Anxious Pleasures

by thomas gregor

For the Mehinaku Indians of the Amazon, fish is the main source of animal protein. While Mehinaku women grow and prepare manioc root, the staple of the Mehinaku diet, only the men go on long fishing trips. When a Mehinaku man returns from a successful trip, he is "proclaimed by a tremendous whoop from all the men." His wife then makes a special fish stew and sends part of it to her in-laws and relatives in other houses.

Prior to entering the village, the returning fisherman selects the best fish from the catch and arranges for a boy to bring it to his lover's hut. He cautions the child to give the woman the fish when her husband is not around. "A sexually active woman is therefore a recognized economic asset in her family."

"There is little shame about sexual desire, and children will tick off the names of their parents' many extramarital lovers." There were 20 men and 17 women in the village when Gregor visited, and he counted approximately 88 extramarital affairs during this time, with the average man engaging in 4.4 affairs. (The range for men was from 1 to 10 affairs, with most men having close to the average number.) For women the average was almost the same, but the range was much greater. Three women had no extramarital affairs while one woman had 11 and another 14. The villager's "taste for extramarital liaisons" is only limited by social barriers such as the incest taboo. However, the frequency of sexual contact within such liaisons is relatively low due to taboos on having sex at certain times, the lack of privacy, "competition from jealous husbands and more attractive rivals, and especially by the difficulty of finding a willing female partner."

Sex is everywhere a seller's market with women doing the selling. It is always easier for a woman to find a sexual partner (provided she is not old, ugly, or sick) than it is for a man. Males have "a higher level of sexual interest than females." This is the result of three conditions: the higher level of androgens in males, the fact that some women do not have orgasms and, possibly, that men require a lower level of sexual stimulation to become aroused.

Mehinaku males initiate sexual encounters by "importuning, gifts, and verbal coercion." This may be because they are poor lovers. With few exceptions, they do not engage in foreplay, and there is no word in their language for female orgasm. In fact, it is not certain that Mehinaku women have orgasms.

Mehinaku men spend most of their time with other men, especially in the men's house which no woman can ever enter. The penalty for a woman's entering or looking into the men's house, or viewing the sacred flutes kept there, is gang rape. Although the last reported gang rape took place around 1940 and most men said they would not report on their closest female kin if they discovered them in a violation of the taboo, women live with the very real threat of rape.

If Mehinaku women are afraid of male violence, Mehinaku men are even more afraid of women. According to their myths, women in ancient times were the keepers of the sacred flutes, the founders of what is now the men's house, and the inventors of architecture, clothes, and religion; while men lived like wild animals in a separate village. Eventually, the men attacked the women's village, raped them, stole their artifacts, and took control of the men's house. Thus the Mehinaku do not justify their patriarchal situation in terms of religious revelation or natural male superiority. For
them, male power is based on brute force. Nonetheless, the legend reveals that "the men's house as a symbol of male identity is a citadel of papier-mache." The price men pay for maintaining it, he says, is "anxiety: fear of their own sexual impulses and fear of women."

by Ana Logue

From:A quick and dirty guide to "Anxious Pleasures, the Sexual Lives of an Amazonian People"by Thomas Gregor (U of Chicago Press, 1985).