Procreation — the perpetuation of life. It is what connects us to our friends in the animal kingdom and to our brothers and sisters across the land. Like many other customs that vary with culture, there is no single — or correct way — to ‘do it.’
Leslie Janes, a sexual psychology professor at Western, acknowledged this sexual diversity.
“Sexual behaviour varies dramatically from culture to culture, so there is no world-wide conventional sex,” she said.
“It depends on what part of the world you’re in.”
While within many Westernized societies the association between sex and intimacy seems to be the predominant norm, this is not so for all cultures — including the Mangaian people of the Cook Islands in the South Pacific.
Western sexual psychology professor Michelle Everest gave a thorough account of this society that exhibits a value for sexual pleasure, completely distinct from romance or intimacy.
“The Mangaian people feel that sexuality is a core aspect of their culture. They school young men and women in the pleasures of sexuality beginning in their youth,” she explained.
“13-year-old boys undergo a ritual to mark initiation into adulthood where an incision is made along the top length of [the] penile shaft. The scab is later removed by a woman who will also serve as his sexual mentor.”
Everest described how both young males and females are taught how to give and receive sexual pleasure.
“Females are expected to enjoy sex, reach orgasm and be interested in pleasing their sexual partners. Adolescent girls are also encouraged to practice these skills before marriage.”
On the other side of the sexual liberation spectrum, some cultures consider sex to be a taboo topic and people demonstrate a general distaste, or even shame, towards it.
This notion was exemplified a few decades ago in a case study within a community located off the coast of Ireland, called Inis Beag.
“The people of Inis Beag [were] reticent to discuss sexual subjects. Perhaps due to historical and religious teachings, there [was] fear and embarrassment about the body and many aspects of sexuality,” Everest said.
“Sex between husbands and wives [had] little foreplay and [was] in the traditional missionary position with the man on top. Both men and women [would] avoid nudity at all times and hence wear their undergarment during bathing and sex.”
While these two instances highlight two unique and seemingly opposing sexual ideologies, a third scenario is observed within the Dani population of New Guinea.
“The Dani people of New Guinea view sex purely for procreative purposes. Mating for the purposes of producing offspring occurs quickly and ends immediately after male ejaculation,” Everest said.
“Like Inis Beag, female orgasm is not emphasized and extradyadic relationships are rare.”
All this discussion of sex begs the question, has courting been lost in the sexualization of today? Or maybe the notion of formalized courting, as displayed by descendents of Europe, was merely a petty cover to engage in premarital sex.
University of Toronto history professor Natalie Davis discussed the concept of bundling, a common practice of early modern Europe, England and early colonial America that is believed to have extended into the 19th century.
“It is the procedure in which young people who were courting were allowed to get in bed with each other with a board between them and they weren’t supposed to go all the way,” Davis said.
“But they were to find out if they were congenial. I don’t know that it was practiced in great noble households but it was a rural custom.”
And while they weren’t supposed to go all the way, demographers that studied 17th century English village birth patterns have proven otherwise.
“[It was] found that many brides were pregnant and in this case, the bundling went too far,” Davis said.
Of course, before a courtship can occur, the process of wooing a potential partner must take place.
While traditional Westernized customs might regard this position as a predominantly masculine role, this old-fashioned, seemingly narrow-minded view does not translate globally.
In his own fieldwork in Papua, New Guinea, Western anthropology professor Dan Jorgensen found courting to be a process predominantly initiated by the female.
“On clear, moonlit nights girls will gather in the village plaza and sing songs that may include the name of a young man one of the women fancies. If marriage is contemplated, she might let a young man’s name slip out.
“Her parents may go down a long list of names to see her reaction. She [would] remain silent until she [heard] the one she [liked] and more often than not this would lead to her moving into the young man’s house that evening,” Jorgensen said.
“If [the man] liked the idea, all he had to do was accept cooked food from her hand and they were married. There were other formalities, but this was the key thing.”
So while sexual practices and courting rituals differ dramatically amongst cultures, it seems safe to assume that in any society, food is always the way to a person’s heart.