What Ever Happened to Ritualized Homosexuality? Modern Sexual Subjects in Melanesia and Elsewhere

What Ever Happened to Ritualized Homosexuality? Modern Sexual Subjects in Melanesia and Elsewhere

Knauft, Bruce M

In this paper, I examine the legacy of ritualized homosexuality as a behavioral practice and as an analytic category of research in Melanesia since the early 1980s. A case study of striking change among the Gebusi of Papua New Guinea suggests that ritualized homosexuality and insemination of boys have become behaviorally vestigial or moribund and that characterizing sexual practices in these terms has been difficult to begin with (as the original proponent of these terms has himself suggested). Historical change in Melanesia reveals linkage between the contemporary construction of heterosexual norms and desires for locally modern development and progress. A larger issue is how researchers of sexuality may unwittingly accept Western ideologies of sexual choice and freedom while positing historical and non-Western practices as culturally bound rather than being open to individual exploration and interpersonal diversity.

The oft-stated theme that sex is outside of discourse is precisely what needs to be examined.

Michel Foucault (1980, p. 34)

In 1984, the year of Foucault’s death, Gilbert Herdt published a pathbreaking edited volume entitled Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia (Herdt, 1984a). Whereas the scattered accounts of male-male sexuality in Melanesia had been dispersed amid large ethnographic volumes, Herdt extracted focused accounts from major primary researchers and cohered them under the influential category of ritualized homosexuality, abbreviated as RH in most of the volume. In 1993, the paperback version of the book was published with the original title, but a new introduction was added in which Herdt cautiously questioned this conception and the utility of homosexuality as a category. He suggested that boy insemination could be a more accurate designator than ritualized homosexuality for Melanesia because the cross-generational nature of Melanesian male sex with males (MSM) was one of its most salient and general features.’ The scholarly influence of Herdt’s work on Melanesian MSM raises the question of what legacy ritualized homosexuality or boy insemination has had, both as a practice in Melanesia and as a concept of understanding. As Foucault would have underscored, it is hard to address either of these issues in isolation; they bind together in important and sometimes unexpected ways.

My lens for exploring this issue is a case study of sexual change among the Gebusi of Papua New Guinea. When I first lived with them in 1980-82, Gebusi were one of the most remote and “unacculturated” groups in New Guinea. Located in the interior lowland rainforest of the country’s expansive Western Province, Gebusi numbered just 450. At the time, Gebusi actively pursued a host of practices that had been classical foci in anthropology: shamanism or spirit mediumship, sorcery beliefs and inquisitions, a high level of violence, ornate ritual dances and costuming, elaborate rites of male initiation, and male sexual practices in which mid- or late-teenage initiands manipulated the penises and orally consumed the semen of other males.2 These sexual engagements associated in a general way with the growth and development of young Gebusi men, which were celebrated in climactic rites and elaborations costumes of the initiation or wa kawala, literally, “a child become big” (see Photos 1 and 2). In comparative perspective, Gebusi are located at the interior northern fringe of the expansive area in southern New Guinea where MSM was indigenously practiced.’ In 1980-82, they had not been subject to Christianization, out-migration, significant cash cropping, land alienation, economic development, taxation, or regular government interference in their affairs.

Following in part on Herdt’s personal encouragement, my initial fieldwork revealed aspects of Gebusi MSM that had not been widely reported from other areas. These included avid and openly pursued sexual relations between prospective initiates, who were generally between about 16 and 20 years of age. In addition to being inseminated by fully adult men, these novices, during the months prior to their initiation, joked bawdily with each other, engaged in ribald sexual horseplay, and sometimes paired up and brought each other reciprocally to orgasm, to the amusement and heightened joking of other men. Like the trysts between novices and adult men, these sexual engagements occurred privately and dyadically at night in the bush just outside the longhouse during the course of all-night spirit seances or ritual dances-that is, in a general context of ritually vaunted male ribaldry. The stereotypic nature of these events and their association with spiritual celebration suggested, at least for Gebusi MSM, that “ritualized homosexuality” was, at least in relative terms, a better term than “boy insemination.”

Rather than hiding MSM or making it secret, Gebusi men proclaimed their sexual arousal for each other and sometimes exaggerated it. This included senior men, whose jokes about sexual liaisons with other males (and women) were a prominent dimension of male camaraderie and entertainment-even though their own MSM or extramarital engagements were typically, if not totally, in the past rather than in the present. Women could easily hear men’s sexual joking and horseplay through the thin sago-leaf wall that separated their respective sleeping quarters in the longhouse. At all-night rituals, women were physically present as offstage singers and costumed audience members, while men danced and joked voraciously about having sex with both other men and with women (Knauft, in press, chap. 5).

Consistent with the publicity of men’s sexual joking, the male secrets that surrounded Gebusi initiation were few and laxly kept. Boys were allowed to trail along the initiands when the latter were told the main items of hidden male knowledge. These “secrets” concerned the sexual rationale of foods that initiates were tabooed from eating because they were spiritually or symbolically associated with women’s vaginas or menstrual blood. (Though the younger boys were nominally told to cover their ears so they would not hear these secrets, some of them cupped their hands behind their ears so they could hear better rather than worse.) The social atmosphere of the occasion was gayly charged and devoid of disgruntlement. A similar pattern emerged concerning the food taboos and injunctions against premature contamination from women that initiates were enjoined to observe. Rather than appearing worried or anxious about pollution or sexual impropriety, men would laughingly proclaim that their appetites-sexual as well as culinary, toward males as well as females-were too strong to be constrained by stated strictures. They joked that they would gladly and willingly “die” in the pursuit of unbridled and polyvalent sexual affairs. Reciprocally, I found little concern or anxiety among initiands to receive sufficient semen through oral insemination to grow into full men (contrast Herdt, 1984b). For various reasons-including residential upheaval or their own teenage sexual affairs with women-some Gebusi men never underwent initiation and had presumably not been inseminated. Yet these men, along with others, got married, had children, and were full and often highly respected members of the adult male community.

In sum, indigenous Gebusi eroticism and sexual practice with men as well as women appears to provide a relatively flexible, open, and lighthearted complement to generalizations that indigenous MSM in Melanesia was anxiously secret from women, hedged with powerful proscriptions and taboos, associated with traumatic if not brutal initiation of boys into men, and divided generationally between adult men as dominant semen– givers and initiands as subordinate receivers of male life-force. Published accounts concerning some other Melanesian groups have also brought to light aspects of MSM that are similarly flexible, reciprocal, and/or not polarized between adult men as donors and boys as recipients of semen. In alternative societies, as Herdt and others have suggested, indigenous boy-insemination was associated with rigid polarity against women and traumatic initiation of boys into warrior manhood. But among Gebusi and indigenous Melanesian societies such as the Onabasulu (Ernst, 1991), the Asmat (Knauft, 1993a; Schneebaum, 1988), and perhaps insular peoples of the East Bay of northeastern New Britain (Davenport, 1965, 1977), MSM included other or contrary permutations. This evidence suggests that diversity in male-male sexual practices cannot be easily attributed to features of culture change or the demise of precolonial warfare, which along some arguments increased the functional necessity for male-bonding within communities.4 The south coast of New Guinea in particular “exemplified a diverse and overlapping range of heterosexualities, homosexualities, and bisexualities. These erotic modalities were not uniformly ritualized, prescriptive, age-structured, tied with warrior cults, or bound up with initiation socialization practices” (Knauft, 1993b, p. 58). In some areas, including the eastern Strickland-Bosavi area, different MSM practices became important markers of cultural difference. Etoro men inseminated boys orally while their adjacent Kaluli and Onabasulu neighbors inseminated youths, respectively, through anal intercourse and by rubbing masturbated semen on the skin of the initiands. As described by Kelly (1977, chap. 1), each of these groups considered their own male– male sexual practices to be proper and those of their neighbors to be repulsive and inimical to manhood. Apparently in New Guinea, as well as elsewhere, different strokes for different folks.

Given the diversity of Melanesian MSM and its distinctive character among Gebusi, I was interested in documenting changes when I returned for a 6-month restudy in 1998. As documented by Herdt in his ethnographic film Guardians of the Flutes (Reddish, 2000), many Melanesian societies, such as the Sambia, have now become squeamish or embarrassed by male-male sexual practices of the past. Most of these peoples have now given up MSM amid their desires for wage labor, economic development, schooling, Christianization, and, more generally, Western-influenced styles of life associated with modern towns or cities. Against the background of relatively casual and flexible MSM among Gebusi in 1980-82, however, I was uncertain what changes I would find.

Upon arrival, I discovered that many aspects of Gebusi life had altered dramatically (Knauft, 2002a, 2002b, in press). The community I had lived with had of their own volition relocated from the deep rainforest to the portion of their land that abuts the Nomad Station (see Photo 3). The government outpost at Nomad boasts an airstrip, administrative staff, a school, a police office, several churches, and a number of small stores. It also supports a twice-weekly market, sports league contests on a carefully maintained ballfield, and a range of other government and private activities and events. The Nomad Station is located at the geographic intersection of several ethnic groups and is the primary point of outside influence and interethnic gathering for some 9,000 persons scattered thinly across 3,500 square miles of lowland rainforest. The Gebusi communities I had previously lived with had resettled a short 20-minute walk from this administrative and social center. In the bargain, Gebusi whom I had known and their descendants had become willing participants in Christian churches, the Nomad sports leagues, the Nomad market, and government activities. Their children regularly attended the multiethnic Nomad Community School, where they received instruction by national teachers in the Papuan New Guinean dialect of English for 6 1/2 hours a day, 5 days a week. Eighty-four percent of adults in the new Gebusi community were baptized members in one of the three local Christian churches-Catholic, Evangelical, or Seventh Day Adventist. All of these denominations were highly fundamentalist in orientation. Amid these changes, Gebusi spirit mediumship was defunct and male spirit stances, which had previously taken place an average of once every 11 days, were no longer held.

With the decline of traditional spirit mediumship and seances, there was little way Gebusi could communicate with their indigenous spirits. With startling rapidity, Gebusi cosmology had been supplanted by a Christian cosmos of good and evil, sanctity and sin, and heaven and hell (see Knauft, 2002b, chaps. 6-7; 2002c; in press). Teenagers and young Gebusi men in the community were no longer initiated. However, the Christian pastors, who came from outside the area, knew little of Gebusi traditional practices and had little if any knowledge of their indigenous spiritual beliefs or sexual customs. Despite extensive investigation, I never heard homosexuality mentioned or even alluded to in Christian descriptions of so-called heathen practices, which otherwise included singing to false gods, holding sorcery divinations, fighting, or drinking native intoxicants, all of which were subject to disparagement. MSM among Gebusi does not seem to have been on anyone’s chart of a moral crusade; changes in male sexuality seem to have occurred to a significant extent as part of larger desires to become locally modern in an out-of-the-way place (Knauft, 2002b).

Though Gebusi participated actively in modern institutions, such as the church, school, sports league, and market, in residential terms they remained relatively autonomous in their own community. Environmentally they were located at the edge of the deep rainforest, where they returned at will for foraging and other subsistence activities and to visit more remote Gebusi settlements. During my initial period of restudy, I was unclear as to how strongly and in what ways Gebusi subjective orientations had changed. In their own hamlets, Gebusi now lived in individual or extended family houses rather than gathering in a central longhouse; men tended to socialize in smaller and less exuberant groups than before. In concert with this-and in the absence of spirit seances and ritual dances-the male ethos of camaraderie, sexual banter, and boisterous joking had declined substantially. How much these changes had impacted sexual practices, however, remained an open question. Then, one afternoon, a young man whom I will call Wayabay knocked on my door and said he wanted to talk to me in private.

I had first known Wayabay in 1980 when he was about 8 years old and the son of the community’s principal spirit medium. By 1998, however, Wayabay’s father and mother were dead, along with many of their indigenous practices. Now a large and strong young man in his mid– twenties, but still unmarried, Wayabay had missed the last male initiation and had not participated in associated practices of insemination or age– mate MSM. On the other hand, he was among the minority of young men who had not developed a keen interest in new and locally modern forms of life. Wayabay had not been baptized and did not go to church, played soccer and rugby only intermittently and awkwardly, would not dance to Papua New Guinea “disco music,” and did not sing in the community’s contemporary string band. Instead, he honed his traditional skills and spent many days hunting successfully in the forest and many hours house-building in the village. He was unusually devoted to traditional dancing and was proud of his ability to travel and dance in indigenous costume at feasts and initiations in remote Gebusi villages, where he was an acclaimed center of traditional attention (see Photo 4).

Wayabay seldom stopped by my house, and when he did so it was usually to convey a significant piece of news or make a specific request. He was typically as spare with his words as he seemed to me decent and direct in his actions. On this particular day, Wayabay appeared troubled. He came inside and hesitated until the urgency of his inquiry overcame his embarrassment. “Do you have any adameni? I would really like some.” I had no idea what he was talking about. So I asked him what adameni’ was.5 He stammered but continued. ‘Adameni’ is something special. It has to do with an unmarried women and an unmarried man. When they really like each other and think of coming together.” I still had no idea. Whatever adameni’ was, it seemed related to sexual desire between young people. Wayabay was the oldest of the bachelors in the community, and he was actively trying to find a wife. I thought perhaps Wayabay could be asking me for a condom. I knew that he had worked for a trail-clearing crew a few years previously and that he had briefly been to the town of Kiunga. Perhaps he was now in a romantic liaison and wanted to protect either himself or the girl, which would also have explained his embarrassment. Though Wayabay seemed too proper a Gebusi young man to be having a casual sexual affair, I had often been surprised by the public revelation of Gebusi sexual affairs in the past. So I tried gently to describe a condom in Gebusi terms. “There is this thing that men wear when they have sex. Is this like adameni?” Wayabay replied, “Well, kind of. I’m not sure.” I continued, “this is something that a man puts over his ‘thing,’ his penis. It stretches like rubber. He puts this rubber over his penis before he has sex. He has sex with a woman but his ‘thing’ doesn’t touch the woman’s `thing.”‘

It quickly became Wayabay’s turn to be uncomprehending and mine to be embarrassed. I tried to explain that men can use these rubber coverings when they don’t want a woman to get pregnant. Or when they worry about getting sick from having sex. All of which sounded no better and, indeed, much worse when spoken in Gebusi. Wayabay shook his head vehemently; this was not adameni’. In despair, we called in two other young bachelors from the village to aid our communication. Both of them spoke a smattering of English, and both had had more schooling than Wayabay. For my part, I was frustrated that I did not already know this term that was obviously important to Gebusi sexual culture. But the four of us had no better luck finding a translation or an explanation. Yes, they said, adameni’ was something for a man. And, yes, it had something to do with sex. It also had something do to with oop, the generic Gebusi word for slippery, milky substance, archetypally associated with semen.

Sex; men; semen. I thought they could be referring to some custom or substance associated with traditional practices of Gebusi MSM. This would have accounted for Wayabay’s embarrassment. Perhaps he was having sexual relations with one or another young man prior to finding a wife. So I said, “Does adameni’ have to do with Gebusi sex customs between men?” Since they looked puzzled, I persisted. “Does adameni’ have to do with traditional Gebusi customs? You know, your old initiation sex custom in which a teenager sucks the penis and swallows the semen of a man-so he can grow big and achieve full manhood.”

Given their reactions, I felt as if I had dropped a cultural bomb. Their mouths dropped in disbelief and their faces grew ashen. One of the young men finally broke the silence. “Did our fathers and boys really do that? In the olden times? Did they? Really?!” It was painfully obvious that none of my three companions had been initiated or, in all likelihood, participated in homosexual activity. Given their community’s conversion to Christianity, it was quite possible that they had never even been informed about indigenous sexual practices. Gebusi are keen to distinguish between practices they themselves participate in or see with their own eyes and those conveyed fancifully in the context of humor, storytelling, or hearsay. Given the current disposition of their community, in which homosexual practices are no longer publicly mentioned or discussed, whatever awareness these young men had of indigenous MSM was likely tacit and vague. Even in Western societies, most adults have but a vague awareness of the specific sexual practices that their own parents undertook in earlier stages of their lives, for instance, whether their parents have or have not ever engaged in fellatio, anal intercourse, homosexual or extra-marital affairs, or other sexual practices or proclivities.

Against the willing ignorance of my Gebusi companions, I had asserted the historical reality of a categorical sexual custom in their society-a custom that was hard for them to believe and which they clearly considered distasteful. In the process, I had unwittingly reframed fluid sexual practices of the past into a reified norm of homosexuality (see Halperin, 2000). Though I felt very badly about my gaffe, I felt obliged to answer their question as one of content and did not realize the categorical leap that I was making. “Yes,” I said, “that is the custom that men and teenagers followed when I was here before, when you were young children.”

After shaking their heads in astonished acceptance, they stressed (as if it needed emphasis), that adameni’ had nothing whatsoever to do with sex between one man and another. Adameni’ was for use between men and women. This was the only sex that the three of my companions appeared to know or care about. “What about oop?,” I asked. This wasn’t semen, they said. The liquid in adameni’ was thick and viscous, but it smelled sweet. It was something that a man would dab about his eyes. And when a woman looked at him, she would find him irresistible. She would be attracted to him and would seek him out. Adameni’ was apparently a love potion. White people knew all about adameni’, they continued. In fact, they said, it originated with Whites rather than with Papua New Guineans. Wayabay had heard about adameni’ from men who been with Whites at a logging camp in the southern part of the province. The potion came in a bottle. It was expensive to buy, but the White people said that it worked wonders attracting women to men. The bottles of adameni’ had a picture of a naked man and a woman on the label, just like in the Bible.

White people; Bible; nakedness; carnal attraction. Adameni’ was not a Gebusi word at all, though their spoken accent had thrown me completely off. It was a Western sexual idea. Ada-me-ni’ was “Adam and Eve.” It was a love potion that unscrupulous traders to the south had peddled at inflated prices in bottles titled and labeled with pictures of Biblical sex and lovely sin. Wayabay wanted adameni’ to attract a woman. As a quiet and hardworking but traditional young man, he felt that he needed a modern aid to gain a wife.

My companions persisted. Did I have any adameni? And if not, could I get any and give it to them? Though I now knew their question, I was ambivalent about answering. They clearly believed in this love magic, and quite deeply in Wayabay’s case. I had already embarrassed both them and myself. I recalled the anthropological theory that holds magic to be an exercise in spiritual confidence-boosting (e.g., Malinowski, 1954). In this view, magic reduces uncertainty and instills faith in human action, as in American baseball when a hitter fingers a lucky charm before batting. For a moment, I wondered if I could enhance Wayabay’s confidence with women by giving him the scented cream I had bought for skin rashes and telling him to dab some on his cheekbones. But I quickly dismissed this idea, having already dug myself into enough cultural misunderstandings for one day.

I did show them my skin cream, which they smelled carefully. I said that it wasn’t adameni’ but that they were welcome to try some if they wanted. As for real adameni’, I said I didn’t know how to get it and thought it would be a loss of good money to pay for it. They declined my skin cream. Disappointed but at least in mutual comprehension, we finished our conversation, they thanked me for talking with them, and the three of them left.

I was left with much to think about. During the course of 16 years, cohorts of young Gebusi men had gone from actively and proudly practicing sex with other men to apparently not even knowing about it. Maybe my interlocutors had suspected or had some awareness of malemale sexual practices from their young boyhood years. But if they had not been explicitly told about these, their knowledge would have been hazy, since the trysts were conducted in private. Like many New Guinea peoples, Gebusi distinguish carefully between things that are possible but unsubstantiated and those that they seen themselves or heard from an authoritative witness. In this sense of knowing, my young confidants had not known about Gebusi MSM until I had told them. I had known these young men for a long period of time and now they clearly seemed to believe me. Distasteful as my remarks may have been to them, I had become a believed source of historical truth concerning their own cultural past.

If some peoples have a strong and deep sense of their past, the historical concern of other peoples is shallow and weak, and Gebusi are decidedly in the latter camp. For a variety of medical reasons, Gebusi tend to die young; their life-cycles are short. A 5-year-old boy has less than a one in three chance of living to his forties. As 44-year-old adult man, I was one of the oldest males in the community. By contrast, the parents of most young men, including those of my three companions above, have long since passed away. Historical knowledge is not revered, maintained, or recounted in a systematic way. Many Gebusi do not know the names of their own grandparents. It was, hence, not uncommon for me to know more about Gebusi family ancestries, based on genealogies and life histories I collected in 1980-82, than younger and middle-aged Gebusi themselves. The indigenous Gebusi trend was to live in the present rather than to call upon precedents and memories from the past. More recently, this tendency has been both reflected in and accentuated by their cultural transformation in the context of outside influence. Gebusi now say that they have exchanged their past ways of life for new ones in the present (Knauft, 2002b).

Beyond the shock, the apparent unawareness, and perhaps the cultural configuration of ignorance among my three companions, the fact remained that sexual practices between men in the past were far less important to them than their present desire to attract women. In the past, martial unions had occurred as if naturally-virtually all the initiates had been married to women within a few months of being initiated. In this sense, Gebusi MSM had for young men been a predictable antecedent and segue to heterosexual marriage. In the present, by contrast, bachelors must court women more actively, a modern enterprise that seems inimical to young men like Wayabay. In 1980-82, 52% of extant and completed first Gebusi marriages were sister-exchanges, that is, marriages that followed traditional rules of reciprocal wife– exchange between different patrilineages. By contrast, none of the 16 marriages in the community since 1982 were sister-exchanges; the rate of prescriptive marital reciprocity had dropped to zero. Men can no longer count on the splendor of ritual attraction followed by obligations of kin relationship and reciprocity to obtain a wife; they are increasingly on their own.6 Amid this change, the structures as well as the sentiments of male sexuality have also altered. Concern with attracting women has increased. Reciprocally, the space of MSM that accompanied confident male bonding in the period prior to initiation and marriage has effectively disappeared. With the demise of traditional ritual, “ritualized homosexuality” has also been extinguished. More generally, sexual relations between males appear to be absent and have no significant place in the contemporary lives of the Gebusi whom I know.

Wayabay himself was several years past the age of normal marriage and was increasingly eager to find a wife. In an almost more than metaphoric sense, adameni’ for him had become a hopeful substitute for the allure of a male initiation costume that he would never be able to wear. By contrast, the young Gebusi men who are now most successful in attracting girlfriends and brides are those who are, for lack of a better word, more modern. They can joke effectively using pidgin or English, have been to school for at least a few years, and are comfortable in and around the styles of life associated with the government station. They enjoy playing rugby and soccer. They manage to finagle a little money and use it to obtain a jaunty baseball cap, sunglasses, or a colorful shirt (see Photo 5). They are more confident in flirting. Perhaps they even have a boombox with batteries that can play cassettes of rock music. They walk with a little swagger, appear at ease outside their settlement, and have the hutzpa to dance disco. They explore and cavort in and around the government station. In the rainforest vernacular of modernity, they are the dandies, the men about town, somewhat like the flaneurs that Baudelaire (1863/1970) identified as iconic of modern subjectivity (cf., Knauft, 2002a).

For Wayabay, being locally modern was close to impossible. He could kill a wild boar in the forest, but he was at pains to shoot the modern breeze. I remember when Wayabay’s two companions got up the courage to go to a disco dance on far edge of the Nomad Station (Wayabay himself was too reserved to go). It was an alluring adventure-the prospect of not just seeing but possibly dancing disco with unrelated and marriageable women from another community. The hoped-for attraction evoked a new kind of modern romance that was sung about in cassette songs and in Gebusi’s new forms of string-band singing, with guitar and ukelele. It was the kind of romance that captivates a woman, not by a display of traditional splendor, but with the modern confidence, skill, and aplomb necessary to talk to a young woman directly, to look in her eyes, and to gyrate publicly and directly opposite her body in contemporary dance.

These possibilities generated great avoidance, as well as desire. In fact, they never got to the disco. I accompanied them and we approached the disco at night with all the stealth of stalking a wild animal. We crept slowly and noiselessly down the path, the boldest in the lead. Whispered discussion ensued every few yards as to whether we should go through with this chance for public display and potential humiliation. Flashlights were turned off in the dark so no one would know we were there. We strained to hear if there was any music in the distance. Eventually we turned back, too reluctant to proceed. During 6 months and despite several concerted attempts, I never did manage to attend a disco in a community on the far side of the Nomad Station.

The awkwardness of contemporary romantic practice refracts new standards of increasingly normative heterosexual attraction. These resonate with the accouterments, commodities, and demeanor of a locally modern style of life. Failing these, young men may crave a manufactured elixir with a biblically naked man and woman on the bottle, a potion that with just a magical splash about the eyes can attract women. More generally, modern material goods-colorful clothes, sunglasses, sports shoes, or a boombox with cassettes-have become increasingly important to what it means for young Gebusi men to be sexually attractive. In many parts of the rural world, commodities that convey a locally modern sense of heterosexual allure, through clothes, cosmetics, songs, manufactured items of food and drink, or by possessing a boombox or VCR, are highly desired. Powerful in imagery or fantasy as adameni’ is for Gebusi, these items evoke full-bodied attraction that pairs the allure of a modern way of life with the sexualization of modern desire. In the mix, older flexibilities of sexual orientation can easily seem old-fashioned or backward against the heteronormativity of a modern present.

As Foucault would have emphasized, such changes are not divorced from the concepts and categories through which sexuality is constructed. In the present case, this includes the historical attribution of ritualized homosexuality by Western researchers, including me. In response to my Gebusi companions, I made a reified and normative attribution-that Gebusi young men had traditionally engaged in sex with other men as part of their accession to adulthood. Yet Gebusi themselves had not made such a general or normativizing statement, even in the early 1980s. Some initiands had engaged little in male– male sexual practices. A few of them had foregone insemination and initiation altogether after committing adultery or marrying prematurely. Others engaged sexually with their own age-mates and potentially lost as much semen as they gained from adult men. Yet all these youths were accepted as growing to adulthood and becoming full men. Ritualized homosexuality had not been as clear, as definitive, as categorical, or as reified as I had assumed it to be, either in my perceptions or in my representations of it to my young Gebusi companions. Regardless, whether my male friends knew, tacitly knew, did not know, or refused to know about male-male sexual practices in their cultural past, I had presented them with a normative view that simultaneously generalized their past as one of homosexual subjectivity, and portrayed it, if unwittingly, as a stark and primitive contrast to the modern heterosexual status that they were now eagerly claiming. My portrayal of a reified and alternative sexual past put them in the position of defining their own orientation as heteronormatively modern by contrast. This was reflected in their immediate response to me: adameni’ had “nothing whatsoever to do with sex between one man and another.” The false coherence of traditional reification easily became the ground against which an opposed coherence of heteronormative attraction was asserted in the modern present.

That my Gebusi companions seemed to accept my assertions at face value ironically paralleled their open and surprisingly earnest and frequent acceptance of outsiders’ authoritative dicta in church, school, and government (Knauft, 2002b). The gist of many if not most of these pronouncements is that modern practices are not just diametrically but categorically opposed to indigenous ones. On Independence Day, Gebusi now stage farcical skits that depict many of their own indigenous customs as ignorant, silly, or stupid (Knauft, 2002c). By debunking and distancing themselves from significant parts of their past, Gebusi now present themselves as locally modern. Though I was well known as an appreciative chronicler, if not a champion of indigenous practices, the contemporary context of Gebusi life easily cast my reified depiction of homosexual traditions as the dark alter against which heterosexual desires of my young companions were oppositionally defined. In this sense, the rise of what at least appears to be a modern standard of heterosexual attraction among Gebusi men finds its reciprocal in the normative projection of homosexual alterity upon the Gebusi past, even by well-meaning anthropologists.

For introductory and heuristic purposes, including when communicating to a broad lay audience and with beginning students, it can be convenient to collect sexual practices under the rubric of covering labels. In addition to the categories of “gay,” “lesbian,” “homosexual,” and “bisexual” are frequently termed “third gender” and “third sex” roles attributed to non-Western societies: hijras in India, berdache or “two-spirit” in the Native American southwest, kathoey in Thailand, mahu and its analogs in Tahitian and other Polynesian societies, and, it would seem, the practice of ritualized homosexuality or boy-insemination in parts of indigenous Melanesia.7 But at issue herein is the lingering risk of what Franqois Hartog (1988) more generally called the mirror of Herodotus, the longstanding Western tendency to see in other peoples the categorical antithesis of our own practices-be they ostensibly “heterosexual,” “homosexual,” or otherwise. As Weston (1993) has emphasized, anthropologists as well as others have been prone to an ethnocartography of sex: The richness of non-Western sexual and subjective diversity is easily reduced into alternative categories that merely reify sexual roles in new ways.

If sex in the modern present is hopefully fresh with new empowerments, agencies, and queer permutations, it is correspondingly easy to project sex in the non-Western past as normatively and culturally determined, even in its alternative modes. As Foucault would have emphasized, the projection of sexual categories and the reciprocal celebration of an ostensibly freer sexual diversity in the present-sex as self-actualization and free if not neoliberal progress-belies a Western box of epistemic masking. As critical analyses of Western history from Marx to Foucault have amply shown, modern imperatives of “choice” can themselves function as constraining ideologies and incitements to certain kinds of subjectivity. Modern assertions of sexual freedom can mask larger structures of knowledge and power through which sexual selfhood is incited; sexual identity becomes the mandated core of modern subjectivity that is defined, as in Wayabay’s case, vis-hL-vis alternative standards ascribed to the past.

Though sexual identity in the present may be celebrated or ascribed by researchers to individual proclivity, it is less often analyzed as a modern epistemic imperative. Reciprocally, sexuality in the past of non-Western Others is too easily viewed as a foregone prescription of premodern culture. In short, the reified projection of non-Western sexual pasts easily inverts the ostensible terms of modern choice. Few would deny that self-conscious pursuit of sexual rights has been a modern, if not modernist, project, tied to notions of individual freedom, self-expression, and self-actualization. While sexuality becomes modernized, modernity becomes increasingly sexualized; modern subjectivity becomes more centrally defined through aspects of sexual choice and sexual expression. For instance, the 1999 World Declaration of Sexual Rights states, “Full development of sexuality is essential for individual, interpersonal, and societal well being. Sexual rights are universal rights based on … inherent freedom…. [S]exual rights must be recognized, promoted, respected, and defended by all societies through all means” (World Association of Sexology, 1999; see the Appendix for the full text).

Notwithstanding its progressive and practical politics, the assertion of modern sexual rights can also be a case of “We Other Victorians” (Foucault, 1980). In the guise of freedom, modern incitements to define oneself freely as a sexual being beg not just the force of modern heteronormative standards but the degree to which alternative identities, be they labeled as gay, or queer, bi-, or trans-, reinscribe by their very opposition the importance of reified sexual identity vis-A-vis heteronormative standards. A broad commitment to sexual freedom and sexual rights certainly does provide an invaluable complement to cultural and historical specifics in the study of sexuality. Without some rights-based leverage, particularly when dealing with nation-states or legal systems, there is little mandate for politically organized progressivism. But these assertions privilege self-declared sexual identities that are less likely to derive from non-Western sexual orientations than from mandates for personal expression, self-actualization, and identity associated with the legacy of the Western Enlightenment.8

From this vantage point, it is easier to see how modern sexual identity and heteronormativity emerge as co-constructions, including in Western societies as well as among people such as the Gebusi. Conversely, following Foucault (1985, 1986), we may reconsider without either eulogizing or romanticizing them the realities of sexual diversity in other times or places-re-viewing them less essentially and as much as possible in their own terms.

What has happened to ritualized homosexuality? It has largely disappeared. It has become vestigial, not only as practice and belief among Melanesian people such as Gebusi but also as a categorical optic in Western research. Herdt (1991, 1993) himself cautioned against reifying categories such as ritualized homosexuality. Though the dialectic of deconstructing and reconstructing concepts will certainly persist, especially in the social sciences, the need to critically reexamine the grounds of this dialectic itself-in sexual research, in sexual practice, and in the discourse of sexual rights-remains.

1 My designation of “MSM” as “male sex with males” differs slightly from public health designations of MSM as “men who have sex with men.” MSM in this latter sense tends to denote an adult male population. By contrast, my use of MSM refers to sexual practices rather than to sexual subjects. It also includes sexual relations among males who may not be considered full adult men.

2 Concerning Gebusi in 1980-82, see Knauft (1985a; 1985b; 1986; 1987a; 1987b; 1987c; 1989; 1996, chap. 6; in press). Gebusi MSM is addressed specifically in Knauft (1985a, 264ff, 298ff, 1986, and especially 1987a). Concerning Gebusi women, among whom WSW was absent, see Cantrell (1998). Concerning MSM in nearby groups, see Sorum (1993); Kelly (1976, 1977, 1993); Ernst (1991); Schieffelin (1976); and Wood (1982). This last reference also contains documentation of sexual relations between women, which has been rarely reported in New Guinea.

3 In addition to Herdt (1992) and references in the previous note, see van Baal (1966); Serpenti (1965); Boelaars (1981); Schneebaum (1988); Herdt (1981, 1982, 1984b, 1987, 1999, 2003); Herdt & Stoller (1990); Knauft (1990, 1993a); and comparative assessments in Herdt (1984a) and Knauft (1993b, chap. 3); contrast Elliston (1995).

4 In previous decades, it was often argued that Melanesian MSM was part and parcel of intense male initiation practices that separated boys from women and socialized them to bond exclusively with each other and with older men for the functional necessity of male community solidarity in warfare (Herdt (1984a); Keesing (1982); Langness (1967); Read (1952); contrast Knauft (1999, chap. 3). Though MSM in some groups was indeed consistent with this reasoning, including among the Sambia, studied by Herdt, most Melanesian societies in which male solidarity in warfare was pronounced did not practice MSM. Reciprocally, a range of societies, including in the northern and southern lowlands of New Guinea, practiced relatively benign male initiations and had fluid relations with women despite strong male emphasis on warfare, including headhunting (e.g., Bateson, 1958; Landtman 1927; Williams 1924).

5 All conversations were conducted in the Gebusi vernacular.

6 Gebusi women’s relation to marital change is regrettably beyond the scope of the present paper; see comparative case studies of women’s changing situation in Knauft (in press, chaps. 3, 10); cf. Cantrell (1998); see more generally Knauft (1997).

7 For a summary overview, see Herdt (1994, 1997); see more generally Lancaster and di Leonardo (1997); Parker & Aggleton (1999).

8 Concerning sexual rights and sexual citizenship, see especially Evans (1993), Stychin (1998), and Phelan (2001); cf., National Sex Panic Summit (1997). Richardson (2000a, 2000b) critically contextualizes assertions of sexual citizenship, including the dangers of essentializing citizenship and the ambivalent status of intimacy in the notion of sexual citizenry. The intricate judicial distinctions that sexual rights entail are parsed by international legal scholar Robert Wintemute (1995)-for instance, the complex relationship between personal choice, immutability in sexual orientation, and legal adjudications of cause and motive in personal attraction. Alternative issues are raised by the relationship of sexual rights to reproductive rights (see Reproductive and Sexual Rights, 2000). Richardson (2000b) makes a helpful distinction in sexual rights discourse between conduct-based, identity-based, and relationship-based sexual rights. These clarifications give greater nuance to our understanding of sexual rights while also exposing thorny issues that arise as sexual rights come into conflict with other types of rights (political, religious, racial, economic, health-based, and so forth). The notion of “sexual citizenship” raises other problems vis-a-vis legal strictures, surveillance, and issues of sovereignty associated with national or state governments (e.g., Daly, 2001).

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Bruce M. Knauft

Department of Anthropology

Emory University

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