8. The Matter of Sex
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100«.«.« 8 ».».» The Matter of Sex Taboos in the Family The Australian volunteer knew enough to take off his shoes before he entered the village house. He hadn’t been on the island very long, but he prided himself on knowing at least a little about island etiquette. He had been pleased when one of the star players on the high school basketball team he coached invited him to join his family for dinner. He had never been inside a local house before and he was looking forward to the opportunity to experience island living, at least for a few hours. So he took a seat on the floor and waited until the food was brought in and the rest of the family took their places on the floor. After the family settled down and the guest was introduced to the other members of the household, conversation was stilted for a while. But that was to be expected, he thought, since most of the others in the family had only a limited grasp of English. After a while, though, the initial discomfort eased and it was beginning to look as though everyone was starting to enjoy the evening. He even found that he drew appreciative smiles as he launched into a vivid description of the on-court heroics of the young athlete in the family. Encouraged at this, he pointed at a ten-year-old boy sitting across from him and predicted that he, too, had a great future ahead of him as a basketball player. Then his eyes fell on the boy’s sister, a strikingly attractive girl of about eighteen, who had said almost nothing up to this point. Perhaps a compliment would help, he thought. “Your sister there is a real stunner,” he The Matter of Sex 101 said. “I bet all the blokes on the island are chasing her. I would myself if I were a little younger.” Instead of the laughter he expected, he saw everyone in the family stiffen. The girl attempted a small smile but immediately dropped her eyes. His star athlete looked confused. There was an awkward silence before the mother of the family suddenly rose and started collecting dishes. Slowly conversation resumed, but the mood had clearly changed now. Some days later, when the Australian recounted all this to a friend who had been living on the island for almost three years, the friend laughed. “You didn’t really say that, did you?” he asked. The Australian looked puzzled at the question. He insisted that his remark to the girl was mild compared to the lurid comments he had often heard groups of his teenage students make about some of the girls in their class. At this, his friend only shook his head and began to laugh some more. Before the era of the modern concrete house, there was little privacy to be found in a Micronesian home. Aside from a small storage space in the back somewhere, the house was one large undivided room with almost no furniture. This single large space usually served as the dining area, the living room, and the dormitory as members of the household unfolded their sleeping mats and picked a place on the floor to take their rest. There were no personal quarters for anyone in this type of living situation. Clothes and a few personal items might be tucked away in a corner somewhere, but everyone shared the common space as best they could. Only as concrete houses became popular from the 1960s on would residences be divided into separate rooms. Today, in fact, the old single room style houses are still the rule in the atolls and the more remote villages. Even though the traditional Micronesian family lived at close quarters , there were social boundaries between family members that were not to be crossed, as we have seen in the last chapter. Respect, rooted in age and gender, created those boundaries. Well-defined norms for addressing others in the family were observed, and certain subjects could not be discussed. The inner circle of the family was not a place where young people, or even their parents, could talk easily about personal matters, least of all sex. Parents did not usually speak of 102 Chapter 8 sexual matters to their children, not even mother to daughter or father to son. Cross-gender discussion of this topic was even more strongly forbidden. Anything that even hinted at sexuality was suppressed within the family circle...