Sex in a Conservative Society:
Inis Beag, Ireland
Author's Note: When reading the findings of this study, please keep in mind that the purpose of sharing this information is to demonstrate that different cultures have different views of sex, and to describe one culture that was studied many decades ago: Inis Beag, Ireland. This presentation does not describe the general culture of Inis Beag or Ireland today.
How do people deal with sex in a very conservative society? Anthropologists went to Inis Beag in the 1960s to find out. Inis Beag is a remote island off the coast of Ireland. At the time of the study, Inis Beag was a stable Irish peasant community with a population of 350. In 1966, the village still lacked electricity and running water. The only vehicles were horse-drawn carts. Householders owned land and horses, herding cattle, sheep, and goats. Potatoes were the staple crop.
Anthropologists looked at a variety of aspects of sexuality:
- Children and Sexuality
- Sex Education
- Marriage and Sex
Children and Sexuality
Infant nudity was abhorred by the islanders. The bodies of infants were always covered when in view of siblings and outsiders. Infants had their bodies sponged once a week, and from early childhood onwards their parents washed only their faces, necks, lower arms, hands, lower legs and feet. Breastfeeding was uncommon because of the sexual connotations. By late infancy, verbal affection replaced the affection of physical touching. Children were never allowed to see anyone naked. People slept in their underwear and clothes were changed only in secrecy, often under the bedcovers. Even nudity of pets in heat caused anxiety and dogs were whipped for licking their genitals.
Sex was never discussed. Parents and other family members instructed children with rewards and punishments. Punishment often involved a brutal beating with a belt. Any form of sexual expression was severely punished, be it masturbation, mutual exploration of bodies, use of any slang words related to sex, or open urination. When girls had their first menstrual period, they rarely knew anything about it. Menstruation was often traumatic for these young women because their mothers were incapable of explaining it. Boys mostly learned about sex from older boys and men, and especially from observing animals. Elders believed that sexual instruction was unnecessary because "after marriage, nature takes its course." In some villages, cases of childlessness were reported resulting from the sexual ignorance of the spouses.
Chastity, in thought and action, was the ideal before marriage. Courtship was nearly non-existent. Girls and boys were completely separated at home, on the playground, and on the way to and from school. After Mass, boys, girls, men and women left the chapel in separate groups, one at a time. Boys and girls were never seen walking together around the island. Marriages were arranged by parents with little concern for the wishes of the young people involved. Although no cases of premarital pregnancy were reported, there were regulations for the family whose good name would be destroyed if such an event were to occur. There were only two options: the pair either accepted a forced marriage or was expelled from the community.
Marriage & Sex
The average marriage age for men was thirty-six and for women twenty-five. Nearly a third of marriageable persons on the island remained unmarried and celibate. Women were taught by the church that sexual relations with their husband was a duty that must be endured and that to refuse sex with her husband was a mortal sin. Foreplay was limited to kissing and rough fondling of the buttocks. There was no knowledge of tongue kissing, males kissing a female's breast, a female placing her hand on her husband's penis, cunnilingus, fellatio, anal coitus, extramarital coitus, manifest homosexuality, sexual contact with animals, or sado-masochistic behavior. Underclothing was never removed for sex and the missionary position was the only sexual position used. The female orgasm was unknown and after ejaculation the man usually fell asleep.
Menstruation and menopause were never explained to females, and women were frequently upset by menstruation, menopause, the sexual curiosity of their children, and "excessive" sexual demands of their spouses. They suffered from extreme symptoms of menopause, including severe headaches, hot flashes, faintness and severe anxiety. It was commonly believed that menopause could cause "madness" and some women retired from life at about age 40 and confined themselves to their beds until they died.
Last Updated December 1, 2007