What does it mean to be recognized as a man? Dr. Martin Wong raises important questions about male initiation rites.

What makes me a man? It wasn’t until I was about forty- two years old that I finally figured I had made it. By that time I had been working for 19 years, had been married and divorced, had sired one son and fathered another, and had undergone a vasectomy. I don’t know why I decided at that time that I was a man. It was probably the collective of all the experiences society and I had conspired to put me through. I grew up with a professional father who was busy tending to the needs of others and had little time to devote to errant sons. Summer camp was probably as close as I came to a ritual initiating me into manhood. I was left alone to figure it all out for myself as were most of us. It took a long time, a lot of mistakes, a lot of pain, and a lot of trial and error. I don’t think I’m done yet.

Most of us go through rites of passage in addition to the sexual fantasies of summer camp on our way to adulthood: learning how to share, prom night, church confirmation, bar mitzvah, graduation from high school and/or college, fraternity hazing, work, marriage, childbirth and lots more. There are even societal institutions such as “Promise Keepers”, the Masons and others that provide further rites. Some provide guidance but none are specifically designed to turn wayward youthfulness into responsible adulthood.

For hundreds of years, more “primitive societies” felt it necessary to stage elaborate rites to move boys into manhood—to more directly confront the oedipal crisis that can occur when boys turn to look for male models with which to identify. These proceedings (Eliade, 1958) always involved four distinct phases: separation (rupture) from mother and from women; into a forced seclusion (isolation) in an all- male society. Numerous “Rites of Initiation” followed over a span of time that may have taken from a weekend to six months. They usually involved pain, bloodletting, (ordeal) and introduction to the mystique of a kind of manhood that would involve arduousness, extreme danger, sacrifice and responsibility. Finally the newly ordained Men were triumphantly returned (reunification) into the tribal society.

Only after this initiation were the then men allowed to take part in the political and social life of the community with full standings as men.

Robert Bly, in his numerous writings, bemoans that modern society contains no equivalent rite to mark the passage from boyhood to manhood and suggests that this loss causes confusion, hardship, and frequently results in prolonged adolescent attitudes among men who almost reluctantly take on the responsibilities of adulthood. He argues for the reinstitution of some kind of marking of the transition that makes it clear when a boy has become a man. A group, “Boys to Men,” has actually attempted to put some of this into practice.

I wonder if these minor initiations or even what is practiced in Africa is enough to become what I would call a “real” man. I know a lot of males that are not what I would consider men. Is George W. Bush a man? He has always struck me as a reckless adolescent who was stuck in his oedipal period by an absent father, by money, by alcoholism, and by drug addiction.

In tune with Dr. Ed Tejirian’s comments that we are never done with development into manhood, I like the thoughtful, but struggle-filled stages described in The Elder Within (Jones, 2001) that bring about “real” men: (1) Awakening–of a felt sense of failure of the old ways of being, thinking, feeling and behaving; (2) Choosing whether to be, in a different manner; (3) Struggling—facing one’s own projections and shadows; (4) Resolving to grow and to nurture; (5) Accepting—the turning point wherein one accepts who he is; (6) Becoming a male who is able to be, in being, and in serving others; and (7) Sharing—the giving of one’s manhood as a mentor, and as a keeper of the dreams and the memories. In addition, Dr. Dan Quinn (herein) takes off from here and sees the stages of the therapy hour as in many ways akin to the stages of initiation into life. He elaborates on these from a Jungian perspective.

We offer these three articles humbly, as food for thought.

Article 1:Boys to men: African Male Initiation Rites Into ManhoodBoys to men: African Male Initiation Rites

Article 2: Initiation in Modern (or Post-Modern) Life

Article 3: Self-Generated Initiation in the Clinical Hour


Martin R. Wong, Ph.D. Boulder, Colorado

-Originally published in the SPSMM Bulletin, Summer 2006.


Eliade, Mircea, Rites and Symbols of Initiation, (1958), New York: Harper and Row.

Jones, Terry, The Elder Within, (2001), Wilsonville, OR: Book Partners, Inc.

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