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Tribal Sex

"How clearly does the behaviour of that unlearned heathen prove that shame is an artificial sentiment resulting from education alone; and that different communities measure propriety, nay even right and wrong, by various standards established under the operation of dissimilar circumstances." From Convict J.F Mortlock after seeing an Aboriginal man without trousers speak to a stylish barmaid who didn't look offended. From Experiences of a Convict. Sydney University Press 1965. (First published 1864-5.)

Sex resides at the heart of how a community reproduces itself both culturally and physically. Because different societies have different problems in their world, they have different ways of living and different moralities towards sex. Capitalist societies are driven by the individual. Consequently, individual choice is fiercely protected by morality and law. Sex is considered one of the most important of all choices. On the other hand, hunter-gatherer societies were communally driven hence the individual was compelled to subordinate their desires to the will of the tribe. This included their sexual desires. Consequently, reproduction in tribes had no concept of "romantic love" - at least not publicly. Furthermore, although there was marriage, a woman did not depend upon a sole breadwinner for support. All people in the tribe helped her, and her children.

Because the tribe had a collective destiny, the welfare of the individual was of importance, but so was the need to sacrifice the individual when it would benefit the tribe. The principle threat to hunter-gatherer societies was inbreeding. It is clear that Aborigines appreciated this problem because incest was a taboo in every known Aboriginal society.

The trade of women was one way that the tribes could gain fresh genetics. By today's definition, the trade of women was a form of rape. The woman could not refuse the will of her tribe, nor that of her chosen partner, nor his kin. Although this trade was in the interests of both tribes, perhaps it was not a nice experience for the woman being traded. Consequently, a number of rituals developed to make the transition easier.

One of these was infant betrothal whereby the lady was promised while still an infant. For example, in the western desert region, the main circumciser had to promise one of his daughters to the novice in compensation for having ritually "killed" him. Promising a girl while still an infant may have psychologically prepared her for her destiny in life. This knowledge may have decreased the likelihood that she would feel a sense of injustice regarding her trade. It may have even encouraged her to look forward to her marriage as a sign of becoming a woman.

In other areas, a girl may have been unaware that her marriage was impending. While she was out collecting food with the older women, she may have been seized by her intended husband and his "brothers". Once seized, her husband's brothers had sexual rights to her until she had settled down. By today's definition, this was a form of pack rape sanctioned by her tribe. However the girl's social upbringing would have motivated her to perceive the symbolic meaning of the pack rape in a different way to how it is perceived today. Furthermore, if a group of men shared the woman, then they would have no way of knowing who was the true father of the child. This would have encouraged all men in the tribe to see all children as potentially their own.

In some areas, a girl may have lived in her intended husband's camp for a period of time. She would then be formally handed over to her husband, and his kin, so that the marriage could be consummated. A retaliatory ritual may have been created to help girls cope with stress. An 1897 anthropological report described groups of men using their fingers or penis-shaped sticks to enlarge a girl's vagina. Several men then had sex with the girl. The second part of the ritual allowed dancing girls to hit any men whom they held a grudge against. This was done without fear of retaliation.

Although such customs may have lessened the lady's trauma, her trade was probably still quite stressful. It is also possible that her husband may have been an older man whose sperm had passed its used-by date. Perhaps a secret lover was taken to provide her with emotional support in her alien environment. Such a relationship would have been her only hope for the kind of romantic love that is known today. A secret lover might also given her the chance of selecting a mate with vibrant sperm at a time she was most capable of getting pregnant.

All over the world, rape seems to be associated with war. Aboriginal tribes were always at war. Even though they had good relations with their neighbours, they were also perpetually fighting with them. It was quite an odd relationship that involved attacking each other and raping women, yet still retaining a working relationship in regards to customs. It seemed a bit like two football teams belting each other on the field, then sharing a beer after the game.

Few Anthropologists have even written about the violent rape of other tribes, however the fact that it was widespread can be seen in the casual manner that Aborigines talked about it. In 1795, Watkin Tench, an English military officer, asked an Aborigine named Bennelong how attained a scar on his hand:

"He laughed, and owned that it was received in carrying off a lady of another tribe by force. "I was dragging her away. She cried aloud, and stuck her teeth in me." "And what did you do then?" "I knocked her down, and beat her till she was insensible, and covered with blood. Then..."

Rape, orgies and arranged marriage seemed to have an effect on how Aborigines thought about fathers. Children conceived in such sexual unions are difficult to reconcile with a celebration of love between man and women. Perhaps this explains why Australian tribes did not credit semen as having a role in procreation. Instead, spiritual forces were believed to be responsible. The spirit of a plant or animal, known as the conception totem, was assumed to have entered the human mother.

In modern times, human reproduction generally occurs within the nuclear family. Accordingly, morality has been developed to protect this institution. Although morality has developed in adaptation to this lifestyle choice, perhaps human sexual instincts have not adapted so quickly. For millions of years, humans were evolving in tribal groups. The method of reproduction within these tribes was very different to what it is today, as was the morality towards it.

 

Further reading

Tench, Watkin. 1895 A Complete Account of the Settlement

Berndt, C.H. 1980 "Aboriginal Women and the Notion of the 'Marginal Man.'" In R.M. and C.H. Berndt, eds. Aborigines of the West: Their Past and Present. Perth: University Western Australia Press.

Berndt, R.M., and C.H. Berndt. 1988. The World of the First Australians. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

Berndt, R.M., and R. Tonkinson, eds. 1988. Social Anthropology and Aboriginal Studies: A Contemporary Overview. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

Tonkinson, R. 1991. The Mardu Aborigines: Living the Dream in Australia's Desert (2/e). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Eyre, Edward John Journals of Expedition of Discovery into Central Australia and Overland From Adelaide to King George's Sound in the Years 1840-41 vols I&II, T & W Boone, London, 1845. Grey, George Journals of Two Expeditions of Discovery in North-West and Western Australia, During the Years 1837,38,39 T&W Boone, London, 1841. Mitchell, Lt.Col. Sir T.L. Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia, Greenwood Press, New York, 1848 (this edition 1969). Taplin, George et alThe Native Tribes of South Australia E.S. Wigg, Adelaide, 1979.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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