A Chinese woman, walking through the Traditional African Art section of an American art museum, saw some human sculptures with pronounced phalluses and remarked, "The blacks are obsessed with sex, aren't they?"
Unfortunately, such views of black Africans are not unique among Asians. The cliched image of black hypersexuality has been circulating for a while. In the biography "Wild Swans: Three daughters of China" by Jung Chang, who came of age during the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s, there is a scene in which Chinese Communist Party members, who preached condescendingly about the need to reach out to Africans and educate them, simultaneously spouted stereotypes of uncontrolled black African sexuality to the Chinese youth in their charge. These young people, who had not yet met Africans, unquestioningly accepted these stereotypes.
In reality, Africa is home to diverse cultures with widely varying attitudes towards sexuality. Pre-marital sexuality is discouraged in many traditional African cultures, such as the Zulu, the Fon, and the Ashanti. These examples contradict stereotypes of unbridled African sexuality. Asian cultures too, show a wide range of attitudes towards sex, from restrictive to permissive. An example of a sexually permissive traditional Asian culture is the Hill Maria of India who place no value on pre-marital chastity.1 The Moso of China reject marriage altogether. Men and women partake of sexual relations freely and having multiple partners is an accepted part of their traditional sexuality.2
Asians and other non-Africans have little right to criticize the alleged African obsession with sex when there are countless examples of Asian and other non-African sexual excess. Emperor Cheng of the Chinese Han Dynasty was well-known for his insatiable sexual appetite. He died in the bed of an Imperial Wife after overdosing on aphrodisiacs. Asian rulers from Japan to Arabia kept hundreds to thousands of wives in their harems, just as African kings did in Dahomey and Buganda. Listed below are a few more parallels between African, Asian, Melanesian, Euroepan and Native American traditional expressions of human sexuality.
Asians and other non-Africans who mention 'in-your-face' displays of African phallic statues as proof of the over-sexed African should note that for more than 1,500 years, the town of Komaki in Japan has celebrated its fertility festival by parading a 1,000-pound 8.2 foot-long phallic sculpture through the streets. Traditional art from Bali and the Philippines also feature human figurines with a phallic 'knocker'. Chinese, Tibetan, and Mongolian cultures have all produced images for phallic worship.3 The Hindu deity Rudra sports a perpetual erection and is worshipped in phallus form.4 Traditional phallic amulets are still popular in modern Thailand.5
In Europe, the Norse god Freyr was portrayed with a large phallus.6 Greek god Hermes has also been represented as an erect phallus.7 The Italian deity Liber was also publicly venerated in the form of a large phallus paraded through the countryside.8 Representations of the Greek deity Priapus were characterized by his permanent, impossibly oversized erection, from which the term 'priapism' is derived.9 One must ask if that same Chinese woman, who thinks that depiction of reproductive organs in sculptures is 'proof' of a culture's obssession with sex, would come to the same conclusion about Roman culture, in which the phallus figures prominently in public art.10 That woman has traveled in Europe before and expressed no such opinion of European art. But when Africans do the same things that Europeans do, they are evaluated differently.
Phallic art seems to be a global phenomenon, and most likely, in their time and place, are/were seen as a fact of life and not viewed with either lewdness or judgmental prudishness, but it appears some people cherry-pick phallic art from only some cultures for display, ogling and finger-pointing, while ignoring similar specimens from other parts of the world.
The anthropologist Siegfried Nadel reported that various Sudanese ethnic groups such as the Moro, Korongo and the Mesakin believed that heterosexual intercourse sapped the virility of men. Transvestic homosexuality involving biological males dressing as women had a special role in these cultures.11
East Asian ethnic groups such as the Chinese and Japanese also believed that sex with women saps a man's yang energy. Sex with another man, however, has no such harmful impact, as another male has yang energy as opposed to a female's yin energy. An example of this appears "Characters of Worldly Young Men", an 18th century work of Japanese literature: A money-lender procures a wife for his son, but the son never enters her room, claiming that sex with a woman saps a man's strength. He preferred to devote all his time to sumo-wrestling with his male friends.
A similar belief in the deleterious effects of heterosexual intercourse is found in Indonesia, where spirit mediums of Ponogoro ethnic group believe that sex with women depletes spiritial power. Male mediums were known to keep young boys as 'wives'.12 The Etoro of Papua New Guinea discouraged heterosexual intercourse in the belief that it saps the male life force. Homosexual behavior in the form of oral sex between men and boys is encouraged by the Etoro belief that boys cannot produce semen by themselves and have to acquire semen from men.13
Contrary to stereotypes of African and Asian women as submissive wives whose only means of sexual expression was to serve the pleasure of men, there are many documented incidents of Asian and African women serving their own pleasures without male participation. Use of hand-crafted dildoes between two women were reported in the Ovimbudu ethnic group of Angola, and the Ila and Naman ethnic groups of South Africa.14. Dildoes designed for two women were sold openly in Tokugawa Japan under a label of 'female-female'.15 The women of Zanzibar in East Africa were also reported to have used two-headed dildoes.16 Double-headed dildoes were also used for lesbian sex by Chinese women in pre-modern times.17 Contrary to male fantasies, such activities were typically not engaged in for the benefit of a male audience.
On separate occasions, various European observers in 16th and 17th century Angola had described with shock the presence of biological males who lived as women and even married men. A Portuguese priest dos Santos described "certayne Chibadi, which are Men attyred like Women, and behaved themselves womanly, ashamed to be called men; are also married to men, and esteeme that unnatural damnation an honor."18
Among the Yuman ethnic groups of North America, biological females who took on a transgender social role were known to have married women, and likewise, biological males who lived an MTF lifestyle also married men.19 In Asia, cross-dressing boys termed "travelling wives" serviced men in the camel caravans of Afghanistan.20
The best-known tradition of royal incest is probably found in ancient Egypt. This indigenous tradition was so strong that later Greek rulers of Egypt felt obligated to adopt the custom in order to build credibility with the natives. An example well-known to Westerners is the marriages between Queen Cleopatra and her brothers.21
Royal brother-sister incest, freakish and disturbing as it might sound to modern Western ears, is not limited to Egypt. The Hawaiian chiefdoms and the Inca Empire also practiced royal incest.22 Royal incest serves the function of reducing the number of people of royal descent, and thus reducing conflicts about succession.23
While Asia does not have widely-known examples of royal incest, brother-sister incest have a prominent place in the mythology of different Asian cultures. Abraham and Sarah, the putative ancestors of the Hebrews, were husband and wife as well as half-siblings. Fuxi and Nuwa, the primeval Chinese deities who created humanity and civilization, were also husband and wife as well as brother and sister.
As one can see from the examples above, it seems that distant cultures share the same expressions of human sexuality (regardless of whether we consider such expressions good or evil). Since the human desire for sex is universal, self-righteous claims about the population of one continent being more "obsessed with sex" than the populations of other continents are difficult to prove, at best. As a West Asian man once said, "Let he who has no sin cast the first stone."