Humans are enormously variable. Just about every institution we have is subject to endless modification across cultures and throughout time. Even the underlying assumptions behind things we take for granted, such as democracy, money, or the use of money to undermine democracy, are subject to change from one country to the next. Of course, some institutions are more variable than others.
Sex, for example, is something humans can’t seem to get right. We keep changing the rules, coming up with new customs to regulate the act, changing those regulations on a cultural whim, and then declaring that there is only one right way to do it and punishing people who would dare to think the rules could be changed for any reason.
So it can come as a shock when we step outside our cultural bubble and find people doing sex wrong. Unfamiliar institutions challenge our ideas of good and bad, and sometimes even our sense of right and wrong, and reveal a set of assumptions so unlike our own that we’re forced to rethink our own rules (again).
A Love Shack for a Teenage Girl, Built by Her Parents
The notion that 13-year-old girls shouldn’t be drifting from one casual lover to another is so ingrained in Western thought that I’m actually a little uncomfortable writing this sentence. Officially, sixth-grade girls are chaste and not interested in sex, and shame on you for even thinking about it, you pervert.
This attitude is one of those absolutely unalterable universal human values, which coincidentally grew up in a society where girls who have children too early ruin their families’ economic standing. Among the Kreung of Cambodia, however, extra children are basically free help around the farm, so those inhibitions never had any reason to grow up. Which might explain why parents in Kreung villages build special huts for their daughters who’ve just started puberty, usually around age 13.
Kreung girls are allowed to invite over any boys they like, and the boys can stay as long as the young lady will let them. If she gets bored with a boy, or if she decides to try sex with someone else for a while, all she has to do is say the word and it is so.
The idea seems to be that, since divorce is so uncommon among the Kreung, girls need a safe place to sow their oats and figure out what they like before settling down with a husband.
Any children born as a result of this experimentation are either adopted by the girl’s eventual husband or raised by the girl and her family. Of course, we in the advanced West know that this is ridiculous. Everybody knows that teenage girls are to be kept in ignorance and seclusion, and the ones who get pregnant must be expelled from school and shamed into giving the babies up for adoption because food stamps are for moochers.
Bhutan’s Love Burglars
It’s late, the clubs have closed, and gangs of young men are out prowling the streets unsupervised. Passing a likely looking window, the gang pressures one of its own to climb up and break in, but be quiet about it; otherwise, you’ll wake the girl inside.
In virtually any country on Earth, the above passage would be the opening words of the district attorney’s address to the jury in a rape trial. In Bhutan, it might be the best man’s toast at your wedding. Such is the case with Bomena, the traditional Bhutanese courtship ritual.
In rural and eastern Bhutan, boys roam the night looking for houses where they know eligible young ladies will be sleeping. When they find the place they’re looking for—which is not hard in a small agrarian village—they sneak up to the walls, climb through the (badly) latched window, and make their way to the girl’s bed. When they get there, the trick is to either talk their way under the covers or sneak in and not get thrown out.
This activity, which sounds a hell of a lot like the scariest rape stories on Tumblr, is actually pretty low-risk for the girls involved, and potentially very hazardous for the boys. In the sort of villages where Bomena is practiced, young girls tend to sleep in a common room with their entire families, and Bhutanese fathers can be as twitchy about their daughters’ sexuality as fathers anywhere, so the slightest audible protest from the girl is enough to get the unwelcome suitor tossed out the same second-story window he snuck through.
There’s no stigma to out-of-wedlock babies, though the boy is officially supposed to marry the girl if he’s still there in the morning. In other words, the strategy either works or it doesn’t, and actual rape is unheard of, though there are a lot of stories about horny boys accidentally crawling into the grandmother’s bed and not being allowed to leave, which maybe counts as rape, we guess.
Like all awesome customs, this one is being stamped out by officious jackasses. Bhutan’s principal economic activity is cashing aid checks from rich countries, so the government is always eager to present its best face to outsiders.
Imagine explaining to Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom that you’d like some aid money, but you aren’t going to do anything about the roving sex gangs in your eastern provinces.
Under pressure from foreigners, and perhaps more pressure still from a native elite which is eager to distance itself from what it sees as a shamefully backward rustic custom, Bhutan has enacted laws depriving illegitimate children of citizenship, prosecuting government employees who engage in Bomena, and patrolling the streets to arrest the boys who are doing it. Of course, this leaves open the question of how marriageable girls are supposed to find husbands in these villages, now that their thousand-year-old custom is dying, but whatever; they’ll figure it out.
Charity Bridal Auctions
This one comes from ancient history, so take it with a grain of salt. Worse, it comes from Herodotus, who was a notoriously unreliable narrator who never let the truth get in the way of a good story. According to Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BC, Babylonian girls were married off in annual auctions, with potential husbands bidding for them sight-unseen.
Herodotus was writing in an age before anyone discovered hurt feelings, so he was pretty much free to describe the process accurately. Each year, he wrote, all of a village’s prettiest and ugliest unmarried girls would be brought together. The bidding would start with the prettiest girls being sold to the highest bidders, with progressively less attractive girls fetching lower and lower prices.
After the pretty ones were all married off, the auctioneer would bring up the ugly girls and ask who would take them for a small dowry. The dowry got larger and larger as the girls got less and less desirable, with the money coming out of the previous bidders’ bride prices.
In this way, the wealth of the village would be spread around, every girl caught a husband, and everybody got something fun to gossip over for a few weeks as every woman in town shared her opinion of which girls were really worth what price.