Michelle Kaufman is a researcher who focuses on sexual behavior in the developing world. She globe trots regularly, conducting ethnographic work all along the way in order to inform both the quantitative and qualitative research she conducts. Recently, Michelle visited 3 countries in 1 trip and did a cross-cultural comparison.
My last international romp spanned across 2 continents and 3 countries—Indonesia, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. Since I’ve written about each of these countries individually, this time I decided to do a cross-cultural comparison in my ethnographic fieldwork. In each country, I wanted to look at how men and women show their romantic interest in a potential partner. Now keep in mind, because the people I work and talk with are mostly urban men (due to the fact that they are the ones who are educated and speak English), my sample has a bias towards the urban male perspective.
I asked everyone I could the following questions: What does a man do to show a woman he is interested in her romantically? And what does a woman do to show she is interested in a man? Here is what I learned.
Indonesia generally has “eastern cultured” and “western cultured” men. In other words, some men come from a more traditional east Asian (often religious) way of thinking, whereas other men subscribe more heavily to European/American approaches. When eastern cultured men have romantic interest in a woman the focus is on talking (or chatting on their Blackberries), and the thought of sex is completely off the table (you don’t see that much with American men!). Such Indonesian men may be introduced to a woman through their families or friends. These men might show a woman a lot of attention and tease or “bully” her so that she becomes aware of his existence. On the other hand, “western cultured” men might meet women in clubs. They will also flirt and tease women, but in a much more direct way, telling her she is attractive or that he wants to take her out. Sex for these men (on or off a table) is definitely of interest.
Many Indonesian women will only show interest in a man by continuing to let him pursue her and carrying on a conversation. She will only reveal her true feelings to her close girlfriends, always appearing shy and “rigid” in front of the man. Others, especially those who are more traditional, view women who are more aggressive about showing their interest in a man as improper.
Apparently, in Ethiopia, seduction is all in the eyes. If a woman looks at a man directly and gives a little wink or twitch of her eyebrow, all systems are go. Men, on the other hand, will do things to stand out from the crowd, such as putting on cologne, dressing nicely, or trying to appear smart and funny, much like a peacock strutting with his feathers out. A woman will never directly approach a man, but she may text him or chat with him on Facebook, just to say hi. It’s up to the man to make the official move, however. He may call her and suggest that she meet him at a specific time and place. If she shows, she’s obviously interested. If she fails to show, not so much….
But one thing that sticks out in Ethiopia compared to many other cultures is women’s token resistance,1 which involves the woman saying no to a man—either pretending she is not interested or refusing his sexual advances—even if she really does want him. Ethiopian women learn to not be too available, and Ethiopian men learn to value a woman who requires a chase. In fact, one man told me that if there is a market where you can just go get milk easily, a man becomes lazy. So if you want your man active, you have to make him go milk the cow. This game becomes dangerous when a woman really wants to say no to sex, but her protests are interpreted as token resistance, and the man continues to pressure her, or maybe even rape her (which is not uncommon).
On a lighter note, several Ethiopian men I spoke with talked about writing love letters and poems for their women of interest. These writings are given to the woman’s friend, which are then delivered to her. The modern form of this act is sending declarations of love via Facebook chat, but for those who do not yet have access to internet, old fashioned love notes are still a sure way to make a woman swoon.
Tanzania is a culture of lots of affection and teasing, both between same gender friends and across genders. Everywhere I go in Tanzania I see people teasing each other and laughing, holding hands (even male friends), putting their arms around each other, and exchanging flirtatious looks (even between strangers). So how does one know that a person has romantic interest in them?
For urban people, it’s all about the text message. A man and woman who meet in a daladala (local bus), on the street, or at an event might exchange numbers. Then the SMS chatting begins. Either the man or the woman will check in—“Hi. How are you? Where are you? What are you doing?” This shows interest in the other person’s daily life. If the texting goes well, they might agree to meet.
But then it becomes about money. Many Tanzanian women want to spend time with a man who spends money on them. After all, “the value of a man is in his pocket.” If he woos her with gifts and drinks, she will stick around and become his woman. But if he lacks financial means, she will likely either find an additional man or move on completely. And for a man with a good job, there is a constant stream of text messages coming in from women who know he has the means to give them what they needs financially. Not surprisingly, having women calling and texting at all hours does not bode well for a man who is trying to be in a committed relationship.
Sexual networks and this transactional sex are the result of poverty in Tanzania, particularly women’s poverty. Women are generally not educated and have no income-generating skills, so they use the only power they have (their sexuality). Many Tanzanian men I spoke with are frustrated because they say Tanzanian women do not know how to love, they are just “gold diggers” and all about “da cash money.” In fact, some of them talk about wanting a white woman, because they often see white women in movies loving a man even if he is poor. On the other hand, Tanzanian women get frustrated because they believe once a man gets some shillings in his pocket, he spends it on other women in order to experience sexual variety and to show that he is a “real man.”2 After all, the belief is that if you only have one woman, then you must be broke.
So when I do meet a Tanzanian man who is genuinely in love with a woman (as was one of my interviewees), or when I find a self-sufficient woman who just wants a faithful man with whom to start a family, it is sad that such a large amount of mistrust underlies these relationships.
While it’s obvious that there are many cultural differences (and some similarities) in the ways in which people pursue love and sex, or even in simply expressing interest in a potential mate, one thing I have learned through my travels is that we all have the same goal—we just want to be loved and give love.
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1Muehlenhard, C. L., & Rodgers, C. S. (1998). Token resistance to sex: New perspectives on an old stereotype. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 22(3), 443-463.
2Wight, D., Plummer, M. L., Mshana, G., Wamoyi, J., Shigongo, Z. S., & Ross, D. A. (2006). “Contradictory sexual norms and expectations for young people in rural northern Tanzania.” Social Science & Medicine 62(4), 987-997.
Dr. Michelle Kaufman – Science of Relationships articles
Michelle conducts research on sexual health and how power in heterosexual relationships influences sexual risk and family planning. She has conducted research in South Africa, Nepal, Tanzania, and Indonesia, and teaches a course on Qualitative Research Methods at Jimma University in Ethiopia.