Tobin on Wallace, 'Sexual Encounters: Pacific Texts, Modern Sexualities'

Lee Wallace
Robert Deam Tobin

Lee Wallace. Sexual Encounters: Pacific Texts, Modern Sexualities. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003. 208 pp. $54.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-4121-9; $21.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8014-8832-0.

Reviewed by Robert Deam Tobin (Whitman College) Published on H-Histsex (July, 2004)

Sexuality in the South Seas

Ever since their encounter with Polynesia, Westerners have associated the South Pacific with sexual freedom and erotic abandon. While in the heyday of colonialism, many Europeans and Americans viewed Polynesia as a sexual paradise, subsequent critics of colonialism have regarded Western erotic fantasies about the islands as tantamount to rape. According to this critique, the Western male takes the subaltern female for his own sexual pleasure in a particularly blatant example of imperialist violation. In her fascinating and well-written book, Lee Wallace demonstrates that heterosexism has blinded such critiques. She restates her thesis trenchantly several times in the study, asserting that "the more sexually resonant figure inscribed within the representational archive of the Pacific is that of the male body" (p. 1) and that "it is the body of the European male, not that of the native female, that incites the most interpretative anxiety" (p. 21).

Establishing the context of her work, Wallace charges that Edward Said and his followers view the colonial effort through a heterosexual lens that if anything reinscribes the power of the Western male and the vulnerability of the subaltern female it is the feminized subaltern male. Citing Jonathan Goldberg, Wallace stresses the importance of concerns about same-sex desire in justifying the colonial effort. (The title of her work seems to be an homage to Goldberg's Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities, [1992].) Gilbert Herdt's work on ritualized homosexuality in New Guinea and Melanesia has clearly inspired Wallace, but the implications of its appropriation in the gay political arena have opened many questions about the relationship between sexuality and culture that Wallace hopes to help answer.

Already in Captain Cook's third voyage to the South Seas, Wallace finds evidence that "the male body is troublingly inscribed with the erotic consequences of contact" (p. 38). Although most commentators focus on the relationships between Cook's men and the Polynesian women, his journals show "an inscription of masculinity that is not yet our own" (p. 45), particularly in the form of the aikane, comely young men who were apparently sexual favorites of the Hawaiian royalty. According to one report from Cook's voyage, "their business is to commit the Sin of Onan upon the old King" (p. 45). Strikingly, the aikane does not exhibit gender inversion, as do the Tongan fakaleiti, the Tahitian mahu, or the Samoan fa'fafine, which will be discussed later. Perhaps because of the influence of Said's model of the male Western conqueror and the feminized subaltern, these gender-inverted figures are far better known than the aikane.

Wallace is particularly interested in the attempt by Cook and his men to write about the phenomenon of the aikane with objective disinterest, which stands in contrast to their reports of active participation in the sexual customs that take place between men and women on the islands. There are, however, breaks in the record, when Cook and his men reveal some level of participation in the erotic relations between men in Polynesia. The Hawaiian nobleman Kalinikoa reportedly asked to retain at least one of the attractive men from Cook's crew as an aikane. Far from rejecting the proposal out of hand, Cook, his man, Kalinikoa and his aikane exchanged names "in the Tahitian manner" (p. 47), which Westerners at least conceived as a kind of Polynesian male-male marriage ceremony. Subsequent scholars have found in these reports evidence that there was "something about" some of the sailors, particularly Captain Bligh. As Wallace argues, the point is not that scholars and film-makers have used such anecdotes to question Bligh's sexuality, but that these pejorative representations produce--and continue to reproduce--a modern understanding of homosexuality"(51). Ultimately, Wallace finds in the references to male-male desire in Cook's voyages that "the Pacific voyage becomes the occasion for masculinist narratives animated by a homoerotic desire that must be defend against" (p. 56).

Having established the significance of masculinity in representations of the South Seas, Wallace looks at two phenomena that upset the standard narrative by which the European gaze "lasciviously takes as its object the female native" (p. 80). The first is the beachcomber, the European who has abandoned ship and taken to life on the islands and whose bodies were often meticulously discussed by visitors. The second is the tattoo, which many of these beachcombers, along with many South Sea Islanders, sport. Earnest discussions of the tattoo allowed nineteenth-century ethnologists and travelers to dwell at length on the male body of the Polynesian, which was often considered to be as beautiful as ancient Greek sculptures and indeed more beautiful than the women of Polynesia.

The missionary William Yate, who was denounced in 1836 for having homosexual relations with both European natives and the Maori, is the subject of the next chapter. Arguing that often "the ban on sodomy became the most convenient way of policing other treasonable acts" (p. 98), Wallace suggests that the Church Missionary Society expelled Yate because it allowed them to define themselves. As she puts it, "the consolidation of the Christian collectivity in this new land waits on this particular sexual sin" (p. 104).

Paul Gauguin would seem to represent all the positives and negatives of the Western view of the South Seas, with his images of languid Polynesian women. But here too Wallace finds a homoerotic dimension. In his journals, Gauguin mentions following a beautiful male Tahitian youth through the forests and becoming sexually aroused. Wallace relates this incident to the painting Manao Tupapau, which depicts a Polynesian woman from behind.

Wallace concludes with an analysis of a modern documentary on fa'afafine, the Samoan males who are raised as women. The documentary by Caroline Harker, which aired in 1996, insists that this phenomenon is "not to be understood in relation to European categories of identification such as gay, transvestite, or transsexual" (p. 139). While Wallace understands the theoretical justification for such a claim, she argues that it inadequately addresses the complexities of modern postcolonial society, where traditional gender structures must interact with Western constructions. The documentary leaves unanalyzed the category of men who have sex with fa'afafine, implying at times that all men do so, which Wallace contests. In general, it is coyly reticent to discuss the sex life of the fa'afafine at all, which Wallace sees as part of the effort of the documentary to break any link between them and Western gay culture. But in fact, Wallace contends that the fa'afafine "will probably find greater accommodation in the sexual subcultures of Auckland, Sydney, or Los Angeles" than in Samoa (p. 148). At the same time as the documentary attempts to banish Western concepts like "homosexuality" from its report on fa'afafine, it quite unselfconsciously uses the category of "heterosexuality." Not only does it fail to question the universality of heterosexuality, it also takes for granted the genders of male and female. The effort to assert absolute difference between the category of fa'afafine and that of gay is particularly dangerous as it hinders efforts to combat AIDS among "young Polynesian men who identify themselves across gender and not as gay" (p. 157).

As I finished the book, I found myself most curious about the Polynesian side of the encounter. Wallace's book focuses exclusively on Western representations of the South Seas and the assumptions of sexuality in those representations. By her own theoretical account, we need to move beyond simplistic categories of European subject and Polynesian object. I wondered therefore if there were Polynesian accounts, either from historical sources or from more recent times, that also addressed issues of sexuality. Even if there are no such sources, a statement of that fact would be interesting. As it is, Wallace makes no reference to Polynesian sources on the subject.

As I hope this review has indicated, Sexual Encounters bursts with absorbing information about sexuality and the South Pacific. At times, I found myself unconvinced of the links between the intriguing material presented and the conclusions reached in the individual chapters. The overall thesis of the work, however, is absolutely compelling: heterosexist assumptions have blinkered both Western fantasies about Polynesia and critiques of those fantasies.

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Citation: Robert Deam Tobin. Review of Wallace, Lee, Sexual Encounters: Pacific Texts, Modern Sexualities. H-Histsex, H-Net Reviews. July, 2004. URL:

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