'Boys will be boys': traditional Xhosa male circumcision, HIV and sexual socialisation in contemporary South Africa

Cult Health Sex. 2008 Jun;10(5):431-46. doi: 10.1080/13691050701861447.


Ritual male circumcision is among the most secretive and sacred of rites practiced by the Xhosa of South Africa. Recently, the alarming rate of death and injury among initiates has led to the spotlight of media attention and government regulation being focused on traditional circumcision. While many of the physical components of the ritual have been little altered by the centuries, its cultural and social meanings have not remained unchanged. This paper attempts to understand how some of these cultural and social meanings have shifted, particularly with respect to attitudes towards sex and the role that circumcision schools traditionally played in the sexual socialisation of Xhosa youth. Ritual circumcision is often defended on the basis of its usefulness as a mechanism for the maintenance of social order, particularly in relation to the perceived crisis in youth sexuality marked by extremely high levels of gender-based violence as well as HIV infection. However, the paper suggests two key ways in which traditional Xhosa circumcision has changed. These include the erosion of the role which circumcision schools once played in the sexual socialisation of young men and the emergence of the idea that initiation gives men the unlimited and unquestionable right to access to sex rather than marking the point at which sexual responsibility and restraint is introduced into the lifestyle of young men.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Health / ethnology*
  • Ceremonial Behavior
  • Circumcision, Male / ethnology*
  • Cultural Characteristics*
  • HIV Infections / ethnology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Sexual Behavior / ethnology
  • Social Conditions
  • Social Perception
  • Socialization*
  • South Africa