The idea of a woman having numerous sexual partners seems to be too abstract and farfetched for most of today’s modern world; in fact, female polygamy is found in less than 1% of the world´s cultures (McIntosh, Anth 1a lecture, 9/22/2010). Within American culture, females who engage in sexual freedoms are perceived inferiorly by their surrounding society. Both males and females in the United States use derogatory terms to refer to promiscuous women, even though this attitude is not reciprocated towards promiscuous men. Contrarily, among a few non-western cultures, not only does the term female promiscuity not exist, but women are expected to have various sexual partners in their lifetime. Among the Barí tribe of Venezuela and among some villages in the northwest of Tibet, polyandry is a widely practiced and accepted ritual. Women are not only encouraged to have many sexual partners, but they are expected to do so. This drastic difference in attitudes with regards to the cultural phenomenon of female promiscuity provides an insight to the basic necessities and values that varying cultures advocate. While American culture does not accept female promiscuity, women still engage in this behavior because it asserts the value of gender equality; however, in non western cultures people engage in polyandry because the values being asserted are those of reproduction and financial security.
The Barí Indians living in the border between Colombia and Venezuela endorse female polyandry as an essential element for the survival of their culture. The Barí believe that a “fetus is built up over time with repeated washes of sperm which means, of course, that more than one man can contribute to the endeavor” (Small 2003: 111). Thus, the Barí accept the idea that the natural creation of a child happens by means of one female and various males. In this manner a woman must sleep with multiple men in order to conceive a healthy child. Furthermore the Barí have observed that “naming secondary fathers was a critical factor in predicting which babies made it to adulthood… the team determined that two fathers were the ideal number” (Small 2003: 112). A secondary paternal figure assured the child with a more constant and larger quantity supply of food. Also, women acquired extra fat and protein during gestation because they had an additional male contributing food, and as a result this helped prevent miscarriages. The Barí belief that children are conceived with various washes of sperm is thus not only the scientific explanation that the Barí give to the phenomenon of childbirth, but it is also an economic means of ensuring Barí survival. The more people involved in the rearing of a child, the better chances of survival he or she has.
The very nature of polygamy suggests that any of the parties involved can develop intense feelings of jealousy. Polyandry especially can even evoke aggressive behavior from men. However Stephen Bekerman, an anthropologist who studied the Barí Indians for twenty years argues that at first, “… the researchers worried that jealousy on the part of the husbands would make Barí women reticent about discussing multiple sexual partners” (Small 2003: 113). Nonetheless this did not seem to be a problem among the Barí. When interviewed, the husbands did not mind sitting alongside their wives whilst discussing with the interviewer all of the wives’ sexual partners. It becomes evident how intrinsically accepted female polygamy is in Barí society. It is natural, and though feelings of jealousy do exist, they are mitigated by the advantages that polyandry brings to the society. Through polyandry, the Barí people ensure their continued existence. A child with multiple fathers has a higher chance of survival and can thus assure the continuation of the Barí lifestyle. The goal of polyandry as a mating system for the Barí, is therefore necessary in order to guarantee their reproduction and at the same time be able to offer...
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