Gay Tahiti News & Reports

1 Homoerotic, Homosexual, and Ambisexual Behaviors 1995


Homoerotic, Homosexual, and Ambisexual Behaviors

A. Children and Adolescents
Some Tahitian upper-class men, according to Douglas Oliver, kept boys in their household for sex, although this was not a widespread practice. Suggs (1966:24) states that homosexual experiences among boys, and possibly girls, were common among Marquesan adolescents.

B. Adults
Since first colonial contact, the indigenous peoples of Polynesia have been engaged in culture change and transformation. Indigenous systems of homosexual options may be influenced, or even reinvigorated, by the advent of Western homosexual identities. For French Polynesia, it is necessary to point to this complexity in order to understand homosexuality/bi-sexuality from a cultural perspective that is not a Western-based psychological model.

There were two forms of homosexual behavior in ancient Tahiti. Some Tahitian ari’i men, according to Oliver (1989), kept boys in their household for sex. The other context for homosexual expression was associated with the mãhu status. The mãhu was a transvestic tradition that included homosexual practices with nontransvestic males. It is important to note that since the mãhu is a transgendered category, the term homosexual is not really an appropriate descriptor for mãhu sexuality. Swallowing semen was believed by Tahitians to foster masculine vigor (Gregersen 1994:274). The indigenous pattern of the mãhu is not an equivalent to Western subcultural homosexuality or Western transvestism, but was an integrated part of the wider Tahitian culture. The homosexual aspects of the mãhu status were not its most significant features, but rather it was the cross-gendered aspects of dress and behaviors that identified one as a mãhu. The mãhu is reported throughout Polynesia and was found among the Marquesans, where it was very similar to the Tahitian form, according to Oliver (1989). Ferdon (1981) found evidence that the mãhu began dressing in women’s attire while very young. (See Section 7 on gender variation for further discussion.)

Data on Western-type homosexuality in contemporary French Polynesia is sparse. Chanteau et al. (1986) distinguish the presence of a male homosexual community of Polynesian men that frequented hotels, bars, restaurants, and night clubs of Tahiti (presumably in Papeete). This population was considered at high risk for LAV/HTLV-III infection by Chanteau et al. who conducted a serological survey. (See discussion on HIV/AIDS below.) The population recruited for the serological survey consisted of fifty transvestite homosexuals known as raerae. Forty percent of this population had only one partner and frequency of intercourse was once a week. Eighty-five percent of this group had intercourse only once a month. Some of this population had had plastic surgery and female hormone therapy. It is difficult from this report to assess the character of this population, since there are a number of possible gendered identities.

Spiegel and colleagues (1991) collected data from 156 male homosexuals aged 13 to 54 between October and December 1990. The annual median number of sexual partners was 9.5 (range 1 to 600) and the median number of sexual encounters was 156 (range 2 to 5,810). Of this population, 56.4 percent were transvestites. Unfortunately, it is not possible to place the transvestites in the cultural milieu, as sampling information was not provided by the researchers. Nor is it possible to determine the social identity of the transvestites in terms of the mãhu, Western gay transvestism, a modern synthesis of both patterns, or some other identity (Williams 1986:255-258). These transvestites are employed in bars, hotels, and nightclubs. Apparently a raerae subcultural expression is found in the Miss Tane and Miss Male beauty contests. It should be noted here that the Western term transvestite is not really appropriate in describing the complexity of transgendered identities and homosexualities of French Polynesia.

Levy also records the introduction of the term raerae to refer to homosexual and lesbian behavior. While Pirians maintained lesbian behavior (oral and mutual masturbation) did not occur on Piri, it was believed common in Papeete in the bar scene. It was not considered part of a lesbian orientation but rather context-specific. Women who engaged in lesbian encounters were not stigmatized, according to Levy 1973:139-141, but more recent research indicates that lesbian lifestyles are problematic in Tahiti (Elliston 1996).

For more information:


September 2004

Tahiti Sexuality Studies

Society Islands: Pukapukans, Ra’Ivavae,
French Polynesia: Marquesans, Cook Islands [Tahiti, Aitutaki, Mangaia], Samoa, Tonga Isl.]; Santa Cruz Isl., Santa Cruz Isl.

Early betrothal was described by Ellis[1]. Cook noted in 1769 that a boy announced his wedding with an eleven- or twelve-year-old girl by having sexual intercourse on the market, thereby advised by the audience (Stoll, 1908:p693; Sutor, 1964:p418; Brongersma, 1993:p123)[2]. As mentioned before, Oliver (1974)[3] noted that coital simulation became actual penetration as soon as young boys were physiologically able. Oliver (1981)[4] notes that children played in mixed-gender groups until 13 or 14 years old.

The Tahitian attitudes to children playing at copulation was one of amusement (1981:p366). As children approached the age of 11, adult parental attitudes shifted in regard to young females but not males. Jacobus X ([1893] 1898, II:p440-5])[5] fully agrees. The children “learn at an early age to play at little husband and little wife. Children of neighbours form couples, and mutually instruct each other. The Tané is precocious; he attains puberty at eleven or twelve years at the latest. By the age of ten, he has commenced to prepare for the work of love”.

The boys practice urinary preputial adhaesiolysis, and sometimes perform an imitated preputial incision, to hasten readiness. “As soon as the gland [sic] can come out freely, the young Tané, whether he produces sperm or not, commences to copulate with his “little wife”. Due to the “habitual coition with children of the same age, whose yards are in proportion to the size of the vulva and vagina, [t]here is a slow and gradual dilatation, which distends the hymen without tearing it”. On Taihiti, one Dr. Lesson (quoted by Caufeynon, 1920:p72)[6] noted the close, in fact causal, connection of coitarche and menarche: “Toute fille réglée, est à leurs yeux une fille déflorée, et la menstruation est l’indice certain qu’elle a subi les approches de l’homme”[7].

In the Tahitian institution of mahu, adult males would have practised fellatio and/or intercrural intercourse with local “boys”[8]. The mahu would be “particularly selected when boys and kept with the women solely for the caresses of the men” (Bligh as cited by Levy, p13). Levy found a single 16-year-old mahu in the early 1960s, noting that “[o]vert homosexual behavior was distinctly not an essential shared part of the community’s idea of the mahu’s role”.

Levy further documents that “[t]here is much homo-erotic play among boys, particularly related to the adolescent boys’ life stage in which membership in the village peer group is of central importance. There is much body contact, occasional dancing together, occasional group masturbation, much darting out timidly into heterosexual forays and then a return for bragging and discussion to the peer group”.


Janssen, D. F.
Growing Up Sexually. Volume I. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology, Berlin

[1] Ellis, Polynesian Researches, I, p267, 270; Westermarck, E. ([1901:p214])
[2] Sutor, J. /Jacobus X (1964) The Erogenous Zones of the World, by a French Army Surgeon. New York: Book Awards; Brongersma, E. (1993) Jongensliefde, Deel 2. Amsterdam: SUA. Cook speaks of an “odd scene” in which “a young fellow above six feet high lay with a little girl about ten or eleven years of age publickly”.
[3] Oliver, D. L. (1974) Ancient Tahitian Society.Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press
[4] Oliver, D. L. (1981) TwoTahitianVillages: A Study in Comparisons,Provo, UT: BrighamYoungUniversity Press
[5] Jacobus X ([1893]1898) L’Amour aux Colonies. Paris : I. Liseux. 3 vols. Second and enlarged english ed., Untrodden Fields of Anthropology (etc.). Paris: Librairie de Medecine, Folklore et Anthropologie. 2 vols.
[6] Caufeynon (1920) L’Œvre de Chair et L’Enfantement dans l’Humanité. Paris: Bibliotheque Populaire des Sciences Médicales
[7] Herman-Giddens et al. (1988) suggested that sexual abuse of children caused a protraction of sexual maturity, because of an inspecific stress reaction. See Herman-Giddens, M. E., Sandler, A. D. & Friedman, N. E. (1988) Sexual precocity in girls. An association with sexual abuse? Am J Dis Child 142,4:431-3
[8] Levy, R. I. (1971) The community function of Tahitian male transvestism, Anthropol Quart 44:12-21. Also cited by Brewis, A. A. (1992) Sexually-transmitted disease risk in a Micronesian atoll population, Health Transition Rev 2,2:195-213, at p197n