In working on my latest book Perv, some of the saddest material I came across involved the stormy cross-cultural conflicts erupting between Western ideals of sex and those discovered among other “exotic” societies. The field of cultural anthropology has its own dark history in this regard. For an embarrassingly long time, in fact, some unethical scholars were in the dubious business of publishing thinly veiled “ethnopornographies” of their trusting subjects. With revealing titles such as Untrodden Fields of Anthropology (1898), Neger-Eros (1928), and Erotikon (1966), these researchers seemed far less concerned about educating Western audiences than they were in titillating readers with lurid true stories of savage lust. Some of these scandalous volumes even included explicit “photodocumentation” of the subjects at hand, which arguably involved the production of sexually exploitative images of indigenous people.
It's disturbing stuff. Yet in terms of the sheer amount of damage that Westerners have done to other cultures in response to their simply having different (and usually harmless) sexual customs from our own, religious missionaries definitely take the cake. In a distressingly large number of cases, the Church’s historical encroachment into far-flung corners of the globe has served to level whole societies through its many aggressive campaigns to save “savage” souls from their carnal "sins."
The Gikuyu of Kenya, who had very rigid codes of sexual convention, thought the public displays of affection among Europeans were unspeakably vulgar. Ironically, however, early 20th century missionaries punished these conservative people for their timeless tradition of encouraging adolescents to be sexually responsible by experimenting with romantic relationships through a cuddling ritual. In this tightly regulated Gikuyu practice of ngweko, which was primarily used to assess a young couple’s lifelong compatibility in possible matrimony, the young lovers would lie together with their legs intertwined, which kept them from thrusting. “The chief concern in this relationship,” explained the native anthropologist Jomo Kenyatta, “is the enjoyment of the warmth of the breast … and not the full experience of sexual intercourse.” The rules were strict and clear: the girl must wear a leather apron covering her groin, the boy must tuck his organ between his legs, the girl couldn’t touch said organ, and neither party could sleep with their back turned to the other. Instead, they’d simply coo and fondle each other’s bodies, rubbing their chests together, talking until falling asleep. Yet zealous missionaries couldn’t be persuaded that coitus wasn’t, in fact, occurring, and so they forced any teenagers who’d engaged in ngweko to repent for what they saw as the sin of premarital relations.
Among the most despicable of prudish missionaries was a dogmatic French priest named Honor Laval, who managed to nearly wipe out the entire Mangareva culture of French Polynesia in the mid-19th century. When he and his fellow clergymen first set foot onto the Gambier Islands in January, 1834, the free-spirited Mangarevans (whom, Laval assured the bishops in Bordeaux, were ignorant pagans seething with lasciviousness and therefore in desperate need of salvation) numbered at over nine thousand. After a few short decades of his unbridled theocratic rule on the islands, in which he banished anyone who dared to question his sacred cause, it numbered at just a few hundred. During this time, Laval destroyed every last Mangarevan idol and artifact and replaced the ancient temples with cathedrals and convents. The latter he stocked with young native women, whom he saw as being especially vulnerable to the Devil’s lewd temptations. Instead of swimming bare-chested in the azure waters of the archipelago as their ancestors had done since time immemorial, they could now only wander aimlessly along the convent halls while fingering their rosaries, draped in the suffocating habits of old French nuns.
Lazal’s religious tyranny ended in 1871, when a traveling merchant doing business on the islands, shocked by the conditions he saw, smuggled word of the priest’s isolated demagogic regime to the governor in Tahiti. When a special French envoy finally liberated the Mangarevans that year, two little native boys were said to have stumbled out of Laval’s overflowing prison, explaining that they’d been ordered jailed by the priest for the grievous offence of having giggled during Mass.
Should we forgive Laval and the many other missionaries who've since come and gone, and in fact continue largely unabated to this day, foisting their biblical sexual ethics on other cultures? After all, they've only been doing their evangelical duties. Frankly, I see little evidence of their love and benevolence, only tragic tales of cultures forever lost to the ideological bulldozer of Christian homogenization, the self-righteous flag of original sin waving arrogantly in the breeze. I’m reminded of the Eskimo’s famous lament in Annie Dillard’s remarkable book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “If I did not know about God and sin,” the Eskimo asked the priest, “would I go to hell?” “No, not if you did not know,” replied the priest. “Then why did you tell me?” responded the Eskimo.
I discuss this issue in more detail, and much, much more, in my new book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, which will release on October 8, 2013. Follow me @jessebering (#DailyDeviant). For more on all things deviant, and to find out if I'll be visiting a city near you for the Perv book tour, visit www.jessebering.com.