Search the Anthropology Review Database

(cover picture) Jankowiak, William (ed.)
2008 Intimacies: Love and Sex across Cultures. New York: Columbia University Press.

Notes: 290 pp., 9780231134378
Reviewed 7 Nov 2010 by:
Jack David Eller <>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Written Literature
Sex - Cross-cultural studies
Intimacy (Psychology) - Cross-cultural studies
Love - Cross-cultural studies
Interpersonal relations - Cross-cultural studies

ABSTRACT:    This collection of nine ethnographic essays is a fine and indispensible contribution to the anthropological description and analysis of love.

For a recent course on the anthropology of sex and gender I asked students to present a potential research project at the end of the term. The very last presentation of the semester came from a man who mildly chastised anthropology for focusing on sex to the exclusion of love, and he proposed a project that would examine love ethnographically. I wish that I had had Jankowiak’s anthology to show to him.

It is probably true that anthropology (and other social sciences) have paid more attention to gender as a status and cultural concept and to sex as an act than to love as an emotion and a social relationship. This does not mean, however, that anthropology has paid no attention to love, as the essays in this collection—along with their associated bibliographies—clearly illustrate. Most anthropologists will be familiar with the work of Helen Fisher (not included in the present collection, although repeatedly mentioned), such as Anatomy of Love (1994) and Why We Love (2004), and many of the contributors to the volume have made previous distinguished contributions to the subject. The editor, Jankowiak, has himself written extensively on the anthropology of love, including an essay co-authored with Edward Fisher (1992) and an edited volume on the universality of romantic love (1995).

Jankowiak’s introductory essay in the new anthology does a good job of establishing the main issues in the discussion. First, he notes that there are three distinct phenomena interacting in the realm of love—comfort/attachment love (also called companionship), passionate/romantic love, and sexual desire. Then he stresses that all cultures struggle, not entirely successfully, with the “synthesis or reconciliation” (p. 1) of these three forces. Third, he acknowledges but rejects the common opinion that romantic love is a distinctly Western cultural experience (a claim perhaps most persuasively made in Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World). Rather, he insists that romance or passionate love has a global presence and universal qualities, even if its forms and metaphors are diverse in different societies. He specifically suggests three common cultural attitudes or metaphors which he calls the deerotice, the polyerotic, and the uniromantic (p. 21).

The subsequent nine essays investigate specific societies and their conceptions and practices of love and sex. Bonnie and Barry Hewlett, for instance, offer a comparative study of two neighboring central African groups, the Aka foragers and the Ngandu farmers; they discover systematic differences between the ideas and practices of the two societies that demonstrate “the interactions of biology (sexual desire, attachment, compassion), ecology (political-economic setting), and culture (schema, ideas, cultural models about sex and love)” and suggest that “intimacy, sex, and love are best understood within an integrated biocultural approach” (p. 38). Victor de Munck looks at love in contemporary Lithuania, finding that Lithuanian views of romantic love diverge in interesting ways from American ones and that those views are “linked to other cultural concepts and practices” (p. 65). Specifically, Lithuanians tended to perceive romance as a fantasy, “perhaps a delightful one” (p. 77), but not a state that could be sustained or even entirely a ‘real’ one.

Shanshan Du summarizes work on the Lahu of southwest China, where monogamy and intimacy are clearly articulated and clearly linked: “monogamous marriage is defined as the exclusive locus of intimacy” (p. 98). Further, or perhaps fundamentally, “love is expressed as harmonious teamwork” (p. 99). Geetanjali Tiwara introduces one of the rarest forms of romantic and sexual relation, the polyandrous marriage, in Kinnaur, a community in Himalayan India. Here, the evidence proves that “mature love relationships are not exclusive to dyads” (p. 122). Through a series of case studies, Tiwara indicates that polyandry involves unique challenges and is sometimes unstable, but by way of the key value of “impartiality” (p. 140) balanced and loving relationships can be built and maintained.

Birgitt Röttger Rössler presents an especially interesting portrait of the Makassar of Sulawesi, who have an explicit ethnopsychology of love. Among the Makassar, “in daily life men and women hardly interact” (p. 149), and rank endogamy is strongly enforced. Most marriages are arranged, and at the start of a marriage they say that “there are either no feelings at all or cinn-cini’a. Cinna-cini’a is a feeling of affection, of being attracted by the external appearance and behavior of a potential marriage partner…. However, this is not taken in the sexual sense; the expression ero’ (wanting, strong desire) is reserved for this form of desire” (p. 151). Eventually, as the marital relationship develops, “this should lead first to the emergence of singai (liking each other)”; if all goes well, “singai turns into sikarimangi, that is, a mutual caring, understanding, and respectful love” (p. 151). As for sexual feelings, “there is no ‘cultivation’ of eroticism. Sexual desire is viewed as a basic human need…. This is underlined by the lack of any special term for sexual lust” (p. 152).

The final four chapters are equally interesting and well done. Denise Brennan describes “the shifting meanings and practices of sex, marriage, and romantic live in a sex-tourist destination in the Dominican Republic” (p. 174), where women think in terms of ‘sex work’ and ‘love work.’ In this environment, both sex and love (or at least avowals of love) are part of the political economy of poor women looking to make a connection if not a marriage. Among the Huli of New Guinea, an island famous for its troubled gender relations, sex is also a kind of work for men, according to Holly Wardlow. Men have marital sex almost exclusively for procreation, and even then traditionally only four days per month; a man should not “have sex with no purpose or just for pleasure” (p. 199). Because of the concern about gender ‘essences,’ men try not to touch their wives much during sex, and because of the concern about female intentions men make a point not to express much pleasure let alone much affection, for fear that his wife would use it against him. Despite their general attitudes toward sex, men engage in extramarital affairs, especially with ‘modern’ women, partly because there are no social stakes (such as bridewealth) involved and partly for the experience of creative ‘modern’ sexual activities.

Daniel Jordan Smith finds that masculinity and infidelity are closely related in southeastern Nigeria, where wives, lovers, and male peers comprise a social context in which extramarital affairs (of a certain kind, conducted within certain norms) are common and important. As for the Huli, extramarital sex was also connected to modernity, in a “tension between being modern and being moral” (p. 232), which the successful Igbo man could do simultaneously but not with the same partners. Speaking of other partners, Jankowiak and Laura Mixson’s ultimate chapter on ‘swingers’ in the United States asks how married couples can practice sexual non-exclusivity and yet maintain their monogamous love. They determine that, while love may be universal, it is not necessarily “dyadic” (p. 245), as equally illustrated by the Himalayan polyandrists, and that romantically monogamous couples employ distinct norms and practices to bracket the sharing of their genitals from the exclusivity of their hearts.

Anyone interested in the question of love and culture would do well to start with Intimacies: Love and Sex across Cultures. Few collected volumes on any subject maintain the consistently high quality of essays in this set; every chapter is significant and well written. In addition, Jankowiak attaches a ten-page appendix listing ethnographic studies that feature some discussion of love and sex. And of course each essay includes a bibliography with yet more suggestions for further investigation. Intimacies: Love and Sex across Cultures is a fine assortment of anthropological writing on an under-appreciated topic, and I am very glad to have found it. Instructors and scholars working on love, sex/gender, marriage/kinship, and psychology/emotions in a cross-cultural context should consider this book and the research on which it is based.


Fisher, Helen 2004 Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. New York: Henry Holt.

Fisher, Helen 1994 Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray. New York: Ballantine Books.

Jankowiak, William, ed. 1995 Romantic Passion: A Universal Experience?. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jankowiak, William and Edward Fischer. 1992 Romantic Love: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Ethnology 31 (2): 149-56.

Rougemont, Denis de. 1983 Love in the Western World. Montgomery Belgion, trans. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.