Last edited: February 14, 2005

You Can Thank Pacific Islanders for Your View of Sexuality

New Zealand Herald, June 16, 2004
PO Box 32, Auckland, New Zealand
Fax: +64-9-373-6421

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 homosexuality.

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 had.

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 different.

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 practices.

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.

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