Anthropological studies of human sexual behavior traditionally are difficult to conduct and to interpret because so much of any sexual behavior is private and must be understood through reporting by others rather than through direct observation. Sexual behavior between adults and nonadults is especially difficult to study, but an understanding can be facilitated if one looks at that behavior across time, species, and societies. Hawai’i [*1] has several characteristics that make it a useful society in which to view such behavior.

  • [*1] The apostrophe (’) denotes a glottal stop in the pronunciation of Hawaiian words.

Hawai’i was one of the first South Pacific societies to be visited and written about by Westerners (Cook, 1773). What it currently lacks in cultural purity, as a consequence of long association with foreigners, is partly compensated for by 200 years of contact and observation. Furthermore, over the years since Cook’s visit, published comparisons have been drawn between Hawai’i and lesser known societies in other parts of Oceania and Polynesia (e.g., Marshall and Suggs, 1971).

This author has spent more than 20 years living and working in Hawai’i as an academic sexologist. This chapter is written mainly for readers who will benefit from seeing aspects of selected cross-generational sexual behavior in the context of a non-Judeo-Christian and non-Western society.

Two introductory notes of caution must be given. The first concerns the research methods. Many of the findings reported in this chapter are derived from historical/anthropological records that were written after the late 18th century, when contact between the Hawaiian Islands and the outside world was established. In addition, some of the information presented was obtained through interviews with Hawaiians, including kupunaelders) [*2], who pass down what they know as traditional. Contradictions that arose between research sources, i.e., the written ethnographic records and interviews, were integrated during the preparation of this chapter or are noted herein.

  • [*2] Italicized words in this chapter are Hawaiian-language words.

The second caution is about the term “traditional.” Traditional behavior patterns are the behavior patterns of the Hawai’i described by Captain Cook and others in the late 1700s. Some of these practices continue to some degree into the 20th century, while others have been lost. The behavior patterns that were the most quickly lost were the ones that were part of the kapu (taboo) system, an elaborate cultural pattern of rules, restrictions, and punishments regulating interpersonal actions and relationships to the gods, the chiefs of varying stature (ali’i), and the ’aina (land or homeland)

  • (Kuykendall, 1938, Vol. 1, pp. 7-9; Valeri, 1985, pp. 90-95). The kapu system was officially abolished in November 1819 (Kuykendall, 1938, Vol. 1, pp. 65-70; Kamakau, 1961, pp. 219-228).

Under the kapu system, there were forms of bondage, human sacrifice (Valeri, 1985), and infanticide (Malo, 1951, p. 70; Kamakau, 1961, p. 234). While adult females were afforded many rights and some had great status, it was kapu for them to eat certain foods; they could be put to death for eating pork, certain kinds of bananas or coconuts, and certain fish (Malo, 1951, p. 29). Poi and taro (basic staples of the Hawaiian diet) were not to be eaten from the same dish by males and females. Furthermore, in certain circumstances upon threat of death, adult males and adult females were not allowed to eat together, although they could have sex together. Religious laws controlled eating more than they controlled sex.

The Western concept of marriage did not exist in Hawai’i (Sahlins, 1985, pp. 22-25), and even if a common definition of marriage is applied (Malinowski, 1962, p. 252; Ford and Beach, 1951, pp. 187-192), sexual/genital interactions were socially accepted in many “nonmarital” situations. The concepts of premarital and extramarital sexual activities were absent, and it was probably true of Hawai’i, as it was said to have been true of much of Polynesia, that “there are no people in the world who indulge themselves more in their sensual appetites than these:...” (Ellis, 1782, Vol. 2, p. 153).

Within the framework just presented, this chapter will place human adult/nonadult sexual behavior in Hawai’i in a broader cultural context. (For more in-depth ethnography, see Davenport, 1976; Diamond, 1985; Ford and Beach, 1951; Gregersen, 1982; Handy and Pukui, 1958; Handy et al., 1965; Kamakau, 1961, 1964; Kuykendall, 1938; Malo, 1971; Marshall and Suggs, 1971; Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, Vols. 1 and 2; Suggs, 1966; and Valeri, 1985.)


In traditional Hawai’i, nudity was not seen primarily as being sexual. Warm climate often dictates less clothing. The basic dress was a malo (loin cloth) for adult males (Figure 16. 1) and a leaf or tapa (bark) skirt for adult females. The female breasts were not covered. A young male was permitted to wear a malo only after he began to live in the hale mua (“men’s house”), usually between the ages of 4 and 6 (Handy and Pukui, 1958, p. 9). Once the pubic hair began to grow, the genitals were covered reportedly out of respect for the piko ma’i (genitals) and to protect the organs that gave progeny. A tapa robe might be added for protection against the cold or sun (Handy, 1930, p. 10), not for modesty. Adult males and adult females engaged in all water sports without clothes. They dared not wear wet clothes on land, because to do so in the presence of royalty was a capital crime (Malo, 1951, p. 56; see Fornander, 1916/1917-1920, Vol. 5, p. 110).

  • (The missionaries banned surfing because the surfers stood unashamedly naked on their boards.)

[Figure 16. 1 . Contemporary male kupuna pounding poi from taro while wearing only a malo. (Photograph taken by M. Diamond.)]

[Figure 16.2. The idols were uncovered during the daytime but wore malo in the evening. The expression used to describe such uncovered idols was “ua ku lewalewa ka laau” (“the wood stands with its nakedness pendant”) (Malo, 1951, p. 169). (Photograph taken by M. Diamond.)]

Nudity among adults had important nonsexual significance, such as being a symbol of death or punishment (Fornander, 1916/1917-1920, Vol. 5, p. 324) or of lamentation and anguish (Kamakau, 1964, pp. 34-35). Individuals who were slated for sacrifice or who were banished were stripped naked. A dream of nudity, it was claimed, was a portent of death.

Nudity as a ceremonial condition could be a sign of submission or of resignation, or it could be an appeal for forgiveness. One who had wronged or angered another might disrobe and follow the injured individual, asking forgiveness. When approached by “night marchers” (souls of the departed) or in the presence of spirits, one might disrobe and lie flat, face up, until they passed (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 107).

Nudity also was a sign of respect Consider this quotation from Kamakau (1961, pp. 208-209) writing in the 1860s of Kamehameha the Great “Kamehameha did not ordinarily take Keopuolani [his first coital partner] as his sleeping companion. She was his niece and of so high a tabu that he had to take off his malo before he came into her presence, but he desired above everything to have children of the highest rank.”

Ceremonial nudity also could be a sign of respect extended not merely to the Highest Chief or Chiefess but even to their bearers or possessions. “Whoever happened to meet the King’s calabash of water as it was brought from the spring ... was required to unrobe and lie down upon the earth, till the bearer of the vessel had gone by” (Tyerman and Bennet, 1832, Vol. 2, p. 69).

Ceremonial nudity with prayer was also used to avert sorcery. Hawaiians had a ceremony called “manewanewa.” At high noon or midnight, families attempting to avert evil disrobed. One person stayed at the doorway to the hale (house) and prayed. The others prayed while they walked around the house. After the fifth time around, the one at the door poured water over the heads of the others, and the ceremony ended (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 107).

The attitude of traditional Hawaiians toward familial nudity was different from their attitude toward societal nudity. It was common for whole families to bathe and swim together nude in a formalized but also sociable manner, and often, baths or swims occurred several times a day.

On the basis of these examples, therefore, it can be seen that nudity was ritualized in many aspects of society. In fact, an individual seen nude out of a ritualized context was considered to be pupule (crazed) with grief, :: c1 lustful (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, pp. 107, 183).

Mary Kawena Pukui, a highly respected kupuna, claimed that “genital exposure was not an indecent, or even sexually-tinged action . ... To expose oneself was never perversion; it was frequently a protection” (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 107). (See Eibl-Eibesfeldt, this volume.)


The genitals were considered holy and were appreciated as being good. They were treated with respect and worship, and ostensibly, they were covered for not shame (Sahlins, 1985, p. 15). Also, it was believed that the genitals possessed mana (spiritual power), and this belief was expressed with clarity in the traditional woodcarvings of the powerful L whose genitals were shown to be prominent (Figure 16.2).

The positive attitudes held by the traditional Hawaiians toward the genitals also were conveyed in part through some of the stone carvings still present in the Hawaiian Islands, the most noted of the major carvings being the phallic rocks of the Island of Moloka’i. These carvings are of the penis, representing the male god  kane, and the vulva, representing the female deity. Throughout the islands, rocks configured into the shape of male and female genitals or identified as being male or female rocks were not uncommon (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 103). (See Figures 16.3 and 16.4.)

On the “Big Island” of Hawai’i, in addition, there is a cave with a rock vagina some 20 feet in length. All of these kinds of formations, possessed of great mana, were used to enhance fertility and sexual ability. As can be judged by contemporary offerings seen at these formations, they still are visited reverently in Hawai’i.

Genital Chant

Within the culture, genitals were addressed in song and story. Traditional Hawaiians had public names for their private parts, and they were proud of their endowments. Hawaiian royalty, and commoners as well, had their own mele ma’i, a genital chant (Handy and Pukui, 1958, p. 93; Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 76). These chants described, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally and openly, the individual’s sexual organs.

[Figure 16.3. Phallic rock of Moloka’i showing a subincision mark. This rock is in a cleared area and is marked by a tourist sign. (Photograph taken by M Diamond.)]

[Figure 16.4. Vulva rock of Moloka’i. The clitoris is prominent. As elsewhere in the Hawaiian Islands, male and female rocks usually were paired. This female rock is some 50 yards distant from the male phallic rock and is among trees and unmarked. (Photograph taken by M. Diamond.)]

Queen Lili’uokulani’s mele ma’i told of Anapau (Frisky), her frolicking genitals that went up and down. King Kalakaua’s mele ma’i described the large size of his penis (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 85). These mele ma’i were composed with respect and affection. Typically, the genitals of ali’i were named in infancy, and the songs were written when the individuals were young so they might be predictive or set role expectations. During the celebration of a young ali’i’s first birthday, and often a young commoner’s, poets, chanters, and dancers composed dances, chants, and songs to that individual. Among these songs and poems were mele ma’i describing the genitals as being valuable for begetting future generations (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 76; Sahlins, 1985, pp. 15-16)

Genital Preparation


Subincision of the foreskin (Figure 16.2) was practiced and, ostensibly to prepare for this practice, the penis was blown into daily starting from birth (Handy and Pukui, 1958, p. 94; Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 75). The blowing was said to loosen and balloon the foreskin and separate it from the glans, so that when the time of subincision came, the skin was quickly and easily slit. The blowing continued daily until the infant was old enough to urinate in an arch, wetting the blower, then it was done less often, perhaps three times a week until the young male was 6 or 7. [*3]

  • [*3] In contemporary times, pediatricians advise mothers to retract the foreskin and wash the glans several times a week, usually during the bath. This action prevents phimosis and serves a hygienic function similar to blowing.

A makua hine (“aunt”) or kupuna wahine (“grandmother”) did the blowing (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 80). Any number of adult females were qualified to be the blower for a particular young male, because traditionally in Hawai’i, all age mates of an offspring’s parents were considered to be “parents” in some way, and all individuals of grandparental age were considered to be kupuna (grandparent or elder). Therefore, the same term might refer to a blood relative, a nonrelative, or a neighbor.

The penis-blowing procedure was said to guarantee health and efficient coitus (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 75). This procedure, and the vulva treatment to be mentioned, was said to make the genitals more beautiful and to be a form of “blessings with which loving relatives desired to endow the firstborn throughout life . ... What was true for the firstborn was true for subsequent children, to a lesser degree” (Handy and Pukui, 1958, p. 94).

This penis-blowing procedure was reported by several informants as having been experienced personally; one Hawaiian male received this attention as an infant, and one Hawaiian female performed it on her grandchildren; one Caucasian male reported that his Hawaiian mother-in-law had performed the procedure on his own infant. The Hawaiian-male informant placed the procedure in its cultural context and saw it neither as being a sexual activity nor as potentially creating a problem. The Caucasian informant, who had been unaware of the practice, was disturbed when he discovered what his baby-sitting Hawaiian mother-in-law was doing to his young son. Even after his wife and mother-in-law put the procedure in its cultural context, he was not placated. He did convince his mother-in-law to ease the activity, but she did not appreciate his reasoning and remained concerned for her grandson’s health.

When a young male was 6 or 7, penile subincision was performed by a specially trained kahuna (priest). Whereas the procedure was a puberty initiation rite in the Mangaia Islands (Marshall, 1971), in traditional Hawai’i, it was a religious rite and de facto acceptance of the young male’s having reached a certain stage of life (Malo, 1951, pp. 93-94).


While a female was still an infant, mother’s breast milk was squirted into her vagina, and the labia were pressed together (Handy and Pukui, 1958, p. 94). The mons was rubbed with kukui (candlenut) oil and pressed with the palm of the hand to flatten it and make it less prominent. The molding continued until the labia did not separate. This chore usually was done by the mother or by an “aunt” or a tutu wahine (“grandmother”: a colloquial, less traditional Hawaiian term than kupuna wahine).

Among the Marquesas Islanders, similar attention was given to the vulva, but in addition, the young female’s labia minor were stretched to make them longer. This practice often was done orally by the caretaking adult females (Suggs, 1966, p. 42). Danielsson (1986, p. 74) reported similar lengthening of the clitoris of young females in the Society and Austral Islands.


In the perspective of traditional Hawaiians, the buttocks were related to sexuality and the genitals. The buttocks of infants, males more than females, were molded so that they became rounded and not flat (Handy and Pukui, 1958, p. 91). This practice and all of the practices discussed in relation to the preparation of the genitals exemplified adult/nonadult behavior that was not seen as being erotic, sexual, or abusive. It was seen as being an appropriate aspect of adult care of nonadults, a necessary chore.

Sex Education in General [*4]

  • [*4] Much of the information presented in this section was modified from Pukui, Haertig, and Lee (1972) and Handy and Pukui (1958).

Until the age of 4-6, young males and females played together. Between 4 and 6, young males went to live in the hale mua, where, through observation, they learned sex roles and sex-related expectations from adult males. Unlike traditions that were present in some other parts of Oceania (see Schiefenhövel, this volume), there is no evidence that ritualized adult-male/adolescent-male sexual activities were practiced in traditional Hawai’i.

Similarly, young females learned from the older women, with whom they remained. They were taught to look forward to sex and appreciate its pleasures. Both sexes heard the sex-positive conversations, songs, and stories of their elders and learned accordingly. Sexual exploration with same-sex age mates was actively encouraged by the age of puberty.

Young males learned to fish, plant, cook, and fight and to honor the ali’i, the gods and spirits, and work. Young females, too, learned of the ali’i, the gods and spirits, and sex-typed tasks, such as mat weaving, feather-garment and fiber crafts, hula, attending to births, and so on (Kuykendall, 1938, p. 6). In regard to sex, Valeri (1985, p. 123), in a manner some consider highly overdrawn, stated that “the occupation of a young woman is to procreate, which in the Hawaiian culture implies all that relates to seduction, in which it is said that women play a more active role than men ... properly feminine activities are ... chanting, dancing, and other activities that promote eroticism. It is the women who often compose and chant the ‘mele inoa’ ‘name chants’ with their deliberately erotic content, and even the ‘mele ma’i’ chants praising the genitals.” Actually, these sex-role stereotypes do not reflect the complexity of the situation (see Linnekin, in press).

Sex training was direct and firsthand. Young individuals learned of coitus and sex play from instruction, direct observation, and practice. As they slept in the family house (hale noa), they observed their parents having coitus. “Public privacy” among the Mangaian Islanders, as it was described by Marshall (1971, p. 108), probably is similar to the “privacy” that was found in Hawai’i and elsewhere in Polynesia: “[A Mangaian may copulate], at any age, in the single room of a hut that contains from five to fifteen family members of all ages—as have his ancestors before him. His daughter may receive and make love with each of her varied nightly suitors in the same room . ... But under most conditions, all of this takes place without social notice; everyone seems to be looking in another direction.”

The young observed dogs, pigs, and other animals mating, and these activities were discussed openly with parents or other adults. Parturition was not a secret event and was well attended by the young and by adults, all of whom observed traditions that included the washing and burying of the placenta and, usually, the disposing of the umbilical cord (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 16; Handy and Pukui, 1958, p. 78).

The Hawaiian young also acquired sex education in day-by-day exposure to precepts, practices, and attitudes concerning sex. Traditionally, “... childish curiosity about sex was satisfied, with neither guilt nor shame instilled” (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 249). With variations depending upon rank, region, and social circumstances, the young individual learned the lore of kapus, social restraints and preferences, and attitudes toward both sex for procreation or love and sex for fun and pleasure. Each kind of sex was appreciated for its own value (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 79).

Age and Preparation for First Coitus

Individuals of both sexes were expected to initiate and participate in coitus at puberty, although sexual activity, play, instruction, and so forth occurred much earlier. For instance, as part of exploratory play, the young investigated each other’s genitals, and young males and females might masturbate each other heterosexually or homosexually. This activity occurred without adult disapproval, and it was considered to be an introduction to adulthood. Casual intercourse before adolescence was not an uncommon experience both for males (Handy and Pukui, 1958, p. 95) and females (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 78).

Ellis (1782, Vol. 2, p. 153) wrote of sexual expression in Oceania: “The ladies are very lavish of their favors ... and some of their attachments seemed purely the effects of affection. They are initiated into this way of life at a very early period; we saw some, who could not be more than ten years old.”

The time considered “right” to start coitus was not so much based on chronological age as on ability or maturity (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 78). A male doing adult work or holding adult responsibilities was considered to be “old enough.” A young male who could grow taro or catch many fish was considered mature. A female’s first menses usually signaled she was ready for coitus if she had not already experienced it. Kamehameha the Great, who unified all the Hawaiian Islands, took his first “wife,” Ka’ahu-manu, when she was 13 (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 78); he probably was several years older than she (Judd, 1976, p. 71).

As physical signs of maturity appeared, the young Hawaiian received more formal sex education. Among commoners, this education was traditionally and usually the responsibility of the tutu wahine for the females and the tutu  kane (“grandfather”) for the males. Suggs (1966) elaborated on the early sexual experiences of pubertal males with married females in their 30s and 40s in the Marquesas Islands, who “take special pains to be pleasing and patient with them ... a source of enjoyment for many Marquesan women” (p. 61). For young females of the Marquesas Islands, the first coital experience reportedly is earlier than it is for young males— before menarche—and occurs unplanned with an adult male (Suggs, 1966, ‘p. 63).

Among ali’i, an experienced chiefess, usually a blood “aunt,” instructed and trained the young males. Similarly, young females were trained by their “aunt,” by another experienced woman, or by a tutu  kane. The training concerned not only what to expect and what to do but also how to increase or maximize pleasure. Less formal but similar training was afforded to commoners. There was practice as well as theory. A young male was taught “timing” and how to please a female in order to help her attain orgasm (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 79). A young female was taught how touch and caress a male and move her body to please them both. She was taught how to constrict and rhythmically contract her vaginal muscles (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 79). Several of the informants who were interviewed remember being so instructed. One adult female told of being instructed on how to get her vagina to “wink.”

These adult/nonadult sexual interactions were socially approved behavior. Kamehameha the Great again can be used as an example. Before he aligned himself with Ka’ahu-manu, he had an infant, while “still a beardless youth,” by Chiefess Kanekapoli, a wife of Kalani’opuu (Judd, 1976, p. 71). The infant was welcome and was accepted without stigma, as was any pregnancy resulting from such unions (Handy and Pukui, 1958, p. 110). For adults not to have given such education would have been unthinkable—a dereliction of duty.

Most important for Hawaiian society, the young learned of sexual humor. Among the Hawaiians, sex was a rich source of humor and enjoyment. In everyday conversation and in song and story, it was considered to be an “art form” to speak using sexual double entendres (kaona). One well-known folk song, still sung, uses the vowels as erotic expressions; their elongated sounds are highly sexual: aaaaaaa, eeeeeee, iiiiiii, ooooooo, uuuuuuu (Johnson, 1983). Erotic imagery was, and remains, common in speech, poetry, and songs: coconut tree bending over a female; a digging stick spreading a female’s legs.

Suggs (1966, p. 39) considered the early manifestations of infantile and childhood sexual behavior, including sexual behavior with adults, to be among the most distinguishing features of Marquesan sexual behavior. Many of the activities he described, however, are similar to activities that were present in Hawai’i and elsewhere in Oceania. Oliver (1974, pp. 458-459), for example, reported on adult/nonadult sexual behavior in Tahiti and quoted the missionary Orsmond from 1 832: “In all Tahitians as well as officers who come in ships there is a cry for little girls,” and older females, when in a position to choose, preferred younger males. Marshall (1971, p. 126) described the routine early sexual encounters of young males and females in Mangaia as being with older, experienced males and females.

Rules for Intercourse

As long as the individuals involved were of the appropriate social class, just about any type of sexual behavior between them was sanctioned. If a pregnancy resulted, it was welcome. If a socially inferior male had sex with a female of royalty, however, her family might demand his death or exile, and if a baby was born, it might be killed immediately (Malo, 1951, p. 70). A higher class male’s having sex with a lower class female was seen as being good, on the other hand, in that it added to her status. However, if the two participants were too far apart in class, any offspring was killed or sent into exile (Handy and Pukui, 1958, p. 79).

Neither physical appearance nor age mattered where coitus-for-genealogy was involved. The main concern in such instances was to preserve the highest level of mana and rank and to not dilute the family prestige (Kamakau, 1961, p. 208). If no offspring resulted, the sexual behavior itself was considered to be inconsequential.

The word for orgasm, le’a, also means “fun” and “joy” (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 83), an appropriate term in the Hawaiian language because the object of sexual interactions was mutual happiness and pleasure. There were no restrictions regarding any positions for intercourse. The appellation probably is undeserved, but the position in which the male squats between the supine female’s legs has been called the “Oceanic position” since its description by Malinowski (Gregersen, 1982, p. 61).

Sexual positions rarely are mentioned in ethnographies of Hawai’i, while other potentially curious or “uncouth” matters are. For example, oral, anal, masturbatory, and other kinds of sexual behavior were documented practices. Types of homosexual behavior were accepted and, reportedly, were unstigmatized; many of the royalty were known for their ambisexual activities (Kamakau, 1961, pp. 234-235; Malo, 1951, p. 256).

According to the reports of Westerners, extensive foreplay was not a standard part of coitus. Many reports and stories tell of an adult male and an adult female meeting on a trail, in the bush, or on a secluded beach and engaging in coitus immediately, with little conversation and few preliminaries. This kind of behavior also has been reported as having been the norm elsewhere in Oceania, e.g., among Mangaian Islanders (Marshall, 1971, pp. 118-121) and Marquesas Islanders (Suggs, 1966, p. 98). Noteworthy in regard to such behavior is that orgasm for both the female and the male was not reported to be a problem despite the briefness of the encounter. Both males and females reportedly climaxed easily and frequently in traditional societies of Oceania.

Some of the reports of seemingly promiscuous and nonrelational sex that occurred in Oceania might reflect sampling and Western-oriented biases. This possibility has to be considered, because such interactions are not consistent with traditional songs, which speak of erotic and sensual courtship and foreplay (Kekuni Blaisdell, personal communication).

Virginity, Promiscuity, and Monogamy

Aside from restrictions of class and family, there were few sex kapu for common people. Masturbation, sex between uncommitted individuals, paired individuals having lovers, liaisons, polyandry, polygyny, homosexual patterns of behavior, and such were all accepted practices (Malo, 1951, p. 74). Sex was considered to be good and healthy for all, young and old included.

Virginity was considered to be a virtue for female chiefs only, where genealogy was crucial. With this Point in mind, ali’i—particularly the firstborn of either sex, with special status rights—often were betrothed while they were quite young. Sometimes the age difference between the betrothed was significant. Handy (1952, p. 272) reported the acceptance of pairings in which the female was hardly of walking age and the male was old enough to be her grandfather, as well as pairings in which tiny males were betrothed to elderly matrons. Such young individuals obviously did not have to restrain themselves as their libido matured, but it also is possible that mechanisms, such as the Westermarck effect, dampened eroticism if the individual was betrothed at a very young age (see Shepher, 1971; Wolf and Huang, 1980).

Once paired with a chief, the chiefess, like the commoners she ruled over, could have as many lovers or additional permanent sexual partners as she desired. One missionary, Reverend Thurston, described a secondary wife of Kalaniopu’u, Ruling Chief of the Island of Hawai’i in Cook’s time. By her own admission, she had not fewer than 40 sexual partners and usually several concurrently (Thurston, December 10, 1828, Kailua). King Kamehameha had 21 known “wives” (Judd, 1976, pp. 290-292). Regarding age disparity, it was noted: “When he was an old man well on in years ... he took two young chiefesses to warm Kamehameha’s old age” (Kamakau, 1961, p. 208).

Peripubertal females, in many cultures of Oceania, were noted to often be publicly sexually active with adults (Oliver, 1974, p. 362). Cook (1773, Vol. 1, p. 128) reported copulation in public in Hawai’i between an adult male and a female estimated to be 11 or 12 “without the least sense of it being indecent or improper.” The disapproval implicit in Cook’s report probably was caused as much by the public nature of the activity as by the age-related aspects. In Tahiti, one missionary noted in his diary that the High Priest Manimani, “... though nearly blind with age, is as libidinous now as when thirty years younger; ... [he] has frequently upwards of a dozen females with him, some of them apparently not above twelve or thirteen years of age” (cited in Danielsson, 1986, p. 57). Gauguin credited the inspiration for his famous painting “Manao tupapau” (“The Specter Watches Over Her”), completed in 1892, to his 13-year-old Tahitian “wife” Teha’amana (Hobhouse, 1988).

Suggs (1966, pp. 51-53) cited many cases of full heterosexual intercourse in public between adults and prepubertal individuals in Polynesia. The crews of the visiting ships showed no compunction against the activities, and the natives assisted in the efforts. Cunnilingus with young females was recorded without accompanying remarks that this kind of behavior was unusual or disapproved of for the participants. Occasions were recorded of elders assisting youngsters in having sex with other elders.  Among the Marquesas Islanders in particular, Suggs (1966, p. 119) reported, extramarital relations were frequent and often involved older males with young virginal females and older females with young virginal males.

Until fairly recently, the birth of an infant to an unmarried female in Hawai’i, as elsewhere in Polynesia, was not a problem for her or society. Her fertility was proven, and the infant was wanted and taken care of by the extended ohana (family). Illegitimacy, in the Western sense, is inapplicable in regard to traditional Hawai’i (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 96).

While betrothals occurred, occasionally arranged by parents of chiefs or by other prominent persons, such formalized relationships were uncommon (Kamakau, 1964, pp. 25-26). Specific words for “husband” and “wife” did not exist; he was simply called  kane (man) and she wahine (woman) (Handy and Pukui, 1958, p. 51; Sahlins, 1985, p. 23).

Individuals stayed together or not by choice rather than by commitment or obligation. One member of a pair could be monogamous while the other was polygamous. While public announcements of intentions to stay together among ali’i were noteworthy and often elaborate affairs, they were uncommon. David Malo, an advisor to King Kalakaua III and an Hawaiian convert to Christianity, wrote in 1839: “Of the people about court there were few who lived in marriage. The number of those who had no legitimate relations with women was greatly in the majority. Sodomy and other unnatural vices in which men were the correspondents, fornication and hired prostitution were practiced about court” (Malo, 1951, p. 65) [*5]

  • [*5] Terms such as “sodomy,” “fornication,” and “adultery” were introduced pejoratively by the missionaries and are used pejoratively in these quotations. Among traditional Hawaiians, however, such nuances were absent.

A “pairing” ceremony among commoners was even more rare (Sahlins, 1985, p. 23). Couples that wanted to sleep and live together just did so (Sahlins, 1985, p. 23). Typically, no contract was expressed openly, although there probably was a vague set of expectations that linked the couple. Sahlins (1985, p. 23) expressed the situation thus: “For the people as for the chiefs, the effect of sex was society: a shifting set of liaisons that gradually became sorted out and weighted down by the practical considerations attached to them.”

Monogamy, polygyny, and polyandry coexisted among ali’i and among commoners. Often, polygamy involved siblings (Morgan, 1964, p. 361) . [*6] 

  • [*6] In Hawaiian tradition, lineage rights were transmitted by females, not by males. Thus, a male could have several wives, and each wife maintained her individual inheritance. The inheritance of prime importance was a specific genealogy, not material wealth. Private property was not a feature of traditional Hawaiian life.

Taking another sexual partner usually was acceptable if the first mate knew about the relationship and sanctioned it. Secret relationships were not approved of, however, although the discovery of such a relationship usually was disruptive only temporarily. Such sexual license greatly disturbed the early Christian missionaries. The “crimes” most commonly reported by the haole (foreigner, now refers to Caucasians) to occur among the Hawaiians, recorded as being 4-5 times more common than theft or property crimes, were fornication and adultery (Sahlins, 1985, p. 24); these terms, of course, had no meaning to the Hawaiians. “Adultery” came to be defined by the Hawaiians as “sexual activity with a nonregular partner within the hale.” If the coitus occurred outside the house in private, it was not a problem to the Hawaiians, since it did not disrupt the status quo.

Sexual exclusivity was not associated with “marriage.” Such an idea would have been unusual to Polynesian society (Danielsson, 1986, p. 115). Gregersen (1982, p. 250) reported monogamy in only 30 of 127 Pacific island cultures studied, the rest of the cultures being polygamous. Worldwide, Ford and Beach (1951, p. 108) found multiple mateships permitted in 84% of the 185 societies in their sample.

Relationships were dissolved at the desire of one or both partners. Sex with others was not seen as a cause for separation. Jealousy was considered unwarranted. Handy and Pukui (1958, pp. 57-58) wrote: “... where love of one man by two women were involved [and vice versa], it was considered bad manners (maikai ole, “not good”) for a punalua (lover) to hold spite or malice in their hearts towards each other. The very existence of the formal [punalua] relationship ... worked against ill feeling . ...”

If one left a first mate for a second, the relationship to the first was not necessarily broken. Certainly, the ties were kept to the children (Johnson, 1983), and often, the sexual relationship between old partners continued. [*7]

  • [*7] Having one or many sexual partners had no necessary correlation with the love of one’s primary partner. Intense love was known, and the loss of a dear one was not just lamented but might be evidenced by self-inflicted pain and mutilation (e.g., Whitman, 1979, p. 26) in the form of burning by fire, breaking of teeth, or even blinding. One might take bones or body parts of a dead lover to sleep with (Malo, 1951, p. 99) or as keepsakes (Kamakau, 1964, p. 35).

In this context, the Western concentration on things “premarital,” “marital,” and “postmarital” did not have comparable meaning to traditional Hawaiians. In fact, it is only within the last 40 years or so that a majority of native Hawaiians have looked to the state licensing board to legitimize their marriages. Cohabitation without legal marriage was and is so frequent that, to encourage formal marriage, “common-law” marriages are not recognized by Hawai’i state law.

Considering that ali’i had much mana, commoner parents of a young female often wanted her to be impregnated by an ali’i male or to be taken as his mistress. The privilege of jus primae noctis for chiefs was often observed and was viewed with favor by a young female’s parents (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 91; Sahlins, 1985, p. 24). If she were lucky, she might conceive his offspring and be allowed to keep it. This wish for high mana descendants and relatives prompted Hawaiian families to send their daughters and wives to sleep with crewmen of early visiting ships. They thought these strange newcomers—with their large vessels and weapons that could kill immediately and at a distance—were indeed gods (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 92).

Promiscuity as a concept was not related to the number of sexual partners but rather to an improper concern with the lineage of potential offspring. Invitations to or direct acceptance of sex from the right strangers, on the part of males and females, were seen by the Hawaiians as good fun, good politics, good “mana” and cross-fertilization, or just good socialization (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 98). To be “propositioned” was considered a compliment, not an insult.

To have sex at the request of another was seen more as being passion than compassion. To want sex with another was seen as being natural. As one respondent put it: “Women didn’t say no because it would have been considered “bad form,” a rudeness. Also, they took the invitation as a compliment and often also wanted the sex themselves ...

Prostitution, as it now would be defined, was nonexistent in pre-Western-contact Hawai’i, because sexual partners were readily available for mutual enjoyment. After Western contact occurred, the females continued to want sex openly, now with the mana-loaded sailors and traders. These males advocated bartering for sex, and with no religious or social restrictions against prostitution, the natives had no hesitancy about profiting from the newcomers’ desires.

Females in traditional Hawai’i did experience intercourse that was forced upon them. While Westerners would interpret the forcing of intercourse on an individual as being criminal rape, the Hawaiians supposedly saw a romantic abduction or passionate lust (Johnson, 1983). There also were practices known as “wife-capture” and “husband-capture” (Sahlins, 1985, p. 10). Abductions and imposed sex supposedly were more commonly practiced by the ali’i. In one well-known instance, a chief who forced himself sexually upon an unwilling “married” female rewarded her by offering to make an ali’i of any possible male offspring, and this arrangement, it was said, was satisfactory to her and her “husband” (Malo, 1951, pp. 258-259).

There are tales of love that was unrequited—for any number of reasons: because one individual was promised to another, because one partner was jealous, because of feuds, for example. Also, sex was rejected—if the other was thought to be extremely unattractive, if one was promised to another, if it was solicited in an inappropriate place or with an inappropriate partner. Suicide because of unrequited love was known (Johnson, 1983).

Inbreeding and Incest

An Hawaiian legend may be instructive here. Poi, the staple food of Hawai’i, is made from the root of the taro plant. Taro was itself considered sacred, supposedly the heavenly gift of an incestuous union. The god Wakea, the Sky-father, mated with the god Papa, the Earth-mother, to have their first offspring, a daughter, Ho’ohokukalani (night-sky and stars). Wakea later mated with his daughter, and their first offspring was the taro root, Haloa. A second incestuous union brought forth a son, Taro. Taro is propagated by cuttings; thus, the basic taro is considered ageless and godlike. The taro stalk, ha (ancient one; breath of life), is the symbol of the primary male god, Kane. The image of sacred offspring coming from a central stalk is considered by some to be a positive, folklore model that rationalizes incest, at least for chiefs. [*8]

  • [*8] These gods, too, had multiple sexual partners. Wakea had at least three mates, and Papa had at least eight (Kamakau, 1964, p. 25).

Some types of inbreeding were preferred for ali’i, and sometimes inbreeding was their obligation. An offspring of a royal full-brother/ full-sister incestuous mating was considered to have the highest mana and, thus, to be the most sacred. “The children born of these two were gods, fire, heat and raging blazes” (Kamakau, 1964, p. 4). Their dynasty would be strengthened by the union. The chief born of such a union, a ni’aupi’o, was so divine he often did not travel during the day, since all who saw him had to prostrate themselves until he left (Malo, 1951 , p. 54). To prevent a lust-inspired first mating from occurring between a member of royalty and one of the kauwa (despised) cast, young high-born male or female chiefs might be paired “prophylactically” with an older brother or sister or another member of the family (Malo, 1951, p. 71). Ali’i were forbidden to defile themselves by mating with members of the outcast kauwa group (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 86).

Among chiefs, the value of a relationship was measured more by its political and genealogical significance than purely by its consanguinity. Nephew/aunt or niece/uncle pairings were not uncommon and were approved of. It was expected that an older chiefess would sexually train one or more of her nephews, and any offspring of the two were warmly received into the household. Mother/son and father/daughter incestuous unions, however, were not approved of (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 86). Father/step-daughter matings also were generally disapproved of, but exceptions were known and occasionally accepted. The same attitude was held regarding matings between “father-in-law” and “daughter-in-law.”

The inbreeding and incestuous pairings mentioned for ali’i were forbidden to commoners. There was a preference for exogamous matings of both male and female commoners with individuals who were members of a higher social class (hypergamy) (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 87), since traditional Hawai’i had several classes or castes (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, pp. 28&287).

Within a given caste, first-cousin pairings were common. However, there was cultural disapproval of the mating of an adult female with a young male whom she had taken care of as an infant. Such behavior was not an offense against the gods but, rather, a social faux pas, and the thinking seems to have been, “Why couldn’t she find someone more appropriate?” In keeping with the culture’s collective attitudes, the punishment was not severe; it was characterized by ridicule and expression of disgust (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 87). Suggs (1966, p. 128) reached a similar conclusion regarding incest in traditional Marquesan society—that it was disapproved of, but not seriously.


Traditional Hawaiian society was culturally complex. Sex was seen as being positive and pleasurable, and although many cultural precepts existed concerning nonsexual aspects of life, the attitude toward sex was comparatively open and permissive. Sexual needs and desires were seen as being as basic as the need to eat, and the young were instructed in matters of sex. Adults attended physically to the sexual development of the young, including the preparation of their genitals. These sexual interactions between adults and the young, from the society’s perspective, were seen as benefitting the young individual rather than as gratifying the adult. The sexual desire of an adult for a nonadult, heterosexual or homosexual, was accepted (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 111), and the regular erotic preference by an adult for a young individual probably was viewed more as being unusual than as being intrinsically bad. As Sahlins (1985, p. 29) put it, the Hawaiian “social system [was] constructed out of passion, structured out of sentiment.” Even the basic Hawaiian creation story, “The Kumulipo,” is highly sexual. It starts with the mating of the male god Wakea and the female god Papa and, throughout, turns to many sexual encounters. [*9]

  • [*9] Contrast this story with the biblical concept of Creation, which is completely asexual. The Judeo-Christian God desired the formation of the world, and it came about by His will.

This approach to sex and sex education seemed to be fruitful in many ways. Sexual dysfunctions such as impotence and inhibitions of desire or lack of orgasm among males or females, common enough in Western society today, reportedly were unknown or at least rare (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, pp. 84, 97). Sex was a salve and a glue for the total society.

The absence of concern with sexually transmitted disease (this affliction arrived with the first sailors from Europe in 1778), the lack of concern with illegitimacy, a permissive attitude toward multiple sex partners, and a feeling of obligation to sexually instruct in deed as well as in theory freed the traditional Hawaiians from most of contemporary Western society’s great fears associated with sexual expression. To the Hawaiians, sex was definitely not a subject nor a set of behaviors to be avoided or reserved only for adults.

To know about sexual interactions between adults and the young in traditional Hawai’i is most instructive, because these interactions illustrate the power that cultural tradition wields not only in contributing to the organization of behavior but also in shaping humans’ self-reported attitudes toward behavior patterns.

I believe that if you really feel Hawaiian—if in your bones you’re Hawaiian—then you’ll enjoy intercourse without constraint and with fulfillment. You’ll know le’a as your ancestors did. It’s natural. It’s beautiful and satisfying. And it’s just lots of fun!

Mary Kawena Pukui
(Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 98)


For this work, I am indebted to many persons. My primary thanks go to the informants who shared their confidences and histories with me. Additionally, I would like to thank the following Hawai’i scholars of the University of Hawai’i-Manoa for reviewing this chapter and contributing their insights and advice: Professor Richard Kekuni Blaisdell, Acting Chairman, Hawaii Studies Department; Professor Rubellite Kawena Johnson, Department of Indo-Pacific Languages; Assistant Professor Jocelyn S. Linnekin, Department of Anthropology; Professor Joel Michael Hanna, Professor of Anthropology and Physiology; and Karen Peacock, Hawaii and Pacific Collection Curator. Special thanks go to “Auntie” Emma DeFries for the hours we visited and “talked story.” Connie Brinton deserves thanks for her library work and perspective.


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