Mark Owen

Ceremonies of Initiation - or exercises in sadism?

Initiation, hazing, bastardization - Whatever the name the activity spells misery, pain and humiliation for many.
Such ceremonies date back into the distant past. Initiation into the tribe or society is as old as 'civilized' man. It is thus not surprising that modern, if generally less cruel (but, alas, not always so), forms of initiation persist. 

Many ‘native’ ceremonies centre around the genitals, which are mutilated in some way or other, both in boys and girls. (It is interesting to note in passing that the recent abuses reported from Western Australia included assaults on the genitals.) In the Upper Volta young boys went through initiation ceremonies that included circumcision of their foreskins, without anesthetics. Some boys, perhaps those of more attractive appearance, were selected for emasculation, after which they were sold into harems for a few pounds. In many tribes boys are expected to prove their manhood in a number of quite frightening ways. In one Arab group the boys lay on the ground to allow themselves to be lashed with whips by adult males, endeavouring to prove who among them was able to take the most punishment.
A very cruel form of initiation took place among some Bedouin tribes in Arabia. This was (or is, as it is probably still practised) known as es-selkh, or the flaying of the boy's penis. Between the ages of 10 and 15 boys undergo this painful operation, it being considered a mark of manhood not to cry out in anguish. The boys stand, their lower limbs bared, a slave manipulating the penis until erect, after which the entire sheath of the penis is sliced longitudinally and peeled off.  Girls, too, undergo initiation in many societies. In East Africa young girls had to prove themselves by standing barefoot astride a fire for a period; thus showing their ability to stand pain.

In Papua New Guinea young boys - usually aged between 10 and 17 years - are initiated in ceremonies held from time to time, the nature of the ritual varying from tribe to tribe.  When the time arrives all women are removed from the area and the warriors don their paint and feathers. The first part of a typical ceremony might entail cutting slices into the chest of the boy - usually six to eight slashes. The blood is washed off in the nearby river and then oil and ochre is rubbed into the wound. On the second day the boys are ‘attacked’ by warriors, in fearsome dress and uttering terrifying cries. They are also viciously beaten with rattan canes. These activities are continued for days on end, each day the boys being beaten cruelly. Later they have their heads shaved and go through yet more ceremonies, all designed to toughen them and turn them into worthy warriors.

Initiation has always been important in the lives of Australia's Aboriginal people. The dream life of the Aboriginal was of tremendous importance and was intimately linked to his religious experience. Aboriginals also have a concept that each individual possesses a personal guiding spirit which visits him in his dreams and to which he could resort in times of stress. In some tribes the guiding spirit was known as the kudgera. 

Before passing through his first degree of initiation the adolescent youth was isolated from the tribe for an indefinite period during which he was starved. Under these conditions he would dream and eventually an object would emerge into his consciousness. This was his lifelong spirit guide and he would converse with it. The girls also received a kudgera guide but without going through the starvation process and at a later stage, known as the second-degree initiation ceremony.

Before he reaches the age of about 9 the young Aboriginal boy is prepared in various ways for his approaching initiation into manhood. He has to pass through several 'degrees' on his pathway to manhood and some aspects of this period are terrifying for the youngster.  He might, for example, be told frightening stories warning of a dangerous spirit that could drag him into the underworld. And he is expected to learn tribal dances that depict some of these frightening scenes.

Then comes a cruel central ceremony. His own relatives gather around him as he is crouching upon the ground, men and women, armed with lighted branches and flaming torches. Then the boy must rise and stand waiting upon a pile of timber until a tribal elder takes one of the flaming torches and applies it to the wood beneath his bare feet. As the fire takes hold and the smoke ascends it sears his body and burns his feet. He must not cry out or move; if he fails in this test it is considered a disgrace and he must face the same ordeal again 12 days later. Should this occur and he fails again he faces death!  Soon after the boy receives symbolic totem objects and is considered a full member of the tribe. This is the initiation in but one tribe; others differ in their nature.


The following is an interesting account, dated 1824, of an attempted forcible initiation into a Chinese secret society. Four willing members were first admitted, with suitable rites including drawing blood from the initiates and drinking the mingled blood of the members.  The four also had to swear by all kinds of oaths that they would keep secret the society's rules. Then a man was brought in, obviously an unwilling recruit, his hands being bound with a cord.  He was brought before the chief of the gathering and ordered to prostrate himself on the ground but he refused, remaining erect. 

'A man then came and gave him 10 or 20 blows with a bamboo. He was then asked if he would join the society; he remained silent; the questions was repeated three or four times without getting an answer.' At this display of stubbornness the chief motioned to his henchmen who began waving their swords about, indicating the possible fate of the prisoner. The man still refused, in spite of these threats, so was next stretched and held down on the ground while two men beat him furiously on his back with bamboo rods. He was obviously terrified but still refused to join and was then taken away. The next morning he was executed. This account was recorded by a Malay national who witnessed the events and related what he had seen to Sir Stamford Raffles, Governor of Singapore.

Although not strictly an initiation ceremony, in a similar manner infibulation is applied to young girls at puberty much as boys are circumcised. Infibulation is a method of enforcing chastity upon young females among many native races. The operation takes several forms, with different degrees of severity.  In the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia up at least into the 1920s artificial elongation of the labia in young girls was practised. In some of Australia's Aboriginal tribes a painful operation took place involving small girls. Two joints of the left small finger were excised, often using only a piece of sharpened shell.

In the Marquesas Islands the ears of both boys and girls are pierced between the ages of 6 and 10. This is considered a sacred rite and celebrated with a feast. Between the ages of 12 and 14 boys suffer the operation known as superincision to mark their passage through puberty. This involves making a single slit lengthwise in the foreskin on the dorsal aspect of the glans, as contrasted to circumcision which involves a lateral incision around the glans. [subincision: A single longitudinal incision on the ventral aspect of the penis.]  No form of anesthetic is used. The foreskin is simply stretched tightly over a splinter of bamboo inserted between it and the glans, the incision being made with a knife or razor blade. The bamboo is kept as a sort of fetish object.

Kikuyu girls, like many in other parts of Africa, are subjected to circumcision, and sometimes the injuries sustained during the mutilation of the genitals result in death. An account of the circumcision ceremony in the 1950s describes the young girls being first taken by the first light of dawn to walk up to their waists in the ice-cold river water as a means of numbing to some degree their bodies. They were then led to a clearing, where had gathered large numbers of spectators. Old women performed the operation after which the girls were taken to a special hut to recover. Boys were also circumcised before spectators.

A Buddhist initiation ceremony for novice virgin nuns involves forcing short pointed sticks into the nun's scalp and setting them alight.  The novices, mostly in their teens, are expected to prove they are worthy of being received into the Order, by going through this ordeal without demur. For a full week before the ceremony the young nuns go through rituals including fasting and meditating.  They are watched at all times by monks and on the last day have their heads shaved, after which they make a vow never to touch a man, not even his hand.  They then enter the temple and kneel in a row. 

One by one the girls bow their heads while a high priest forces the pointed sticks, about the size of a short match-stick, into their bare scalps. About twelve are inserted and then lit and allowed to burn down to the skin. The novices are expected to prove their faith by suffering the pain without complaint.  Reportedly it is excruciating and many of the novices writhe in agony but remain silent through the ordeal. Others cannot stand the pain and cry out in their distress.


Hazing is a term used in the USA to describe unofficial initiation ceremonies to which high school, college and university students, and defence force recruits are subjected. In Australia the process is known as bastardization.

This is a practice long followed. General Douglas MacArthur attended West Point at the end of the 19th century and later told how he had been forced to perform deep knee-bends over broken glass until he fainted. West Point has a long history of such hazing ceremonies. Hazing with overtones of racism occurred there in 1880 when the first Negro cadet admitted to the college, James Webster Smith, was taken from his bed, bound and gagged, severely beaten and had his ears slit.  

Many high schools in the USA have secret societies, similar in nature to the more familiar sororities of colleges but generally illegal and operating clandestinely. There are many serious incidents associated with these activities. In 1961 an initiation ceremony involving seven high school boys resulted in two ending up in hospital & others discharged after receiving medical aid. The boys had been taken to a remote carpark and systematically beaten with baseball bats over a long period. It is common for initiations into high school secret societies to be conducted with beatings, using various forms of 'paddle'.

In one hazing a key player on a football team at a school was so badly beaten up that he could not play the next day. In an even more serious incident involving Mike DiGiovanni, of Massachusetts, a beating he received in a locker room resulted in his having to seek medical aid for two broken ribs, a bruised kidney and internal bleeding. He was also hung by his jock-strap to a hook on the wall, a common occurrence. It his case he was lucky, the jock-strap broke and he fell to the floor. However, others have been seriously injured as a result of being lifted off the ground by their jock-straps. One young man had to have a testicle surgically removed after such an incident, and it was his only active one. He is now unable to father a child.

There have also been occasional deaths. Chuck Stephens, aged 20, died after a hazing episode conducted by university students. He and two others were forced to consume large quantities of alcohol and were also locked in a trunk together, left in freezing weather with little clothing. Often the victims of hazings are caught quite unawares; Chuck was kidnapped from his room and taken to face his ordeal. His bereaved mother, Mrs Eileen Stephens, has spent much of the time in the years since speaking at various colleges, universities and high schools about the dangers of hazing.

A major uproar occurred in Smithfield, a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1993, when a high school's football season was completely cancelled following an unpleasant hazing incident. At Skyview High, a Morman institution in Cache County, some youths one day set upon Brian Seamons in the locker room. He was naked at the time they seized him. He was then stretched out along parallel metal towel racks, his hands stretched above his head and taped to the rack and his feet and middle bound taped down. Tape was drawn twice around his genitals and twice around his neck. His tormentors then persuaded a young lady to enter the room, one he had been dating. When she saw Brian she screamed and ran off. The school authorities over-reacted. Instead of punishing the guilty parties they punished the whole school by cancelling the football. This resulted in a public uproar and Brian came in for abuse from some quarters, being blamed for the cancellation. 

Brian was eventually removed from the football team. This highlights another aspect of hazing. Very often the victims of these cruel actions become perpetual victims, much as women who are raped are victimized further. They often report being harassed in other ways after the episode is over. In the case of the young man whose testicle was destroyed, when he returned to school after the operation he was subjected to continual abuse and rude comments.

The familiar American implement of punishment, the paddle (a flat timber implement like a table tennis bat), is often used on girls being hazed. At one school, as well as being beaten, the girl initiates were forced to drink a sort of 'punch' made out of cooking grease, coffee grounds, raw oysters, water and castor oil. One girl also had her back burned with cigarettes, after which she was spanked with the wooden paddle. During the ordeal this girl fainted, but was revived and made to complete the initiation.

Humiliation is a common ingredient in these activities and humiliation is one of the chief pleasures of the sadist. Forcing a youngster to perform degrading activities is one method used to initiate members into the societies. On some occasions students are forced to appear nude or do a strip-tease before their fellows. (sexual sadist almost invariably force their victims to undress.)

At one large eastern city high school three girls were made to dress in long underwear and had their faces painted in hideous designs, while raw egg, with broken eggshell, was rubbed into their hair. They were then required to parade down the city's main street bearing buckets of fish which they waved at passers-by. Another girl had to dress in pyjamas and in the city main street do a dance and crawl along on her hands and knees. The mainstay, however, of initiations is the ritual paddling or beating, performed on the backside, sometimes bared.

In October 1979 there was an investigation after male students at the US Army's West Point college forced a female student to bite off the head of a live chicken. At about the same time a male cadet was forced by class mates to strip naked, was then tied up and had his genitals sprayed with shaving cream. In February 1994 yet another death occurred in a hazing ceremony. Michael Davis, 25, was severely beaten and kicked in the chest during initiation into the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity at Southwest Missouri University. The young man lost consciousness and was left alone in his room without medical attention and was found dead there 15 hours later. Sixteen fraternity members were charged over the death of the student and the first sentences were being handed down in September 1994.

In December 1994 the US Navy was reportedly investigating an alleged hazing incident that had occurred in August 1992, involving a female recruit. The woman, then aged 20, had been appointed a trainee leader and had, she alleged, been told by her attackers that he was required 'to pay her dues before she could order men around.' She was then, according to the claim, ordered to don her uniform and rainwear and taken into a shower in a training centre in Orlando, Florida.  Here she was, according to her testimony, ordered by company commanders to do physical training exercises while she was being kicked and subjected to a severe beating. She reported the incident to Navy officials but no action was taken at the time. 

In January 1995 it was reported that recruits to the Canadian Airborne Regiment had been subjected to degrading hazing rituals. Canadian television viewers saw a video in which soldiers were seen being forced to eat bread soaked with urine, faeces and human vomit. One recruit was shown lying bound on the floor with his face forced into an old pair of sneakers and another showed a recruit being forced to eat toilet paper with faeces on it.  Other scenes showed the soldiers urinating and defecating on each other and performing simulated oral sex. 

The only black member of the unit had been subjected to humiliating torments.  He had been put on a leash and paraded about naked on his hands and knees like a dog, then bound to a tree and covered with talcum powder. This particular regiment had been involved in torture allegations while acting as peace-keepers in Somalia so eventually, after an official inquiry, the Government decided to disband it. 

Similar activities have been reported from time to time in Britain. In January 1995 Alastair Green alleged in a court hearing that 10 years previously he had been subjected to a number of demeaning ceremonies which had resulted in his leaving the Army and suffering a mental breakdown. He was allegedly stripped nude on more than one occasion and once was bound nude to a ceremonial cannon, with a rose stuck in his buttocks. On another occasion he was ordered to do press-ups over a frozen puddle and to break the ice with his head as he did so. Hazing is legally outlawed in 38 US states (as at end-1993).


Bastardization is well-known among Australia’s service personnel so the Western Australian incidents will come as no surprise to many. When new recruits join the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, it is likely some of them at least will undergo bastardization episodes. Although authorities have tried to discourage such ceremonies they still continue from time to time.

Cadets might be deprived of sleep or be starved for a period of time. They might be compelled to simulate sexual activities. In one incident it was claimed, but later denied, that a cadet had been compelled to lick cream from a pair of underpants. Perhaps the worst of recent Australian incidents involved forcing a cadet to drink a mouth-burning mixture of tabasco sauce, pepper and other condiments.

At many Australian high schools and colleges initiation ceremonies also occur, sometimes with serious consequences. Around the year 1972 a nude, distraught, 18-year-old youth was found running through the streets near The King's School, North Parramatta (NSW), one of Australia's most exclusive private institutions. His head was wet and his genitals had been blackened with boot-polish. The youth had been put through a terrifying initiation ordeal. After being stripped naked he was held over a chair and beaten repeatedly. He was then held head-down in a toilet bowl and dunked, and suffered numerous other forms of abuse. When he finally escaped his tormentors he was hysterical with fear. He left the school and never returned. His father complained to the school's headmaster but this official allegedly denied any initiations ever took place in his school!

A disastrous case occurred, involving pupils of an agricultural high school on the outskirts of Sydney (Australia). The main southern railway line passed quite close to the school and one night some older boys took a young boy who had recently joined the school and bound him by his hands and feet tightly across a railway track, face up but blindfolded.  The boy did not know but he had been tied to a branch line alongside the main track. A train was due at any time and the tormentors kept taunting the victim and refused to release him, even when the sound of the approaching train could be heard. The terror-struck boy expended one last mighty effort to free himself as the train raced past him.  When it had gone the boys went to release their victim and found he was dead. An autopsy revealed that he had died from a heart attack. Sadism on the part of the tormentors was never more clearly displayed than in this awful case.             

© Mark Owen, 1991 & 2014 -

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