Gilbert Herdt

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Gilbert Herdt (born February 24, 1949) is Emeritus Professor of Human Sexuality Studies and Anthropology and a Founder of the Department of Sexuality Studies and National Sexuality Resource Center at San Francisco State University. Herdt is the recipient of various awards and research grants, and founded the Summer Institute on Sexuality and Society at the University of Amsterdam (1996), and the PhD Program in Human Sexuality at the California Institute for Integral Studies, San Francisco (2013).

Herdt is best known for conducting long term field work among the Sambia people of Papua New Guinea, where male intergenerational sexual practice was normal in the form of 'ritual insemination rites' which involved the consumption of semen. Males were required to pass through three specific sexual phases in their lives: boys provide sexual service to young men, adolescents then receive oral sex from boys, and finally, males enter adulthood by becoming heterosexual. His publications on the Sambia began in 1981, providing early and highly influential evidence of accepted homosexuality in non-western society. By the late 1990's/early 2000's, Herdt found to his surprise that the Sambia community he had studied, came to abandon the intergenerational ritual insemination rites he had observed 20 years prior. Herdt has written widely on variation in human sexual expression, sex and gender, in Papua New Guinea, Melanesia, and across culture. Easily accessible papers include Why the Sambia Initiate Boys before Age 10 (2000)[1], The Magical Age of 10 (2000 - on puberty and adrenarche)[2], and his interview in Paidika: The Journal of Pedophilia (1994)[3].

  • Walter L. Williams, Review of Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia by Gilbert H. Herdt.[4] Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 351-354.

This is the first published collection of ethnographic studies specifically about homosexual behavior in non-Western cultures. [...] Herdt challenges that Western stereotype of "a homosexual" or "a heterosexual" as distinct categories of persons. He points out that neither category makes sense in Melanesia, that we cannot properly speak of them in terms of the Western norms of "gay" or "straight."

What is instead found, in many areas of southern lowlands New Guinea and on smaller islands, is a strong cultural belief that there are two bodily fluids which bring about human life and growth: female breast milk and male semen. Infants need milk to grow, but in the Melanesian view boys cannot grow to become men without ingesting semen from adult males. Melanesian societies which have this belief institutionalize male homosexual behavior; it is obligatory for all boys as part of their socialization into manhood. Though the authors show the variations of specific beliefs and practices, this pattern usually exists in societies which have a fairly strict separation of the sexes.

Between the ages of about seven and thirteen, boys are taken from the maternal household and placed in a separate boys' house away from the village. For a period of several months to several years, depending on the culture, boys avoid all contact with females as they are prepared for manhood in elaborate initiations. It is the social duty of men to plant sperm in boys in order for them to grow. In some societies this is done by the boy performing oral sex upon the man, in others by him receiving anal intercourse, or in others by having the sperm rubbed on his body. The sexual act must always be with the boy receiving the older male's semen. To reverse roles is considered damaging to the boy's growth.

The most important homosexual relationship of a boy is with his mentor, assigned by his father and ideally his mother's brother. This mentor is responsible for educating the boy and seeing that he is raised into proper man-hood. They work and sleep together until the boy has matured. This overlay of ritual and male duty makes Melanesian notions of homoeroticism seem quite different from ours. Yet, as Herdt points out, these ritual acts are sexual, with erections and orgasms and close erotic bonding between individuals. It is this male bonding, in fact, which is the book's major concern.

These are egalitarian societies with no strong leadership roles but with almost constant warfare. What is crucial for the society is that a strong common bond be created that cements the men together into a close warriorhood. Just as heterosexual intercourse cements a marriage, in Melanesia, homosexual acts cement a warriorhood. Both heterosexual marriage and homosexual relationships are integral to Melanesian social harmony in that they help to widen the network of individuals to whom one is tied by close emotional bonds.

This information has enormous implications for our own society. [...] The Melanesian data, as well as comparable data from other world areas like ancient Greece, the Sudan, and medieval Japan, demonstrate that a warriorhood in fact can be strengthened by the bonds of homosexuality. Second, these data show that homosexual involvement is not inherently harmful for even young boys and that it can be an integral part of the mentor relationship that aids a boy's education into adulthood. The notion that boys are "recruited" into lifelong homosexual preference by early same-sex experiences is also shown to be false. In Melanesia, just as every boy is expected to be sexual only with other males, at a later time he is expected to be involved with both sexes; and then finally he is expected to marry a woman. In some groups he even is expected to give up sex with boys altogether after his first or second child is born. (pp. 351-352).

According to a September 2022 YouTube interview where Herdt discusses his research on the Sambia, he is planning an upcoming book on the topic.[5]

Selected relevant publications

  • Moral Panics, Sex Panics: Fear and the Fight over Sexual Rights (Editor and contributor, 2009).[6] He dedicated this book to "five very special people - my oldest and closest friends from the 1970s to the 90s, whose love has enriched me and changed my life" - including to Theo Sandfort and Theo van der Meer.
  • The Sambia: Ritual, Sexuality and Change in Papua New Guinea. Second Edition. New York: Wadsworth.
  • 2001 Children of Horizons: how gay and lesbian teens are leading a new way out of the closet, editor with author Andrew Boxer. Beacon Press.
  • 2001 Secrecy and Cultural Reality. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press
  • 2000 Something to Tell You: The Road Families Travel When a Child Is Gay. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • 1999 Sambia Sexual Culture: Essays from the Field. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • 1998 Rituals of Manhood, edited by Gilbert Herdt. New edition. New York:Transaction Publishers.
  • 1997 Same Sex, Different Cultures. New York: Westview Press.
  • 1994 Third Sex, Third Gender. New York: Zone Books.
  • 1993 Gay Culture In America: Essays From the Field. Boston: Beacon Press
  • 1992 Children of Horizons: How Gay Youth are Forging a New Way Out of the Closet. (With Andrew Boxer.) Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Gilbert Herdt PhD. (1991). Commentary on Status of Sex Research[7], Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 4:1, 5-12.
  • 1987 The Sambia: Ritual and Gender in New Guinea. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  • 1984 Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia (Studies in Melanesian Anthropology), editor Gilbert Herdt. Berkeley: University of California Press
  • 1982 Rituals of Manhood. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • 1981 Guardians of the Flutes: Idioms of Masculinity. New York: McGraw-Hill.

See also


  1. Herdt, G. (2000). ''Why the Sambia initiate boys before age 10. In John Bancroft (Ed.), The role of theory in sex research (pp. 82–109). Indiana University Press.
  2. Gilbert Herdt and Martha McClintock, Ph.D, The Magical Age of 10, in Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 29, No. 6, 2000.
  3. As one media article wrote: Herdt "said in an interview with the Dutch pedophilia journal Paidika that "the category 'child' is a rhetorical device for inflaming what is really an irrational set of attitudes" against sex with children." See Joseph Geraci, "Interview: Gilbert Herdt", Paidika: The Journal of Pedophilia, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1994).
  4. Review of Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia by Gilbert H. Herdt. Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 351-354.
  5. The Dissenter, #678 Gilbert Herdt: The Anthropology of Sexual Orientation (Recorded on 30th 2022; uploaded to Youtube Sep 15, 2022).
  6. PDF of Moral Panics, Sex Panics on libgen (external link)
  7. Gilbert Herdt PhD. (1991). Commentary on Status of Sex Research, Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 4:1, 5-12.