Academic journal article Thymos

Paddling and the Repression of the Feminine in Male Hazing

Academic journal article Thymos

Paddling and the Repression of the Feminine in Male Hazing

Article excerpt

Despite a nearly two decades' long war on high school and college hazing, the traditional practice of paddling male pledges on the buttocks persists as a physical and psychological test of worthiness for membership in certain all-male organizations. In its elements of nudity, homoeroticim, and stylized sadomasochism, this ritual condenses a great many of the psychological processes essential to male bonding in groups. An application of Freud's insights in his 1919 essay, "A Child Is Being Beaten," to the puzzle of posterior paddling reveals a complex psychological process by which the pledge is feminized by the paddling, represses the feminine part of his self, and is initiated into the status of a brother among other heterosexual males.

Keywords: initiation, hazing, homoerotic, psychoanalytic

Some time ago, in the midst of my ethnographic research on the Boy Scouts of America (Mechling, 2001), I corresponded with a sociologist who had written an essay recounting the hazing and initiation ritual he and his fellow Scouts had invented as a means of bringing boys into that male friendship group. Not at all surprising to me, the hazing involved brief nudity, a common feature of male adolescent hazing in American fraternities, athletic teams, and similar male friendship groups. Male friendship in the United States very often has a homorerotic element, and the nudity found so often in male play simultaneously draws on the energy of that homoreroticism and affirms the players' heterosexuality. The male friends can be nude in each other's presence precisely because they are not real sexual objects to one another. My correspondent's essay reminded me of a similar invented hazing ritual in my own Boy Scout troop as a youth, a test of courage and trust that also involved brief nudity. In both cases (occurring in the late 1950s and 1960s) these informal folk inventions took place quite apart from the surveillance of adult leaders on the campout. These customs must have been common in other troops and at other camps because the Youth Protection Program, created by the Boy Scouts of America in the 1990s in response to worries about sexual exploitation and abuse in the organization, specifically prohibits nudity (for example, "skinny dipping"), hazing, and "secret organizations" of any kind (http://www.scouting.org/nav/enter jsp?s=xx&c=yp). Adults may prohibit, but youths initiate their peers nonetheless.

Nature provides the male with a body, sex organs, and hormones, though we know that these vary more than the simple male/female binary would suggest. Bodies are not fixed, so the changing male body is real enough, though even biological development has great variation and, in any case, it is up to the group to define the meaning of the changes. So whatever their biological substrate, male initiation rituals are deeply cultural in their shapes and meanings. Janssen (2007) shows how complicated are generalizations about these practices since they seem to vary considerably. Moreover, as Janssen warns, scholarly reports and analyses of these rituals carry many unstated assumptions by the scholars about the key categories involved (for example, "man," "boy," "mature"), about the functions of these rituals (for example, the "psychocultural necessity" of the rites and cultural notions of progressive development), and about their symbolic meanings. In what follows, I aim to keep my own assumptions and claims as transparent as any scholar can.

My focus here is on the United States and on a particularly interesting and puzzling male initiation practice: paddling the often-bare buttocks of the initiate. Paddling is seen by insiders and outsiders alike as a form of hazing, and while it is most common in fraternities-the formal, exclusive, and often secretive social organizations for men at universities and colleges-this hazing practice sometimes appears in other male friendship groups. The Fraternity Executives Association defines hazing as "any action taken or situation created intentionally, whether on or off fraternity premises, to produce mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment or ridicule" (Nuwer, 1999, p. …

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