The Love Islands

By Julia Stonehouse

Location of the Trobriand Islands

Location of the Trobriand Islands

The young woman with the most boyfriends, at the same time, is considered the belle of the village in The Trobriand Islands, so they told me. There are no derogatory terms like slut or nymphomaniac but if you say a girl is a virgin, that’s an insult. No man tells girls or women who they can or cannot have sex with. Females are free agents. They run their own lives, and marry and divorce as they please. There’s no such thing as rape or domestic abuse. And no preference for boys. If you want to escape patriarchy, this is the place to go. So I went.

From Papua New Guinea, I caught a small plane going east, towards the Solomon Sea. Eventually, emerald green islands rimmed with golden beaches appeared in the glistening blue ocean. The largest island in the Trobriand group is Kiriwina, only 30 miles long and 2-10 miles wide.

They have high expectations of sex in the love islands. One young man told me how he’d had intercourse with a woman, they both orgasmed twice, then she asked if he would do it again. He wasn’t up to it and they went their separate ways. Sometime later, he met her on the road and asked if they could have sex again. She laughed. “With you, who can only do it twice? No way,” she scoffed.

The Trobrianders’ ‘free love’ mentality stems from their understanding of life, death, and rebirth. According to them, when a person dies their spirit returns to one of the furthermost islands, Tuma, where it lives a jolly life with the other spirits. When it wants to return to the physical world, the adult-spirit transforms itself back into a foetus-spirit, jumps on a leaf, floats into a bay, finds a woman bathing, and enters her vagina. This is how women get pregnant.

Trobriand women

Trobriand women

If the woman isn’t keen to be a mother at that time, she uses herbs to bring about an abortion. There’s no moral censure because, they say, you can’t kill a spirit. As they told the anthropologist who first studied the Trobrianders, Bronislaw Malinowski, “his end will always mean merely a new beginning.”[1] They don’t think of it as death, but as postponement and redirection because the spirit-baby will return and enter another woman.

The idea that life is created from a spirit, growing in a woman’s body, leads to other ideas and behaviours. First of all, nobody tells children what to do because they’re actually ancestors, reborn. The children go where they want, when they want, and do what they want.

And because men aren’t involved in reproduction in any way, as Malinoswki observed, “descent, kinship, and every social relationship are legally reckoned through the mother only.”[2] There’s no such thing as men in charge.

Men's House - the communal men's house where young men hang out and try to impress young women with their grass skirt making skills

Men's House - the communal men's house where young men hang out and try to impress young women with their grass skirt making skills

Although intercourse has nothing to do with conception, men play a part in the process of life by keeping the vagina open and lubricated so babies can come out. When Malinoswki asked the Trobrianders what testicles were for, they said they’re merely an ornamental appendage.  A “native aesthete” explained: “how ugly would a penis look without the testes.” They “make it look proper.”[3]

Men have two roles in parenting. As a kadagu, they’re responsible for imparting tribal custom to their sister’s children, who they support in various ways. If a man lives with a woman who has children, he’s also a tama, and feeds these children, plays with them, and helps with their schooling. We might identify him as the real father, but that’s not how he sees himself.

If there’s a physical resemblance between a tama and the children of the woman he lives with, the Trobrianders explain it in various ways: it’s because the man was in close proximity to the woman during pregnancy; or was close to the child as it grew; or because he fed the child from his own hand.

If a husband works away for a long time and his wife has a baby in his absence, he won’t assume she’s been adulterous, and cheerfully accepts her child like any other.

Yam House - children in front of the yam house

Yam House - children in front of the yam house

As proof of their theory of reproduction, the Trobrianders point to the fact that sexually active unmarried women do not usually have babies; and hideously ugly women, with whom no Trobriand man would dream of (or admit to) sleeping with, do become pregnant. This reasoning shows that logic can be bent to prove different versions of reality. And animal husbandry doesn’t clarify anything because the Trobrianders simply apply a similar logic to their pigs.

I met a Chinese man running a business harvesting sea cucumbers (which are animals) who told me he was reduced to a shy little boy by the suggestive questions and comments of his female workers. I knew what he meant because I’d been approached by men suggesting we have sex. This wasn’t disturbing to me because, in the Trobriands, they accept “no” as an answer.

Married men and women stay faithful to each other because they know it would be emotionally upsetting for the partner if they weren’t. If they’re not happy in the relationship, they just walk away – and the woman takes the children with her. But they do cut loose at the annual yam-harvesting festival, the highlight of the sexual calendar. It happens at night, with the dance a crotch-to-crotch grind, with the thighs fanning out. Either gender can invite someone to dance, and lead them off into the bushes for lovemaking

The Trobrianders don’t approve of the missionary position because the man squashes the woman down, and she has little control over the thrust of intercourse. They prefer the oceanic position, a small carving of which is shown here.

Trobriand Carving.jpg

When Malinoswki first published his research in the 1920’s, Christians were outraged and the missionaries arrived in double-quick time. But, although the Trobrianders have been attending church services for 100 years, they still follow their traditional ways. Of course, they’ve now heard of ovum and sperm but there’s only one important word in their reproduction vocabulary: “baloma” – spirit. A spirit enters the woman, and her body grows it. To them, that’s all that matters.


[1]Bronislaw Malinowski, The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia, 3rd Ed., London: George Routledge and Sons, 1939, p.146

[2] Ibid. p.2-3

[3] Ibid. p.144