Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Turning a Man

This one's about the Sambia tribe in New Guinea.

From DISCOVER Magazine in 1992:
When I began to work in the New Guinea highlands nearly 30 years ago, the highlanders were just emerging from Stone Age conditions of incessant intertribal warfare. Even more startling to me than the stone axes and heavily armed men that I met were the hostility and rigid role divisions between the sexes. Women served as beasts of burden, while unmarried men lived homosexually in communal houses to which the women only brought food. The most feared warriors, whose territory was still closed to outsiders during my early visits, were the people I’m referring to as the Sambia.

It’s an exquisitely cruel irony that one of the world’s largest known concentrations of 5AR-deficient pseudohermaphrodites, characterized by ambiguous gender, occurs among the Sambia, whose culturally imposed differences between the sexes are among the sharpest of any human society in the world. Sambia men function as fighters and hunters, women as gardeners and mothers. The men do not participate in onerous gardening work, believing that possession of a penis makes them unable to grow edible sweet potatoes. Not only are there separate footpaths for men and women within the village, but also separate living spaces for husband and wife within their small hut, marked off by planks on the floor. Children’s play after the age of about five is segregated by sex. Eventually, boys are forbidden to talk with or even glance at women, who are regarded as dirty polluters. (They have that vagina, something truly no good.) The sole acceptable position for intercourse is with the man on top, so that he can get up immediately upon ejaculating to reduce his exposure to the polluting vagina.

Alas, only women can secrete milk and grow sweet potatoes, so the Sambia father has no choice but to entrust his sons to their polluting mother’s care during early childhood. At the age of seven or so, men are at last able to take over responsibility for their sons. That’s done by forcibly initiating young boys into life in the communal men’s house, where boys and bachelor men live as a group, and where women are banned. In lieu of mother’s milk, young boy initiates are told that daily consumption of the bachelors’ semen is essential to their growing big, becoming men, and living long. Young boys fellate older ones daily until puberty, whereupon the fellators reverse roles and are fellated by the next crop of younger boys. The punishment of death is threatened for those boys who reveal the secret or those women who stumble upon it. The young boys are taught that women are harmful, so there is no room for dating or other premarital heterosexual involvement. Other unacceptable practices include male self- masturbation (semen should be ingested, not expelled, they believe) and homosexual anal intercourse.

In the absence of dating, marriages are arranged, often at birth, and consummated when the girl has her first menstrual flow. At that point the young bachelor undergoes a shock rivaling his forcible initiation into the homosexual men’s club years earlier. Heterosexual procedures are at last explained to him, and he is told to initiate them with his bride, possessor of that vagina, something truly no good. (For a look of embarrassed horror, I’ve seen nothing to rival photos taken of highland bachelors listening for the first time to an older man’s graphic explanation of sexual intercourse.) Once a man’s first child is born, homosexual activities are considered as dangerous as heterosexual activities were before his marriage. Despite this extreme flip-flop in male sexual orientation, Sambia men still manage to make the readjustment and perpetuate their tribe.
Then comes what I think must be one of the great understatements of all time:
Not unexpectedly, pseudohermaphrodites, with their sexual ambiguity, don’t fit easily into Sambia life, with its sex stereotyping.
In contrast to the lives of the Xanadu pseudohermaphrodites, those of their Sambia counterparts are not stories with happy endings. Most Sambia pseudohermaphrodites are raised as boys; it’s unclear whether the Sambia label such babies as boys with birth defects, or actually assign them to a third sex, called turnim man, which starts out female but is anticipated to become male. Some of the boys are rejected by their fathers or viewed with shame by their mothers. They are sometimes teased, humiliated, and subjected to cruel gossip by their peers (You don’t have a penis! Go play with the girls!). Once those who have been raised as boys are initiated into the communal men’s house, they serve as fellators but, either by choice or out of embarrassment, never as fellateds. A few obtain wives, but in at least two documented cases the wives described them as not sexually satisfying. In one study of ten adult Sambia pseudohermaphrodites, only five were married, and one committed suicide.

A few Sambia pseudohermaphrodites are identified at birth as girls and reared as girls. Two of them were even married to men, but both were rejected in rage by their husbands after attempted intercourse. One such woman was named Moragu. On the first attempt at intercourse, Moragu’s new husband was able to penetrate only one to two inches. Similarly frustrated on a second attempt, the husband pulled back Moragu’s skirt for a closer look and was scandalized to discover testes and a small penis within the labia. After the enraged and publicly humiliated husband threatened his mate with murder, Moragu left the Sambia homeland to make a new life elsewhere.
Of course, we're more civilised. For some value of "civilised".
The pseudohermaphrodites themselves are made to feel like pariahs, mocked to their faces and whispered about behind their backs. Nearly 40 years after graduating high school, I still cringe to recall how my schoolmates stared and laughed at one unhappy classmate with ambiguous genitals whenever we took showers in the locker room. His life must have been daily torture. Nowadays there is much sympathy for patients with other types of genetic defects, but not yet for pseudohermaphrodites. The harsh fact is that gender ambiguity does arise occasionally, and it presents itself in a wide range of forms. I hope that as our scientific knowledge about pseudohermaphrodites advances, they will meet with the sympathy they deserve.
That article, I remind you, was written in 1992. 19 years later, there has been little change, and what change there has been (in the USA at least) has been retrograde more often than not. Not just in the US though. From the Albury-Wodonga TwinCityFocus some three weeks ago:
Lavington: On Monday (Jan 3) Donna Macklan went to visit a friend. Two people in their twenties viciously assaulted Donna, knocking her out of her wheel chair and hitting her with a shovel.

Whilst they were doing this they screamed “you hermaphrodite”. There is a full report in today’s Border Mail.
The victim is technically TS rather than IS. But bigots make no such fine distinctions. And national media, which would normally wax lyrical in their condemnation of such a brutal attack on a wheelchair-bound victim, is unaccountably silent about it when one of "those people" is hospitalised.


Nicole Jade said...

It is my firm belief that a lot of TS people have IS conditions without realizing it.

Anonymous said...

Culteral relativism be damned these people need to have their culture destroyed. Save the genes but ruin the social structure. I have never heard of such a vile life for a woman.

Zoe Brain said...

See the article on Pushtun sexuality in Afghanistan. Women there have it worse. There are many similarities.

Misogyny Redux