Am going to start an essay in a about a month that explores different cultures understandings and perceptions of masculine and manliness; particularly pertaining to rites of passage.

Just wondering if anyone knows, off the cuff, any splendid examples of various cultures to employ as examples to compare to western masculinities.


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Id like to read this when you finish. I am working on a book of masculinity and wouldnt mind using some of your references if you dont mind? Of course credit will be given where credit is due.

For sure =)

Go to your college's library and ask a librarian for help with research. If this was a medical paper I'd suggest using a database like pubmed or the like but I do not know what tools anthropology use. The point of college papers is not to hand in a finished product. Its to learn how to research, take what is important from that source, and summarize it in a readable paper.

I think you will need to explore both the rough and the refined and how they are exemplified.

So, this was for a gender studies paper called masculinites that I chose to focus my essay on a more anthropological look at rites of passage.  If I had the time I would have wanted to compare a lot more the two cultures of Papa New Guinna and the West in more depth. Here is is:

   Throughout human history, masculine rites of passage have been a considered necessary for the installation of men into various cultures and for men to become fully responsible and alert to what society expects of them. This masculine imperative of responsibility has been somewhat lost in Western society through the gradual erosion of masculine rites of passage leaving a dangerously undefined and ambiguous process of initiation for boys to embrace their pending manhood. In contrast, the Awa and Sambia tribes of Papua New Guinea have long held a society that a boys initiation into manhood is vital for the continuation and functionality of society, in which the refusal or failure to progress through the rites of passage is checked with death (Herdt 1982: 61). Dating back eighteen thousand years, masculine rites of passage have been one of the longest standing human traditions known to man. Some of the earliest cave drawings depict initiatory processes being rough and challenging showing the challenging transitions of boys into men (Manson 2006: 93). The question must be asked then, what is it about masculine rites of passage that is considered so ontologically essential to the masculine spirit that it has endured through time and culture.  

To appreciate how a man is understood in various cultures one must know what that culture expects of men though the division of labour and social orientation (Hackman 2010: 316). The expectation of people to work in the West is almost socially mandatory, however there is no firm articulation on where the engendered division of labour boarders are and in fact it to simply suggest such a thing may be read as sexist. To grasp the importance of masculine rites of passage within society, it is worth looking at both of the Papua New Guinean tribes of the Sambia and Awa in depth so as to become fully immersed in how ontologically necessary rites of passage are. Indeed, the Sambia rites of passage in their inclusion of ritualised homosexuality, has been subject to much controversy and intervention attempts by the Australian Government, and thus been see as too scandalous to be valued for its final ontological value (Gilmore 1990: 148). Starting at age seven, the boy is separated from his mother by extraction to a gathering of men in the nearby forest so as to remedy the boy’s overexposure to the female spirit. From there they are beaten ruthlessly so as to ‘stretch the skin’ and install in their bodies an appetite for toughness and resilience. Following this beating in addition to verbal taunting from the elders, the boys are made to line up and are observed as to whether they will blow the bamboo flute that is produced before them. This flute blowing is a test to see if the boys are willing to receive masculinity as a whole. Within Papua New Guinea, male puberty is understood as something that has to be intentionally induced as without its induction, the boys will be subject to the developmental retardation due to the exposure from feminine fluids such as breast milk (Herdt 1982: 61). The Sambia hold that the injection of semen into the boys is necessary for the boys to be able to undergo the beginnings of puberty.

Much like that of a modern vaccine, the Sambia believe that the body must recognise the substance in order to reproduce the semen in their bodies themselves. This physical appropriation of manhood is first presented to them at end of the first stage ceremony in which, after being taken into the forest, beaten and staved for five days so as to rid their bodies of any residual feminine contaminates, they are taken into a hut at dusk and their sponsors come in and dance and mock the childish games the boys once played. These sponsors are usually uncles or other older men who are what Gilbert Herdt calls ‘a surrogate mother’ that is responsible for ensuring they are well supplemented with sufficient semen through frequent injection so as to induce masculinisation (1982: 65). The initiates are told that they must receive semen often so as to undo, and replace the threatening female fluids and to instigate the masculinising effects of the male fluid. One elder mentioned that the first stage is necessarily traumatic so as to overcome the strong bond with the mother which is then relocated as a new bond between the surrogate mother who will embody the idealised sense of masculinity (Herdt 1982: 31). The later stages of Sambia rites of passage are more or less a similar reflection of the first stage but instead, each time the initiates are allowed to move their residence closer to the male cult house to which they will eventually be inducted. The constant beatings that they will receive are to prepare them for the fierceness of warfare and empower them to be a strong hunter and father later on. Their level of toughness as they progress indicate where they are placed in society through how much they are capable to do in the division of labour.

Another comparable Papua New Guinea tribe known as the Awa, has a much clearer and structured masculine developmental process. Holding a few similarities to that of the Sambia, the boys are forcibly removed from their mothers and brought into the male cult house to be subject to the first rite. This first stage of initiation gives the boy the status of ‘pehgeri mahbi’ which implies that the boy has enough maturity to begin the process (Newman and Boyd 1982: 245). Ranging between ages seven and ten, the boys are told to lay down while piles of sugar cane is placed upon them and they are told to get free, this is to symbolise man’s wrestle with farming and ploughing in times to come. They are then to undergo the sweat ceremony or ‘auq’ in which the toughness of the body is revealed through the dehydration as they sit next to a small fire for a few days while being permitted only to eat a small portion of foods with no water (Newman and Boyd 1982: 269). Finally they are taken outside where two elders place an abrasive, long section of sharp grass between the subject’s thighs and they are exposed to the intense rubbing, often drawing blood so as to overcome any hesitation about climbing trees due to the possibility of being cut. At the conclusion of this the pahgeri mahbi are given a small grass skirt to symbolise their new status as first stage inanities. Already then, it can be seen that the boys are already informed of what path their life will take, where they are at now and what is demanded of them thus the rites of passage are not just a symbolic tradition but a psychological orientation of the boys into society.

The second stage out of four occurs usually between the ages of thirteen and fifteen where the boys transition from being pehgeri mahbi to ‘akataq mahbi’ (Newman and Boyd 1982: 251). The boys are told to move in round a large fire where their brothers and other close male relatives testify to the boys’ transgressions against the society such as theft and insubordination to which they are beaten for. Unlike the first stage beating, which was to ensue toughness, this is a beating of social responsibility that is imparted to install a sense of the consequences of offending the Awa. For those boys who have been well behaved and are seen to be without offence, they are beaten on behalf of those who were killed in warfare in the grand endeavour of protecting the tribe (Newman and Boyd 1982: 251). Following this, the boys are chased to the local stream and after a short chase they are met by what appears to be a “dead body with arrows in it” (Newman and Boyd 1982: 255). What this in fact is, is one of the elders who has pierced his body to entice aggression and he then beats the young initiates to prepare them for their next phase of purification. The reason for this violence and aggression is to convey the seriousness of the taboo and unclean elements. Indeed they are not angry at the boys per se but at what has infected them. Thus, they undergo a body purging where those taboo foods only fit for children and women to eat are cleansed from the boys’ bodies by the elders shoving a folded vine down their neck so as to achieve vomiting and ejecting of all the unclean foods that are no longer fit for them to eat (Newman and Boyd 1982: 256). With the elders still holding them, the initiates noses are greeted with two sharp stick ends to which they endeavour to make the nose bleed furiously so as to achieve the release of any unclean elements stored throughout the body. The head of the genitalia is then subject to the same exposure, having arrow heads create incisions either side to which is usually half a centimetre deep, this releases any unclean elements stored in the genitalia so that it may become purified also. Upon the brief journey back into the village it is not uncommon for the women to ambush the elders with sticks in protest to their sons’ cries and screams (Newman and Boyd 1982: 257). However the men rigorously defend their youth, seeing them to be promising strong men and keeping the harmful feminine spirits at bay. The boys’ new akuhtaq mahbi stage is finalised with a cape type garment and a bow with arrows to display their new standing in the Awa.

The final enforced rite resembles much of the second in that of the penis cutting, nose bleeding and vomiting are induced so as to purge the akuhtaq mahbi towards becoming a ‘anotah mahbi’ or a bachelor (Newman and Boyd 1982: 261). During their sweating phase the akuhtaq mahbi are given a sexual education of how to best produce children and thus boost the security of their village. In addition to this they are taught the responsibilities of being a father and the value of fidelity with a woman. During this sweating phase the prearranged wife will move into the man’s residence and upon his return from his purging, he will be called ‘menahwe’ (Newman and Boyd 1982: 263). However he will not be recognised as a complete man until he has produced at least two children and thus showing his competency as a father and providing the future tribe greater security. What is important to note here, is that all elements and rites that the initiates are subject to are supported by cultural myths which fervently dictate what should be the fate of any initiate if they breach any of these rules.  Among such curses are children being born alongside taboo food, and extreme muscular atrophy and ageing if premarital sex occurs (Newman and Boyd 1982: 266). This cultural entrenchment of such rites of passages for men presents us with a sense of the magnitude and honour that intensifies these rites.

Part of the reason that we could view this initiation process as extreme is due to the fact that Western initiation of men has fallen into severe atrophy as intellectualism has deemed the meta-historical actions of masculine rites of passage as backward, and consequently no longer necessary. Western society itself, particularly American, has failed to provide any sense of real, tangible initiation for men into society and into themselves. Rites of passage, as we have seen in Papua New Guinea, hold many dimensions of benefit towards the physical, mental, spiritual and social elements of a man’s heath. Richard Rohr explores this through neuroscience studies in which he recalls there are five major times in a male’s brain development that are the most crucial for the rest of their life, and what we learn in these times will be secure in us for the remainder of our lives (2004: 18). At the ages of one, four, seven, eleven and between fourteen and seventeen the male requires models of the next stage of the way of thinking and being. If a boy is not taught what is socially appropriate and mature at these times then will not but help feel stuck or broken or even contently immature. Another important element that we cannot deny in the importance of masculine rites of passage in any society is that in Western society, where rites of passages have been removed if not banished, is that boys still crave these ontological imperatives, as they hunger for validation. Christopher Manson, Richard Rhor and Jerome Bernstien all have countless examples of boys subscribing themselves to whatever will give them that validation and sense of purpose and orientation, such as the military, cults and gangs all of which have three major things in common according to Manson (2006: 98). Firstly there is a segregation from their mothers and from their domesticated backgrounds. Secondly there is a transformative phase in which the old identity perishes and a new one is bestowed. Finally, the man is incorporated into the society and validated for their contribution and presence.

The West in its modern and postmodern zeal has caused more problems than opportunities in regards to rites of passage and the validation of boys into men. A combination of an emphatic zeal for both individualism and egalitarianism has incidentally eroded most of mans’ previous arenas of masculinisation from society. Masculinisation in the theatre of war has, since Vietnam, become more about proving ones technological coordination rather than asserting forms of masculine aggression and honour (Bernstein 1994: 137). With some of the last remaining methods of masculine initiation changing in historically solid forms such as the military, men have now become more inclined to invest what they deem masculine into one of two major camps (Forth 2008: 220). The first and clearer form is that of trying to retain traditional perspectives of masculinity that has been embedded throughout Western history in the endeavour to revive gallantry. This is particularly evident through various internet forums and publication such as the art of manliness where men enquire with deep sincerity as to what activities qualify as being manly ( The second is that which embraces post-modernity’s invitation to create a composite of features and redefine masculinity according to ones’ interests. The major distinction occurring here is the differentiation between an identity that is ascribed by the community and confirmed through rites of passage versus an achieved identity which is the direct product of one’s personal efforts (Buechler 2000: 77). The latter has only been possible due to the consequences of the Enlightenment in which  the individualisation of the Western psyche has reached new heights as the emphatic embrace of subjective truths has lead even the previously mutual agreement to what is deemed as common sense to be refuted. As Jerome Bernstien says, the entire postmodern age is a result of a disappointed ambition of a humanitarian utopia (1994: 159).

Due to these latter notions of the construction of self, being true to oneself has become a increasingly prevailing theme over that of the universal notion of sacrifice for society in the psychological appreciations of masculinity. Many fathers in the last forty years have established a trend of seeking further fulfilment outside of the family and they have created what Rohr calls “a fatherless society”. Fathers have historically been very important in the development of the final stages to masculine brain development in which they provide orientation to what masculinity is and how to go about proving oneself worthy of it. The absence of this impartation of knowledge has generated what Manson calls ‘initiation hunger’ where boys earnestly seek out any seemingly secure outlet of validation for their lives. Unfortunately, the replacement of a “playtime principle” with a “reality principle” has been lost and indeed reversed and reinforced through the West’s new tenants of entertainment and pleasure (Manson 2006: 94). The rites of passage that a Western society may be seen as holding for men could be having a first shave, gaining a drivers licence, high school or university education, losing one’s virginity, or a first job or first house. Yet the ambiguousness of such rites suggests that boys are attempting to undergo a form of rite of passage regardless of its actual facilitation, creating, like the Sambia, a surrogate mother who will sponsor them through their masculinisation. Yet often times such surrogate rites of passage are merely expected by most citizens and consequently they lose their value as they become more about the advancement of the economy than that of personal ontology. Indeed such sponsors are often employers and companies hoping to reap the fruits of such dedication. The mantra of productivity has replaced a deep responsibility in many parts of society. 

This became apparent during the late twentieth century when feminine equality was beginning to be recognised in a multitude of traditionally male workplaces, that the men of society began to feel threatened and dislocated. The problem was not that women now had human agency in the professional sense but that the traditional institutions of men that had served as a floatation device after the gradual decline of rites of passage now left men stranded in a sea of undefined masculinity. This was and is an issue as men had commonly defined themselves in antithesis to women, so for women to be equal, the methodology of defining masculinity now became questionable. Indeed the deep concern for many men then became, if women can perform like men, what are men supposed to be? This question manifested into what is now known as ‘the crisis of masculinity’ where the entire ontological purpose of masculinity and gender roles was and is called into question.  It is no surprise then that because there is no clear arena that men are expected to exclusively enter into, there are no rites of passage to usher them in. Some have written of this crisis of masculinity as an inability to cope with feminine equality or the advancement of society, but because in many instances there is no secure arena for men available, the ontological affects become fatal. Indeed, the highest suicide demographic in both the United States of America and New Zealand is young men in their late teens and early twenties, with depression even higher (Rohr 2004: 13). Rohr articulates that this crisis has gone beyond masculinity and become a spiritual crisis within society (2004: 5).

Concurrent to this wave of insecurity and dislocation, the media, with its ever increasing image marketing, has exploited traditional images of manliness in association with their product. By having such companies such as Marlboro and Calvin Klein depict images of the gender roles for both men and women, the media became what Bernstein calls “an oracle of gender roles” in which the “participation mystique” is developed (1994: 144). Participation mystique is the affiliation of boys with products that are seen to be mainly so that they can achieve their masculine validation through the display of various products. This peacock masculinity is a result of throwing such insistent definitions of what is and what is not manly into an era of fatherless and uncertain youths has created profit for businesses and contradictory statements in the youth’s search for an authentic manhood. This is again evident later in some Western men’s lives where what little understanding of masculinity they had proved to fail them as they encounter a delayed sense of initiation hunger. This mid-life crisis could be said to be the product of a combination of self-referenced truths and a desire for the masculine which has often times led to the production of an antinomian masculinity, where the individual can personally tailor what they deem fit for a man to exemplify without any process of formal negotiation with older men and a wider society. The dilemma however is that historically and cross culturally, masculinity has always held elements of providence and service to others as a major defining feature, leaving the man who expects his manhood to be defined as a reciprocal and accumulative to be thoroughly dissatisfied.  As Rohr articulates, most men cannot let go of a fear of diminishment, and so they cling to fatal ideas of material quantity being synonymous with having a good life (2004: 8).

In contrast, Papua New Guinea holds what many Westerners through their ethnocentrism would call a backward process of initiation for boys. However, because tribes such as the Sambia and Awa actually both have masculine rites of passage and enforce them, it could be easily observed then that these unfamiliar tribes are more ontologically intelligent than most prevailing Western cultures. Indeed, the initiation stages of the Awa provide purpose in society to the male and they are given progressive amounts of responsibility which is identified by their clothes, and subsequently the Awa men always know where they stand in orientation to the remainder of the men in society. While it would be generally agreed that the Awa are quite physically severe towards their young initiates, it could also be said that despite this, they are taught and understand the elements of self-sacrifice for others superbly well. Indeed Manson proclaims that over millennia and throughout all cultures one common factor in the rites of passage for men is self-investment in the communal and the collective benefit of society.

In closing, what the West fundamentally misses by excluding a formal rite of passage for men is the ability for men to know their place in society, and to know that they are making a difference within the larger context. While there are men that do just fine without any initiatory process, it is worth noting that to those who do not know where to place themselves, the outcome can be debilitating or even fatal. It would be audacious indeed to write off such an ancient process without fully grasping the social and ontological repercussions of such a move. Alas, this appears to be the case in the West where you are man if you say you are.


Bernstein, J. S. 1994. “The Decline of Rites of Passage in Our Culture: The Impact of Masculine Individuation” In L. C. Mahdi and S. Foster and M. Little (ed.), Betwixt and Between: Patterns of Masculine and Feminine Initiation, pp. 135-158. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company.

Buechler, S. M. 2000. Social Movements in Advanced Capitalism; The Political Economy and Cultural Construction of Social Activism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Forth, C. E. 2008. Masculinity in the Modern West; Gender Civilisation and the Body. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Gilmore, D. D. 1990. Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hackman, H. 2010. ‘Sexism: Introduction’ in Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (ed.) Adams, M and Blumenfled, W and Castaneda, C and Hackman, H and Peters, M and Zuninga, X. pp. 315-320.

Herdt, G. H. 1982. “Fetish and Fantasy in Sambia Initiation.” In G. H. Herdt (ed.), Rituals of Manhood: Male Initiation in Papua New Guinea, pp.44-98. Los Angeles: University of California Press.  

Manson, C. P. 2006. Crossing into Manhood: A Men’s Studies Curriculum. New York: Cambria Press.

Newman, P. L. and Boyd, D. J. 1982. “The Making of Men: Ritual and Meaning in Awa Initiation.” In G. H. Herdt (ed.), Rituals of Manhood: Male Initiation in Papua New Guinea, pp.239-285. Los Angeles: University of California Press. 

Rohr, R. 2004. Adam’s Return; The Five Promises of Male Initiation. New York: Crossroads Publishing Company.


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