Volume 40 1931 > Volume 40, No. 157 > The sexual life of the natives of Ontong Java (Solomon Islands), by H. Ian Hogbin, p 23-34
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(Field research carried out under the supervision of the Australian National Research Council while the author held a Research Fellowship in the University of Sydney, 1927-29).

ONTONG JAVA is made up of a group of coral islands lying to the north-east of the Solomon Islands. It is inhabited by a Polynesian people who bear some resemblance to the Samoans both in physical type, language, and culture. The social organization is on the basis of patrilineal joint families. 1 I made two visits to Ontong Java in 1927 and 1928, spending there a total of nine months.

I have to acknowledge the help which I received from Miss Lucy Mair, of the London School of Economics, when I was preparing this paper for publication.

Sex and copulation are ordinary topics of conversation at Ontong Java, except between a brother and a sister. The facts of birth are never shrouded in mystery, and most children have actually witnessed a birth before they are six years old. Nevertheless, they take a salacious interest in those facts and are always making jokes that have a sexual significance.

“One of the main interests of these children consists of sexual pastimes. At an early age children are initiated by each other, or sometimes by a slightly older companion, into the practices of sex. Naturally at this stage they are unable to carry out the act properly, but they content themselves with all sorts of games, in which they are left quite - 24 at liberty by their elders.” The quotation is from Malinow-ski's Sex and Repression, p. 55. 2 He is speaking of the Trobriand Islanders, but he might equally well have referred to the Ontong Javanese. Their children also go around in playmate groups and indulge in all kinds of games, including some which involve a pretence of copulation, as is the case when they pretend to be “married people” (lua lu kangaka).

Despite the early freedom, once a girl reaches puberty she has to be more circumspect. Her parents object to her having intercourse with youths from now on until she is married. As a matter of fact, a good deal of illicit intercourse does go on, but the girl runs the risk of a beating if her father finds out. Consequently, she is usually careful to be unobserved. She and her partner will slip away into the shadows while the evening dancing is going on, and later join the crowd again before their absence has been noticed.

The fact that such intercourse is the exception rather than the rule, however, is plainly borne out by a conversation I had with two of the young men. They were both about seventeen and remarkably handsome. One admitted having connection with one girl, whose name he would not tell me, on two or three occasions, but the other assured me that he had never done anything of the kind, and that he relied entirely on prostitutes. Both of these fellows were friends of mine, and I have every reason to believe that they were speaking the truth.

Two other incidents also corroborate my statement. A young man and a girl were caught in flagrante delicto, and another pair were seen in circumstances almost as compromising. In the first case the girl's good name was only saved by the man marrying her. The other case was more complicated. A certain young girl, Kukuanga by name, was betrothed to a wealthy man of about thirty. When her mother died she broke off the engagement, declaring that she was going to marry a younger man. This man accepted the proposal, at the same time denying that he had ever cohabited with her, and the two were betrothed. Soon afterwards, another boy announced that he had spent a - 25 night with the girl in the bush. She refused to admit this, and her betrothed either believed her or agreed to overlook the matter. About a month later she was found one morning sleeping with a fourth person. Although they were married at once, the women of the village were not appeased. They nicknamed her Bobby, the name of a bitch which has more litters than any other of those on the island, and whenever the girl passed by, the women would loudly compare her morals with those of a dog. It was also said that her father should long ago have given her a good beating, but this he had not the courage or good sense to do.

Although girls are not supposed to have sexual intercourse after puberty until they are married, public opinion is not so strict with regard to men. Perhaps as a direct consequence of this there are prostitutes, three to about eighty-five mature unmarried males. One of these is a widow and the other two are so ill-favoured that no man will marry them. I imagine that both are below normal intelligence. They accept clients at any time for a very small payment, generally a couple of sticks of tobacco. These clients are never received into their houses, but are conducted to the bush. Prostitutes are looked upon as standing jokes by both men and women, and their escapades are looked upon as standing jokes by both men and women, and their escapades are frequently discussed within their hearing. Though they themselves never join in these conversations, they never appear to show embarrassment.

Formerly, it seems that the only women who would accommodate casual white visitors were prostitutes. The previous king, Ke-aepea, had two of them specially reserved for white men. Nowadays, this is certainly the case. In previous times several traders have married native women. In almost every case the wives were very well treated and did not lose caste in the tribe. However, it is very doubtful if a trader would be able to secure a wife or concubine to-day.

Another way for men to obtain sexual gratification is by stealth. 3 The idea is to wait until people are asleep and then to enter a house and have connection with one of the women, she, of course, being under the impression that the stranger is her husband. It is all the better if the - 26 husband can be got out of the way temporarily. The number of times that this was discovered during my stay would seem to indicate that the practice is very prevalent, since it seems likely that the man must sometimes get away without being discovered. The following case is typical.

One night Kangahui watched Kamua leave his house and go to the dancing-ground. He knew that Kamua's wife was alone, so he entered the house and attempted to copulate with her. She was at first deceived, but later felt his short hair and then realized that it could not be her husband, since his hair was long. She screamed for help and Kangahui fled into the bush, cutting himself on the door-post in his rush to get away. Kamua's wife suspected him, and when he arrived later on, as if nothing had happened, but with a wound in his cheek, she knew that it must certainly have been he. It ended in his being tried by the king, found guilty, and sentenced to have his hair cropped, and to work for several days on the roads. In former times it is more likely that Kamua would have fought him. Kangahui was most unpopular with the women after this, and life became so intolerable for him that he decided to enlist for work in the Solomons.

Perhaps on account of the almost complete sexual freedom of childhood and the more or less enforced repression after puberty, masturbation is fairly common. The matter was a difficult one to deal with because it was held to be a disgraceful thing, and I never was able to find one man who admitted that he himself practised it or had done so, though some whom I knew well told me that other people did. It appeared to be, among men at least, very common but rarely acknowledged (ali-vili=to masturbate). I do not think mutual masturbation is common, although I one day stumbled upon two children in the act. Apparently the risk of being seen is too great, for if a man is detected, as one was during my stay, he becomes rather a laughing-stock.

I heard of only two men who were homosexual. One of these died a few years ago. It is said that his voice was high and like a woman's, and he preferred to do women's work. He used to ask men to come to his house at night, and it seems that many of them were in the habit of having connection with him. The method is not known, though - 27 I suspect that it was fellatio. 4 This man was regarded as a joke, and was referred to as a sister by his brother. The other homosexual man died apparently about ten years ago. He not only dressed like a woman and did a woman's work, but smeared himself with women's perfumed oil in his endeavours to secure the favours of men. He eventually committed suicide, though he was never seriously interfered with in any way. Unfortunately, I could learn nothing of the social position of these two men.

I made close enquiries into the matter of homosexual practices amongst women, but they appear to be quite unknown. Concerning masturbation by women I am not sure. All of my best informants, both men and women, denied that it ever took place.

The ideal of feminine beauty is a woman who is pregnant for the first time. The just swelling breasts and already swollen womb are considered to make the woman look her best. A white skin is also admired, and young girls generally try to shield themselves from the sun in consequence. Sometimes hours are spent in massaging the skin with oil to make it smooth and lustrous. Ouliouli, almost universally regarded as the beauty of the village, is a girl of perhaps twenty. She was inclined to stoutness and had a rough strong voice. It was said that she would be at her best when she had been pregnant for about five months.

Individuals are betrothed while still young. Nevertheless, this does not sanction intercourse until marriage takes place, and generally a betrothed couple are only too eager to avoid each other, especially in public. On one occasion, when assisting the medical officer to make an examination of the whole population, I summoned a boy and his betrothed at the same time, to see what would happen. They came, but it would be impossible to picture two individuals more uncomfortable. The rest of the people were intensely amused, and some of them begged me to call up all the other betrothed couples in the same way. The fact that people were so amused and not shocked would seem to indicate that the avoidance is purely a question of individuals shyness and not an express social convention. This is further borne out by the playful custom of calling betrothed - 28 people by one another's names, which embarrasses them and never fails to make other people laugh.

A betrothal is usually cancelled if the boy finds that the girl is taking an undue interest in someone else. The unbroken hymen is here, of course, not even the doubtful test of virginity. If it is not ruptured in very early childhood by digital manipulation of either mother or father, it soon is in the normal sexual play of children.

One way for a girl to break an engagement is to let it be known that she has given herself to other men. In the old days this might have been a risky business, for the man might have been killed by the members of the family he had injured. One or both families might also refuse to make the ceremonial exchange of gifts which consummates a marriage, in which case the girl would be spoken of as a prostitute and the children as bastards (kama po, literally, children of night).

The kiss is unknown as a greeting even between young married people. The nearest approach to it is pressing noses, but this is only done between parents and young people, and never has any apparent sexual significance. There are also no terms of endearment beyond the word pale-i'a, applied by young men to possible wives, a reference to the pale fish tattooed around their waists (i'a=fish).

It was practically impossible to get any idea of the frequency of intercourse after marriage, since even my greatest friends became most evasive when I inquired into their own behaviour in the matter. The best answer I can give is that it is frequent, and preferred toward morning, when both man and wife can go and wash in the sea afterwards. It is the duty of the wife to give herself to her monthly periods. It is frequently the woman herself who asks it of the man.

The sexual organs are not tapu and may be handled by either party. In coitus usually both parties are naked. Penilinctus and cunnilinctus are both carried out quite often in heterosexual relationships, and it is said that some women desire their husbands to perform cunnilinctus for a few minutes before normal coitus (veisongi=cunnilinctus; somo=penilinctus; ongi=copulate).

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There are two normal attitudes for coitus. The first is with the woman supine below her partner. He, however, most of the time keeps his face well above her by resting his palms on the ground and keeping his arms outstretched. He is assisted in penetration by the hand of the woman. The other position is more favoured. The woman lies flat on her back with the knees flexed. The man assumes much the same attitude as before, with his arms outstretched and palms on the ground, but this time his partner's legs are placed over his shoulders so that her feet are behind his neck. It is thus impossible for him to embrace her, and lingual stimulation is out of the question, since their faces are quite a yard apart.

People do not generally copulate in the day-time unless they are newly married, though there is nothing to prevent them doing so should they wish it. Sometimes, when a girl's parents postpone her marriage too long for her liking, she will permit her betrothed to have intercourse with her in semi-publicity in broad daylight, so that the parents will be shamed into hastening the nuptials.

It is interesting to note that there is no tapu whatsoever associated with menstruation. These periods do not affect the life of the household in any way, and a woman simply goes on with her work as usual. It is true that at such a time she tries to avoid the more arduous tasks, but she is not always able to do this completely. She does this not on account of any tapu but from the point of view of her own comfort. There is no bar on sexual intercourse at this time, and it is purely a matter of taste on the part of the husband; if he wished it she is supposed to oblige him.


There are two chief reasons why people get married. First, they have no real social dignity until they are. An unmarried woman of sixty will be spoken of by the same word as that applied to a young girl, ka'upu. It is the same with men. An unmarried man is always a koupiala, and when he gets old the word is used as a nickname, and he is generally spoken of in jesting terms. People who are married but have no children are always pitied or sneered at, according to the mood of the speaker. The second reason is that sexual relations cannot be free until after marriage.

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Marriage entails a certain amount of extra responsibility for a man, but little else. He still goes out fishing with his own relatives, and his fish is still taken to his original home. Some of it is given to the wife, but it is not necessary to catch any more fish than before. Any disadvantage of extra responsibility is, therefore, easily out-weighed. The girl, perhaps, has a little more work to do after her marriage, but until she has children very little extra, certainly not sufficient to make the idea of marriage abhorrent.

Apart from formal betrothal, which is arranged by elder relatives, women do more than half of the proposing. If a woman desires a man for her husband she generally manages to get him, whether he is betrothed or not. Sometimes a man will approach a girl formally and request her to accept him as a husband, but just as often a girl will fancy a man and take him by the hand and suggest that they be married. He is under no obligation to accept her, but more often than not he seems to do so.

The physically unfit rarely manage to find a partner because their infirmity entails a double share of work for the able-bodied person. Handsome men, more particularly if good workers, are often sought after by three or four girls. A handsome, big-boned woman may also have several suitors. Crippled or ugly women usually become prostitutes, and crippled men are merely a burden to their relatives, though they sometimes come in handy as nurses for other people's children.

The husband is officially lord and master in his own family, but whether he actually is or not depends on his own temperament. While I know men who beat their wives, I know others who are as henpecked as any man could well be. If a wife is beaten more than she can bear she may always divorce her husband, as many have done. One man has been divorced twice on this account—our old friend Kangahui—and now he simply cannot get any woman to marry him. My own right-hand man, Ma'o, was burdened with a disobedient and wilful wife. At one time she took it into her head to be lazy, and refused to cook any food for her husband and their three children. Instead of giving her the good hiding she deserved, he thought to shame her by doing the cooking himself. This was no use, so he had to send the children to his brother's house until she decided - 31 to be sensible again. On another occasion she decided to sleep in a temporary hut I myself was using on one of the outlying islands. I told Ma'o that I had no objection to him sleeping there, but that I did not want his wife to do so. The next day he asked me to tell her myself as she refused to pay the slightest attention to anything he said to her, and even went so far as to say he was lying to her. Against this I would place another typical couple. The man has a devoted but objectionable wife. She makes no complaint beyond loud lamentations when her husband throws coconuts at her, which he does at least once a fortnight.

Some couples never seem to have more than the minimum to say to one another, while others will talk about all sorts of things. Never once, as far as I know, did M'ao ever talk about our work with his wife, and he certainly never received any help from her. My other close friend, Piaka, was always speaking of it to his wife. Sometimes he would say that he had discussed something with her and that she had come to such and such a conclusion, which might not agree with the one he held himself. Often these two would argue together over some question I had asked them about a belief or ceremony. I should mention that this woman was one of the most intelligent in the village, and a very good informant.

Both the man and the woman undertake to look after the consort not only in health but in sickness. Thus, when a woman is sick and there are no female relatives available, the husband has to do her work in the house and even in the garden. A wife cannot go fishing when her husband is ill, but she has to do many another task that is really a man's work, such as carrying the fish from the canoe to the house, husking coconuts, and so on. A wife also carries her sick husband to the sea for his swim should his brother not be in the vicinity. It is no uncommon sight to see a man or woman holding the head of the sick consort or cooling it with a fan. If a pair are merely betrothed, one of the few occasions when they meet in public is when one of them is ill. The other, bashfully perhaps, sits close by, though neither attempts any conversation.

The only other time that the betrothed have to meet is at a general picking up of coconuts during an annual festival. The nuts are gathered from the common land on - 32 certain of the islands, and on this occasion young men always assist their affianced wives in their tasks. It is not uncommon for some of the girls to engage themselves just before the festival and then cancel the arrangement afterwards.

Except for a lengthy period after the birth of the first child, when it is absolutely forbidden, it is at no time tapu for a husband to have sexual relations with his wife. He rarely does so for a few weeks before the birth of any child, especially the first, and for two months after the birth of all subsequent children, but that is again merely a matter of taste and consideration. Public opinion is against it at those times, but not to any marked degree. There are none of the general prohibitions on sexual intercourse for certain periods found in some other societies. I have already mentioned that men sometimes have sexual intercourse by impersonating the husband during the night. It is interesting to note that every case of this except one that was discovered during my stay at Ontong Java, was committed by a man whose wife was temporarily secluded for the usual period after the birth of the first child. The one exception was Kangahui, who had been divorced twice and whom no one would marry.

In the old days the natives had no idea of physiological fatherhood. It was thought that children were formed within the womb by the spirits of the dead (kipua) out of menstrual blood. Coitus was necessary because it was essential to prevent this blood from escaping. The semen served this purpose, but several applications of it were needed in order that an effective “stopper” be created. It therefore follows that it was thought impossible that a woman could conceive after only having intercourse once, and also that if she lay with many men once, the same end would be secured as if she had done so with one man many times. If the former were the case, the child would have many “fathers.” 5 It seems, however, that there were very few children born out of wedlock and, of course, if one were, a stigma attached not only to the mother but to it. If the child did have many “fathers,” no claim could be made on any of them, nor, indeed, could any be made if the girl had only dallied with one lover, though in that case it was usual for him to marry her, if possible before the birth of - 33 the child. If the mother did not marry at once she had to bring the child up herself; it might or might not be accepted into her joint family, according to her brother's wishes. If she subsequently married, the child was usually treated exactly like the other children by the husband. One of the words of abuse is kama-po (bastard).

The chief cause of quarrels between husband and wife is jealousy. A wife must never give herself to another man, and her husband does not normally expect her to take any interest in other men. If she does, he objects either in words or by means of a stick. Should it go no further than words, some of the women are more than a match for their husbands. The common reply to a remark of reproach made by a husband is, “Do you think I copulate with my feet? Is my toe a sexual organ that I am able to have intercourse with it when I but talk?”

It depends entirely on the temperament of both parties whether they divorce each other when one is jealous: some wives will submit to the most unreasonable conduct by their husbands, and some simply send their husband packing if he but raises his hand to them. The same applies, too, as regards the aberrations of the husband. Sexual infidelity is not common, but if the husband is guilty his wife may protest vehemently or simply say nothing, according to her frame of mind.

We might group the causes of divorce under four headings: (a) the adultery of either party, (b) laziness of either party, (c) ill-treatment by the husband, and (d) incompatibility. Infidelity is always sufficient to gain public sympathy for the offended consort, but whether a divorce follows depends on his or her temperament. Laziness is scorned by the whole community, and the spouse of a lazy person is always sure of support. One woman was so annoyed by her husband's inability to catch fish—really laziness—that one night she took a stick and beat him. The husband ended minus a couple of teeth. Two or three examples of lazy women came under my notice. One of them was quickly cured by a good beating. One of the others was the case already mentioned, of Ma'o and his wife. He, instead of giving her a hiding, tried to shame her by doing her work. This had no effect, so he decided to divorce her. Later on, when she came to her senses, he again accepted her as his wife.

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Although public sympathy may be with the offended party, if he beats his wife she is perfectly free to divorce him. If she does this she may not necessarily receive the support of her joint family, and its members may even actively support the husband and go so far as lecturing her on her duties.

Under incompatibility I have grouped together the minor causes of divorce, such as passive disapproval, active dislike, and preference for somebody else. If either party feels that, he may simply have a divorce regardless of the other's feelings.

It is quite easy for a man to divorce his wife. He simply ceases to take any fish to her house. This is likely to lead to trouble with her relatives if the divorce is not considered justifiable. When a wife is living in the house of her husband, to divorce him she simply returns to her relatives. Should he be living in her house, she has to tell him to get out, which he may or may not do willingly. If he does not, she will have to appeal for help to her own people, and that is likely to cause a brawl.

It is no uncommon thing to find a couple divorced one week and good friends the next. When a man wishes to patch up a separation with his wife he sends her and her parents, if they be alive, expensive presents—calico, perfume, etc. In the past the presents would have been coconuts, fish, and mats. It entirely rested with the wife whether she accepted him again, but if sufficient presents were forth-coming, she might be urged to do so by her parents.

In the event of divorce the male children generally go to the father and the female to the mother, being adopted into her joint family by her father or brother. If the children are very young they will in all probability remain with the mother until they can shift for themselves, when they will go on to the father. There is no strict ruling about this, and a man may even include his female children in his own joint family, though he has nothing to do with their mother.

Infanticide has always been rare at Ontong Java, except in the case of unmarried mothers. Even then abortion was more common. Generally speaking, once a child was born, someone was always willing to look after it. If its mother died at the confinement her sister-in-law took it.

1   Vide my article “The Social Organization of Ontong Java” shortly to appear in Oceania, Sydney.
2   The matter is also discussed in his more recent Sexual Life of Savages, which I had not read when this was written, in the early part of 1929.
3   This very much resembles the Samoan custom of moetotolo—see Margaret Mead: Coming of Age in Samoa, London, 1929.
4   Sex and Repression, London, 1927, p. 55.
5   This does not imply that the child had several social fathers.