National Geographic : 2017 Jan
90 national geographic • January 2017 what it means to be a man. In the name of equal- ity, gender stereotypes have been turned inside out or repudiated. There’s nothing startling or unorthodox to him about female cops or male nurses or about a father who stayed home micro- waving stockpiles of breast milk while mom went to an office as the prime provider. Oliver’s mom still outearns me and, by the way, has amassed a vastly larger number of Instagram followers. Nor are there, in our milieu, rituals or overt rites of initiation that would clearly mark Oliver’s transition from boy to man. Manhood, in other words, is something he pretty much has to fig- ure out for himself. Sometimes I see him casting about for what it means, looking askance at the example I set because, as he says, “you cross your legs like a girl.” And sometimes when he’s under programmed by millions of years of evolution. But Shadrack was entering manhood in a cul- ture in which the roles of men and women are still slotted along traditional lines and boys are guided by a ritual that goes back at least 200 years (and immemorially in some neighboring tribal cultures). Oliver, on the other hand, is ap- proaching manhood in an American culture that is lurching toward a gender-neutral society, one that has moved so far from anatomy-based defi- nitions of men and women that the U.S. Depart- ments of Justice, Education, and Defense in 2016 affirmed antidiscrimination policies that recog- nize a person’s self-assigned gender identity, re- gardless of the sex ticked on a birth certificate. Unlike Shadrack, Oliver cannot rely on the tra- ditional roles of men and women for an idea of Many Paths to Manhood Throughout history, cultures have devised myriad practices and rituals to make boys into men. The methods—often secret and sacred—vary widely and continually evolve, says cultural anthropologist Gilbert Herdt. But they also share some universal themes that broadly reflect a community’s values and the roles its men are expected to play. At seven, Spartan boys left their families for boarding schools to test their strength and resolve. Military training included forming erotic bonds with older boys to encourage loyalty in battle and enduring severe beatings to build toughness. A teenage squire’s road to knighthood required apprenticing with a knight, pledging fealty on a holy artifact to the king, competing in fighting and jousting matches, being confirmed as a Christian, and joining a Crusade to the Holy Land. With Rome maturing as an empire and slaves outnumbering citizens, boys in their mid-teens were urged to marry early and produce children. Only then would they be considered men and full citizens with rights and status. Sparta 800 B.C . England 1600 Rome 27B.C. Now: Many cultures promote tests of strength. Boys in Papua New Guinea’s Sambia tribe are separated from their mothers at age seven and must undergo secret initiation rites involving nose bleed- ing and performing oral sex on men. Now: In the Pacific’s Trobriand Islands, a pubescent boy leaves his family to join a group house and be tutored by a maternal uncle. Submitting to this mentor shows respect for his ancestors and commitment to his community. Now: In numerous societies marriage remains primarily defined as a religious ritual that, for young men, can be considered an entry into adult maturity, morality, and masculine social roles.