Sexual Equality? A Long Way Off -- An Anthropologist's Perspective

Erica, my best friend in high school, came from Chile. She told me that in her country, men often had their first sexual experience at a brothel. How would this effect their future, how they felt about women, their sexuality? I later learned that loss of male virginity at a brothel is common in many Latino cultures.

This had a great impact on me. I went on to study anthropology and read about sexuality in the Middle East, Northern Europe and the Polynesian Islands. It appeared that everything, from homosexuality to infidelity, was enacted differently depending on where you grew up. The American sociologists William Simon and John Gagnon gave a name to the lessons that we learn about sexuality in any given culture: sexual scripts. And it is true that much of our sexual behavior is guided by implicit and explicit social scripts, which deem some behavior desirable and others perverse.

Far from being 'natural,' ideas about sex and sexuality shift across cultures and across history. For instance, polygamy is effectively legal in Kenya and is recognized by the courts under customary law. Intergeneration sex between males was practiced in ancient Greece, and is now illegal there, although it is still common in some parts of South Asia and the Middle East. And in the modern-day West many of us believe lust and monogamy go hand in hand!

As a grad student, I chose the Philippines as my Ph.D. research site. One of the questions I focused on was how is virginity viewed in the local culture. Did it happen before or after marriage? Did it mean different things to men and women? I found that, as in the West, there was a huge double standard. Herein lies a "truth" about human sexuality: what men do, women usually cannot.

Despite Filipinas' exposure to modernity, stigma is associated with being a non-virgin prior to marriage. You are considered, a disgrasyada, a disgrace. Indeed, virginity, it's said, is "the best gift you can give your husband."

Now, although many male Filipinos have their first sexual encounter with their girlfriend, many too have it with a commercial sex worker. This is perceived as right of passage to manhood, and is referred locally as a 'sexual baptism.' Usually a group of peers -- sometimes including uncles or grandfathers -- drink together, watch porn, and then make their way to the nearest brothel. Friends will often pay the commercial sex worker to have sex with the virgin man, offering her to him as a... gift.

In an about face, even if women save their virginity for their husband, it's likely he will seek sex outside the marriage, either at a brothel or with a mistress, a woman who is already "fallen." Nor is it considered appropriate for women to ask their husbands to use condoms during extramarital pursuits, leaving women at risk of sexually transmitted infections and heartache.

Now, imagine if you will, the reverse scenario. Imagine I told you I had done my fieldwork in Zana, a small island off the coast of Africa. In Zana the sensuality of women is celebrated in seasonal festivals. Some women even carry small clay amulets of the only body part purely designed for pleasure, the clitoris. Virginity, for a young Zanan woman, is lost whenever she decides it 'feels right.' Her mother throws a party, and all the young women get drunk, look at erotica, then make their way to the local brothel accompanied by aunts and sometimes a grandmother. There, the group of friends pick the most desirable young man and pay him to pleasure the young woman. And that is that. Afterwards, the woman can have as many lovers as she pleases, and their number would be looked upon as an omen of prosperity.

Zana, of course, doesn't exist. But the story highlights how culture and gender shape our sexual practices and how truly far away we are from sexual equality.

Bella Ellwood-Clayton is a sexual anthropologist and author of Sex Drive: in Pursuit of Female Desire. Follow her on twitter @BEllwoodClayton