Academic journal article International Journal of Men's Health

"Become Big, and I'll Give You Something to Eat": Thoughts and Notes on Boyhood Sexual Health

Academic journal article International Journal of Men's Health

"Become Big, and I'll Give You Something to Eat": Thoughts and Notes on Boyhood Sexual Health

Article excerpt

In the West, a long heritage of notions of healthy boyhood sexuality has come to inform its embodiment by boys. However, the applicability of a biomedical paradigm to boyhood sexuality is greatly restrictive if it is oblivious to the worldwide variety of indigenous customs and practices that inform boys' experience of their bodies and their sexual practices. This article presents a sample of the wide range of practices associated with boys' sexual bodies and argues in favor of an ethnohistorical (cartographic) approach to local boyhood sexualities, that is, a plurality of boy sexualities, to supplement or replace the prevailing biomedical perspective that prescribes a single version of healthy boyhood sexuality. It provides a review of selected ethnographic findings related to boys' experience of their bodies, puberty, virginity, and involvement in same-sex intimacies. The purpose of the paper is to reveal how the status of the Western boy's body and boyhood sexuality has been created by the biomedical paradigm and to suggest an alternative perspective based on ethnographic findings.

Keywords: boyhood sexuality, indigenous customs, ethnohistorical or cartographic perspective, biomedical perspective, healthy sexuality, puberty, virginity


What law cannot suppress, a fear of the supernatural does. As, for example, the current belief that self-abuse in a boy causes hair to grow on the palm of his hands. (Bonnerjea, 1931, p. 225)


I'll begin by offering some comments on the notion of boyhood sexuality and the health paradigm in terms of which this abstraction is routinely approached in the West. The concept of health is a conventional approach to the young male, his corporeality, and his comportment. Such a breakdown in terms of subject, body, and act is symptomatic of the way in which the approach to boyhood of the health sciences has been mediated by a large academic apparatus that needs to identify the patient before it can apply its model of health. A two-step process from identification of the patient to his symptoms and from symptoms to a diagnosis seriously affects the study of sexuality, since the body and a person's acts can be legitimately approached only via the person as a whole. It is especially problematic when discussing young males, where the person or subject is assumed to be still developing.

As a way of clarifying the health paradigm, I'll first explore how boyhood sexuality as such has become an object of study. As a field of research, it is a very recent phenomenon (Janssen, 2005; Pattman, Frosh, & Phoenix, 1998; Sorensen, 2000). As a new field of inquiry, boyhood studies is the intersection of men's studies, feminism, and health psychology. These approaches, which are all late 20th century Euro-American projects, have had tremendous impact on the current turn to the study of boys' sexuality. Its diverse origins converged on seeing the boy first as a prospective patient with boy-specific ailments and health risks. In turn, a model of what constitutes a healthy boy was envisioned. In post-1950 American sexology, boyhood disturbances were subjected to professionalized scrutiny. Indeed, the very notion of "the boy" may be understood as rooted in a politically motivated program to which boys were subjected by a form of social engineering, especially as they came of age. Throughout the 20th century, boyhood has been made the object of study by health professionals (Kidd, 2004; MacDonald, 1993; Macleod, 1983; Randall, 2001; Warren, 1986). This approach has been criticized (Sommers, 2000).

All of these projects have situated boyhood sexuality in terms of elaborate psychomedical or psychohygienic programs. Thus a long heritage of health notions concerning boyhood sexuality has informed its enactment in Euro-American settings. As is well known, the West has followed a remarkable path from Greek pederastic paideia politics (and centuries of its academic interpretation) (Percy, III, 1996), anti-masturbation crusades (Hall, 1991; Pryke, 2005), discussions of the Oedipal stage, the absent father, "developmentally expected" adolescent homosexuality (Spurlock, 2002), "gender disorder" (Sedgwick, 1993; compare Zucker & Spitzer, 2005), sissiness (Grant, 2004), and circumcision (e. …

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