Sex and Society

Chapter 6: The Psychology of Exogamy

Table of Contents

Perhaps the most puzzling questions which meet the student of early society are connected with marriage and kinship; and among these questions the practice of exogamy has provoked a very large number of ingenious theories. These are, however, I believe, all unsatisfactory, either because they are too narrow to cover the facts completely, or because they assume in the situation conditions which do not exist.[1] But quite aside from the facts and the interpretation of the facts, all theories in the field have failed to reckon sufficiently with the natural disposition and habits of man in early society, particularly with his attitude toward sexual matters; and it seems entirely feasible to get some light on the question why man went outside his immediate family and clan for women through an examination of the nature of his sexual consciousness, and of the operation of this in connection with the laws of habit and attention.

First of all, it is evident to one who looks care-

(176) -fully into the question of early sex-habits that the lower races are intensely interested in sexual life. A large part of their thought, and even of their inventive ingenuity, is spent in this direction. The pleasures of life are few and gross, but are pursued with vigor; and, mutatis mutandis, love bears about the same relation to the activities of the Australian aborigine as it bore to those of Sir Lancelot and the knights of olden time.

A failure to perceive this is the great defect in Westermarck's great work, where it is assumed that, if animals were monogamous, primitive man must have been much the more so. The fact is that in respect to memory, imagination, clothing, mode of association, and social restraint man differed radically from the animals, and precisely through these added qualities he took not only an instinctive, but an artificial and reasoned, interest in sexual practices; and this resulted in a state of consciousness which made sexual life uninterruptedly interesting, in contrast with a pairing season among animals, and also in a constant tendency toward promiscuity, whether this state was ever actually reached or not. The widespread and various unnatural sex practices, the use of aphrodisiacs, the prac-

(177) -tice of drawing attention to the girl at puberty, phallic worship, erotic dances, and periodic orgies, of which the Orient furnishes so many examples, are all found also among the natural races. [2]

Again, the eagerness of men to obtain girl wives, and even a claim on infants, thus assuring virginity and marriage at the moment of sexual maturity ; [3] the habit of keeping girls in solitary confinement from a tender age until the consummation of marriage;[4] and the African custom of infibulation [5] are classes of facts indicating that the sexual element occupied a large place in the consciousness of the natural races.

We must also consider the fact that sexual life is organically a utilization of a surplus of nutriment, and that when food and leisure are ,abundant there is a tendency on the part of sexual activity to become a play activity, just as there is a tendency of activities in general to become play activities under the same conditions. And while there was no leisure class in early society, primitive man was a man of leisure

(178) in the sense that his work activities were intermittent; a successful hunt was followed by a period of rest, recuperation, and surplus energy, and a consequent turning of attention to sexual life, with the result that the sex interest appears as one of the main play interests among the natural races.

Under these conditions, and in the absence of any considerably developed social institutions or altruistic sentiments, we not unnaturally find that the older and stronger men have the better of it, both in regard to the food supply and the women, and the younger men are obstructed in their efforts to satisfy their desires in regard to both. The following passages from the ethnological literature of Australia indicate the nature of the Australian male in sexual life, and the nature of the obstructions encountered by the youth in the presence of the older men. [6]

It is noticeable, first of all, that among the Australian tribes the older men have worked out or fallen into such habits regarding the females that the younger men obtain wives with great difficulty and usually not before waiting a long

(179) time. In fact, Spencer and Gillen, in their invaluable works on the central Australian tribes state that usually a man is married to a woman of another generation than himself:

The most usual method of obtaining a wife is that which is connected with the well-established custom in accordance with which every woman of the tribe is made Tualcha mura with some man. The arrangement, which is often a mutual one, is made between two men, and it will be seen that owing to a girl being made Tualcha mura to a boy of her own age the men very frequently have wives much younger than themselves, as the husband and the mother of the wife obtained in this way are usually approximately of the same age. When it has been agreed upon by two men that the relationship shall be established between their own children, one a boy and the other a girl, the two latter, who are generally of a tender age, are taken to the Erlukwirra, or women's camp, and here each mother takes the other child and rubs it over with a mixture of fat and red ochre . . . . . This relationship indicates that the man has the right to take as wife the daughter of the woman; she is in fact assigned to him, and this, as a rule, many years before she is born.[7]

It will be noticed that this is in reality a modification of the system of exchanging women, and has an advantage over capture, elopement, and charming (all of which are methods in practice

(179) among the same tribes) in the fact that it is of the nature of a business transaction or social agreement, and provokes no bad feeling or retaliation. It also shows considerable regard on the part of the elders for the young; but practically it is a reluctant admission of a youth to participation in sexual privileges, since marriage is delayed until a girl of his own age has been married and given birth to a girl who in turn has become marriageable.

In the same connection we have the testimony of Curr that

the marriage customs of the blacks result in very ill-assorted unions as regards age; for it is usual to see old men with mere girls as wives, and men in the prime of life married to old widows. As a rule wives are not obtained by the men until they are at least thirty years of age. Women have very frequently two husbands during their lifetime, the first older and the second younger than themselves. Of course, as polygamy is the rule and the men of the tribe exceed the females in number besides, there are always many bachelors in every tribe; but I never heard of a female over sixteen years of age who, prior to the breakdown of aboriginal customs after the coming of the whites, had not a husband.[8]

And Bonwick says:

The old men, who get the best food and hold the fran-


chise of the tribe in their hands, manage to secure an extra supply of the prettiest girls.[9]

A further evidence of the keen sexual interest of the male is furnished by the fact that even when the difficulties in the way of getting a wife are regularly overcome by the youth, the other men of the group, especially the older ones, reserve a temporary but prior claim on her.[10]

In addition to a lively sexual interest in the women of their own group, we find that even the lowest races have a well-developed appreciation of the property value of women. In the earliest times women were the sole creators of certain economic values, and since the women contributed as much or more to the support of the men as the men contributed to the support of the women, the men naturally got and kept as many women as possible.[11] The condition prevailing in this regard in central Australia is stated by Howitt:

It is an advantage to a man to have as many Piraurus as possible. He has then less work to do in hunting as


"his Piraurus when present supply him with a share of the food which they procure, their own Noas being absent. He also obtains great influence in the tribe by lending his Piraurus occasionally and receiving presents from young men to whom Piraurus have not yet been allotted, or who may not have Piraurus With them in the camp where they are. This is at all times carried on, and such a man accumulates a lot of property, weapons of all kinds, trinkets, etc., which he in turn gives away to prominent men, heads of totems, and such, and thus adds to his own influence. This is regarded by the Dieri as in no way anything but quite right and proper.[12]

The following passages also from Spencer and Gillen's description of the marriage customs of these aborigines show both the nature of the sexual system of these tribes in general and the well-developed nature of both their sexual and their property interest in their women:

The word Nupa is without any exception applied indiscriminately by men of a particular group to women of another group, and vice versa, and simply implies a member of a group of possible wives or husbands, as the case may be. While this is so it must be remembered that in actual practice each individual man has one or perhaps two of these Nupa women who are especially attached to himself, and live with him in his own camp. In addition to them, however, each man has certain Nupa women


beyond the limited number just referred to, with whom he stands in the relation of Piraungaru. To women who are the Piraungaru of a man (the term is a reciprocal one) the latter has access under certain conditions, so that they may be considered as accessory wives. The result is that in the Urabunna tribe every woman is the especial Nupa of one particular man, but at the same time he has no exclusive right to her as she is the Piraungaru of certain other men who also have the right of access to her. Looked at from the point of view of the man his Piraungaru are a limited number of the women who stand in the relation of Nupa to him. There is no such thing as one man having the exclusive right to one woman; the elder brothers, or Nuthie, of the latter, in whose hands the matter lies, will give one man a preferential right, but at the same time they will give other men of the same group a secondary right to her. Individual marriage does not exist either in name or in practice in the Urabunna tribe. The initiation in regard to establishing the relationship of Piraungaru between a man and a woman must be taken by the elder brothers, but the arrangement must receive the sanction of the old men of the group before it can take effect. As a matter of actual practice this relationship is usually established at times when considerable numbers of the tribe are gathered together to perform important ceremonies, and when these and other important matters which require the consideration of the old men are discussed and settled. The number of a man's Piraungaru depends entirely upon the measure of his power and popularity; if he be what is called " urku," a word which implies much the same as our word "influential," he will have a considerable number; if he be insignificant or


unpopular, then he will meet with scanty treatment. A woman may be Piraungaru to a number of men, and as a general rule the women and men who are Piraungaru to one another are to be found living grouped together. A man may always lend his wife, that is, the woman to whom he has the first right, to another man, provided always he be her Nupa, without the relationship of Piraungaru existing between the two, but unless this relationship exists no man has any right of access to a woman. Occasionally, but rarely, it happens that a man attempts to prevent his wife's Piraungaru from having access to her, but this leads to a fight, and the husband is looked upon as churlish.[13]

The evidence up to this point is presented with a view to establishing the fact that the men in early society had the strongest interest, both on sexual and on property grounds, in retaining a hold on the women of their group; and as an extreme expression of this interest I wish to consider the system of elopement in early society. While there is no system of government by chiefs among the Australian tribes which we have been considering, the influence of the old men is very powerful in all matters. The initiatory ceremonies, covering periods of months and occurring at intervals during a period of years, and involving great hardship to the young men, are

(185) calculated to inspire them with great respect for the old men and for the traditional practices of the tribe. One of the practical workings of this influence of the older men is to throw restraints about the youn g men and obstruct their activities. This obstruction is seen quite as clearly on the food side as on the side of sex, in the fact that the old men make certain foods which are not abundant (notably the kangaroo and the opossum) taboo to the young men and the women, and thus reserve these delicacies for themselves. We have already seen, however, that the tribe usually makes some kind of a tardy sexual provision for its male members, and we shall presently examine this question more in detail; but the fact remains that the desires of the young men are not adequately or promptly provided for. They may never get a wife in the usual course of things, or they may have to delay marriage for a period of twenty years beyond the point of maturity. Under these conditions it is to be expected that the young men should sometimes attempt to obtain women in spite of existing obstructions; and this is the real significance of elopement. It is, of course, true that married men sometimes eloped with married women as with us; but in

(186) some of the Australian tribes the difficulties in the way of marriage were so great that elopement was recognized as the only way out:

The young Kurnai could, as a rule, acquire a wife in one way only. He must run away with her. Native marriage might be brought about in various ways. If the young man was so fortunate as to have an unmarried sister and to have a friend who also had an unmarrid (sic) sister they might arrange with the girls to run off together or he might make his arrangements with some eligible girl whom he fancied and who fancied him; or a girl, if she fancied some young man might send him a secret message asking, "Will you find me some food?" and this was understood to be a proposal. But in every case it was essential for success that the parents of the bride should be utterly ignorant of what was about to transpire.[14]

Fison[15] is of the opinion that elopement in this case is caused by the monopoly of women in the tribe by the older men. Even when the assent of the parents has been secured, or when the match has been arranged by the parents of the young people, it is in some cases necessary to elope because of the reluctance of the men in general to have a young woman appropriated:

If the woman was caught her female relatives gave her a pod beating. Fights took place over these cases between the girl's relatives -- both male and female -- and


those of the man. The women were generally the most excited; they would stir up the men and then assist with their yamsticks. If the girl was first caught by other than her own relatives, she would be abused by all the men; but this never occurred when her parents or brothers were present to protect her.[16]

When we consider the difficulties in the way of young men in getting wives at home , we should expect that they would make a practice of capturing women from other tribes; and, indeed, it is well known that marriage by capture has been assumed to be at the base of exogamy by both Lubbock and Spencer. But the importance which has been attached to this form of marriage in the literature of sociology is due to the fact that these eminent writers have constructed theories on the assumption that marriage by capture was widespread and important, more than to anything else. For, to say nothing of the fact that the theories of both these writers are too weak to stand even if capture were found to be very prevalent, the evidence from Australia shows that capture was comparatively little practiced there, although that country affords most of the examples referred to by writers on this subject. Spencer and Gillen say in this connection:


The method of capture which has so frequently been described as characteristic of Australian tribes, 'is the very rarest way in which the Central Australian secures a wife. It does not often happen that a man forcibly, takes a woman from someone else within his own group, but it does sometimes happen, and especially when the man from whom the woman is taken has not shown his respect for his actual or tribal Ikuntera (father-in-law) by cutting himself on the occasion of the death of one or the other of the latter's relations. In this case the aggressor will be aided by the members of his local group, but in other cases of capture he will have to fight for himself. At times, however, a woman may be captured from another group, though this again is of rare occurrence, and is usualli, associated with an avenging party, the women captured by which, who are almost sure to be the wives of men killed, are allotted to certain members of the avenging party.[17]

Curr reports to the same effect:

On rare occasions a wife is captured from a neighboring tribe and carried off . . . . . At present, as the stealing of a woman from a neighboring tribe would involve the whole tribe in war for his sole benefit, and as the possession of the woman would lead to constant attacks, tribes set themselves generally against the practice. [18]

It is, of course, not to be denied that the sexual impulse of the male was sometimes strong

(189) enough to lead him to seize a woman wherever he found her, if he could not get a wife otherwise, but there is no evidence that capture ever formed a regular or important means of getting wives.[19]

On the contrary, the evidence points to the view that as soon as for any reason men ceased to marry with the women of their own blood and went outside of their immediate families for women, they ordinarily secured them in a social., not a hostile, way, and from a different branch of their own group, not, as a rule, from a strangegroup. In fact, the regular means of securing a wife other than a woman of one's own family seems to have been to exchange a woman of one's family for a woman of a different family.

The Australian male almost invariably obtains his wife or wives either as the survivor of a married brother, or in exchange for his sisters, or later on in life for his daughters. Occasionally also an ancient widow, whom the rightful heir does not claim, is taken possession of by some bachelor but for the most part those who have no female relatives to give in exchange have to go without wives. Girls become wives at from eight to fourteen years. Males are


free to possess wives after . . . . attaining, the status of young man, which they do when about eighteen years of age. One often sees a child of eight the wife of a man of fifty. Females until married are the property of their father or his heir, and afterwards of their husband, and have scarcely any rights. When a man dies his widows devolve on his oldest surviving brother of the same caste as himself-that is, full brother. Should a man leave, say two widows, each of whom has a son who has attained the rank of a young man, then I believe each of the young men may dispose of his uterine sister and obtain a wife in exchange for her. But should the deceased father of the young men have already obtained wives on faith of giving these daughters in marriage when of suitable age, then the contract made must be kept. When the father is old and his sons young men, it happens sometimes that he barters females at his 'disposal for wives for them.[20]

Roth also reports [21] that exchange of sisters is one mode of negotiating marriage; and Haddon says that in the region of Torres Straits marriage is proposed by the woman, but the man must either pay for her or furnish a woman in return. In Tud, after the young people have come to an agreement,

they both go home and tell their respective relatives. "For girl more big (i. e., of more consequence) than boy." If the girl has a brother, he takes the man's sister, and


then all is settled. The fighting does not appear to be a very serious business.[22]

Similarly in Maibung:

An exchange of presents and foods was made between the contracting parties, but the bridegroom's friends had to give the larger amount, and the bridegroom had to pay the parents for his wife, the usual price being a canoe or dugong harpoon, or shell armlet, or goods to equal value. The man might give his sister in exchange for a wife, and thus save the purchase price. A poor man who had no sister might perforce remain unmarried, unless an uncle took pity on him and gave him a cousin to exchange for a wife .[23]

Fison and Howitt [24] give other examples of marriage by exchange, and I have already given a description of the custom of Tualcha mura, the regular method of obtaining a wife among the central Australians, by means of which a man secures a wife for his son by making an arrangement with some other man with regard to the latter's daughter. From the evidence given first of all I think we must conclude that early man was inclined to appropriate whatever women came in his way. In this regard we have a condition resembling that among the higher animals,

(192) where the more vigorous males try to monopolize the females. We may assume also that the women first appropriated were those born in the group-that is, in the immediate family-as being more proximate and not already possessed by others. In this regard also the condition resembled that among the higher gregarious animals; and in so far as the control of the women by the men of the group is concerned the condition remains unchanged. But the men have ceased to marry the women of their immediate families, and the problem of exogamy is to determine why men living with women and controlling them should cease to marry them.

In other papers I have pointed out that the interest of man is not held nor the emotions aroused when the objects of attention have grown so familiar in consciousness that the problematical and elusive elements disappear;[25] and I have also alluded to the laws of sexual life, that an excited condition of the nervous system is a necessary preparation to pairing.[26] And just here we must recognize the fact that

(193) monogamy is a habit acquired by the race, not because it has answered more completely to the organic interest of the individual, but because it has more completely served social needs, particularly by assuring to the woman and her children the undivided interest and providence of the man. But in early times the law of natural selection, not the law of choice, operated to preserve the groups in which a monogamous Dr quasi-monogamous tendency showed itself (since the children in these cases were better trained and nourished), and in historical times and among ourselves all of the machinery of church and state has been set in motion in favor of the system. In point of fact, the members of civilized societies at the present time have become so refined and have so far accepted ethical standards that monogamy is the system actually favored on sentimental grounds as well as on grounds of expediency by a large proportion of any civilized population. On the other hand, speaking from the biological standpoint, monogamy does not, as a rule, answer to the conditions of highest stimulation, since here the problematical and elusive elements disappear to some extent, and the object of attention has grown so familiar in consciousness that the emo-

(194) -tional reactions are qualified. This is the fundamental explanation of the fact that married men and women frequently become interested in others than their partners in matrimony. I may also just allude to the fact that the large body of the literature of intrigue, represented by the tales of Boccaccio and Margaret of Navarre, is based on the interest in unfamiliar women.

Familiarity with women within the group and unfamiliarity with women without the group is the explanation of exogamy on the side of interest; and the system of exogamy is a result of exchanging familiar women for others. We have seen that capture was not an important means of securing wives outside the group, and that exogamy was fully developed before property and media of exchange were developed to any extent, and consequently before the purchase of women had become a system. We have seen also that the Australian who wants a woman at the present time gets her by exchanging another woman for her. Social groups were necessarily small in the beginning. Before invention and co-operation have advanced far, the group must remain small in order to pick up enough food to sustain life on a given area.

Starting out with a single pair, when the

(195) family increases in size a separation is necessary-, and clans are an outcome of the process of division and redivision, the bond between the clans and their union in a tribe resulting from their consciousness of kinship. Now, it is a well-known condition of exogamy that, while a man must marry without his clan, he must not marry without his tribe, and for the most part, in fact, the clan into which he shall marry is designated. In other words, allied clans gave their women in exchange mutually. This was a natural arrangement, both because the two groups were neighbors and because they were friendly, and at the same time the psychological demand for newness was satisfied. Men a family was divided into two branches, Branch A had a property interest in its own women, but preferred the women of Branch B because of their unfamiliarity. The exchange took place at first occasionally and not systematically, and the women parted with in each case were not, perhaps, in all cases the youngest, and we may assume that they had in all cases been married before they were given up. But gradually, and when the habit of exchange had been established, men came to look forward to the exchange ,and to desire to secure the girl at the earliest

(196) possible moment, until finally young women were exchanged at puberty, and virgins. When for any reason there is established in a group a tendency toward a practice, then the tendency is likely to become established as a habit, and regarded as right, binding, and inevitable: it is moral and its contrary is immoral. When we consider the binding nature of the food taboos, of the couvade, and of the regulation that a man shall not speak to or look at his mother-in-law or sister, we can understand how the habit of marrying out, introduced through the charm of unfamiliarity, becomes a binding habit.

I think, therefore, we have every reason to conclude that exogamy is one expression of the more restless and energetic habit of the male. It is psychologically true that only the unfamiliar and not-completely-controlled is interesting This is the secret of the interest of modern scientific pursuit and of games. States of high emotional tension are due to the presentation of the unfamiliar-that is, the unanalyzed, the uncontrolled-to the attention. And although the intimate association and daily familiarity of family life produce affection, they are not favorable to the genesis of romantic love. Cognition is so complete that no place is left for

(197) emotional appreciation. Our common expressions "falling in love" and "love at sight" imply, in fact, unfamiliarity; and there can be no question that men and women would prefer at present to get mates away from home, even if there were no traditional prejudice against the marriage of near kin.


  1. The theories of Lubbock, Spencer, Tylor, Kohler, Huth, and Morgan are criticized by Westermarck, History of Human Marriage, pp. 311-19.
  2. Cf. Ploss, Das Weib, 3. Aufl., Vol I, pp. 313 ff.
  3. Westermarck, History of Human Marriage, pp. 2 13 ff.
  4. Danks, "Marriage Customs of the. New Britain Group," Journal of the Anthropological Institute, Vol. XVIII, p. 281.
  5. Ploss, loc. cit., Vol. I, p. 150.
  6. The evidence in this paper will bear chiefly on Australia, both because the natives are in a very primitive condition, and because the customs of the aborigines have been very fully reported by a large number of competent observers.
  7. Spencer and Gillen, The Native Tribes of Central Australia, p. 558.
  8. The Australian Race, Vol. I, p. 110.
  9. Daily Life of the Tasmanians, p. 64
  10. Howitt, "The Dieri and Other Kindred Tribes of Central Australia," Journal of the Anthropological Institute, Vol. XX, p. 87; Roth, Ethnological Studies among the North-WestCentral Queensland Aborigines, p. 174; Spencer and Gillen, loc. cit., p. 93.
  11. Cf. pp. 136 ff. of this volume.
  12. Howitt, "The Dieri and Other Kindred Tribes of Central Australia," Journal of the Anthropological Institute, Vol. XX, p. 58.
  13. Spencer and Gillen, loc. cit., pp. 62, 63.
  14. Fison and Howitt, Kamilaroi and Kurnai, P. 200.
  15. Ibid., P. 354.
  16. Fison and Howitt, loc. cit., p. 288, quoting Rev. John Bulmer on the Wa-imbio tribe.
  17. Spencer and Gillen, loc. cit., p. 554.
  18. Loc. cit., Vol. 1, p. 108. At the same time, Curr thinks that capture was formerly more frequent.
  19. Misapprehension as to the prevalence of marriage by capture is due in the main to two causes: (1) cases of elopement have been classed as cases of capture; (2) the so-called survivals of marriage by capture in historical times, of which so much has been made, are merely systematized expression of the female, differing in no essential point from the coyness (it the female among birds at the pairing season.
  20. Curr, loc. cit., Vol. 1, p. 107.
  21. Loc. cit., p. 181.
  22. Haddon, "Ethnography of the Western Tribes of Torres Straits" Journal of the Anthropological Institute, Vol. XIX, p. 414.
  23. Ibid., p. 356.
  24. Loc. cit., p. 285.
  25. Cf. "The Gaming Instinct" American Journal of Sociology, Vol. VI, pp. 736 ff. passim.
  26. Cf. pp. 208 ff. of this volume

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