Misogyny: The Male Malady

Misogyny: The Male Malady

by David D. Gilmore

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David D. Gilmore studies the phenomenon of women-hating, offering a psychogenic explanation for the pervasiveness and similarity of misogyny across a wide range of societies.

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David D. Gilmore studies the phenomenon of women-hating, offering a psychogenic explanation for the pervasiveness and similarity of misogyny across a wide range of societies.

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It is no exaggeration to say that the greatest obsession in history is that of man with woman's body. Since time immemorial, men have rhapsodized about feminine flesh; the earliest known works of representational art, the European "Venuses," tiny stone statuettes of voluptuous females with huge, pendulous breasts and grotesquely enlarged vulvas, attest to the antiquity and primacy of this obsession.

But more than a mere sexual object or a model of beauty and fertility, the female body is also man's first home. The womb is the mystical place of origin and procreation, and the female body harbors the fetus, nurtures the infant, shelters the toddler, nourishes the young adult, comforts the man in his age, consoles him at the end. The body of woman not only gives life and form to the man throughout life, but also issues his progeny, his sons who perpetuate his race, spread his genes, ensuring him a small measure of immortality. Woman's flesh is that of mother, lover, wife, daughter, friend, helpmate and caretaker, conferring on man his most intense physical pleasure, slaking his wildest lusts, satisfying his deepest instinctual needs.

Man's fascination is the product of a certain mixture or balance of emotional states that is as dynamically unstable as it is irresolvable. This jumble of emotions is polarized to an extreme and dramatic degree: both desire and repulsion, neither unalloyed, for just as man loves and desires the female body, he also fears and distrusts it because woman's flesh is too desirable, too gratifying. Man especially fears the peremptory power that woman's body exerts over him, its enormous capacity to provoke feelings so uncontrollable that their frustration promises as much pain as their gratification does pleasure. For the body is also the source of man's most grievous frustrations. Through no fault of her own, woman is the cause of his greatest disappointments, his worst shame and guilt. For many men, consequently, woman's body inspires not only desire, but anxiety, self-doubt, anger, and terror. In some cases of preindustrial peoples, as we shall soon see, these negative feelings about the female body attain expression in magical delusions, phobias, and bizarre ritualizations.

Melanesia: Black Islands

The island of New Guinea consists of the present-day nations of Papua New Guinea in the east (granted independence from Australia in 1975) and Irian Jaya in the west (annexed by Indonesia in 1963). The two countries occupy approximately equal territory.

Situated north of the Australian continent in the South Pacific, New Guinea is the largest island in the Melanesian chain and the second largest in the world (after Greenland). The term Melanesia, or "black islands," comes from the fact that the people are dark skinned and Negroid in appearance, which surprised early explorers familiar with the light-skinned Polynesians. The highland region of New Guinea occupies the central cordillera of the island and boasts peaks as high as 16,000 feet, which are the source of the rushing rivers and streams.

Thousands of verdant valleys and ravines splinter the misty highlands. Shrouded in fogs, enclosed by towering peaks and dense rainforests, these highland valleys opened up to Western exploration only after the 1930s and 1940s (Brown and Buchbinder 1976:2), some not until the 1960s; the area was one of the last aboriginal stone-age holdouts to be penetrated by Western explorers after the Second World War. In fact, some areas were unknown to whites until well into the 1970s. Writing as late as 1978, the ethnologist Paula Brown notes in her survey of the highlands that "the western part of New Guinea [Irian Jaya] is still relatively unknown" (1978:4). Even today, in a new century, some areas are barely explored.

This place, with its dense populations of sweet potato horticulturists and pig herders, was one of the last truly pristine Neolithic regions of the world, and consequently the practices of the people there, which were observed and recorded immediately upon contact by teams of intrepid anthropologists, remained largely unchanged and uncorrupted in the more remote areas by Western contact, at least until about 1960. New Guinea is a place where ethnographers have observed cultural forms that are sui generis, pristine, virtually free from major outside influence. These aboriginal beliefs are most colorfully mirrored in native customs about sex and gender.

Many books and articles have been written about sexual relations in New Guinea, most recently Lewis Langness's Men and "Woman" in New Guinea (1999). This subject became a virtual industry in cultural anthropology between 1950 and 1990, and continues unabated to this day; literally all publications start off by noting a curious degree of sex antagonism as a salient feature, if not the standout feature, of most highland societies. There is probably no place on earth where men and women are so intensely antagonistic toward one another and where men have such a pervasive fear and loathing of women, a fear that centers on their reproductive functions and especially on their mysterious sexual organs and everything relating to the vagina. Aboriginal New Guinea is a place where all women are simultaneously "inferior, malevolent, weak, and polluted" (Meigs 1984:31).

One early observer, Ronald Berndt (1962:129), struck by the belligerent attitude of the men toward the women, wrote that sexual relations in the highlands resemble "a kind of armed combat." Brown and Buchbinder (1976:1), summarizing the voluminous mass of material on the subject, write in less histrionic terms that ambivalent and antagonistic relations between the sexes are a "prevailing theme" of highland life. Buchbinder and Rappaport (1976:13) add that this antagonism is certainly universal there. Gelber (1986:12) notes that there is probably no other place in the world where sexual hostility reaches such an apogee of both intensity and degree of elaboration into cultural practices, misogynistic beliefs and taboos, and prophylactic rituals.

Although basing her opinions on library research, Gelber summarizes this cultural theme more authoritatively than many observers, and writes that this sex antagonism is found in virtually all areas of daily life and pervades the most basic aspects of village organization-living arrangements for example. The men must live far apart from their wives in guarded all-male houses (the famous Melanesian men's houses) out of fear for their physical and moral safety. Sex antagonism is also found in religious rituals from which women are strenuously excluded on pain of severe punishment. The men worship secret phallic symbols (holy trumpets and sacred flutes) that the women are not allowed even to see. The men's cults and secret societies are in fact designed to combat female pollution and the danger women pose to men's equanimity and health. An extreme visceral misogyny is found also in such phenomena as routine physical violence, including gang rape meted out as punishment for any wayward woman (Lindenbaum 1976:56), ritual mock battles between the sexes (Meggitt 1964:204), the gender-specific murder of women by men for violation of any of the prevailing rules, as well as unprovoked attacks on women's genitals (Gelber 1986:12). According to Gelber, the list of misogynist behaviors and beliefs in New Guinea can only be called "flamboyant"

It is perhaps useful to try to categorize this rich and colorful armory of misogynistic practices in comparative perspective. We start with highland male fears and apprehensions about the female body: flesh, bone, blood, and fluids. Nowhere else in the world does fear of the female body reach such a terrible, staggering pitch. Highland men tremble before the female contagion and effluvia, the "dangerous universe" of woman's flesh and blood (Lindenbaum 1979:129):

A boy is taught that his whole development may be jeopardized if he does not exercise extreme care in his relations with the opposite sex, and he is permitted only a minimum of contact with women of the community. He eats only foodstuffs which have been cooked by men, and he is not permitted to sleep in the women's houses. He is, moreover, warned of the danger to himself if he succumbs to the blandishments of women . . . his strength may be impaired by contact with them. (Read 1954:867)

Boys are repeatedly cautioned not to spend too much time with women; if they do, "their skins will be 'no good,' their work will 'go wrong' and they will die young" (Langness 1967:165).

What is it exactly that boys are taught to fear so much? Is it sexual seductiveness? Are the men afraid, like the New England Puritans, of their own proclivities, blaming their sexual impulses on women? Oddly, the men are not sexual prudes; they actually like sex and, like most men, pursue opportunities for intercourse. Nor is it sexual desire in the abstract that torments them. Here we see right off that it is not sex alone that produces the fear and the hatred in men, that other psychic conflicts are equally involved. Rather, it is woman's physical body itself as a source of pollution that inspires the terror: her skin and her menstrual blood, her mysterious genitals, her reproductive effluvia, her very physical being in all aspects and forms. Mother, wife, sister ... no matter; woman's body is the harbinger of all human evil.

For woman's body is regarded as a polluted thing. Its excretions and products are almost indescribably debilitating and deadly to all male creatures. The female body must be avoided whenever possible. In a curious paradox, even sex itself, though desired by most men, is terrifying, since it means entering into a frightful world of contagion and death.

The idea that women are dangerously polluting and that their bodies are the source of contamination is widespread on the entire island and its outlying archipelagoes. This belief relates especially to notions about menstrual blood, parturitional fluids, childbirth itself, and, of course, the sex act. For example, Mervyn Meggitt (1964:210) writes that the Mae Enga of the Mount Hagen range in the western highlands think that copulation is in itself detrimental to male well-being. Overindulgence will dull a man's mind and leave his body permanently exhausted and withered, and any contact with a menstruating woman will sicken a man and cause persistent vomiting, turn his blood black, and corrupt his vital juices "so that his skin eventually darkens as his flesh wastes, permanently dull his wits, and eventually lead to a slow decline and death." Similar ideas are entertained by the Hua (Meigs 1984), the Gururumba (Newman 1965:42), the Kamano, Fore, Melpa, Gahuka-Gama, and many others (Gelber 1986:94). All these highland peoples fear woman's body as the fount of disease and death for men.

An Anti-Vagina Complex

In the highlands men and women live apart, the men secluded in male-only huts built to protect them from the noxious female contamination that surrounds them. Women radiate evil, a withering power from within; their bodies contain pollutants and vicious scourges poisoning food eaten by men and their animals, desecrating the sacred objects men worship, wrecking men's lives, and, finally, wasting and killing men. Everywhere in the highlands, writes Paula Brown (1978:150), men believe that women may make them shrivel and dry, that they sap their "juice" and that female sexuality, menstruation, vaginal secretions, childbirth, discharges from parturition, and so on are potent, dangerous, malignant things.

The Ndumba of the Mount Piora region, in the eastern highlands, believe that prolonged contact with women can make men's bones dissolve, their breath grow short, and generally lead to debilitation and even death (Hays and Hays 1982:206). Elsewhere-for example, among the Ilahita Arapesh, who do not live in the highlands-the men are more focused on breast milk than sexual effluvia: they believe that woman's milk is polluting and fear its contaminating effects on adult males (Tuzin 1982:337-38). More than simply unhygienic, woman's biology is inimical to man, a hostile force of nature. The Gimi of the eastern highlands treat both menstruation and childbirth as hostile and contagious acts. A woman with her period, or one holding a newborn child, is considered dangerous and has to be confined and avoided by males (Gillison 1993:4). Note that these extreme beliefs are not reciprocated by the women of the region, for there is no elaboration of reciprocal sexual fears by women (Paula Brown 1978:150), no terror of men's biological functions, no supernatural fears about the polluting power of their sexual organs.

As one might expect, the terror of women's contamination focuses on the vagina. There is a virtual "anti-vagina complex" (Shapiro 1989) among highland men, featuring specific beliefs in the devastating malignancy of magical vaginal secretions (Lidz and Lidz 1989:54-64). Everything connected with the vagina is deadly to men. Vaginal discharges are so poisonous that they can be used by witches to kill a man overnight, simply by depositing them near his clothing. Everything from the vagina is considered to be polluted, even nonsexual things like babies. Having passed through the mother's birth canal, the neonate of either sex is tainted. In traditional Hua society, for instance, until the baby was ritually purified, the father never touched it but only poked it playfully with a small stick, keeping a safe distance (Meigs 1984:64).

Even clothing worn over the female genital area is contaminated; a woman's skirt can sicken a man and cause early death (Meggitt 1964:209). For example, Buchbinder and Rappaport (1976) were told of an incident among the Maring people, a fringe highlands group. Their informant said that anything that has the slightest contact with the vagina can debilitate or even kill a man, including the seemingly innocent little apron strings with which women cover their genitals. When a young man visiting the Fugai-Korama (a neighboring people) found pieces of such an apron in his food, he concluded that someone was trying to kill him (21).

Any object that passes over or near the vagina can no longer be used safely by a man. This prohibition includes clothing, tools, food, and other domestic items. Even proximity of an object to the vagina requires ritual cleansing or disposal. If a woman's genitals are physically higher than a man's head, serious health risks ensue to him. For instance, if a woman steps over a sleeping man in such a way that her vagina passes above him, he will sicken and his body will rot unless immediately treated with an exorcism. Women, therefore, are not allowed to climb above men in trees or on ladders or to step across prone or sleeping men, an act that is both sexually exciting and frightening to the men. On the basis of fieldwork among the Mae Enga, Mervyn Meggitt provides a long list of prohibitions connected to this "height" phobia: a woman must not climb on the roof of a house lest a man be inside; she must never walk over a boy's hair clippings lest he become stunted and stupid; she may not step across the legs of a seated man or else his blood will die; she must not pass over his bow and arrow lest they lose their efficacy and he will catch no game (1964:208-10).

So deep is this fear of pestilence that whenever the Mae Enga people gather in mixed groups, as at weddings, they must segregate the sexes. The right-hand side is reserved exclusively for men, where they sit, kneel, or lie down in relative safety; the left side (associated with mystery and evil) is for the women, where they stand, step, or promenade as they like, avoiding contact with the vulnerable males. Women are barred from crossing this Melanesian Maginot Line. Among the Maring people, a man who suffers the terrible misfortune of being stepped over by a woman is afflicted with such hideous symptoms as slack and wrinkled skin, putrid pustules, and subcutaneous ulcers. It gets worse: eventually the unfortunate Maring man's flesh wastes away, his thoughts drift uncontrollably, and his belly painfully bloats (Buchbinder and Rappaport 1976:21); then he may wither away altogether. Gilbert Herdt (1986:71) reports similar ideas among the Sambia people of the southeastern highlands. Because of their polluting vaginas, the Sambia women are told not to walk above the male clubhouse, an act that would contaminate the initiates, ruin war weapons, and spoil the ritual paraphernalia. "Women belong down below, men on top," the men like to say, and they enforce this rule with a vigor borne of fear.

Raymond Kelly (1976), working among the Etoro of the central cordillera, reports that the men are so exercised by the dangers of the vagina that a man must throw away any food that a woman has stepped around or nearby, even if not directly over it. It an Etoro woman should chance to pass over such food, even unintentionally, the people say it has passed "between her thighs" (41) and has been poisoned by her polluting genital zone. The woman's vulva (and, therefore, the woman herself) must never be above a man's nose. The genitalia menace with lethal radiation and must remain below a man's organs of sense (what better metaphor for an inferior status?).

Women are at all times enjoined from stepping over a man's personal possessions, smoking pipes and tobacco, and especially food and the items employed in its cooking and consumption. Thus a woman must never step over split firewood or sit on the woodpile at the front of the longhouse. If a man consumes a morsel of food cooked by such firewood ... he will suffer hame hah hah [wasting sickness] and a general lack of strength while pursuing his daily activities. Should a woman step over his ax, it will become dull. (Kelly 1976:41)

The Fore of the eastern highlands also believe in a topographical scheme of female pollution and sexuality. Among the Fore, female sexual organs that "surmount" male things in space (i.e., are above them), bring about illness and death to those who touch those things (Lindenbaum 1979:134).

As Lewis Langness indicates for the highlands generally (1974:207), the vagina phobia applies to both menstruating and nonmenstruating women; women are always somewhat polluting because of their periods' residue; there is no escape for them. For example, Gillian Gillison says about the Gimi of the eastern highlands:

The source of a woman's danger was her menstrual blood, and during her periods she was banished to a tiny shelter on the outskirts of the settlement. But even when a woman was no longer menstruating and emerged from seclusion, vestiges of blood remained beneath her fingernails and in the crevices of her vagina so that she was always polluted to some degree, infecting whatever she handled or stepped over and so "passed between her thighs." (1993:4)

As a result, most New Guinea men always hang their food in net bags suspended from walls so that the women cannot pass above them. They keep their pipes, tobacco, and other paraphernalia either hidden away in the men's house or else hung safely from high walls or ceilings so that women may never contaminate them (Kelly 1976:43-44).

So deadly is the female organ that among the Maring the female genitals are synonymous with death. Simply put, in Maring culture the vagina is decay, rot, and death. Symbolically, the vagina is likened to the grave. Such a conflation of vagina and grave is not unique to the Maring, but is a common highland symbolism, say Buchbinder and Rappaport (1976:32). The symbolic connection, as the authors astutely point out, occurs not only throughout Melanesia but also in many other distant cultures in which men associate the vagina with earth, dirt, and rotting things.

All this anxiousness of course does intrude into Melanesians' active sex life. Although they like sex, so fearful are the men of female genitalia that they avoid touching the genitalia, even during the height of sexual passion. A Wogeo man, for example, will scrupulously wash and purge himself after intercourse if he thinks genital contact has occurred even inadvertently (Hogbin 1970:89-91). Igniting the most ardent desires among men everywhere, the vagina simultaneously provokes intense disgust and nausea among the men of Melanesia. Anthropologist Raymond Kelly, who worked among the Etoro people, tells the following story, which illustrates men's confusion about the female organ. The episode involves a wronged husband and the public response to his actions to humiliate his unfaithful wife.

The woman openly betrayed her husband with a younger lover, who, as it turned out, was his nephew. Outraged, the cuckold dragged his deceitful wife into the center of the village to castigate her publicly. After a long harangue in which he rebuked her and her lover in great detail, he dramatically yanked his wife's skirt above her waist, thereby exposing her pelvis to the entire village (the women do not wear underwear). However, the response, of the assembled youths and men to this exhibition was rather unexpected. Rather than showing arousal or curiosity, the male observers responded with revulsion, nausea, and vomiting: "Several young men (including my informant) retched forthwith and the adulterous youth himself became a queasy and visibly discomfited. Older men turned their faces aside with expressions of disgust" (1976:43).


As might be expected, this anti-vagina delusion centers on the major effluvium of the female organ, menstrual blood, which is regarded as the world's most deadly substance and a magical scourge. Of course, a menstrual-poison fetish is almost ubiquitous in cultures around the world, but it reaches its apogee in highland New Guinea, where it attains the status of an authentic persecution mania. Paula Brown (1978:62) summarizes this widespread attitude by saying that during menstruation women are believed to be especially likely to pollute food and water, which can cause illness to men who eat or touch or even glance at such things. Further, the Melanesians believe that an angry wife will deliberately harm her husband by giving him such contaminated food. Or she may trick him into having intercourse while she is menstruating, and if he succumbs, he may then become seriously ill, even die. It is interesting that so many of these phobias involve a polluted parody of food and food preparation- the main social function of women in these societies.

Hays and Hays (1982:206) report that the Ndumba men of the eastern highlands believe that women often commit premeditated murder of their husband by dropping menstrual blood in his food. Among the Fore people, the men believe that female menstrual blood is a potent item in sorcery, and that a woman may use it intentionally to sicken or even kill her husband or his male relatives. "A wife who wished to eliminate her spouse can use this polluting substance as a poison" (Lindenbaum 1979:59, 131).

Examples of this blood-food phobia have been culled from ethnographies written shortly after contact was made in the 1950s. These few cases cited below, which are just the tip of the iceberg, give the reader some notion of the deep sense of actual beleaguerment and terror caused by menstruation and the extent to which the men preoccupy themselves with avoidance techniques and magical prophylactics, many having to do with food intake.

The Gururumba people live in six large villages in the upper Asaro Valley, bounded by towering mountains, some rising to 15,000 feet. Anthropologist Philip Newman (1965) studied them in the late 1950s, only a decade after discovery. He found that Gururumba men shrank in terror from the mere thought of menstrual blood, and they responded to his queries with visible discomfort. Fearful and vulnerable, these men have elaborated an extensive series of taboos and prohibitions to protect themselves from the horrid female scourge. For example, a man should never let a menstruating woman touch his bow, his food of course, his drinking tube, or his skin; a woman should destroy all trace of menstrual discharge lest a man come into contact with it indirectly and inadvertently through the mouth or nose; a menstruating woman should be isolated from the men and placed in a special hut from which she may not exit until her period ends. The men are equally fearful of the afterbirth and any other vaginal discharge. All these things are treated with dread and surrounded by the same taboos. The slightest infringement of these rules will sicken a man and cause his skin to shrivel; in some cases, he will waste away and die. So powerful is the vaginal poison that a man who simply glances at a menstruating woman imbibes her poison and becomes ill (Newman 1965:77).

The Bena Bena people of the Asaro Privet area, studied by Langness since 1961, observe similar proscriptions, or did so until very recently. Traditionally, they maintained a fairly rigid sexual separation of adults, grown men sleeping together in the segregated men's houses, the women sleeping with their children (of both sexes) in their own huts. As elsewhere, the Bena Bena abhorred a menstruating woman, for menstrual blood was regarded as dangerous. Women were secluded in special huts of their own construction during their menses and at childbirth (Langness 1999:6). Bena Bena men also maintain rigid taboos against a menstruating woman's touching a man's head, coming into contact with his hair or any part of his clothing, preparing food for men, "casting a shadow" on any man, or, once again, being in any way physically above a man or boy.

The island-dwelling Wogeo, although not highlanders, share many of these misogynist myths and have equally strict rules. The blood from a woman's period is virulently polluting; she may not touch anyone or anything while in this dangerous condition, nor may she touch her husband's food, lest he die (Hogbin 1970:86). A woman in her menses must wear a special skirt proclaiming her polluted status; she must use specific instruments for eating and drinking. The blood shed in childbirth is even more toxic than menstrual blood since it represents nine months' accumulation of pollution. The new Wogeo mother is highly polluted and becomes untouchable for at least three months. Anyone who touches her is in principle as polluted as she and must then observe the same taboos and restrictions, which will continue until the day after the next full moon (La Fontaine 1985:128-29).

The Siane of the eastern highlands regard menstrual blood and parturitional fluids as the most dangerous and polluting of all substances (Meigs 1984:111). The same is true of the Gimi of the eastern highlands. The latter, dauntless warriors who cheerfully battled and killed each other in innumerable wars, seemed more afraid of the women in their midst than of their enemies' spears and arrows, believing their health and vigor to be threatened more by menstrual blood, which was hidden and pervasive, than by their enemies' deadly weapons (Gillison 1993:4).

Similarly, the Ndumba people of the eastern highlands say that a menstruating woman is the custodian of a "lethal weapon" between her legs (Hays and Hays 1982:228). Girls are taught to exert special care as to where they walk while having their period; otherwise they may face accusations of assault and battery, or even murder if a nearby man sickens or dies from magical pollution. So convinced are the Ndumba men that menstrual emanations can kill them, if a man got sick or died from unknown causes before pacification in the 1950s the men would try, convict, and severely punish- even execute—any woman found guilty of having stepped near his food while menstruating. Slightly less draconian punishments are still inflicted: Hays and Hays report that during their fieldwork, for example, one woman was severely ostracized by her husband and other men because she was believed to be responsible for her brother's death by having stepped over his bow. For weeks afterward no one would speak to her or even recognize her existence (1982:228).

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