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Male Initiation & Rites Of Passage

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A Modern Male Initiation

Owning a penis & balls is not a passport to mature masculinity and full manhood. In our research for this page, we asked 100 men chosen at random a simple question: "Do you feel like an adult male inside?" Only 7 said that they did, unequivocally. By contrast, 33 said "mostly" they did, 40 said "less than half the time", and the rest said "hardly ever". Why is this? 

Why don't we grow up into fully functional, competent, happy and confident men? The answer, simply, is that no-one teaches us how to be men. Girls learn how to be women almost by default: they grow up in the company of their mothers and other female relatives, they absorb the unspoken mores and behaviors of their social group from their closest female caregivers, and as a result they become women without even thinking about it.

But what of boys? They begin life cared for by their mothers. Often their father is out at work, or emotionally absent. They go to preschool and are cared for (usually) by female care-workers. They go to junior school, and are educated and cared for by primarily female teachers. (In the US, only 9% of elementary schoolteachers are men.) They go to secondary school and are educated by more female teachers. (In the US, only 35% of high school teachers are men.) 

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Father, even if he is around, is probably preoccupied with his work or with social or economic pressures. So how are boys to get an opportunity to work with adult men who can show them how to behave and what is expected of them? As the pressure on families and individuals in society relentlessly increases, and the perceived value of men's traditional skills decreases, the consequent atmosphere of insecurity in our culture results in less and less contact between boys and men, and less and less opportunity for boys to absorb the essence of manhood deep into their souls.

Many authors have written about the changing fortunes of men in society, chief among them Robert Bly, who speaks evocatively of the age when boys were apprenticed to their fathers and learnt not only a trade but the ways of men as they spent time together. And these are commonplace truths: that boys love to be with older men, that they revel in being respected and brought into the innermost workings of the family, and that there's a father hunger in them which burns until their dying day if it's not fulfilled.

This summer, my partner and I sat at a Greek Taverna and watched as the young son of the proprietors worked with the guests. At no more than 8 years old, he approached them with confidence, spoke to them in his best English, took their orders and made them welcome. He bantered with, and took instructions from, his dad with something that seemed to me like a quality of manliness: something about knowing his place, knowing his role, and feeling good because it was useful and productive. The pride he felt in having a real, useful role in the family business was evident; and this connection between father and son is something I've seen in many other situations in Greece, where - at least outside of the cities - fathers still seem to spend a lot of time with their sons. My partner, who has worked in Africa and Asia, reminded me of the need not to confuse child exploitation with the fulfilling of a role like this: and she's right of course, with children all over the world losing their innocence in sweat shops and even in forced military experience. But even here it is possible to see the results of the breakdown in traditional society due to commercial and economic pressures, one primary result of which is the migration of labor to the cities and the disruption of bonds between older men and children, especially boys.

Robert Bly speaks of the mystery and alienation of fathers and sons where father goes off to work in an office to do something that remains incomprehensible to the boy, outside of his experience and understanding, and the possibility that, as a result, there is no bond between father and son. Of course there are other ways this bond can be established than by working together. But they all involve the expenditure of time and an attitude of loving acceptance of his son on the part of the father - and an understanding that he has a crucial role to play in the development of his son's masculinity and sense of self. But how many of us got this from our own fathers?

You'll see by now that I believe boys have to be educated in the ways of manhood, and I think one of the most important aspects of this is to teach boys how to be themselves in their relationships with women. Men have lost a sense of how to be true to themselves when they are in intimate relationships with women; they have lost it, I think, partly because of the rise of feminism, which declared men to be oppressors and blamed them for all society's evils, and partly because of the loss of the structures in society which enabled men to learn the things they needed to know about how to relate to women.

Deep down in the male psyche of every little boy is a need to break free from his mother and to become a man; to stop identifying with his mother, his primary care-giver from birth, and to identify with his father, as a man. Most of us in the West, deprived of any kind of Rite Of Passage that symbolizes a break with the feminine, and the joining with the masculine, continue to be unsure of how to relate to women: over-feminized by over-exposure to the female influences around us, we struggle to please women all our adult lives, yet we never find the deep respect that we crave from them and somehow we feel dissatisfied with ourselves, sensing a vague unmanliness about ourselves. This is often alleviated in a group of men, where we absorb a level of understanding and acceptance that somehow eludes us with the womenfolk in our lives. Or, switching to the other polarity, we reject the feminine, and become aggressive and maybe even violent in the face of our inability to stand up adequately to the persistent assault of the feminine (that's nagging and moaning in another language!) on our emotional and physical boundaries. This sense of not being manly, of not finding our center, of not being truly masculine comes, I believe, from the absence of adequate male role models, and the absence of male initiation rites: MKP is one organization which tries to preserve the concept of initiation. The truth about the ManKind Project can be found here. Male Rites Of Passage which formed such an essential part of pre-literate societies.

There's a remarkable similarity between initiation rituals in many societies. Various writers have observed that this may imply there is some deep and uniform need in all of us for the same processes and rituals: hardly surprising, for we are all members of the same species, Homo sapiens, regardless of where our ancestors lived on the planet. Regardless of where you look, initiation rites for boys broadly follow this pattern: a separation from the women, usually before puberty is well under way; a period of living apart from the women, and maybe from the men as well; a series of teachings of tribal histories, knowledge and insights; an ordeal, which may range from a tooth being knocked out to scarification, to circumcision, to subincision (the slicing open of the underside of the penis), to more brutal physical processes; and then a period of reincorporation and celebration to mark the newly acquired manhood of the boy. 

There are different views of the ordeal: some say that the ordeal was more brutal in warlike societies, so that the boy was numbed to pain, especially his own pain, but the pain of his enemy as well, so that he could go into battle with less fear; others reject this view, and simply see the ordeal as a way of marking the transition from the feminine to the masculine more vividly for the boy. I suspect the truth lies somewhere between the two. Some Native American Indians passed pins though the pectoral muscles of the initiate and suspended him by ropes attached to the pins until he passed out: when he recovered, he extended a finger for amputation. The argument that such rituals were purely to mark a boy's transition into manhood seems weak to me; the suggestion that they introduced him to his role as a warrior in the tribe seems more plausible. 

You can find an interesting discussion of the role of circumcision in male initiation rites here.

But what can you do if you feel a lack of masculinity in your own life? What can you do if you feel that something is lacking in your understanding of your own maleness? And how do you overcome a sense of being a little boy inside, aggressively hiding his hurt from everyone around him, and never experiencing real intimacy and connection? The great news is that there is an organization which offers a modern form of Male Initiation - a Rites Of Passage for our times - and which provides a space where you can satisfy your deep internal craving for initiation into a tribe of loving, supportive men. The even better news is that you don't have to go through a circumcision to experience the deep psychological fulfillment of these modern male Rites Of Passage! This organization is The Mankind Project: its slogan is Changing the World - One Man at a Time. Should you wish to take part in a weekend of ceremonies and processes that essentially help you to move into a more mature male role with a clear sense of yourself as a fully grown and emotionally whole man, this is the website you need to visit: The Mankind Project. Let me reassure you that none of the ceremonies, rituals and processes involved, which touch the deepest parts of the male psyche, are hurtful or shaming, and nothing on the journey to manhood is compulsory, embarrassing or threatening. This is indeed the male initiation ritual for our time, and it can transform you from a human being with balls to a man with balls. It's not an exaggeration to say the Mankind Project can change your life.

Other interesting work on rites of passage:

Puberty by Sue Curewitz Arthen

Male Rites Of Passage, Then And Now by Steve Wilson (contains some amusing observations about The Skull And Bones Society of which George W. Bush was once a member)

You can also search on http://dmoz.org for male initiation and rites of passage for more information.