"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
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
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.
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"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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..."
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.
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.
Tench, Watkin. 1895 A Complete
Account of the Settlement
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.
and C.H. Berndt. 1988. The World of the First Australians. Canberra: Aboriginal
Berndt, R.M., and R. Tonkinson,
eds. 1988. Social Anthropology and Aboriginal Studies: A Contemporary Overview.
Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.
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.