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Love and Sex Across Cultures

William Jankowiak

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eBook - ePub


Love and Sex Across Cultures

William Jankowiak

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No culture is ever completely successful or satisfied with its synthesis of romantic love, companionship, and sexual desire. Whether the setting is a busy metropolis or a quiet farming village, a tension always exists between a community's sexual habits and customs and what it believes to be the proper context for love. Even in Western societies, we prefer sexual passion to romance and companionship, and no study of any culture has shown that individuals regard passion and affection equally.

The pursuit of love and sex has generated an infinite number of ambiguities and contradictions, yet every community hopes to find a resolution to this conflict either by joining, dividing, or stressing one act over the other. In this follow-up to Romantic Passion: A Universal Experience?, William R. Jankowiak examines how different cultures rationalize the expression of passionate and comfort love and physical sex. He begins by mapping out the intricacies of the love/sex conundrum and the psychological dilemma of reconciling these competing forces. He then follows with essays on sex, love, and intimacy among Central African foragers and farmers; the love dyad in Lithuania; intimacy among the Lahu of Southwestern China; the interplay of love, sex, and marriage in the High Himalayas; verbalized experiences of love and sexuality in Indonesia; love work as it relates to sex work among prostitutes; intimacies and estrangements in the marital and extramarital relationships of Huli men; infidelity and masculinity in Southwestern Nigeria; and the ritual of sex and the rejuvenation of the love bond among married couples in the United States.

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1. Desiring Sex, Longing for Love
A Tripartite Conundrum
William Jankowiak and Thomas Paladino
“Marriage ought to be based primarily on affection—love if you like—and only if this is present does marriage offer something that is… sacred.”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about, the preference for one man or for one woman above all others, but what I’m asking is: a preference for how long?”
—Leo Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata
No culture is ever completely successful, or satisfied, with its synthesis or reconciliation of passionate companion (or comfort) love and sexual desire. Whether in the technological metropolis or in a simple farming community, a tension exists between sexual mores and proscriptions governing the proper context for love. Western societies are not unique in their ambivalence. At various times sexual passion has been preferred to romance as well as companionship. No ethnographic study has reported that all passions and affections have been regarded as equally valuable. The official ideal, and thus the preferred idiom of conversation, is the sexual, the romantic, or the companionship image. No culture gives equal weight to the use of sexual, romantic, and companionate metaphors. One passion is always regarded as a subset of the other. No matter how socially humane, politically enlightened, spiritually attuned, or technologically adapted, failure to integrate sex and love is the name of the game. The paramount passion is easily recognizable from examining conversational idioms. Conflicts about issues of propriety, etiquette, and social standing inevitably arise whenever a break occurs in the cultural understanding and consensus regarding things sexual and romantic. To some degree dissatisfaction is everywhere: its dissonance sounds in all spheres of culture.
Whatever the posture of a culture (i.e., its patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activity significance) toward sex and the many facets of love, ambiguities, conflicting emphases, perplexities, unclear strictures, and downright quandaries litter the cultural landscape. The diversity of ambivalence, tension, and contradiction around the globe is infinite and (when viewed collectively) bewildering in its range of differences. But what human communities have in common is a universal compulsion to make a working peace with the three-way conflict of romantic / passionate love, comfort / attachment love, and physical sex. Every culture must decide whether to synthesize, separate, blend, discount, stress, or ignore one or the other. For example, some ethnic groups in Papua New Guinea believe that sexual intercourse is an intensely unhealthy and deeply polluting experience that should be avoided. However, sex remains, in the words of one man, “something that feels so good but is so bad for you” (Terry Hays, personal communication, 1991). In a different Papua New Guinean culture, men often run to the river to slice their penis with a bamboo knife to let the contaminated blood flow from their body after a sexual experience (David Boyd, personal communication, 1984). Contradictory or seemingly conflicted attitudes are evident among the Huli of Papua New Guinea, where men abide by traditional taboos in their marriage while seeking out “modern” erotic experiences in their extramarital life (see chapter 8; Wardlow 2006). Such conflicts can also be found in Igbo men’s need to develop an intimate comfort or attachment love with their spouse while also seeking sexual pleasure through sexual variety with several partners (see chapter 9).
Because of the two distinct types of love—companionship (sometimes call comfort love or attachment love) and passionate love or romantic love (Hatfield and Rapson 1993) have their own logic and endocrinology—many social tensions, conflicts, and individual moral ambivalences arise from the efforts of each person or community to balance the twin forces. By comfort love I mean a deep affection felt toward “those with whom our lives are deeply intertwined. It involves feelings of friendship, understanding, and concern for the welfare of another” (Hatfield 1988:193–94; see also Hatfield and Rapson 1996; Harvey and Wenzel 2001). In contrast, passionate love involves idealization of another, within an erotic setting, with the presumption that the feeling will last for some time into the future. This does not mean companionate love is without its passions. Percy Bysshe Shelley, the nineteenth-century poet, thought passion was an integral aspect of both loves; albeit romantic love tended to be more physical, companionate love was more spiritual. Although both forms of love are present in every culture, they are often not equally valued, celebrated, or honored. This results in a tension that extends beyond the simple contrasting of two desires and is, rather, a tripartite conflict of the sexual imperative, the romantic, and the companionate.
The cauldron of ambivalence is immediately apparent in the contradictions that flourish where passionate love is proclaimed as the authentic ground for relationships and marriage. In some societies the connection of love to sexual desire is only silently acknowledged (e.g., Mormon Fundamental polygamous communities, Lahu, Tamil Nadu), whereas it is doubted in others (e.g., Marri Baluch, Inuit Eskimo), and openly avowed in still others (e.g., the United States, urban China). The tension between passionate love and sex is echoed in Birgitt Röttger-Rössler’s account in chapter 6 of the Makassarese society of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, and its struggle to reconcile societal duties with individual desire. Makassarese associate falling passionately in love with an illness, and treatment is considered essential. Contradictions are evident in high Himalayan polyandrous societies where men and women are often caught in the grip of passionate or excited love and forsake dyadic exclusivity so that the wife can manage her relationships with all her husbands. Although some women can live, if not thrive, in a plural marriage, every woman interviewed mentioned how her life “is emotionally challenging… [which is why] many women prefer monogamy” (Geeta Tiwari, personal communication, 2006). Unstated is the presumption that the emotional quality of the husband-wife relationship is enhanced in a dyadic, as opposed to a plural, arrangement. Conflict abounds among the Aka foragers, a society in which men and women are engaged in competing reproductive strategies: Aka men, many of whom feel a deep comfort love for their spouse, are still engaged in a “walkabout” to find a second wife with whom to have more children, whereas wives often resort to physical violence to prevent their husband from leaving. The Aka understand the wives’ anguish while also respecting men’s right to seek another wife (see chapter 2).
The discrepancy between the pull of romance and the tug of sexual passion is nicely delineated in Blanche DuBois’ admonishment of her sister, Stella, in Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche expresses her horror at Stanley Kowalski’s obvious sexual appetite, saying: “A man like that is someone to go out with—once—twice—three times—when the devil is in you. But live with? Have a child by?” In this case the issues are erotic adventure and excitement versus the stability of domesticity and family. The irony in Williams’s vision is that while Blanche argues for the latter as the ideal, much of her life has been consumed by the former. Blanche’s problem is not uniquely American: Chinese literature is full of stories concerned with the difficulty of separating or blending the two emotions. In Li Yu’s Be Careful about Love, written before European contact, a Qing dynasty emperor is attracted to the beauty of one woman while yearning for emotional intimacy with another. The emperor insists that “sexual love [is] a product of admiration of the other’s good looks and talent [while] true love [is] the unalterable state that arises from that love” (Hannan 1988:144). The comments of both Blanche and the Qing emperor are representative of the conflict that lies at the heart of the push-pull tension between erotic attraction and a yearning for deeper emotional attachment.
Throughout history there have been various responses to the tripartite tension. For example, contemporary American swingers have institutionalized a set of ritual practices designed to uphold the primacy of the pair bond or comfort love, prevent the formation of a passionate love entanglement, and remain open to experiencing sexual pleasure with strangers. For swingers this is the ideal solution to the competing demands of the tripartite passions (see chapter 10). Another contemporary response is found in the development of sex tourism throughout the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and other parts of the world. The construction of what Denise Brennan calls sexscape zones (see chapter 7; Brennan 2004) enables people, mostly men, to pursue a variety of sexual encounters rather inexpensively. In the case of mature European and American women, these zones enable some the opportunity to construct an imagined romance, however momentary, with someone who is unsuitable for a long-term comfort love relationship.
These societies, like societies everywhere, have constructed an often uneasy arrangement between the forces of passionate love, comfort love, and sexual desire. This arrangement requires continuous adjustment at the individual and societal level. In the domains of love and sex, society is never stable. The emotional tug between the competing and often contradictory desires ensures that every generation will revisit, renegotiate, and modify its “traditions” that account for the relationship between love and sex. Less known, and even less recognized, are the social constraints placed on the expression of different types of love and sex. Because the demands of passionate love and comfort love often differ from the push of sexual desire, their interrelationship or separation presents different structural problems, psychological dilemmas, and ethical issues for the individual and his or her community. This, then, is this book’s central focus: To examine the opportunities, constraints, competing rationales, and social negotiations, voiced and unvoiced, about the appropriate relationship between the expression of passionate (and comfort) love and sex as they are manifested in a variety of ethnographic settings: as deeply felt authentic, albeit often antagonistic, realities.
Throughout the twentieth century a war of ideas raged about the significance of love. The battle raged not just in regard to the origins and value of romantic passion but about whether attachment love was also real. Most academics did not consider love vital to psychological integration, personal contentment, and well-being. Although some scholars considered love an important value, they regarded it more as an artifact of personal philosophy than a biological imperative. Unless a culture taught otherwise, humans could do just fine without being loved. This was the predominant position, Deborah Blum points out, of mainstream psychology, which regarded affectionate mothering as irrelevant to a child’s emotional well-being (2002:57). As a result psychologists advised parents not to develop too close an attachment with their children, lest the parents undermine the socialization process. B. F. Skinner (1974), influenced by the early work of John B. Watson (Buckley 1989), built upon this position to develop his theory of conditioned behavior. For Skinner, and his numerous disciples, Freud’s insistence on the existence of an inner consciousness at odds with social circumstances was not only wrong but morally incorrect. Until the late 1970s Skinner’s operate conditioning theory was the predominant psychological model taught in most U.S. university psychology departments.
Alternative theoretical frameworks, such as John Bowlby’s attachment theory, challenged the Skinnerian paradigm. Bowlby believed that human infants have a biological need to form close loving bonds with a primary caretaker. He thought this behavior had its origins in human evolution. It evolved out of the parent-infant relationship, whereby an infant who was attached to specific individual(s) was more likely to survive (Bowlby 1982). Attachment theory, however, was received with deep skepticism and was severely criticized for advancing a theoretical model that lacked data.
Harry Harlow and R. R. Zimmerman’s 1959 research on mother-infant attachment among different monkey species (e.g., rhesus, spider, Cebus, etc.) would change all that. It provided the data (as did other studies that focused on children raised in orphanages) necessary to support Bowlby’s insights into the nature and importance of the attachment process. Until Bowlby the conventional wisdom held that “a baby’s relationship with its mother was based entirely on being fed by her” (Blum 2002:57). Harlow and Zimmerman’s research demonstrated that love matters and thus that the attachment process is essential to human well-being (Blum 2002:58). The development of evolutionary psychology, with its emphasis on discovery of human universals, provided further support for Bowlby’s theoretical model (1982). We now know, as Bonnie Hewlett and Barry Hewlett point out in chapter 2, that “the attachment process and the ability to empathize and feel compassion for others influenced” the way humans bond with one another. Today the consensus among mainstream psychologists and anthropologists is that Bowlby and Harlow and Zimmerman got it right: the need for attachment is a human universal.1
The attachment theory has moved away from the study of the infant-parent bonding process to focus on how early childhood history shapes an individual’s outlook and behavior in adulthood. James Chisholm (1999) has argued that a child’s early home environment (e.g., families’ access to material, natural, and emotional resources) can predict when a child will become sexually active as well as the child’s ability to sustain lasting pair-bond relationships. In materially rich and stable home environments, Bonnie Hewlett and Barry Hewlett point out in chapter 2, children tend to develop a reproductive strategy that favors a late start to sexual relationships and a strong orientation toward forming long-term comfort love relationships, whereas children raised in materially limited or emotionally violated environments tend to begin sexual relationships earlier and have a weaker ability to form a long-term relationship. Moreover, individuals who have fragmented early childhood attachment bonds often adopt an approach to love that is organized around a “hopeless romantic” posture, whereby they fall quickly in and out of love or remain aloof and coldly objective and thus never “fall in love” (Chisholm 1995, 1999).
At the close of the twentieth century social scientists reached a consensus as to the vitality, importance, and universality of attachment love. This has not been the case, however, for romantic love. Until the publication of the cross-cultural study that Fischer and Jankowiak undertook on the romantic love (1992), the conventional wisdom held passionate love to be a by-product of particular kinds of social configurations. It was thought that romantic love could be found only in stratified societies that had a leisure class with...

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Stili delle citazioni per Intimacies

APA 6 Citation

[author missing]. (2008). Intimacies ([edition unavailable]). Columbia University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2008)

Chicago Citation

[author missing]. (2008) 2008. Intimacies. [Edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press.

Harvard Citation

[author missing] (2008) Intimacies. [edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

[author missing]. Intimacies. [edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press, 2008. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.