Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman | Study Guide

Marjorie Shostak

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Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman | Chapter 4 : Discovering Sex | Summary



There is little privacy in !Kung life, which makes it difficult for adults to keep their sex lives discreet. Couples may meet in the bush or have sex after children are asleep, but children may still notice their activities. Teens may sleep elsewhere to give their parents more privacy, sometimes building their own sleeping huts, or they may live with grandparents for a time.

Children and teens have a great deal of free time, which they mostly spend playing together in the village while their parents gather food and hunt. Some adults usually remain in the village, so the children generally aren't alone or wholly unsupervised. The adults rarely interfere in children's play, however. Occasional fights or accidents may happen, such as burns from a fire, but otherwise there is not much danger in the village. Play groups of mixed ages, "from infants to young teens," are the norm, since in a village of around 30 residents, there are only so many children to socialize with. Sometimes children set up their own "villages" nearby in the bush, where they play unsupervised. Boys and girls play together rather than segregated by gender, and there are few activities that are considered only for boys or only for girls. "Girls are as free and unfettered as boys," since the !Kung don't prize virginity nor require girls to hide their bodies. Competition is usually not a part of the children's play, as they try to improve their own skills rather than beat someone else.

Since !Kung children don't go to school, play helps them learn to be adults. Most of their play imitates "adult activities: hunting, gathering, singing and trancing, playing house, and playing at parenthood and marriage," as well as sexual play, which may happen in the children's play villages. Adults scold children caught in sexual play and admonish them to "play nicely," but adults too remember their days as children, playing the same games. So long as the children are discreet, they are "not actively prevented from engaging in" sexual play.

Nisa tells a myth about the discovery of sex, in which two women teach their bumbling male partners about how to have intercourse: "Look, there's a vagina over here, right between my legs," one of the women says, and the couples have sex all night. After that, the men spread the word about sex, and everyone else starts doing it, too.

Nisa then tells about sex in her own day and age, stating many children see their parents make love in their huts at night. The child watches and thinks, "So, that's another thing people do with their genitals," and in this way, children start to learn about sex. Little boys will pretend to have sex with little girls—sometimes a sister—and "once he's learned it, he'll try to play that way with everyone." As children get older, they start to "become more aware of their sexual feelings" and may become aroused when hearing their parents "doing their work" (a common euphemism for having sex). Older boys may rub saliva on a girl's genitals, after which he "gets on top and pokes around with his semi-erection," although they do not actually have sex. True intercourse happens "only when a boy is almost a young man." Girls usually refuse to participate in sexual play initially, but eventually "they agree to it and ... even like it." Sexual play commonly begins with boys playing with each other and girls playing with each other, but later boy-girl couples become the norm.

Nisa states as a child, she did not understand what her parents were doing when they had sex. Once she realized what was happening, she became annoyed and uncomfortable and went to sleep in her own hut. At first she never engaged in "bad play," which is "when you touch each other's genitals," but only engaged in "good play," which excludes such acts. Eventually, Nisa's girlfriends started playing sexually with each other, then with boys, and though Nisa refused to participate, she would sometimes watch the other children. Inevitably, she started playing sexually, too, "because children ... play together like that. That's how they grow up." Nisa and her friends set up their own village and went there to play at being married, cooking and sharing food, and having sex. Sometimes Nisa would refuse the boys, so they held her down, "pulled off my leather apron and had sex with me. It hurt!" Other times, she agreed to the play and enjoyed it. Once, when Nisa tells some adults the boys are pestering the girls for sex, "the adults only yelled at me" that the girls should play nicely, "So after that, I didn't say anything."

Nisa plays "nicely" with her girlfriend Keya for a while, but in time, both girls "had boyfriends and learned." Nisa's boyfriend Tikay becomes her steady companion, and she refuses all others. They fight, however, when she doesn't want to have sex one day. She points out her body is still undeveloped, without breasts or pubic hair, and says they are both children and shouldn't be having sex. She even claims not to have a vagina! He tears off her pubic apron and throws it up a tree, so she runs back to her mother in the village, naked, to get a new one. Nisa reverts to playing with her girlfriends Nai and Kunla, sometimes sexually. The group then moves East, "near the Hereros," and Tikay finds a new girlfriend among their people. Nisa feels envious, wanting to be "the only one," but instead she settles for being one of Tikay's "two wives." He splits his time between the girls, who are envious of each other, until finally Nisa decides she doesn't want to be a "co-wife."

Then Nisa's family moves near her mother's relatives, and she misses her friends back East. She begins to play sexually with her cousins, and fights with her cousin Tuma, whom she refuses sexually. She tells him she has a boyfriend back East and Tuma's penis is too big to have sex with anyway. Tuma retaliates by calling her "Nisa-Big-Vagina," and she tells him to go play with his sister instead. Later Nisa and her friend catch Tuma doing just that, and tease him and threaten to tell on them. Some months later, Nisa's family moves back East, where she is happy to be with her old friends again and play and play and play.


Nisa's frank discussion about sex, even among children, reveals her culture's open attitude toward this part of human nature. To her it is natural for children to engage in sex play, for that is how they learn and "grow up." Homosexual play is common among the children and does not seem to be viewed negatively.

Nisa's revelation she was sometimes forced into sex play with the boys, especially when she says she was held down and "It hurt!," seemingly implies she was assaulted within the context of Western culture; however, this is considered normal within the context of !Kung society. Accordingly she seems to brush off the incident as typical child's play. Nisa restates a common !Kung notion that "a child has no sense and just tries to do as the adults do." From such statements the reader might infer the !Kung don't believe such unwilling sexual acts can cause lasting harm for children. The attitudes of the adults around her seem to reinforce this notion. Even when she reports the sexual harassment to adults, they do nothing to intervene and merely scolded her to play with her girlfriends instead. Her relationship with Tikay shows her evolving personal growth into adulthood, and with it comes the pain of adult relationships. Nisa's first experience as a pretend co-wife does not go well, and later in the book, she expresses a dislike for the practice in general. Monogamy is the norm among the !Kung, but the polygamous arrangement of co-wives is also accepted. In addition, there is a great deal of infidelity, and even the children who only play at sex accuse one another of cheating. This type of play, where children reenact grown-up scenarios, is commonly used cross-culturally as a method for education and instilling social norms within children. Children come to learn what is accepted socially within !Kung society through play and through seeing how adults react to their play.

When Nisa's family moves to be with relatives, there are no non-related children around (living groups are often small, with a village numbering around 30 people). Nisa hints sexual play with her cousins is taboo, which may explain why she initially refuses to play with them at all: she wants to play at sex, but not with her relatives. (This may also explain why she misses her friends back East so much.) Eventually Nisa falls into her old play patterns of sexual exploration because there is no one else to play with.

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