When it comes to human behavior, "normal" is a highly subjective term. But few human acts are subject to as much scrutiny as sex—and fewer still make the idea of "normal" as subjective as sex, too.
Janice Zarro Brodman is a doctorate-holding political economist by trade, but an anthropology course she took in graduate school sparked a lifelong interest in how different cultures around the world practice sexuality—and especially how norms elsewhere make American sexual practices seem incredibly strange. In her new book, Sex Rules: Astonishing Sexual Practices and Gender Roles Around the World, she shares the results of years of research and world travel to show readers that what we consider normal is anything but. From cultures in which younger men are paired with older, more experienced women to learn sexual prowess, to places where pregnant women take many lovers for the health of the baby, to men who believe their health depends on homosexual oral sex, Brodman shows just how wildly divergent ideas about sexuality and gender roles can be. VICE spoke with Brodman about her book, what she's learned about "conventional" sexuality, and what it's taught her about the way we look at sex here in America.
VICE: Your book, Sex Rules, is about the vast variety of human sexual practices and gender roles around the world. What were some of the most interesting places to study?
Janice Zarro Brodman: What I found the most fun was researching places where they think the things we do are weird. I like the Trobriand of the Trobriand Islands, where sex between young people is perfectly fine. It's expected. They would think it would be weird if young people weren't involved in a lot of sexual experiences. But you must not—dare not—have a meal together! You can have sex, but you cannot share a meal. It is absolutely forbidden unless you're married.
And the Etoro, for whom one of the most disgusting things you could do is have sex with your spouse in your house, because sex is closely associated with having healthy crops and children. So, the appropriate place to have sex is out in the woods, where you're not too close to the crops. You'll have sex with your wife, but you don't want to do it anywhere that it's going to pollute things, because sex between men and women is polluting. It's polluting to the man, and it's polluting to the crops.
Now, this is sex between men and women. Sex between men is fine. They believe that all men should have a male lover. Because that's the way men become strong. And it's also the way you make sure the crops are healthy. They just couldn't conceive of why someone here would be homophobic. It's so obvious to them that this is healthy.
If you had to choose the most interesting example of different gender roles in the book, what would it be?
There are things I like because they're counterintuitive for someone brought up in the United States. The Biwat of Papua New Guinea think women are the sexual aggressors and men are the receivers. They have this saying: "Of course the female is the aggressor and aggressive. Has she not a vulva?" It's just such a great comment.
In America, romantic relationships are the norm, and casual sex is frowned upon. But in some of these cultures, casual sex seems more prevalent then committed relationships.
Based on my research, often people will have a very committed relationship to a spouse, but that commitment doesn't mean they're solely going to be sexually involved with that person. I think for a lot of cultures, marriage is not where your sole sexual experience comes from. You can have a very strong marriage and love your spouse and all these things, but sexuality is like a bodily function. It's like eating. You wouldn't just eat the food your spouse prepares—you go out to restaurants, and you might go out to friends' houses for dinner. They don't have the same stigma about sexuality that Americans do.
What have you learned about sexual mores in America from compiling all these years of research?
Americans are uptight about sexuality, and we have this perception of genitals and sex as scary and private. They're supposed to be hidden. Versus other societies, where sexuality is considered a normal bodily function, where it's considered fun and healthy, and you should do it as much as possible, as long as you're doing it in a safe way. The genitals are nothing to be ashamed of.
It seems to me that in societies that explicitly say that women have control over their sexuality, where teenagers have complete control over sexuality, and where sex isn't stigmatized like it is in the US, there is so much less violence in general. There is something in that. There is a link between societies that explicitly want women to have control over their sexuality from a young age and lack of violence.
The question that the book poses is: What is "normal"? What is your answer to that?
Probably one answer is, everything is normal.
Another way to think about "normal" is through people who are closest to our indigenous state, like the San of Southern Africa, especially. They are a very peaceful people, and they believe that people can have sex for fun—and lots of it—both before and during marriage. There is not jealousy the way we have it, because of the feeling of owning someone. What I find abnormal is someone owning someone, or controlling someone. What's normal is to be yourself, because everyone has something to contribute.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.