Exploring the Social Foundations of Sex and Sexuality

The Mangaia Experience: A Hands-On Approach to Sexual Education

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At a brief glance, the Mangaia, an island in the South Pacific Ocean, appears to be wonderfully open and accepting of their sexuality. The people who live there start having sex at a pretty young age and are taught how to have sex well and how to please their partners. Orgasms are attained almost universally on the island for both men and women. Young men and women are encouraged to have many sexual experiences with many other people before they find their future spouse and then continue having sex with their significant other at least once a week until they virtually are unable to do so anymore (Marshall 1971). This seems like such a sexual utopia, but of course once you take a closer look, this system might not be as perfect as you once thought…

To put Mangaia into perspective, the widest point across the island is 5 miles Marshall (1971:104). It’s a very small town, and it is also much more community based than what someone living in the United States would be use to. Clothing is optional for children at all times other than when they go to church or another formal event, and then their genital region is temporarily covered. Children play together regardless of sex until they are 3 or 4 years old and then they are separated and not allowed to be in public together. The same is true for men and women. Not even brothers and sisters or husbands and wives can walk down the street together. Even though they have intimate lives in the privacy of their own homes, men and women do not converse in public. Marshall (1971:108)

At the age of 13, when boys are thought to start becoming men, the family will call someone in to cut the boys penis to perform superincision. This is an act of cutting the foreskin. The man who performs the cutting will also serve as the boy’s educator for sex and will arrange for older women to sleep with the boy. Marshall (1971:112-5). The older women are specifically instructed to sleep with the younger boys in order to teach them about sex. The women teach them different positions and how to pleasure women.

Orgasms are very important, although not the end goal for sexual encounters in Mangaia. For men, stamina, endurance, and pleasing the woman are all very important. Men who can orgasm many times in a night and have sex every night have the highest social representation. Mangaian culture believes that men have a higher sex drive than women, and as a result, men will brag about having so much sex with a woman that it wore her down or she lost weight due to the physical exertion of the activity. Marshall (1971:124)

As girls grow up and start masturbating and having sex, the female orgasm is thought to be something that girls have to learn. Older women will sometimes teach girls how to orgasm, or they will learn from the boys that they have sex with. If a girl has sex with a boy who does not make her orgasm, that is looked at very negatively for the boy and he will get a bad reputation in the town. The girl will then go have sex with another boy who will then hopefully bring her to climax and he will show her how to do so. Marshall (1971:123).

Douglass Marshall, a researcher in the 1970s, found that on average, men who are 18 years old will have sex 7 nights a week and will orgasm 3 times per average night. Men continue on to have a lot of sex as they age as well. The average 28 year old will have sex 5-6 times a week and will orgasm twice in one night. The average 38 year old will have sex 3-4 times a night and will orgasm once per night, and the average 48 year old will have sex 2-3 times a week and will orgasm once per night. (1971:123).

The social glorification of having a high sex drive combined with the belief that men want sex at a much higher rate than women cause instances of sexual violence towards women who do not want to have sex. Husbands sometimes beat their wives who do not want to have sex. Young boys who sneak into the houses of young girls in order to seduce them either “sweet talk” them or use physical force to have sex with them. Marshall (1971:128-9). It was more common to talk to the young ladies to get them to have sex but it was riskier because if they woke up the parents, they would have to stop. The boys were also not always successful and sometimes went home without sex. Sometimes the boys would gag the girls and penetrate them, but often times the girls would make a lot of noise, causing the parents to awaken.

Through observing this society, Marshall also saw many unplanned pregnancies and illegitimate children. The society believed that pregnancy was caused by a woman sleeping continuously with the same man, so parents urged their daughters to sleep with many different men (1971:117). Marshall noted that that the result of this type of thinking is that, “1) approximately half of all couples are married after the girl has been made pregnant or after the first child has been born” and “2) a substantial number of illegitimate children are born each year” (1971:131). This does not generally serve as a problem, as there have not been social stigmas against illegitimate children in the past. As the western world becomes more of an influence though, there is beginning to be a stigma for children without fathers.

In conclusion, the Mangaia society is by far more sexually active than most other societies. They also place value on the pleasure of orgasms and most of the time they allow children to find a partner that they want to happily marry. Even though it seems to be a sexually liberated society, there are still cases of beatings and sexual violence towards women. Most of the information that we know about the Mangaia Island was found in the 1970s, and thus it would be very interesting to see how it has changed in the last few years.

Written By Emily Doherty


Marshall, Donald S. 1971. Human Sexual Behavior, Variations in The Ethnographic        Spectrum. Bloomington, Indiana: The Institute for Sex Research, Inc.

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