In the Pacific, tattoos were created as gender specific. As a right of passage into adulthood, women received malu and men received tatau. These helped to define gender roles in that they represented which roles were important for each gender to fulfill. Men and women were also tattooed in different places on their bodies. If these places were reversed this also held significance. As mentioned by Ellis, the tattoos displayed, especially for women, sexually desirability. The tattoos showed that sexuality was inseparable from all other aspects of life. A tattoo did not mar a girl’s sexual purity but rather enhanced her as a woman and adult.
The view of a woman’s tattoo in America, for example, was diametrically opposed to this idea. The process of tattooing was a form of penetration and therefore of violation. A woman with a tattoo, regardless of her sexual history, was not seen as a virgin and therefore not seen as worthy of protection and respect. Ellis cites a particularly disturbing account of a rape case in Boston during the 1920s where allegations of rape were dropped simply because the woman was found to have a butterfly tattooed on her ankle.
This event reveals that not only was a woman’s sexuality considered something separate from other aspects of life and shameful, but it also displays the way a tattoo is interpreted. The interpretation of this butterfly exposes the severe discomfort America had with female sexuality during the 1920s. The butterfly says almost nothing of the woman who bore it, but it speaks profoundly on the people involved in the court case and the society from which they came.