Seminal juxtapositions

It’s always seemed to me that one of the skills in teaching comes from choosing articles that, when read together, pose a certain problem that students can wrap their heads around and can generate discussion. I just got done teaching “Gil Herdt’s”: newly-updated The Sambia to students and as usual the papers on the topic of homosexual initiation (boys must ingest semen to become men and undergo puberty) focused on how misled this practice was, and that “if only the Sambia knew the facts about semen” and so forth then they wouldn’t do this stuff. I don’t personally endorse ten year olds performing sex acts with adults, and I admit that Sambia practices would change if they had ‘our’ understanding of exactly what semen does. But the challenge of the course is to see that this is not a case where ‘we have science and they have culture’ –that biomedecine is itself a cultural phenomenon, albeit one that is calibrated to the physical world in unique ways that allow for the control, manipulatin, and prediction of biological phenomenon etc. etc.

Anyway it occured to me recently that a good way to explain this would be to discuss the culturally-specific understanding of semen at play in the US, so I brought some excerpts from “Emily Martin’s”: 1991 essay “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles” (Signs 16 (3):485-501, btw). I didn’t really have enough time to pull it off completely, but I think in the future I will for sure try to play this article off the Sambia. And I think you should too.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

10 thoughts on “Seminal juxtapositions

  1. Here’s an article you can use:

    Anne-Lise Middlethon, 2001, “Interpretations of Condom Use and Nonuse among Young Norwegian Gay Men: A Qualitative Study,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 15 (1): 58-83.

    The article details the different semen practices of Norwegian men, and their various meaning.

  2. Maybe I’m just squeamish, but I’ve always been pretty dubious about the teachability of Gil Herdt’s stuff to undergrads. On the one hand, you don’t have to worry about them doing the reading. On the other hand, does their take home lesson turn out to be anything other than “ewww, naughty!”? this is, note, NOT a crack at Herdt, or on anthropological exoticism, or whatever — it’s more a crack about the pedagogical possibilities of rooms full of 19 year olds.

  3. I admit it is hard and I don’t think I’ll be using Herdy a lot more in the future. My goal when teaching this stuff is to deexoticize it — to make semen and blood which initially seemed so weird end up being incredibly boring and mundane by the end of that section of the course. In the past I’ve used Buck Schieffelin’s _Sorrow of the Lonely_ (where he doesn’t mention these rituals as they occur amongst the Kaluli) and then incorporate other material like Steve Feld’s articles and other stuff on ritualized homosexuality in this part of PNG. I think in general Herdt is easier to teach when you’re a Melanesianist, and have been socialized to have some of the same instincts about substance and personhood as the Sambia.

  4. One of the main lessons of anthropology is that radical cultural differences can and do exist (e.g. the projects of Christianity, Islam, the nation-state, science, or boy insemination all being equally radical). Being so discriminatory about what can or cannot teach seems to be symptomatic of either the discipline’s pedagogical possibilities in general, or those of the concrete pedagogue. If we, as anthropologists, cannot confront the reality of other lifeworlds, including that of the Anga for example, in our classrooms then what are teaching? That some practices are okay to teach, and hence moral acceptable, and other not? If we’re unwilling to confront radical cultural difference, then I suppose the great Boasian tradition has finally been reduced to cultural studies. Has anyone seen the last episode of Survivor?

  5. I don’t see why teaching Herdt’s stuff would be a problem for upper level undergraduates. If Rex’s class was an intro class (I’m presuming that it is not) then I would see that as problem. Usually in intro classes, you have to get past predjudices of some students who have only experienced life within a very small geographic area and/or social stratta. When I first started as a TA, I was amazed by the number students assumed that all blacks, asian or latinos were “foreigners” or that we were lying to them about intersex births.

    You have to gradually introduce students to different ways of living and understanding the world. If you move too fast, you could actually end up reinforcing predjudices. It’s extremely easy for certain students use discussion of certain “bad things” to reinforce their own stereotypes about others.

    I’m not saying that you can’t discuss radical cultural differences but that certain radical differences cross so-many “taboos” in “Western” society that its difficult for students to get past them. For most students showing radically different attitudes towards a woman’s behavior during pregnancy is not necessarily problematic because usually these differences challenge people’s assumptions but do not cross taboo lines. For example, a student might learn that among certain groups of people (for example the Fulani or Hmong) women are not supposed to make sound during birth and are supposed to give birth alone. This new knowledge challenges assumptions about pregnancy and the ability to give birth but it does not involve the breaking of any major “taboos” that people might have. Instead, it challenges assumptions about the biological facts of pregnancy and in turn American or “Western” beliefs about pregnancy.

    On the other hand in the case of Herdt’s work, semen ingestion crosses a major line. Even if a student has no problem with homosexuality, semen ingestion in this case can be easily interpretted as pedophilia. In an introductory class with students who have never been to another state (let alone another country), it would be almost impossible to get most people to leave aside their predjudices. Many students will seize upon this aspect of the course as proof that there are actually primitive, backward people “out there.”

    To sum this post up: you have to break down people’s predjudices gradually before you move on to teaching about practices and beliefs which could be perceived as “bad.”

  6. Grad School Guy raises the main point — the class I teach The Sambia in is an intro level class. One of the reasons that I’m cycling off the Herdt is that (as he says) you gotta soften people up before you hit them with the insemination. Also I’m increasingly teaching the intro intro level course using more novelistic sources (Guests of the Sheik, etc.) and conceptually challenging articles. I save the straight-up ethnography and insemination for the mid-level ethnography course.

  7. Perhaps the problem with teaching certain things is that people react badly to them but perhaps it sometimes has as much to do with the quality of the writing and the arguments in the reading: I’ve had a lot of success with using Don Kulick’s AA piece on Travesti and Janice Boddy’s AE piece on female circumcision in Intro classes.

  8. Having come to the end of Worker in the Cane I wonder how many of us would find it easier to teach Samia initiation than Don Taso’s conversion to Pentacostal Christianity. And with all the moralizing that passes for theory these days, I wonder, too, how we would handle Mintz’s closing paragraph,

    Taso’s story has no moal. Perhaps it is enough that his life should seem so much better to him now. Or perhaps the reader will see the waste I think I see: the waste of a mind that stands above the others as the violet sprays of the flor de cana tower above the cane. But the story should evoke no pity, for that is a sentiment which degrades the meaning of Taso’s life to himself and to those who know and love him.

  9. Comet Jo’s comment raises an interesting point, which I think has something to do with the role of sexism/heterosexism in the classroom: it’s interesting how many undergrad anthro classes totally LIVE for the “female genital circumcision” moment, and then Janice Boddy of course makes a useful intervention into that discussion. But no-one is fundamentally uncomfortable discussing the cutting up of female genitalia, like, people can condemn it or come to understand it in context but it doesn’t turn their brains off. Same deal with travesti — again, they are already sort of positioned as “discussable”/subjectable to the analytic gaze: gay men who take on female physical attributes/roles. But a narrative about the male authorities in a society engaging in sexual acts with boys who will themselves in turn become the male authorities in that society — agghhhhaaagggghhhh!!!! It sort of puts a salty finger right in the tender eye of North American sex/gender structures. I think you first have to have had students begin to figure out some of the ways their own reactions are contextualized — and not just in a brainless “culturally relativist” way but in very specific ways — before something like Herdt can be pedagogically useful. Though I believe what Rex says about how it helps if the presenter is a Melanesianist and is able to add extra contextualization from the “other” side.

  10. Is Comet Jo surreptitiously trying to suggest that Gil Herdt doesn’t work in the classroom because his ethnography is terribly written?

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