Academic journal article Africa

'Serious Games': Licences and Prohibitions in Maasai Sexual Life

Academic journal article Africa

'Serious Games': Licences and Prohibitions in Maasai Sexual Life

Article excerpt


This article discusses sexual licences and prohibitions among the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania with particular reference to the institutionalized yet controversial sexual relations between young pre-menarche girls and adolescent unmarried men. These relations are referred to as children's 'play' in the local vernacular, and as such fall within a larger moral order of age and gender hierarchies that privilege male seniority. The article uses the metaphor of 'serious games' adopted from Sherry Ortner as an analytical device in order to capture the dynamic and ambiguous character of Maasai sexual licences and prohibitions. Being at once serious and playful, 'games' lend themselves particularly to players' creativity, initiative and agency. The article aims to demonstrate how the structures of the gaines open up and create space for women and other 'juniors' to act intentionally and with purpose in their sexual lives.


Cet article traite des licences et interdictions sexuelles chez les Maasai du Kenya et de Tanzanie en se referant particulirement aux relations sexuelles institutionnalis es et cependant controverses entre jeunes filles pre-puberes et adolescents non maries. Ces relations sont dsign es sous le terme de "jeux" d'enfants dans la langue vernaculaire locale et en tant que tels appartiennent un ordre moral plus vaste de hi rarchie d'ge et de sexe qui privil gie la sniorit masculine. L'article utilise la mtaphore de "jeux serieux" de Sherry Ortner en tant que dispositif analytique pour saisir le caractre dynamique et ambigu des licences et interdictions sexuelles Maasai. A la fois s rieux et enjous, les "jeux" se pretent particulirement la crativit , au sens de l'initiative et l'action des joueurs. L'article cherche dmontrer comment les structures des jeux cr ent, en s'ouvrant, un espace dans lequel les femmes et autres "subordonnes" peuvent agir de fa on intentionnelle et dtermin e dans leur vie sexuelle.

   I want to propose a model of practice that embodies agency but does
   not begin with ... the agent, actor, or individual ... I find games
   to be the most broadly useful image. But because the idea of the
   game in English connotes something relatively light and playful, I
   modify the term: 'serious games' ... The idea that the game is
   'serious' is meant to add into the equation the idea that power and
   inequality pervade the games of life in multiple ways ... (Ortner
   1996: 12, emphasis by the present writer).

The above quotation is the starting point for this article, which deals with the sexual licence (and obligation) of young Maasai males to penetrate physically immature girls. (1) This licence has its rationale within a cultural logic and structural framing of hierarchically organized age and gender categories that give precedence to male seniority and male power (Jacobs 1965; Galaty 1977; Spencer 1988).

This article argues that sexual prohibitions and licences--the one implicating the other--may be fruitfully analysed as part of 'serious games' (Ortner 1996), where subjects are positioned in shifting contexts of equality and inequality, power and hierarchy. Throughout their life cycles and in their practical lives, Maasai subjects participate in several sexual 'games', which are deeply social practices drawing people into wide and intense webs of interaction and sociality. Sexual relations, moreover, cannot be analysed in isolation from other social relations or from the realm of economics or politics (Caplan 1987; Ortner and Whitehead 1981; Herdt 1999).

The game metaphor referenced above, borrowed by Sherry Ortner from Clifford Geertz, indicates that social actors 'play' within sets of rules, regulations and defined goals of the game. In their multiple and shifting subject positions (there is seldom only one game), people as human beings act in the world with skill, intention and knowledge, and 'with intensity and sometimes deadly earnestness' (Ortner 1996: 12). …

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