What Was Sex Like In Ancient Hawaii?

Hawaii is a paradise, with lush green landscapes, beautiful beaches, and near-perfect weather. Ancient Hawaiian culture mirrored this notion of paradise in their expressions of sexuality, which was open, freely expressed, and highly nuanced. Sex in Hawaii's pre-colonized days bore no shameful connotation - it was just a part of everyday life.

Ancient Hawaiian sexual culture was very different from that of the intruding Westerners; plural relationships were considered normal, LGBTQ identities were accepted, and expressions of sexuality were intertwined with regularly used phrases for love, joy, and happiness. 

The ancient Hawaiian time period ended around the time when King Kamehameha I unified the Hawaiian islands and when Captain James Cook "discovered" them in 1778. Sadly, explorers and early missionaries left a scar on Hawaiian culture that never managed to heal. Puritanical Christian values were forced onto the native people, and their openly loving way of life was marred forever.

  • Children Were Given In-Depth Lessons About Performance
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Children Were Given In-Depth Lessons About Performance

    In ancient Hawaii, sexual education was actually about the act of intercourse. Young Hawaiians were taught skills to make them the best lovers possible, and grandparents were often the teachers of children.

    If a person was known as a selfish or lazy lover, they were ridiculed by their community; if they were skillful lovers, they were admired. Besides observing and practicing healthy sexual habits, children were taught interpersonal skills to prepare them for the day when they would start building their own intimate relationships.

  • White Settlers' STIs Wiped Out Huge Percentages Of The Native Population

    Captain Cook, the famed British explorer, landed in Hawaii for the first time in 1778. He and his sailors were greeted warmly by the native Hawaiians, but in return for the natives' hospitality, the Englishmen brought disease

    The men introduced tuberculosis to the islands, which wiped out a significant portion of the population. To make matters worse, they also introduced sexually transmitted infections like syphilis and gonorrhea. While syphilis often proved fatal, both STIs led to a severe decrease in fertility, meaning that the next few generations couldn't raise the population to its former level.

  • Food And Eating Entailed More Rigid Rules Than Sexuality

    There were many strict traditions and customs regarding food and eating in ancient Hawaii. Many of them applied specifically to women; there were certain foods that were punishable by execution for a female to eat, including pork, some types of bananas and coconuts, and certain types of fish. Men and women also couldn't eat Hawaiian staples like poi and taro from the same bowl. 

    Although they were free to be intimate with one another whenever they pleased, men and women couldn't eat together. But Hawaiian royals eventually succumbed to Western influence and deliberately broke the tradition - after King Kamehameha passed away, his son and two of his wives sat down and ate a meal together.

  • High-Ranking Chiefs Often Had Intimate Relationships With Family Members

    Incest among Hawaii's royals was very similar to the inter-familial relationships common in ancient European royal families - those in both cultures sought to preserve and extend the family lineage. However, Hawaiian chiefs were often more direct in their inter-family ties. Siblings married frequently, all for the purpose of producing offspring with the most mana, or divine life force. For commoners, however, this practice was considered unacceptable.

    King Kamehameha I had 27 partners, including his niece, Keopuolani. She outranked him in terms of mana, and thus could never be physically lower than him; researchers suggest she must have always been on top when they slept together. They had three high-ranking children; two of them fell in love with one another and were set to be married. The pair defied the Christian colonizers and had a child together, but the baby did not survive. If it had lived, it would have been granted the highest possible rank.

  • There Was No Distinction Between Expressions Of Sexuality And Everyday Activities
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    There Was No Distinction Between Expressions Of Sexuality And Everyday Activities

    In modern times, society sees expressions of sexuality as something very private, which people keep separate from their public activities. But in ancient Hawaii, sexuality was present almost everywhere. People wove sexual references into dances, chants, and the names of places. 

    For ancient Hawaiians, pleasure was something to balance openly alongside family, religion, and the land. The Hawaiian language is also full of words and phrases that are loaded with sensual expression; for example, "kuko ‘umi ‘ole" translates to "unrestrained desire," and "hope loa koko’olua kino" mean "the ultimate physical union."

  • European Visitors' New Ideas And Moral Codes Drastically Affected Hawaiian Culture
    Photo: Ray Jerome Baker / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    European Visitors' New Ideas And Moral Codes Drastically Affected Hawaiian Culture

    The settlers and missionaries who came to Hawaii irrevocably altered the traditionally open-minded ways of the Hawaiian people. They introduced concepts such as sex work, adultery, illegitimate children, and sin, which had lasting effects on the culture.