A pai mai ki te mārama, Bring it into the light: Approaching the taboo of sex in Pasifika cultures

A pai mai ki te mārama, Bring it into the light: Approaching the taboo of sex in Pasifika cultures

“Kissy kissy, huggy huggy, but no fucky fucky.” My strong, brown mum’s words echo through the empty depths of my brain as she sends me off to Dunedin from Auckland at the prime age of 17. For all I can remember, this is the complete extent of my at-home education about sex, sexuality, and reproduction. These topics were never really openly discussed in my household growing up, and even today are still shrouded in secrecy. I don’t blame my parents for this at all, and I’m sure many other people, perhaps particularly Pasifika peoples, have had similar experiences. 

As Pasifika peoples, we hold space for each other in many different ways, to come as we are, without fear of judgement. We can talk about our woes, but not as much about our hoes. Why?

“A lot of Pacific youth are scared to approach and talk about sex, whether that’s with their peers, family, or community,” said Cam, who I consider a bit of a sexpert on the topic of Pasifika understandings of sexual and reproductive wellbeing. “Many Pacific peoples view sex as very tapu (sacred), although our understandings of that have changed to be tapu pōiri — sacred topics that we don’t talk about, that are shrouded in darkness, covered up. There’s this idea that we shouldn’t talk about it, look at it, or touch it, and that’ll make sure you’re okay.”

Sir Mason Durie, who is most notably known for the creation of Te Whare Tapa Whā, an indigenous model of conceptualising health in a holistic way, talks about the ideas of tapu and noa (ordinarity), and how our understandings of these are deviant from their true intent. “The original meaning of noa is the idea that we’ve been here before, we’ve seen it before; we know what it is. Whereas tapu is the idea of, we do not yet know what it means, what it is, or what it does, so let’s leave it alone for now, until we can explore it,” said Cam. “Now that we have knowledge about these things, sex, reproduction, and relationships, it’s a pai mai te mārama, bringing these topics into the light to make sure we understand them and change our understandings of what these tapu things are.”

The education system we have in Aotearoa can be at least partly to blame for why sex is such a tapu topic for Pasifika. “The education system is still not a friendly, inclusive environment for diverse learners. By that I mean of ethnic, gender, and religious communities,” said Cam. Bullseye baby; Pasifika peoples tend to differ from Western society in all three of these aspects. “Pacific peoples generally inhabit the space of being a different ethnicity, a different religion than the mainstream West, and quite often have different understandings of gender roles. We are on the back end.”

“Do we have the right language and tools to speak about sex and reproduction specifically? No, we don’t, but is that our fault? Absolutely not. I would argue that most youth in general in NZ don’t have those tools either, to talk about how they’re feeling. We’re just not educated enough about those kinds of things. Changing education at a community level is so important,” said Cam. 

“We haven’t had a lot of Pacific people in spaces of reproductive biology, or developmental psychology, and because of that, there is no knowledge being passed on from generation to generation,” said Cam. It’s crucial that we have Pasifika in these spaces (and others) to encourage and accept the different ways we might think about sex and reproduction. It’s reasonable to observe, then, that having few Pasifika in these fields might make these topics more inaccessible to us.

There is an obvious need to be open to discussing and learning more about sex and reproduction. “There’s this idea of pai ki te mārama; bring it into the light, uncover it. We still acknowledge that these topics are tapu, sacred, but at least we understand why they’re sacred and why we view them in such a way,” said Cam. We must work to destigmatise sex and reproduction, tell our own stories, weave and share our own narratives of these topics that make sense to us, otherwise, someone else will.

The good news is that I believe our Pasifika peoples today are becoming more and more open to discussing the hard, sticky topics and are challenging concepts that no longer serve us well in the contexts in which we live. “We shouldn’t be encouraging Pacific peoples to conform to Western ideals, of course not, but we need to be able to use Pacific values such as community, collectivism, respect, and service, as tools in a toolkit so that we are better able to adapt to the Western society,” said Cam. 

I subscribe HEAVY to this view. Play the game that the Western world has set out before us, without losing who you are at your core. “I don’t think we should adapt to Western ideals or maintain traditional Pacific cultures. I think we should have a mix of both where we combine Pacific values with new ways of doing things,” said Cam.

This article first appeared in Issue 16, 2021.
Posted 5:34pm Sunday 25th July 2021 by Susana Jones.