Anthropology Of Sexuality And Culture


From time immemorial, sexuality has proven an integral component of any society. It’s this construct that defines individuals through gender subsequently assigned to them and the roles that they have to play. For the longest time, various tenets of sexuality and the assortment of accepted practices remained unknown to most of the world as researchers just didn’t see it as a discourse worth exploring. The formative years of the 20th century remain ground-breaking in history as anthropology chartered the way in making attempts to explain gender, sexuality and their relationship to culture from a broader scope. Prominent researchers such as Bronislaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead made comprehensive assessments of sexuality across various cultures across the world in a bid to have a better understanding of the subject.

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Theirs was a quest to establish the cross-cultural comparisons of different societies and attitudes towards sexuality from a cultural context. Ethnography was emerging as an essential tool in making these studies viable and the primary reason why these pioneers intended to use anthropology as a fundamental methodological approach. These studies began in the 1920s and extended to the 1930s, with Malinowski traveling to the Western Pacific to study the customs and sexual mores of ethnic groups residing in the Trobriand Islands. Further research on sexuality and culture was at an all-time high during the 1970s due to the massive changes that were taking place in society. Social norms were changing dramatically especially with the rise of the gay and lesbian movement together with numerous scholarly works on ted emergence of feminism (Maed, 2001). The purpose of this research paper is to provide an in-depth evaluation of how an anthropological approach can shed light on the relationship that exists between culture, society, and sexuality.

Content Literature Review

            Understanding sexuality and its connection to culture were integral to early researchers since they now lived in a rapidly transforming society. Modernization was a force to reckon with since it was responsible for globalization, which subsequently led to numerous changes in the manner in which individuals viewed sexuality. Anthropology’s role was an important one since it sought to demystify the intricacies that existed in sexuality from one community to another. A study into the cultural constructs of sexuality would serve these researchers well as they would, for the first time, have a unique opportunity to review sexual diversity amongst cultures around the world and the social dimensions present. According to Vance (1991), the study of sexuality and its connections to culture is a central to anthropology, even though researchers seem to ignore the subject intentionally (p.1). The primary reason for this state of affairs is the complexity of the issue at hand and the attitudes of others in questioning the researcher’s motive.

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Similarly, it was also noted that a considerable difference existed in how sexuality was viewed in the Western world and other cultures around the globe (Mead, 2001). During her 1928 study, Margaret Maed made it abundantly clear that there existed significant variations in how different cultures approached adolescence. An ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Samoa was instrumental in her work as it would reveal various nuances, such as sexuality and sexual relations together with how Pacific Islanders viewed this particular construct. According to Malinowski (2001), anthropology is best suited to investigate sexuality in different cultures around the world since a researcher can make use of a cross-cultural approach (p.43).  Malinowski is considered an anthropological great owing to his extensive research in ethnography and his unusual ideas. His views on sexuality were in direct contrast with those held by leading researchers such as Sigmund Freud. In particular, he sought to use his anthropological outlook to expose the intricacies of sexuality while challenging suppositions such as the Oedipus complex.

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Researchers were also keen on solving various problems concerning sexuality using anthropology.  All this would be done by introducing a global lens to explore controversial issues such as homosexuality. Clasters (1969) sought to understand the intricacies surrounding homosexuality among the Guyaki, a native Amerindian tribe in South America (p. 147). His work soon revealed that, even for indigenous tribes that had little or no contact with the outside world, there was a transparent gender system. In other cases, individuals who would normally be considered as transgender would play a significant role in the community and how their acceptance was linked to that particular culture. According to Keller and Evans-Pritchard (1975), anthropology is one of the most fundamental disciplines in understanding the link existing between sexuality and a specific culture using an ethnographical research. On the other hand, perspectives such as those shared by Spronk (2014) during her study of sexuality and subjectivity in Nairobi, Kenya indicates the extent to which anthropology is useful to the subject at hand (P.2). She explores modernization and the effects it has on sexuality using body-sensorial knowledge, which ends up defining a whole generation.

Anthropologic Descriptions of Sexuality

Anthropology has over the years been concerned with sexual cultures of different communities across the globe. In particular, these experts wanted to focus on sexual practices as cultural constructs that appear specific for specific communities. Communities are diverse in their sexual relations and how they approach sexuality. In essence, their perspective on the issue differs significantly from that of the contemporary Western Society, hence the need to bring this point to the forefront and help elucidate it to this audience. The climax of this anthropological pursuit was during the 1980s when society had to deal with various drastic changes that were taking place. The cultural dimension of sexuality was, therefore, an integral piece of the puzzle as it would allow as it would allow for a more holistic view of the issue(Margaret Mead made me gay: personal essays, public ideas, 2001).

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The practicality of various problems emerging during this period has also been cited as issues of significant influence on the anthropological view of sexuality and culture. Topics such as an increased rate of migration, globalization, same-sex marriages, awareness of the importance of sexual health and the changes in perspective brought about by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) epidemic were vital in creating these perspectives. It is for this particular reason that anthropologists opted for a paradigm shift in how sexuality was studied and how identities were forged.  In Margaret Mead made me gay: personal essays, public ideas (2001), Esther Newton makes mention of the importance of these changes and how they positively influenced her anthropological work

Theories influencing Sexuality and Culture in Anthropology

Making viable suppositions was the first step in ensuring that sexuality and culture were conclusively tackled. It was therefore imperative for lead anthropologists to come up with theories that would seek to break down this problem and ensure that that they put forth their unique views on the issue at hand. The Feminist perspective was one such deposition that mainly focused on this movement and how it had been used earlier on to end the oppression experienced by women. Many feminists have a unique view of womanhood and view it as a term driven by gender and the social position that a woman occupies in society. It becomes possible to make a clear demarcation between sex and gender which subsequently ensures that sexuality can be explained through anthropology. Feminists espouse these distinctions by countering biological determinism and establishing a clear perspective was therefore responsible for the widely accepted claim that gender was, indeed, a social construct.

Individuals are therefore socialized into their respective genders using various influences present in their separate environments. These acts of socialization might be carried out unconsciously by members of a particular society through the use of gender-stereotypical language. Women studies have also made massive contributions to the never-ending quest to explain sexuality and culture in anthropology. The Queer theory has emerged as one of the most widely known anthropological approaches in defining gender. Homosexuality is an issue of grave concern here with the assumption seeking to challenge gender as being part of the self. Identities feature considerably here as a society often attempts to assign them to different individuals while observing their behavior to determine which category they would fall under. The queer theory acknowledges that a state of divergence is standard in society and hence the existence of gender ambiguity and identities such those of intersex bodies.

The Relationship between Culture, Society, and Sexuality in a Contemporary World

Constructs such as sexuality in any culture have always been of great concern to researchers and notably how they would transform with time. Technological advancements and globalization have been citing as some of the leading causes of changes observed in sexual behavior and being honest about one’s orientation. Sexuality doesn’t take a linear path whenever changes occur. New ideas are easily combined with existing ones to create a fusion that now seeks to define them. Modernization has meant that individuals have had to travel from remote settings to new localities where they are free to make decisions for themselves especially about their sexual orientation (Spronk, 2014). Such is the case in Ho Chi Minh City, in Vietnam where life in the city has meant that more individuals are coming out openly to express their sexual orientation. Spronk (2014) carried out extensive studies in Nairobi Kenya on the effects of modernization on individuals in this population, and especially on the young professionals. Many of those featured in this review seeks an independence to express their sexuality and legitimize their sexual desires, even when fully aware that they are living in a deeply conservative society.


In finality, sexuality and its study in a cultural context were among one of the leading tenets of early anthropological studies. The only impediment that researchers faced was the controversy that this particular subject seemed to elicit and the reason why some would even opt to ignore it altogether. The ethnological development that was taking place in anthropology led to a “rediscovery of sex” that later shed light on the relationship that exists between culture, society, and sexuality. An anthropological approach is therefore vital in opening new discussions on matters involving sexuality while at the same time providing individuals with new opportunities for sexual expression.

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