A Discourse-Centered Approach to Human Sexuality

Keynote Address, Rutgers Graduate Student Conference, l996

Keynote address given at the Second Annual Rutgers Anthropology Graduate Student Conference, “Contemplating Sex,” March 23, l996. [Conference Proceedings published in Crosscurrents: The Journal of Graduate Research in Anthropology, Vol. VIII, Autumn l996, pp. 147-158.]



Long ago Malinowski noted that although the capacity for sexual pleasure may be constitutional, human sexual behavior “is rather a sociological and cultural force than a mere bodily relation of two individuals” (Malinowski l929: xxiii). In its later acceptance of a “stratigraphic view” of human nature in which the biological, psychological, and cultural were thought of as separate systems for study, anthropology lost sight of Malinowski’s insight. Analyses tended to be either confined to evolutionary interpretations of human sexuality or framed according to psychoanalytic hypotheses (see Symons l979; Devereux l950 for examples). Most recently the development of the theory of “social constructionism” in feminist scholarship directed attention to the plane of the social.

The more sophisticated anthropological statements of the social construction of human sexuality avoid the simplistic notion that sexuality is simply an epiphenomenon of social forces. For example, Carole Vance (l984:7-8) points out that sexuality is “grounded in the body, the body’s structure, physiology, and functioning.” She cites the diversity in human sexual practices to suggest that biology does not “directly or simply determine the configuration or meaning of sexuality” (l984:7-8). If this were the case, she argues, we would encounter uniformity cross-culturally rather than the startling diversity that actually exists in which “activities condemned in one society are encouraged in another, and ideas about what is attractive or erotic, or sexually satisfying or even sexually possible vary a great deal.” Vance concludes that “the body and its actions [must be] understood according to prevailing codes of meaning.” She suggests that an important question for research must be “What is the nature of the relationship between the arbitrariness of social construction and the immediacy of…bodily sensations and functions?” (Vance l984:7-9; see also Caplan l987:1-27 for another early statement on the cultural construction of sexuality).

In the following I explore an approach to the study of human sexuality that recognizes the interconversion between the body and the social. Being a cultural anthropologist the research strategy outlined below focuses more on the cultural and social than the biological. My analysis is guided by the assumption that human sexuality sits precariously on the divide between individualized sensations and culturalized meanings making it both preeminently social as well as physiological. If human sexuality inhabits two worlds–the biological and the social–the major question for research concerns whether there is a feedback relationship between the two. If there is such a relationship, and I strongly suspect there is, the task of research must be to examine how physiologically-based sensations, social forms, cultural meanings, and historical discourses are imbricated in a mutually constitutive system with internal feedback loops.

In the following I suggest a theoretical and empirical framework for examining the inter-relationship between social, cultural, and ethnohistorical dimensions of sexual behavior. At the core of this framework is the use of discourse to study the socio-cultural and historical framing of human sexual behavior under the assumption that discourse reiterates the norms, roles, identities, ethos and gender-based power associated with sexual relationships. On theoretical grounds I assume that sexually based relationships enacted in public settings serve as models for gender and sexual identities. These identities convey a host of messages including gender-based power relationships, which in any society may be highly variable ranging from shifting to fixed and associated with complementary, egalitarian or asymmetric gender relationships.

The ethos of desire is also communicated through public sexual discourse. Like music in any culture, desire may be represented as diffuse and gentle, throbbing and cathartic, yearning and full of loss, possessive and demanding or passive and yielding. Discourse shapes the sexual ethos and character of sexual relationships by providing discursive and performative models for sexual behavior helping individuals to translate physiological sensations of desire into acceptable expression. Discourse also sits at the divide between sexual desire and sexual expression by guiding individuals in the selection of appropriate partners.

The feedback between the physiological and the social is always a two-way street. Just as individuals subvert sexual desire to norms for socially defined expression, the physiological dimensions of desire can move into the realm of culture by being taken up in a socially circulating discourse. Of interest is under what conditions some sensations make the leap from the individual to the social. This question is best addressed by taking a historical view. In the following, I suggest that sensations never make their way onto the plane of the social sui generis but are filtered through a social context. The interweaving of the social and sexual is illustrated below through an examination of change and continuity in the American sexual discourse showing that the social organization of male dominance and bonding in early America provided the grounds for translating male-centered sensations into the publicly circulating sexual discourse that survives to this day (see Sanday l996 for a fuller treatment). To highlight variability cross-culturally I end with a brief discussion of the results of my ethnographic fieldwork among the Minangkabau of Indonesia.


In this discussion I draw on five analytic constructs: sexual desire, sexual expression, sexual culture, discourse and metadiscourse. Sexual desire refers to the inchoate physiological sensations that may be conscious or unconscious, diffuse or specifically focused on an object. Sexual expression deploys polymorphous, diffuse sexual desire in a given social relationship. Sexual desire and sexual expression are associated with individuals. Sexual culture is associated with a community and, like culture in general, is localized in socially circulating discourse.

Two general realms of discourse must be distinguished when discussing sexual culture. One the one hand there is sex talk, how partners talk and act in relation to their sexual activity. On the other, there is the metadiscourse of sex, how members of a community characterize or represent the sex of sexual relationships and reach judgments about these relationships, valuing some, tabooing others, or remaining neutral about still others.

This paper focuses primarily on the second realm of sexual discourse because this is the realm that determines how individuals model to themselves and their partners how to think and act when they are being sexual. In a society such as our own which has subjected “sex” to the “endless mill of speech” (Foucault 1980:21), the metadiscourse of sex is particularly relevant because of the degree to which sexual discourse permeates daily life through the media, music, arts, books, pornography, talk among peers, laws, courtroom discussion in relation to sexual abuse cases and so on. In other societies less focussed on “sex,” like the Minangkabau of West Sumatra to be discussed below, signs of desire are not so bluntly associated with sexual behavior as they are in the United States. In societies like the Minangkabau, sexual behavior is more likely to parallel individual sensations rather than social expectations and hence these sensations remain more private than public. However, even in such cases the ethnographer is able to identify publicly accessible signs mediating sexual messages.


To put these considerations into a broader perspective, it is useful to step back for a moment and outline the general theoretical context for the proposition that “sex” is constituted through discourse. In this discussion I find Greg Urban’s discourse-centered approach to culture (l991; l996) more useful than Foucault’s (l980) treatment of the history of sexuality. Although provocative and often relevant to the discussion below, Foucault’s discussion is clouded by the absence of a clear definition of the term “sex.” He repeatedly uses the term to refer to a generic, pre-existing biological process. Thus, Foucault talks about the “repressive hypothesis” and the “deployment of sexuality” as if “sex” were an unchangeable biologically determined attribute of human nature always ready to reassert its demands if only men were free to express their basic sexual natures. Foucault is thus more sensitive to the social forces disciplining a constant desire than he is to the social cues that make desire intelligible to the individual.

Although his is not a discourse-centered approach to human sexuality, Urban’s discourse-centered approach to cultural analysis lends itself more readily to the empirical examination of the connection between discourse and sexual expression cross- culturally. Urban bases his approach on the proposition “that culture is localized in concrete, publicly accessible signs, the most important of which are actually occurring instances of discourse” (Urban l990:1). According to Urban, “[d]iscourse leads a double life. It is something that is half sensible and half intelligible, and the two halves sit uncomfortably together, as do experience and understanding, phenomena and noumena, more generally” (Urban l996:23). The distinction Urban makes between the duplex nature of discourse allows us to distinguish between the individual and the cultural, between private sensations and publically circulating meanings carried by discourse. Urban notes that on the one hand, there is the internal intelligibility of the world to the self, constructed through inner speech, and, on the other hand, there is the speech of others about the world (ibid).

Such a distinction has obvious parallels when applied to sexual discourse. Sexual desire can not be separated from social and cultural considerations for several reasons. First, the inchoateness of desire requires a template for expression. As Urban notes, although perceptions and feelings fall outside publicly accessible words, discourse provides the “filter through which the perceptible world is passed and its underlying realities understood” (l996:10).

The words or actions through which sexual desire is interpreted or evaluatively framed in specific acts of expression brings us to the realm of metadiscourse. Urban defines metadiscourse as the act of commenting upon discourse–“what individuals say about what they say” (l990:7). By speaking about something or enacting it, metadiscourse frames and interprets it. The framing “determines how a given instance of discourse is to be understood, and, in interpreting an instance, it also shapes and builds up an understanding of the world, of reality” (l996:9). To be of public interest, and thereby to be considered as constitutive, metadiscourse must be encoded not just in publicly accessible, sensible sign vehicles, it must socially circulate in the community. Some metadiscursive formulations may be more convincing than others and hence more widely shared (see Urban l996:10).

Urban suggests that discourse expands and becomes fixed to the degree to which it is effective in “helping the community to exist in the world” (ibid, p. 10). The fixation and circulation of discourse and its metadiscursive framing is intimately tied to social relationships. According to Urban (ibid., p. 26-7), social organization both illuminates and is illuminated by discourse which means that the discourse of social organization contains a built-in mechanism for the survival and reproduction of privileged social relationships.

In the context of the American sexual culture, one can note a close interaction between sexual behavior, sexual discourses, and social relationships. For example, the primary social relationship for some men is male bonding achieved through a publically shared sexual discourse such as seen in symbolic homosexual hazing rituals in college fraternities meant to coerce pledges into obedience and cement them to the brotherhood. Another type of ritual, which goes under the rubric of “pulling train” or “gang banging,” induces male bonding over the body of a woman. Still another way of inducing male bonding through sex is the use of pornography to bond under a common view of female sexuality and male prowess in “getting sex.” These three types of sexual discourse circulate widely in all-male circles in American society and to a large extent constitute an American sexual ethos that enhances possessive, demanding male sexuality and passive, yielding female sexuality. The metadiscursive framing of this discourse represents this kind of behavior as natural to male sexuality, as seen in the boys-will-be-boys argument. Elsewhere I argue that this discourse, not testosterone, explains the high rates of sexual harassment and acquaintance rape reported in recent years (Sanday l990; l996).

In his discussion of the two faces of discourse–sensibility and intelligibility–Urban reserves analytic space for the concept of individual experience devoid of public meaning and intelligibility. Translating this idea to a discussion of sexual culture, one could argue that at the sensory level alone there is wide latitude for private, spontaneous sexual experiences falling outside public discourse. Interestingly, in the development of the American sexual discourse historically sexual spontaneity became one of the primary metadiscursive principles. Early in the twentieth century the argument was advanced that because sexual repression was induced by cultural restrictions on sexual expression all restrictions should be lifted and sexual spontaneity encouraged. While some might take this as an example of the biological moving into alignment with the social, it is important to note that the value attached to sexual freedom and spontaneity at this time reinforced a prior pattern of male sexual dominance.

For example, a woman might dream of swooning in her man’s arms (the Rhett Butler-Scarlett O’Hara discourse) only to find herself being raped by a man who wishes to assert his possession of her. Or, fraternity brothers or athletes “pull train” to experience spontaneous sexual expression, only to find that they are unable to perform sexually. It is not far fetched to suggest that the supposed spontaneous desire in these cases reiterates social bonds of aggressive-passive male/female interaction in the first case and male bonding joined with dominance in the second. The social meaning of gang bangs is palpable whenever I mention this topic to certain groups of males who immediately smile knowingly and glance out of the corners of their eyes at one another. It is the smile and the glance that clues the anthropologist to the presence of intelligibility.

The widespread circulation of pornography in American society since the l950’s provides still another demonstration of the conclusion that sexual spontaneity does not take place in a social void. The metadiscursive messages of pornography are filled with social meaning. Pornography eroticizes male dominance and bonding through representations of the luscious female body primed for male sex, ever ready and willing to serve, always wanting it, primed to explode into pleasure at the slightest touch. Being the subject, the agent, and the viewer the male body is rarely represented. Being the object, the female body is usually depicted as already sexually receptive. One never sees the non-desirous female being brought to readiness by the male, for this is usually the job of another female illustrating once again the basic social principle of pornography that females are to nurture sex while males have it.

Urban’s use of the DNA metaphor when talking about stability and continuity in discourse is a useful analytic tool. He suggests that we think of the fundamental principles that convey intelligibility in any society (noumena) as being like DNA in its capacity to carry meanings into the future. The analogue of the long-stranded DNA that encode genetic information are “the long- stranded discourses,” which are replicated and passed down across the generations encoding information about the real world and aiding in the maintenance of relations with that world (Ibid., p. 24). According to Urban, the struggle to produce a fit between the discourse that circulates in a community and the sensible world people encounter “leads to some fundamental principles of culture, namely, those involving the interconversion between the sensible and intelligible sides of discourse” [ibid]. Over time these fundamental principles are transformed into eternal cosmological principles, as Urban says, “part of the immutable stuff of the universe” (l996:62). However, he adds that from a discourse-centered perspective such “consciousness is really the product of something small and fleeting and insubstantial: a few words that waft through the air” [ibid, pp. 62-3].


An examination of the American sexual discourse over time illuminates the extent to which certain sexual principles have become fixated by being framed as eternal, biological principles. As noted above, Americans have defined human sexuality so as to make the spontaneous expression of so-called biological sensations normative. This did not happen overnight in the history of the American sexual discourse. Looking back on this history one can trace a lineage of postulates regarding male and female sexual functioning culminating in today’s testosterone theory of male sexual dominance.

The early Americans had a much different conceptualization of male and female sexuality then we have now. They came to these shores with the belief, characteristic of Western thought prior to the l8th century as far back as Aristotle and Galen, that men and women were basically alike physiologically speaking. Women had the same genitals as men, with the difference that the male organs were outside and the female organs were inside the body. The word “vagina” only entered the language around 1700. Before that the vagina was imagined as “an interior penis, the labia as foreskin, the uterus as scrotum, and the ovaries as testicles” (Laqueur l990:4;159; see also Sanday l996:67).

Thomas Laqueur calls this the “one-sex model.” Although the two sexes might differ in such important characteristics as the amount of vital heat or in their capacity for moral perfection, by this model sex differences were a matter of degree not of kind. As Cynthia Russett (l989:3) points out, Aristotle and Galen thought of women as colder and weaker than men. Women did not have sufficient heat to transform inner fluids into the more perfect form of semen. In conception women contributed only the material substance and the place of incubation, while men supplied “the form and the efficient cause.”

Over the two-thousand years that this model ruled Western thought, it entailed certain dangers for those who valued sex differences. Men could turn into women and women into men just by associating with the opposite sex or by emulating the behavior of that sex. A penis could spring out from the girl who was too active. The interior balls of women who meddled too much in men’s affairs were thought to have slipped down to her loins. By consorting closely with women men might lactate or lose their hardness becoming more effeminate and like a woman (see Laqueur 1990:5-6; 7; 123; 125).

According to one-sex thinking, it was routine for both sexes to experience orgasm during conception. The seat of sexual pleasure for women was located in the clitoris centuries before Masters and Johnson rediscovered the clitoral orgasm. In the second century A.D. Galen wrote about the “raging desire” and the “great pleasure” that precedes “the exercise of the generative parts.” Although people debated which sex enjoyed “the pleasures of Venus more,” libido, as we call it today, had no gender then. Aristotle regarded the possibility of women conceiving without pleasure as highly unlikely. Renaldus Columbus, who claimed to have discovered the clitoris in 1559, just a half-century after the discovery of America by the more famous Columbus, took it upon himself to name the new discovery the “female penis.” He referred to the organ as “the seat of woman’s delight” and said that when it was touched it became a “little harder,” and “oblong to such a degree that it shows itself as a sort of male member.” Later, in the seventeenth-century an English mid-wife likened both the vagina and clitoris to the penis so that women had two penises so to speak. One was inverted, creating a passage for the male penis, and the other, the clitoris, stood and fell just like the male organ making women “lustful” as well as giving them “delight in copulation” (see Laqueur l990:43; 48; 64-65).

The American sexual discourse began by positing this equivalence in male and female sexual desire. How this discourse played out in American history can not be separated from the fact that although males and females were thought to be alike in body, they were different in social status. Although woman was like man, she was part of not equal to man. In the course of American history this principle affected female social and sexual status changing only as women fought for equal sexual and political rights in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The following summary of change and continuity in the American sexual discourse is based on examining public sphere discourse in three arenas: the legal response to acquaintance rape over the centuries; nineteenth and twentieth-century sexology; and, finally, the counter discourse developed by activists in the nineteenth century and elaborated by feminists in the twentieth. From this analysis I posit four general, overlapping patterns of noumenal postulates (see Sanday l996:19-23).

The first pattern–observable in colonial New England—was associated with a low incidence of rape. A woman’s No meant something in Puritan New England. Interestingly, given our current way of thinking about “puritanism,” it was the only time in our history when males and females as a group were thought to have the same sexual appetite and sexual desire was conceived of as explosive and in need of a vent for both sexes. It is true that the laws of the colonies kept passion in check, forbidding “fornication” outside of marriage, but within marriage sexual passion was encouraged. Women married to an impotent husband could sue for divorce on those grounds alone. If a woman was raped, community officials tended to believe her because of the belief that a woman would have no reason to lie. If she said No, a man was more likely to desist from making sexual advances.

The birth of the nation saw the flowering of the cult of “true womanhood” and a radical change in the conception of female sexuality. While the conception of male sexuality remained the same, the conception of female sexuality became dualistic: women were either pure or promiscuous and sexuality was either private and marital or public and prostituted. While males were expected to be as lustful as ever, proper females bore the burden of giving the new nation a semblance of respectability. At a time when male licentiousness in the cities was well known and poor women often turned to prostitution as their only source of income, chastity became the dominant symbol of a polite, refined America. True womanhood gave women of means moral superiority but its definition robbed them of a sexual appetite. When these women reached beyond the feminine sphere of the home and entered the arena of public debate to take up abolition, temperance, social purity and the women’s rights movement they wore true womanhood like a chastity belt to protect themselves from the discourse of public sexuality which demeaned and subordinated all women to the demands of male sexuality.

In the public domain of l9th century sexual culture, the expansion of the culture of pornography and prostitution deepened belief in the inherent lustfulness of men and their female companions in the bawdy houses of the times. Public women served men, while private women nurtured their moral backbone. In the public domain any woman who disagreed too openly with a man–such as in rape cases—was automatically subject to the suspicion of having “asked for it,” of being inherently lustful like her sister the prostitute. In the courtroom, a woman’s past was examined for evidence of prior lustful acts on the grounds that once ‘fallen’ a woman was always ready for sex. The complainant’s credibility might also be impeached by suggesting she was a false accuser, a scorned or vindictive woman. The tenacity of these suspicions is seen in the legal ruling of the nineteenth century that complainants had to provide evidence of having resisted to the utmost.

As the l9th century discourse of women’s rights expanded, a group of women began a campaign of sexual politics. Activist women (the term feminist had not yet been adopted by the American sexual discourse) argued for more sexual autonomy and started a sex rights campaign. In true backlash fashion, the science of sexology was born at this time and ushered in the third period in the development of the American sexual discourse. This pattern, which would continue throughout the 20th century, corresponds to Susan Faludi’s (l991) definition of backlash behavior: for each step in women’s sexual autonomy in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, sexual scientists posited a concomitant increase in the magnitude of man’s biologically based aggression conceived with the complementary notion of female sexual passivity.

Basing his position on Darwinian thought, Havelock Ellis, one of the founders of the American sexology movement, glorified male sexual aggression as a biological, evolutionary necessity. As women rediscovered lust, to ensure female sexual subordination Ellis and later Freud defined the female sex drive as inherently passive and responsive to forceful male seduction–even rape. Freud defined the sex instinct as a basic biological drive, which in its active form was masculine and in its passive form was feminine. Thus, these men returned the sex drive to women with the restriction that the proper female was to be a sexually passive, now willing, recipient of male passion.

The new version of the true woman still said No when she meant Yes, not because of moral superiority but in obedience to her alleged biological desire to be dominated. Under her demur demeanor however, Freud assumed that the raging fires of desire still lurked in the female breast giving her an overactive sexual imagination that sometimes led to false accusations of rape. Thus, Freud created a new version of the lustful female false accuser. Whereas in the nineteenth century the woman who cried rape was “fallen,” in the early twentieth she was a hysteric.

These ideas influenced rape law through the most important and widely cited legal treatise on rape of the 20th century penned by the noted jurist John Henry Wigmore. Using Freudian terminology, Wigmore cautioned the legal establishment to beware of the female hysteric and the pathological liar and advised that all rape complainants be examined by a psychiatrist for nefarious complexes of a Freudian nature (Sanday l996:121-139).


Urban attributes discourse circulation to “the construction of a noumenal understanding of the phenomenal world in terms of community” (ibid, p. 251). One can argue that the sexual discourse outlined above functions today to maintain a community of males in opposition to and superior over females. Although the basic details of the discourse changed during the twentieth century, its ability to maintain male bonding and male dominance was unaffected. Today’s understanding of “No means Yes” can be traced back to the l9th century cult of true womanhood and to the Freudian concept of female sexual passivity. To preserve her reputation and to show that she is not an aggressive hussy, a woman still has to say No so that a man can take pride in his seduction and assure himself that she is not “loose.” Turning a No into a Yes by getting a girl drunk, slipping her a “date rape pill,” or through aggressive seduction continues as a common practice on college campuses which some groups of males plan together and then gloat over. On many campuses, women students complain that they must act the role of the “true woman” on the outside lest they be called “sluts.”

Today’s blame the victim attitude derives from the twin notions that women are sexually stimulated by force and that male sexual aggression is primarily biological. The assumption that she “wanted it” shows that early notions of female sexual voracity are still with us. The Rhett Butler-Scarlet O’Hara scenario suggesting that women harbor a secret desire to be raped derives from Havelock Ellis’s proposition that women and men are sexually stimulated by force. The biological argument put forth most recently in Camille Paglia’s assertion that hormones rule male sexual behavior dates from Ellis also. Since a man can’t help himself, she holds, it’s up to the woman to look out for herself. The implication is that women who are in the wrong place at the wrong time have it coming (Sanday l996:239-264).

The fourth and most recent phase in the history of American sexuality developed out of the feminist movement of the l960’s and is best labelled a counter discourse because of its opposition to the principles expressed in the historical discourse outlined above. Although the women of the sixties were having sex in greater numbers, they were not seen as equal sexual partners with the enforceable right to say No. While the so- called sexual revolution freed them to have sex, it was on male terms. The feminist movement was partly sparked by the soaring rape rates of the l960’s. Getting together in consciousness raising sessions, young women began to discover the degree to which sexual expression for them was marked by either “giving in” or being forced. Few of them could say that they were in egalitarian sexual relationships characterized by mutual consent.

The discovery of the ubiquity of acquaintance rape led to a significant lobbying effort in the early to mid-seventies which resulted in rape law reform in most of the states. “Earnest,” “sufficient,” or “utmost” resistance was abolished as being necessary to indicate nonconsent in most states. The legal reform was an attempt to equalize rape trials so that fear of false accusers and examining a woman’s reputation no longer played a decisive role.

The reform changed outmoded laws and practices that had remained on the books since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For example, in many states the death penalty for rape persisted up to the l960s making convictions highly unlikely. Another hold-over from the seventeenth century, abolished in the l970s, was the practice of reading to the jury the cautions of the seventeenth-century English judge Sir Matthew Hale. By giving semi-legal status to the fear of the false accuser, Hale’s instructions to the jury read in many American courts created a pro-defense bias.

The innovation introduced by feminism to the American sexual culture was female sexual choice and affirmative consent. Women sought to return passion to women on a par with men. The role of the clitoris was rediscovered and women rejected Ellis’ and Freud’s belief that female passion needed to be passive to spark the fire of male lust. The basic proposition was that a No means No and that sexual consent was to be established through discourse. Although articulated in the l970s, these ideas only began to reach the American public in the l990s. Today, there is an anti-rape movement on many college campuses which teaches men and women the necessity of affirmative, verbal consent. This development is the most significant change in the American sexual discourse in the past three centuries. It brings us back to the one-sex model with a difference–the equivalence of sexual appetite that it assumes for both sexes is now joined with a corresponding call for female sexual choice and sexual equality in all aspects of social life. Whether this new, revolutionary discourse will expand and circulate widely in American society remains to be seen (Sanday l996:265-287).


I conclude with a brief account of public discourse in a rape free society: the matrilineal Minangkabau, an advanced, literate Indonesian society whose traditional homeland is West Sumatra, the site of fieldwork conducted over the last fifteen years. Life in West Sumatra is a timeless reminder of an old anthropological axiom. Although human beings have the potential for aggression, it is culture (not biology) that dampens or activates that potential. When I talk to the Minangkabau about the incidence of rape and wife abuse in the United States they are astounded. Interpersonal violence and rape are impossible in our society, I am told, because custom not power determines the way people act. We need customs to temper behavior, they say, or otherwise people would be like wild animals in the jungle in which the strong would conquer the weak.

Daily life in West Sumatra is guided by an overarching natural philosophy expressed in a widely circulating metadiscourse whose central tenet is found in a proverb that ends with the line, “Growth in nature must be our teacher.” According to this proverb, as plants grow from seedlings, trees from transplanted branches, rivers from a trickle of water, and mountains from a clump of earth so do people. Like the seedlings of nature people and emotions must be patiently fed so that they will flower in their fullness.

Applied to women and children this philosophy explains the matrilineal system for which the Minangkabau are world renowned. Ancestral land and houses are inherited in the female line. Husbands go to live with their wives at marriage. In the case of a divorce, the husband leaves his wife and children in the house he may have built for them on his wife’s ancestral land. By providing for the vulnerable, the Minangkabau say, we will all be strong.

Applied to sex, this philosophy teaches that aggression weakens rather than strengthens the body’s tie to nature and society. There is no sexual abuse or domestic violence in the village of my field work. In the many years I have been travelling to West Sumatra, I was able to document very few rapes either from police reports, personal observation, or interviews. The assailants in those few cases I found were tried, convicted, and jailed. One committed suicide out of fear of what might happen to him.

Comparing Minangkabau and American public discourses, it becomes readily apparent that the Minangkabau are relatively silent on the subject of sex in both the public domain and I suspect in the private as well. This is not to say that there is no metadiscursive framing of sexuality, only that compared to our own this framing is very different. The Minangkabau sexual discourse is communicated through music, the arts, novels, and expectations for marriage. The articulation of the fundamental principles of the Minangkabau sexual culture in these domains is a subject requiring separate treatment. Suffice it to say that these principles differ from our own not only in content but also in mode of communication. Like so much else in Minangkabau life, messages about sex are communicated through metaphor and indirection. One might argue that the indirection betrays repression. However, none of the usual signs of repression are evident. There is no sexual counter culture, no contestation regarding sexual freedom, and no active male subculture of licentiousness. Nor is there evidence of sexual venting through other social media. Clearly these are preliminary observations on a subject that requires considerable further research.


Differences between the rape-free Minangkabau and more rape- prone societies such as our own are not the result of biology but of cultural selection–that slow accumulation of a set of fundamental postulates mediated through discourse, which constitutes sexual ethos, identities, and relationships. In American society, the attribution of male sexual aggression to human biology and evolutionary progress is an epistemological not a biological truth.

Evidence for the fixity of this postulate in the American public discourse comes from recent phone calls I received from two news reporters. Interested in interviewing me about the latest gang rape on college campuses in two different states, the first question both asked was “How can women protect themselves?” Answering within the framework of the feminist counter discourse, I pointed out that this question only perpetuates the problem by assuming that all men are potential abusers and all women are targets. Moving into the discourse of modern rape law, I suggested to the reporters that they write about the consequences of the naturalization of male sexual aggression and female passivity. Due to the revamped rape laws more and more incidents of acquaintance rape encouraged by these attitudes are now being prosecuted. In addition, due to the passage of Title IX and the Violence Against Women Act, women now have the legal avenue of bringing civil lawsuits against their alleged assailants and the institutions whose negligence encourages acquaintance rape. Perhaps in time these legal remedies will cause the prevailing sexual discourse to mutate and adapt to the new legal and social environment emphasizing sexual autonomy for women.

Today, however, the mainstream discourse of the last three centuries prevails. But evolutionary change–as we all know– works at a snail’s pace.


Caplan, Pat, ed. l987. The Cultural Construction of Sexuality. London: Tavistock.

Devereux, George. l950. “Heterosexual Behavior of the Mohave Indians,” in Geza Roheim (ed) Psychoanalysis and the Social Sciences. Vol. 2. New York: International Universities Press.

Foucault, Michel. l980. History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage Books.

Laqueur, Thomas. l990. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. l929. The Sexual Life of Savages in North-western Melanesia. London: G. Routledge & Sons.

Russett, Cynthia Eagle. l989. Sexual Science:The Victorian Construction of Womanhood. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sanday, Peggy Reeves. l990. Fraternity Gang Rape. New York: New York University Press.
—–l996. A Woman Scorned: Acquaintance Rape on Trial. New York: Doubleday.

Symons, Donald l979 The Evolution of Human Sexuality. New York.

Urban, Greg. l991. A Discourse-Centered Approach to Culture: Native South American Myths and Rituals. Austin: University of Texas Press.
——l996. Metaphysical Community: The Interplay of the Senses and the Intellect. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Vance, Carol S. l984. “Pleasure and Danger,” In Pleasure and Danger, ed. Carol Vance. pp. 1-28. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Back to Peggy Sanday’s Homepage.

This homepage is maintained by psanday@sas.upenn.edu