’t limited to activity between
males and could involve a male and female, even a husband and wife.
As Dr Wallace argues, those attitudes held sway until
encounters with the sexually relaxed ways of the Pacific gave rise to a
reimagining of sodomy, which was to ultimately give birth to what we now know
as homosexual identity.
Meanwhile, in the Pacific, the missionaries were doing a
sterling job of wiping out all manner of activity which could be construed as
even remotely sexual. They didn’t succeed totally. The faafafine of Samoa,
the fakaleiti of Tonga, and the mahu of Tahiti, continued to thrive—defying
easy definitions, being neither strictly homosexual nor transsexual.
As for Maori, there’s no reason to suppose they were
any less sexually relaxed than their Polynesian cousins. Dig a little deeper
and there’s plenty of evidence of what another academic, Dr Leonie Pihama,
calls a more fluid, more open attitude to sexuality and gender roles before
the influence of the church and colonisation.
She says Maori terms which refer to an intimate companion
of the same sex indicate not only that same-sex relationships existed in
pre-Christian Maori culture, but were also no big deal.
In fact, says Dr Pihama, it’s even acknowledged in
well-loved legends such as that of Hinemoa and Tutanekai.
Hinemoa, as we all know, was the maiden who was so
enamoured of Tutanekai that she swam across Lake Rotorua in the dead of night
to be with her lover, guided only by his flute. It’s a great love story but
there’s a twist which has been sanitised in the more general telling to
accommodate the shift in morality. It seems that before Hinemoa, Tutanekai
lived with another – a male by the name of Tuki, and was so beloved that
when Tutanekai took up with Hinemoa, he gifted him land to atone for his
abandonment. Or so the revised story goes.
As for defining sexual identity, Dr Wallace says
that’s a continuing saga.