Anthropological Tourists

Mead & the Young Sex Mavens
by Judith Reisman

Back in the Roaring Twenties, Columbia University's Franz Boas (1858–1942), the "father of American anthropology," was maneuvering to break what he called the "shackles that tradition has laid upon us." To that end, Boas supported the "field work" of young anthropology students, including Margaret Mead, who set out to prove what Boas wanted her to prove: that happy primitive people had better sex, younger, than uptight Westerners.

In 1925, the 23-year-old Mead, recently married to the first of her three husbands, went to Samoa, stayed for less than a year, and returned to the U.S. claiming that Samoan society was an "uninhibited," free-sex society with no jealousy, no rape, and great sex. On the basis of this exploit, she got her Ph.D. and eventually became one of the most celebrated of all anthropologists.

Mead described her sexual paradise in Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), a book that caught the attention of a young New Zealand-born anthropologist, Derek Freeman. Expecting to find the sexual utopia Mead had depicted, he went to Samoa in 1940 and lived there for three years, studying and working as a schoolteacher.

No Paradise

To his considerable disappointment, Freeman (later a professor at the Australian National University) found that Mead was wrong. After years of doing his own field research, he published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth in 1983. In the preface he admits:

In my early work I had, in my unquestioning acceptance of Mead's writings, tended to dismiss all evidence that ran counter to her findings. By the end of 1942, however, it had become apparent to me that much of what she had written about the inhabitants of Manu'a in eastern Samoa did not apply to the people of western Samoa. . . . Many educated Samoans . . . had become familiar with Mead's writings about their culture . . . [and] entreated me, as an anthropologist, to correct her mistaken depiction of the Samoan ethos.

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This is from an article in the new issue of Salvo. It's surprising to learn the origins of these sorts of cultural myths, the merits of which we take as true simply because they become ingrained in the culture. Of coarse the original theories get widely disseminated while the rebuttals rarely get the same circulation.

This particular subject also gets special treatment in this issue by way of a Salvo fake ad.

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