manhood 4Edvard Munch “The Scream” 1893

Dr. Ed Tejirian ponders what needs male initiation rituals might fill in 21st Century America as part of a special section

Reflecting on my years of doing psychotherapy with men, I would say that their fathers were much more likely than their mothers to be the focus of men’s longing, need, conflict, and anger. Of course, this was not invariably true. One of the deepest therapeutic processes that I have ever been engaged in was that that with a young man whose mother committed suicide when he was ten years old. But that was the exception. More common sources of sadness were the experience of separation from the father because of divorce or death, or the sense of a lack of emotional involvement on the part of the father.

Is “initiation” a meaningful concept in a complex and fragmented society such as ours? One of the characteristics of initiations in “simpler” societies seems to be that everyone goes through the process. There may be ordeals and challenges, but a prerequisite is that everyone succeeds, everyone “passes,” no one fails or is left behind. For us, there is no universal rite of passage that everyone goes through. Another relevant question to ask when talking about initiation is: just what are boys or young men being initiated into? Masculinity? Manhood? (Are the two things the same?) Into “adulthood?”

I think that in a non-communal society (such as ours) organized around the family as the primary source of socialization and nurturance, it falls to the father–not an organized group of elders–to provide his son with the experiences that represent the foundation of his initiation into manhood. He does this not by playing ball with him or going fishing or doing any of the other stereotypically “masculine things,” but rather by bonding with him in a close and loving relationship. The security of that bond initiates his son into an inner sense of himself as a worthwhile and competent male person, a foundation that he can continue to build on for the rest of his life in society.

But many fathers are not very good at doing that for their sons. When I was teaching a graduate course in Adolescent Psychology, I would ask each student in the class to do a case study of an actual person. At the end of the semester, I asked my students to rate both parents of the person who had volunteered to be their subject for a case study. Were they “good enough” or not? Typically, about two-thirds to three-quarters of the mothers were “good enough.” However, I don’t think I had a single class in which even a majority of the fathers were rated as “good enough.” It seemed to me that, especially as the family grew larger–say beyond two or three children–the fathers got overwhelmed with the responsibility of being (typically) the primary wage-earner and, of course, spending more time away making money and not seeing their families. Sometimes, the father became a grouchy, somewhat remote figure who did not provide a lot of emotional sustenance. And not feeling sufficiently loved or appreciated himself, he was more susceptible to becoming bitter or even alcoholic. The upshot was that he could not provide his son(s) a solid bond of closeness and affection that would serve as the foundation for his son’s sense of himself as a man. In other words, he could not be the initiator of his son into manhood.

What happens when a father is absent altogether from a boy’s life while he is growing up? It depends, I suspect, on whether we are speaking of absence caused by an abandonment seen as avoidable or death (which is not). Even as I write this, I know that many hundreds of American and Iraqi boys (and girls) already find themselves in the situation of having lost a father to an untimely death. (So unfortunately, we may learn more about that question in the near future.) Is it possible to develop an inner sense of a worthwhile and competent male self in the absence of a father? I would think that the answer is: yes, it must be possible. Certainly, a good relationship with a mother who understands and values his maleness and personhood can go a long way toward helping a boy to build a sense of himself as a worthwhile and competent male person. Also, both as a boy and a young man, he can seek out other, affirming relationships with older men in his life. And these can provide some of the initiating functions of the absent father.

In recalling patients I have had in therapy who lost a father (or mother) to death before adolescence, the absent parent remained a powerful, unchanging presence with whom the sense of a loving inner bond, tinged with a sense of longing and sadness, was maintained. In the case of the young man whose mother had committed suicide when he was ten years old, it was more complicated. Since she chose her own death it was also, inevitably, also experienced as an abandonment. The guilt, longing, and repressed anger (provoking more guilt still) because of this was a pretty potent and problematical mixture. His father, however, remained a loving, if sometimes insufficiently demonstrative, figure in his life.

When abandonment is the primary factor, the sense of rejection can leave toxic residues of anger. One of my students, a teacher at Rikers Island (the temporary holding prison in New York City) did a study for me with a young man who never knew his father, because he had been one of a succession of men that his mother had temporarily had in her life. As a late adolescent, he turned to robbery and drug dealing and ended up being arrested for murder. The one dream he told my student was of a little black man (he was African American) whom he chased but could not catch–the unknown father. At the end of the class, one of the other students approached me and said he understood the revulsion that most of the class felt toward the ex-armed robber and drug dealer. But he knew from experience (he was also African American) why he had done those brutal things. He (the young man in Rikers) wanted others (all his victims were men) to feel his inner pain.

As for himself, my student said that what had saved him were religion and his girlfriend. My interpretation is that the church was symbolic of the benevolent, nurturing father he had lacked in his family life, and that a woman’s devotion helped him to further build a foundation of a worthwhile and competent male self–which is what “initiation” is all about.

As indicated in this story, if the relationship with the father is not available to help a boy develop such a foundation, alternative avenues–and relationships–will undoubtedly be sought. I recall a male patient of mine who felt that his role in the family (he had one older brother) was to be the “drop-out nothing.” His father was inconsequential in the family structure and his stance toward his son was one of laissez-faire ineffectualness. Perhaps as a way of expressing his desire to identify with the kind of masculine strength that he could not get through bonding with his remote father, my patient began to ride a motorcycle. Unfortunately, he broke his leg when a car–in the classic maneuver of the idiotic driver of a car who fails to “see” a motorcycle approaching in the opposing lane–made a left turn right in front of him. While laid-up and recovering, he got a camera, started experimenting with taking pictures, and looked for work in the field after he was back on his feet. He got hired by a well-known photographer who took him on as an apprentice and gave him his start in what would become a successful professional life. The photographer was a man old enough to be his father and played the role of mentor and initiator in his life. Not infrequently, he appeared in my patient’s dreams as a father-figure. Indeed, my patient remembered sometimes slipping, when they used to work together, and actually calling him “Dad.”

How about initiation into the sexual aspects of manhood? Almost nowhere does our sex-obsessed society break down more spectacularly than in dealing with adolescent sexuality and its discontents. The subjects of my students’ case studies were young people typically in their early twenties so that adolescence was already officially over and we could look at how they managed to get through it. What one saw was that, lacking anyone to help them develop a sense of themselves as sexual beings, adolescents did it for themselves. Thus, a boy would get initiated into the mysteries of sex and manhood–in a sexual sense–by having sex with a girl hardly out of childhood herself.

We should be concerned with helping boys (and girls) to move into society as sexual beings. But that process has fallen victim, like so much else, to the “culture wars.” On the one hand, an unholy alliance of religious zealots and cynical politicians refuse to acknowledge adolescent sexuality at all, while simultaneously raising the specter of homosexuality and the “gay agenda.” On the other hand, through the media, adolescents are regaled with images of sexual romance and physical perfection. (Take a look at the junior version of People magazine called Teen People.)

Yet when looked at closely, almost all male initiation rites have elements of eroticism. As Marty Wong points out (), initiation rites in traditional societies very frequently have circumcision as a nodal point of a symbolic transformation. The intense focus on the boy’s penis by the men of the group has to do with initiating him into the sexual and social life of the community. Although the women are also aware of and welcome this ushering of the boy into sexual manhood, it is the erotic energy generated by the intensity of male bonding across generations that is the prime mover in the symbolic transformation from child to man.

It was in the Melanesian culture area–encompassing Papua-New Guinea–where, well into the 20th century, the erotic–in fact homoerotic–energy of male initiation was perhaps most clearly evident (Tejirian, 1990). There, transactions of semen between older and younger males were a pervasive feature of male initiation. Among the “Sambia” with whom anthropologist Gilbert Herdt lived, boys were turned into men by being isolated from their mothers. Living in proximity with adolescent boys, it was necessary that they perform fellatio on the older, sexually mature boys since it was thought that only by the ingestion of semen on a regular basis would they be able to mature sexually themselves.

Among the Marind-anim, who were inveterate headhunters, initiation involved a ritual in which initiates were made to have sexual intercourse with any number of men on a night when the village was visited by Sosom, a dema (spirit)–who was a giant that walked with his penis carried over his shoulder. Later, the boy went to live with his maternal uncle for a while–the only man allowed to have intercourse with him. In this culture area, older males infused the younger ones with sexual power through the act of direct, physical transmission.

We see echoes of these homoerotic elements in some of the hazing practices in high school and college athletic teams and fraternities, however, what is lacking in these situations is the adult guidance and supervision that would ensure that things do not get out of hand. I ran across an account, on the internet, of a college boy who was paddled as part of the hazing ritual of the fraternity he wanted to join. In this context, this constitutes an erotic act, a displacement of the anal intercourse to which the Marind-anim youths were subjected. But in a society that would heavily censure an openly homoerotic ritual of initiation, its denial makes it susceptible to being transformed into sadism. In the case of the fraternity pledge, it turned into a beating that required a skin graft.

The African rituals spoken of by Marty that promoted maleness and male bonding have their counterparts in traditionally all-male societies from the Knights Templar to the Masons. In the early 15th century, Philip the Fair of France and the Inquisition combined forces to accuse the Templars of holding homoerotic, satanic initiation ceremonies as a pretext for destroying the order and seizing all of its assets. Williman Benemann (2006) in his interesting book entitled Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships, relates how rumors of homosexual rituals in their initiation ceremonies circulated with respect to the Masons in the early 19th century. There is no evidence that sexual rituals were actually taking place in either one of these fraternal orders, but the false charges reflected both an insight and a projection. The insight is that, in such orders, the identification and friendship both within and across generations incorporate an emotional eroticism that is present in all male bonding. The projection comes from the fact that a society that censures all male to male sexuality confuses emotional and physical eroticism, projecting the latter onto the former. In other words, such a society obsessed with homosexuality looks for it everywhere—exactly the situation we have at the present time on the political and religious right in this country.

The obsession with it is such that, each year, many men (and women as well) are discharged from the military because they have been found to be gay. The irony is that the introduction of women into the armed forces has undoubtedly caused many more problems of a sexual kind than would the open recognition of the presence of gay men. Certainly, other countries that have dropped prohibitions against gay soldiers, including our closest geographical and cultural neighbor—Canada–have not reported significant problems after the change.

But how about women? Do they play a significant role in male initiation other than in initial sexual contact? In a great many societies–including ours–men are expected to marry, and marriage is the next to the last rite de passage in the achievement of social adulthood. I say “next to the last” because fathering a child might be considered the last step in the progression from boy to man. (In a complex society such as ours, these steps are not absolutely required.) Still, the old patterns–perhaps a Jungian might say “archetypes”–can continue to exert power. In fact, the power of the marriage archetype might be one of the elements in the drive for acceptance of same-sex marriage.

Is there a difference between looking for love from and with a woman and looking to her to complete a process of initiation that in some deep, archetypal sense, is meant to be completed through a male to male relationship? I think there is. There are men whose sense of themselves is so tied to validation by a woman that relationships to their children–daughters as well as sons–are completely subordinated to that need. Such men, after a divorce, maintain only a tenuous tie with the children of their first marriage. Freud said that he could imagine nothing more important to a child than his father’s protection. As we know from clinical experience, a man whose own father failed to meet that need might react by trying very hard not to fail his own son in the same way. On the other hand, we know that the reverse is also not infrequently true: he repeats his father’s failure with his son.

In the current context of war-time, the news media report stories of young men who use the military as a kind of initiation into manhood. Television ads used to show the army as a place where a young man can “be all that you can be.” Training and education were also promised. The ads for the Marine Corps would show a young man in Marine dress uniform with the slogan, “The few, the proud….”

Turning to look at ourselves, the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity–many of us grew up under the sign of “Masculinity”–a culturally defined set of gender role prescriptions (and proscriptions) that, as has been correctly pointed out, was excessively restrictive and therefore false to what boys and men are really like. If one was lucky enough to have a warm, supportive father who did not judge one by those values, initiation into a sense of worthwhile and competent maleness could still take place through the bond with him. But everyone is not that fortunate.

When the need for initiation–for laying the foundation of a worthwhile and competent male self–has not been accomplished earlier on, it can remain a lifelong quest. From what is known of his life history, George W. Bush is his mother’s son, not his father’s. (Bush Sr. warned the press that if they criticized his son, they would have Barbara to deal with.) When questioned about whether he had asked his father’s advice on important issues, George W. retorted that he looked for guidance to a “different” (heavenly) father now. Nevertheless, in 2000 he chose as his running-mate an older man who is regarded as the most powerful and influential vice president in the history of the Republic. At the same time, he chose an older, extremely powerful Secretary of Defense to whom he remains devoted in spite of the latter’s demonstrably disastrous polices.

In the Vietnam era, when so many young men rebelled against the war, George W. Bush did not; yet, neither did he complete his tour of service in the Air National Guard. His whole career seems to be that of a man to whom much was given and of whom little was asked. Helen Thomas, the doyenne of the Washington press corps noted, during a press conference, that all the reasons he had given for the invasion of Iraq–Saddam’s connection to 9/11, WMD’s, etc.–had turned out to be without foundation, while there was evidence that soon after taking office he was determined to have this war. Why had he wanted it? Of course, he said, he had not “wanted” war (he would not permit her a follow-up question.) But I think the answer is obvious: inwardly, his initiation remained incomplete and the war was necessary for its completion. This perspective gives a whole new meaning to the famous “Mission Accomplished” banner and his landing (re-birth and descent from heaven?) on the aircraft carrier.

I see in SPSMM three interweaving strands: First, a repudiation–and a fixation–on a set of gender role constructions (“traditional masculinity”) that seems increasingly irrelevant to a great many contemporary–especially younger–men. In this, we may still be “fighting the last war”; Second, a real push to bond around an alternate set of values that involve openness of feeling and mutual support among men; Third a dependency on women (via the “feminist theory” of the Mission–that word again–Statement) that implies that men need women to help them with an initiation process that they can’t complete alone.

Originally printed in the SPSMM Bulletin, Summer 2006.

Ed Tejirian, PhD  is a psychotherapist and professor in New York City.


Benneman, William (2006) Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships. New York: Harrington Park Press.

Tejirian, Edward J. (1990) Sexuality and the Devil: Symbols of Love, Power and Fear in Male Psychology. New York: Routledge. See: Ch. 5, “The Historical / Anthropological Framework.”


Tags: , ,