The Sexual Frontier - Contrasting Māori and European Attitudes towards Sex and Nudity in the Colonial Era

In pre-contact Māori society young unmarried men and women had a high degree of sexual freedom. With the exception of a few high-born women who were ceremonially bethrothed, pre-marital sex was considered socially acceptable, though blatant promiscuity was frowned upon and a certain level of discretion expected. 

Sex was considered a normal and healthy part of every day life, with no particular taboos around it. Copulating couples were depicted in carvings and bawdy stories and waiata concerning sexual exploits or the size of men’s penises were common.

Te Puawai o Te Arawa, 1905, 1/1-003279-G, ATL

That relative openness extended to same-sex relationships, of which there is ample evidence from waiata and other traditional sources. Tutanekai, for example, who famously swam to Mokoia to be with Hinemoa, was also known to have had an initimate male companion known as Tiki. (By contrast, in the eighteenth-century Royal Navy death was the mandatory penalty for anyone found guilty of sodomy).

In Māori culture, female genital exposure was considered indecent, though women would sometimes deliberately expose themselves through whakapohane intended to ridicule or insult those witnessing it. There are early examples of European visitors who described what they thought were lascivious gestures on the part of Māori women exposing themselves to the newcomers, when it fact they were demonstrating not arousal but contempt.

On the other hand it was perfectly natural for women to remain naked above the waste, especially in hot conditions or when working or dancing. Under the influence of the missionaries that eventually changed. By 1840 it was said to be fashionable for young Māori women in the Bay of Islands to cover their breasts in the European manner, though this new trend was fiercely resisted by older women and it took some time before it became standard.

Amoko, Eana, Hepee, 1838, PUBL-0015-010-a, ATL

Because women were regarded as noa, or free from tapu, it was common for the female vulva to be depicted above the entrance way to meeting houses, in this way removing the tapu from anyone who passed underneath. Penises, sometimes erect, were also depicted in wood carving as a sign of virility and strength. In some cases copulating couples were also depicted.

All of these things were deeply troubling for European missionaries, and even Victorian museum curators, who went out of their way to have the offending carvings altered or removed, and depictions of sexual organs or acts obliterated, in accordance with their own sensibilities.

In British society, and especially in the Victorian era, sex was regarded as something shameful and not to be discussed. Although pre-marital sex did occur, it was not considered socially acceptable. Chastity was expected and unmarried mothers were social outcasts. Prostitution was rife, especially in some of the port towns that those who sailed to New Zealand with James Cook came from. That was part of a weirdly repressive double-standard that assumed men could not help themselves while fallen women were the victims of men’s sinful lusts.

So to arrive in the South Pacific and find the old rules thrown out the window, and semi-naked women not only free from shame but keen to engage in sexual relationships was a revelation for early visitors from Europe. 

Solider asleep in a whare, being watched over by a Māori woman, c.1845-1858, A-113-034, ATL

The crew of the Endeavour readily entered into multiple sexual encounters with Māori women. It was customary within Māori society for important visitors to be offered sexual hospitality, though married women were strictly off limits, and the early encounters with British and French explorers were consistent with this pattern. (Later, many missionaries visiting Māori settlements were themselves offered sexual hospitality). By the 1820s, at the Bay of Islands and elsewhere, there were extensive sexual contacts with visiting whalers. In some cases this could be quite coercive, involving young women captured from other tribes and prostituted to provide a source of trade for local people.

But in many other instances young unmarried women entered into relationships with the sailors of their own accord, in what some observers described as ‘temporary unions’ or marriages that tended to last the duration of the whaler’s stay in the district. These kinds of relationships were consistent with the high level of freedom that unmarried people had in pre-contact Māori society.    


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