Sometimes, culture shock is inevitable. Consider the following:
An essay by anthropologist Gilbert Herdt, editor of Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia and the author of Sambia Sexual Culture, shows how radically different cultural perceptions of a proper masculine upbringing can be.
Bizarre homosexual rites are practiced extensively by numerous Melanesian tribesmen in New Guinea and adjacent islands. Young boys must "accumulate" semen for several years, either by regularly receiving anal penetration, or by swallowing the ejaculations of older males they fellate. This ancient custom springs from a religious belief system that regards sperm as the essential conduit of masculine energy; puny boys, they believe, are only transformed into virile warriors if they ingest large quantities of sperm.
"If you boys don't drink semen, you won't grow big," a Sambian elder tells prepubescent initiates. "You should not be afraid of eating penises ... it is just like the milk of your mother's breast. You can ingest it all of the time and grow quickly. A boy must be ... inseminated... If [he] doesn't eat semen, he remains small and weak."
Ten to twenty percent of all tribes in Melanesia -- an Oceania region stretching 3,000 miles from Irian Jaya to Fiji -- have mandatory "boy-inseminating" practices, claims Herdt. Boys here are separated from their mothers when they are 7-14 years old, and installed in "bachelor's houses."
The Marind-anim of Southwest New Guinea -- who were ruthless headhunters -- give the boys to maternal uncles who "top" them in anal intercourse for six years. The nearby Jacquai tribe refers to the adult penetrator as "mo-e" (anus-father) and the receiving child as "mo-mog" (anus-son). Big Namba chiefs of the New Hebrides Islands have numerous boy lovers; the Keraki of the Papuan lowlands sodomize lads at a bull-roarer ceremony; and the Great Plateau Kaluli "engage" youths to older men selected by their fathers.
Although many boys tremble initially ("I felt afraid... the penises were enormous," recalls Kalutuo, a Sambian from the Eastern Highlands) they all adjust quickly, because they believe semen is an elixir for manhood.
Many tribes -- like the Etoro of the Papuan Plateau -- claim that semen does not even exist in boys until it is orally or anally "planted."
This myth seems valid to tribesmen because boys start ejaculating when they achieve adolescence -- they are allowed to penetrate younger boys then, to maintain the tradition.
The "butching" of Melanesian boys with homoerotic activity is not unique in the annals of history. Spartan soldiers were carnal tent-comrades when they conquered Greece in the Peloponnesian War. They believed genital bonding between buddies enhanced battlefield loyalty and valor. The warlike Romans -- Mediterranean masters for 500 years -- were also a pederastic people. Catullus' poems reveal that men seeking boys' bottoms were not regarded as sissies; the habit was at least as "studly" as pursuing women.
The aggressive, arrogant, sperm-sucking warriors of Melanesia would probably agree with Spartans and Romans that the current "gays in the military" phobia is laughably obtuse; physical love between GIs, they would suggest, is beneficent for morale. Gay male lust is often castigated as "feminizing" in Western society, but Melanesians in Herdt's studies refute this: the sole purpose of homosexuality in their culture is to create "a fierce warrior masculinity that is the inverse of femininity."
The New Guinea data contradicts the religious fundamentalists who regard same-sex desire as a decadent post-civilized vice. Melanesians subsist on yams and superstitions -- they are among the Earth's most primitive peoples.
"Semen warrior tribes" are rapidly disappearing, due to oppression imposed on them by Christian European colonialists in the last 150 years. The "heroic homosexual" customs will probably vanish soon, buried under the inhibitions and scientific knowledge promulgated by missionaries and bureaucrats.
Herdt's observations will remain, though, as documentary evidence of an institutionalized queer culture that is often incestuous, always non-consensual, and impelled by erroneous nutritional assumptions. One wonders, though, whether the Melanesian model is actually any weirder than the vast, civilized, imaginary construct that modern humanity flutters inside, like a bird imprisoned in an invisible cage.
Hank Hyena is a columnist for SfGate and SfMetropolitan, and a frequent contributor to Salon.