This is part of the text of Chapter 3 of Malinowski's groundbreaking book, "The Sexual Life of Savages". Published in the Thirties, it is the first first-hand account of sexual and nuptial usage in a "savage" society, which, in the eyes of anthropologists of the time, represented the "natural", and therefore the purest, state of humankind. Of course the term "savage" is not 100% politically correct these days, but hey, it was a long time ago.
I am reproducing Chapter 3 here as a demonstration that the Western concept of child sexuality is by no means necessary and/or universal. In fact, the nature of sexuality among the examined tribes does change with puberty, but is well present long before. The Trobriand children lead a full, free life, sexual and not.
If you are in a hurry, please make sure you read the last paragraph!
I will research a little more on Malinowski and include the results on a subsequent version of this.
Throughout the text, all Italics are mine. I also added some comments (clearly marked in the text by the "-- TS" tag).
The Trobrianders are very free and easy in their sexual relations. To a superficial observer it might indeed appear that they are entirely untrammeled in these. This, however, is not the case; for their liberty has certain very well-defined limits. The best way of showing this will be to give a consecutive account of the various stages through which a man and a woman pass from chilndhood to maturity - a sort of sexual life-history of a representative couple.
We shall have first to consider their earliest years, for these natives begin their acquaintance with sex at a very tender age. The unregulated and, as it were, capricious intercourse fo these early years becomes systematized in adolescence into more or less stable intrigues, which later on develop into permanent liaisons. Connected with these latter stages of sexual life, there exists in the Trobriand Islands an extremely interesting institution, the bachelors' and unmarried girls' house, called by the natives "bukumatula"; it is of considerable importance, as it is one of those arrangements sanctioned by custom which might appear on the surface to be a form of "group-marriage".
Children in the Trobriand Islands enjoy considerable freedom and independence. They soon become emancipated from a parental tutelage which has never been very strict. Some of them obey their parents willingly, but this is entirely a matter of the personal character of both parties: there is no idea of a regular discipline, no system of domestic coercion. (please note the absence of a repressive education -- TS) Often as I sat among them, observing some family incident or listening to a qurrel between parent and child, I would hear a youngster told to do this or that, and generally the thing, whatever it was, would be asked as a favour, though sometimes the request might be backed up by a threat of violence. (The child is treated as an independent being - although this is by no means an "ideal" society -- TS) The parents would either coax or scold or ask as from one equal to another. A simple command, implying the expectation of natural obedience, is never heard from parent to child in the Trobriands.
I. The Sexual Life of Children
People will sometimes grow angry with their children and beat them in an outburst of rage; but I have quite as often seen a child rush furiously at his parent and strike him. This attack might be received with a good-natured smile, or the blow might be angrily returned; but the idea of definite rtribution, or of coercive punishment, is not only foreign, but distinctly repugnant to the native. Several times, when I suggested, after some flagrant infantile misdeed, that it would mend matters for the future if the child were beaten or otherwise punished in cold blood, the idea appeared unnatural and immoral to my friends, and was rejected with some resentment.
Such freedom gives sope for the formation of the children's own little community, an independent group, into which they drop naturally from the age of four or five and continue till puberty. As the mood prompts them, they remain with their parents during the day, or else join their playmated for a time in their small republic. And this community within a community acts very much as its own member determine, standing often in a sort of collective opposition to its elders. If the children make up their minds to do a certain thing, to go for a day's expedition, for instance, the grown-ups and even the chief himself, as I often observed, will not be able to stop them. In my ehtnographic work I was able and was indeed forced to collect my information about children and their own concerns directly from them. (This is a very telling observation: in many non-Christian, "natural" societies, children have a voice of their own. They are not speechless -- TS)
Small children begin also to understand and to defer to tribal tradition and custom (so this is not anarchy -- TS); to those restrictions which have the character of a taboo or of a definite command of tribal law, or usage or propriety.
The child's freedom and independence extend also to sexual matters. To begin with, children hear of and witness much in the sexual life of their elders. Within the house, where the parents have no possibility of finding privacy, a child has opportunities of acquiring practical information concerning the sexual act. I ws told that no special precautions are taken to prevent children from witnessing their parents' sexual enjoyment. The child would merely be scolded and told to cover its head with a mat. I sometimes heard a little boy or girl praised in these terms: «Good child, he never tells what happens between his parents.» Young children are allowed to listen to badly sexual talk, and they understand perfectly well what is being discussed. They are also themselves tolerably expert in swearing and the use of obscene language. Because of their early mental development some quite tiny children are able to make smutty jokes, and these their elders will greet with laughter.
Small girls follow their fathers on fishing expeditions, during which the men remove their public leaf. Nakedness under these conditions is regarded as natural, since it is necessary. There is no lubricity or ribaldry associated with it. (Obviously, Malinowski needs to point this out to his contemporaries -- TS) Once, when I was engaged in the discussion of an obscene subject, a little girl, the daughter of one of my informants, joined our group. I asked the father to tell her to go away. «Oh no,» he answered, «she is a good girl, she never repeats to her mother anything that is said among men. When we take her fishing with us we need not be ashamed. Another girl would describe the details of our nakedness to her companions or her mothers [i.e. the women in the extended family]. Then these will chaff us and repeat what they have heard about us. This little girl never says a word.» The other men present enthusiastically assented, and developed the theme of the girl's discretion. But a boy is much less in contact with his mother in such matters, for here, between maternal relations, that is, for the natives, between real kindred, the taboo of incest begins to act at an early age, and the boy is removed from any intimate contact of this sort with his mother and above all with his sisters.
There are plenty of opportunities for both boys and girls to receive instruction in erotic matters from their companions. The children initiate each other into the mysteries of sexual life in a directly practical matter at a very early age. A premature amorous existence begins among them long before they are able really to carry out the act of sex. They indulge in plays and pastimes in which they satisfy their curiosity concerning the appearance and function of the organs of generation, and incidentally receive, it would seem, a certain amount of positive pleasure. Genital manipulation and such minor perversions as oral stimulation of the organs are typical forms of this amusement. Small boys and girls are said to be frequently initiated by their somewhat older companions, who allow them to witness their own amorous dalliance. As they are untrammelled byt the authority of their elders and unrestrained cy any moral code, sxcept that of specific tribal taboo, there is nothing but their dgree of curiosity, of ripeness, and of «temperament» or sensuality, to dtermine how much or how little they shall indulge in sexual pastimes.
The attitude of the grown-ups and even of the parents towards such infantile indulgence is either that of complete indifference or of complacency -- they find it natural, and do not see why they should scold or interfere. Usually they show a kind of tolerant and amused interest, and discuss the love affairs of their children with easy jocularity. I often heard such benevolent gossip as this: «So-and-so (a little girl) has already had intercourse with So-and-so (a little boy).» And if such were the case, it would be added that it was her first experience. An exchange of lovers, or some small love drama in the little world would be half-seriously, half-jokingly discussed. The infantile sexual act, or its substitute, is regarded as an innocent amusement. «It is their play to "kaita" (to have intercourse). They give each other a coconut, a small piece of betelnut, a few beads or some fruits from the bush, and then they go and hide, and "kaita".» But it is not considered proper for the children to carry on their affairs in the house. It has always to be done in the bush. (again, sexual freedom is not absence of any regulation -- TS)
The age at which a girl begins to amuse herself in this manner is said to coincide with her putting on the small fibre skirt, between, that is, the ages of four and five. But this obviously can refer only to incomplete practices and not to the real act (the Westerner cannot believe it! But... -- TS). Some of my informants insisted that such small female children actually have intercourse with penetration. Remembering, however, the Trobriander's very strong tendency to exaggerate in the direction of the grotesque, a tendency not altogether devoid of a certain malicious Rabelaisian humour, I am inclined to discount those statements of my authorities. If we place the beginning of real sexual life at the age of six to eight in the case of girls, and ten to twelve in the case of boys, we shall probably not be erring very greatly in either direction. (this although the informants said otherwise -- TS) And from these times sexuality will gradually asssume a greater and greater importance as life goes on, until it abates in the course of nature.
Sexual, or at least sensuous pleasure constitutes if not the basis of, at least an element in, many of the children's pastimes. Some of them do not, of course, provide any sexual excitement at all, as for instance those in imitation of the grown-up economic and ceremonial activities, or games of skill or childish athletics; but all sorts of round games, which are played by the children of both sexes on the central place of the village, have a more or less strongly marked flavour of sex, though the outlets they furnish are indirect and only accessible to the elder youths and maidens, who also join in them. (...)
There are, however, some specific games in which the older children never participate, and into which sex directly enters. The little ones sometimes play, for instance, at house-building, and at family life. A small hut of sticks and boughs is constructed in a secluded part of the jungle, and a couple or more repair thither and play at husband and wife, prepare food and carry out or imitate as best they can the act of sex. Or else a band of them, in imitation of the amorous expeditions of their elders, carry food to some favourite spot on the sea-shore or in the coral ridge, cook and eat vegetables there, and «when they are full of food, the boys sometimes fight with each other, or sometimes "kayta" (copulate) with the girls.» When the fruit ripens on certain wild trees in the jungle they go in parties to pick it, to exchange presents, make "kula" (ceremonial exchange) of the fruit, and engage in erotic pastimes.
Thus it will be seen that they have a tendency to palliate the crudity of their sexual interest and indulgence by associating it with something more poetic. Indeed, the Trobriand children show a great sense of the singular and romantic in their games. For instance, if a part of the jungle or village has been flooded by rain, they go and sail their small canoes on this new water; or if a very strong sea ahs thrown up some intereting flotsam, they proceed to the beach and inaugurate some imaginative game around it. The little boys, too, search for unusual animals, insects, or flowers, and give them to the little girls, thus lending a redeeming aesthetic touch to their premature eroticisms.
In spite of the importance of the sexual motive in the life of the youngest generation, it must be kept in mind that the separation of the sexes, in many matters, obtains also among children, [here, it seems, a line is missing from my edition -- TS] Small girls can very often be seen playing or wandering in independent parties by themselves. Little boys in certain moods - and these seem their more usual ones - scorn the society of the female and amuse themselves alone. Thus the small republic falls into two distinct groups which are perhaps to be seen more often apart than together; and, though they frequently unite in play, this need by no means be necessarily sensuous.
It is important to note that there is no interference by older persons in the sexual life of children. On rare occasions some old man or woman is suspected of taking a strong sexual interest in the children, and even of having intercourse with some of them. But I never found such suspicions supported even by a gerenal consensus of opinion, and it was always considered both improper and silly for an older man or woman to have sexual dealings with a child. ("improper and silly", not sick and taboo! -- TS). There is certainly no trace of any custom of ceremonial defloration by old men, or even by men belonging to an older age class.