Michael Hamar

Parallels Between Priestly Celibacy and Afghanistan's "Dancing Boy"

Filed By Michael Hamar | September 02, 2010 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Afghanistan, anti-woman bigotry, cover ups, gay sex, Roman Catholic Church, sexual abuse by priests

Having been raised Roman Catholic, I grew up well versed in the Catholic Church's obsession with all things sexual, and the sometimes less than subtle message that women were temptresses looking to corrupt men and/or dirty. afganistan-boy-dancer-001MAIN.jpg

After all, Eve was and is depicted as responsible for mankind's fall in the Garden of Eden. Women - except, of course the Virgin Mary, are often viewed as "unclean," hence their inferior status within the Church.

Then add in the celibacy requirement for priests who are banned from marrying women, and the typical older parish priest's lack of access to women. Women were relegated to being housekeepers at the rectory, and members of the altar guild who washed altar clothes, etc. It makes for a psychologically bizarre reality.

In the wake of the Church's worldwide sex abuse scandal where the majority of victims have been boys and youths, the Church hierarchy and Catholics with an Opus Dei mindset have sought to blame the sex abuse scandal on gays within the priesthood. Indeed, these folks have sought to blame the church-wide problem on modernity, Vatican II's liberalization of the Church - anything that places the blame on something other than the Church's own insane dogma, man-made rules and sexual hang-ups toward women in particular.

Let's compare that to the situation in Afghanistan.

A look at Afghanistan and the wide-spread societal phenomenon of "dancing boys" and "boy players" would seem to demonstrate that crazy religious taboos and harsh, demeaning treatment of women can indeed set the stage for widespread homosexual conduct even among those who view themselves as heterosexual.

A story in the San Francisco Chronicle documents this long-standing societal practice in Afghanistan. It in some ways mirrors the Church hierarchy's approach of turning a blind eye toward sexual abuse by priests. This arises, in part, because of the Church's irrational and unrealistic rules on matters of sexuality and women.

Here are some highlights:

Western forces fighting in southern Afghanistan had a problem. Too often, soldiers on patrol passed an older man walking hand-in-hand with a pretty young boy.

For centuries, Afghan men have taken boys, roughly 9 to 15 years old, as lovers. Some research suggests that half the Pashtun tribal members in Kandahar and other southern towns are bacha baz, the term for an older man with a boy lover. Literally it means "boy player." The men like to boast about it. "Having a boy has become a custom for us," Enayatullah, a 42-year-old in Baghlan province, told a Reuters reporter. "Whoever wants to show off should have a boy."

In Kandahar, population about 500,000, and other towns, dance parties are a popular, often weekly, pastime. Young boys dress up as girls, wearing makeup and bells on their feet, and dance for a dozen or more leering middle-aged men who throw money at them and then take them home. A recent State Department report called "dancing boys" a "widespread, culturally sanctioned form of male rape."

Sociologists and anthropologists say the problem results from perverse interpretation of Islamic law. Women are simply unapproachable. Afghan men cannot talk to an unrelated woman until after proposing marriage. Before then, they can't even look at a woman, except perhaps her feet. Otherwise she is covered, head to ankle. "How can you fall in love if you can't see her face," 29-year-old Mohammed Daud told reporters. "We can see the boys, so we can tell which are beautiful."

Even after marriage, many men keep their boys, suggesting a loveless life at home. A favored Afghan expression goes: "Women are for children, boys are for pleasure." Fundamentalist imams, exaggerating a biblical passage on menstruation, teach that women are "unclean" and therefore distasteful.

That helps explain why women are hidden away - and stoned to death if they are perceived to have misbehaved. Islamic law also forbids homosexuality. But the pedophiles explain that away. It's not homosexuality, they aver, because they aren't in love with their boys.

As one boy, in tow of a man he called "my lord," told the Reuters reporter: "Once I grow up, I will be an owner, and I will have my own boys."

Obviously, far too many Catholic priests thought that it was fine to have boys of their own. And the members of the Church hierarchy were only too happy to look the other way.

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

This comment cites statistics that I have not seen ANYWHERE in the world wide coverage of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. I am not saying that countless girls and women have not been likewise abused. Merely that boys and youth by far seem to have been the preferred targets in the aggregate. Michael.

"the majority of victims have been boys and youths" I have seen no evidence that this is true. In the US, over seventy percent of abuses reported to secular authorities were of girls. Here's an exerpt from a Boston Globe article

""Of the priests we've evaluated, more abuse girls than abuse boys," says Gary Schoener, a Minneapolis psychologist and expert on clergy sexual abuse.

Despite media emphasis over the years on male victims -- boys and men with horrific stories of their own -- Schoener and other experts believe that troubled priests and other clergy are more likely to abuse females, especially adult women."

I can't find more specific analysis of abuse patterns in other areas of the globe, but Catholic priests have been indicated in systematic rape and molestation of women and girls in a number of instances (schools used to cover up rape, move victims, rape of nuns, rape or congregation members, threats of denouncing women as witches for resisting). Male victims are seen as more valuable than female ones, the male right to be free of rape (from men) more important that a female's right. Also, the ability to utilize homophobia in the men raping boys narative makes it a cultural favorite as well.

I have followed the sex abuse scandal closely and even done guest editorials in fairly large newspapers as far back as 2002, and I have never seen Mr. Schoener's statements. From all of coverage of the abuse in Boston, Ireland, Australia, Germany and the Netherlands alone, the claim that 70% of the abuse was of girls seems to be wishful thinking on the part of Mr. Schoener and most certainly the Vatican. If Mr. Schoener was on retainer by the Church in the past, I would also wonder about how objective he is in his comments.

Claims that the majority of the abuse was to females also seems at hugely at odds with Vatican attempts to blame the abuse scandal on gays. Obviously, if the majority of victims were female, this ploy would not be necessary.

All of this said, I in no way mean to state that girls and women have not been abuse by priest on a large scale - both genders have been victimized. Moreover, the Church's near contempt for women certainly encourgaes the mistreatment of women and girls by priests.

Until the Church, in my view, approaches sexuality in a more realistic and rational manner, psycho-sexual damage will continue to be done to countless individuals.

Religion if fu*ked up. It just is.

The demographics of Afghanistan are that over 50% of the current population is under the age of 18. What a wonderful scenario. The U.S. has moved from being the world cop to being a babysitter.

In April, the PBS series "Frontline" did a complete hour covering the Afghan bachi bazi phenomenon. Bil Browning did [ a post ] on the show.

My concern about your current post, Michael, is that you do not describe the evil extent of the corruption of such circles in Afghanistan. The Frontline episode made it clear that some of the boys are forced into bachi bazi performances, which in turn leads to them being raped without any legal recourse whatsoever. Indeed, the law enforcement officers in any given Afghan province are often participants. Moreover, because the boys are considered to be status symbols, the most popular boys are often fought over by powerful men in the community, and sometimes boys are even kidnapped and then murdered. Sanctioned by social and religious institutions, it can be argued that nowhere in the world is child sex slavery any worse than this.

Your point about the parallels between Roman Catholic complicity in priest abuse and the Islamic imams' complicity in bachi bazi is well taken. However, rarely in the Roman Catholic scandal did things progress to the point that victims lost their lives. In the Afghan world of bachi bazi I am led by this coverage to the impression that the boys being ultimately murdered is not at all rare.


I by no means intended to minimize the violence done to boys in the bachi bazi performances. Violence and murder against children and youth is despicable n matter the underlying cause. And while I have not seen documentation showing that Catholic priests ever murdered any of their victims, a number of resultant suicides of victims has been documented.

My main point was that behind both situations are bizarre and dysfunctional religious belief systems that sets the stage for such horrors.

Regan DuCasse | September 3, 2010 12:28 AM

I can't tell you how many times I've tried to tell that same sex sexual abuse is that of a dominant male on someone weaker, period.
The orientation of the adult does not matter. That hetero men will sexually assault a weaker male.
That's what such a hierarchy is about in prisons.
But of course, those bent on homophobia, don't want to discuss this as an alpha male dominance issue, but one of homosexuality.
When it's not about homosexuality.
Indeed, female victims of priest abuse are barely a part of the conversation. As mentioned, the Vatican's solution to priest abuse was to ban homosexuals from the priesthood.
Evidence that they believe the abuse is solely a matter of gay perpetrators.

The Catholic Church is guilty of the abuse of females in other ways.
The Magdalene Laundries were jails for young women who were simply inconvenient to image their church bound communities.
That outrage wasn't dismantled until 1996.

Hetero men have a lot to answer to. Their misogyny, and by that extension, anti gay issues have caused a world of hurt, with no one being held accountable.

This thing in Afghanistan IS a manifestation of just how horribly wrong misogyny can go at the extreme.

I understand where you're heading at with your post, and there is probably some truth in connecting these practises with the oppression of women. As far as I know, "Dancing Boys" have been a tradition in many patriarchal warrior societies, be it the "ancient Greeks", Japanese samurai tradition and the roots of No and Kabuki theatre, older Albanian tradition, or others. I don't think that it's a specifically islamic practice, as the Koran forbids it. It's rather an older practise that has survived in that part of the world, despite Islam. I found this quote:
"When the Taliban had control over the land, Bacha Bazi was illegal - they executed and punished people who partook in those heinous acts with young boys. For that reason, under the Taliban, it was practically inexistent. However, once the Northern Alliance gained power after we drove the Taliban out this tradition returned."
I think, the recent media reports connecting the practise with Islam is just another attempt to demonize that religion, like with the "feminist" arguments for the war.

As to the church, I don't think it's that simple. I am under the impression that gay men and lesbians have often been drawn to the church's promise of abstinence from heterosexuality. Look at how many nuns came out as lesbians etc. I remember it was a running joke of my generation that "every queer has studied theology", and a very high percentage actually did.

By the same logic (though not comparing homosexuality with pedophilia) it seemed to me that pedophile guys were drawn to the church (just as they are drawn to work as youth coaches or whatever). There seems to be something like a pedophile underground within the church, probably with the knowledge of the higher ranks. But there have been many cases where clergy abused female children and women. And I doubt that the percentage of that is higher than in all of society - only with the rest of society there isn't that type of outrage.
The statistics are well known: # 1 in 4 girls is sexually abused before the age of 18. (96)
# 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused before the age of 18. (96)
I don't think that the church can top that.

And I agree, the fact that the media is now focusing on the male victims while female victims have been struggling for that type of recognicion for decades, is more a sign of homophobia and an attempt to shove the responsibility off on "the gays", while at the same time it shows that female victims are less important.

Paige Listerud | September 3, 2010 12:01 PM

I would like to point out that in the 1970s, Afghanistan was astonishingly modern--especially in its cities. Women had access to higher education, became professionals, and some not only went without veils, they wore mini skirts.

Ongoing war and invasion has reduced Afghanistan to almost "failed state" status. Generations of modernism have been lost. The Soviet Union invaded and took over. The US funded and fueled Islamic jihadists with weapons and advisors to create a Vietnam-style situation for the Soviets. When the Soviets finally withdrew, the Taliban (funded by the US, co-sponsored by Saudi Arabia) took over.

Now we Americans are engaged in a war to gain control over the development of pipelines that will channel oil from the "Stans" to the West. Afghanistan's infrastructure and educational system have been reduced to ruble, while regional warlords funded by the heroin trade run wild. Wikileaks reveal that boh the new US trained police and army break out in shooting skirmishes at each other. They would easily go into civil war if our troops left within the year. AND OUR GOVERNMENT CREATED THIS SITUATION.

Do I feel badly about children trafficked and sexual exploited in Afghanistan, whether by "traditional" means or not? Absolutely. But our tax dollars went to destroying this country. I'm happy to blame a load of sins on religion or patriarchal domination; however, we Americans did more than our fair share to drag Afghanistan back into the Iron Age, when girls had no education, both boys and girls were sexual fare for adult cut-throat warriors, and the average life expectancy was 45.

The blame for all of this can be laid squarely on our doorstep and the most important thing we can do as a nation is PULL OUT OUR TROOPS AND END THE WAR. We have no business being there and we can't afford this war anymore.

I agree . I am troubled by Micheal's post, and by the SF Chronicle article, because they seem to take a view of Afghan culture as uniquely , trans -historically pathological, starting with regarding its most visible ,traditional form of same-sex expression as nothing other than a symptom.

The Frontline documentary makes clear that the current resurgence of the 'dancing boy' subculture is horrifically abusive. But we should remember that this is occurring in a context of endemic violence and corruption, fueled and armed by Russian and US interests, , which seems to have caused the devolution of Afghanistan in recent decades into a horrible caricature of itself.

Gay men have often pointed to ancient Greece, ( as well as to Samurai culture and others referenced by the poster above) when the practice of men taking adolescent boys as lovers had positive cultural meaning , as a positive antecedent. (Not to mention the centrality of the writings of Plato, so firmly situated within this particular subcultural context, in the Western philosophical tradition.) And yes, the subordinate status of women in ancient Greece arguably bore a relation to its forms of male-male intimacy.

I am not sure it is accurate to suggest that the whole history of 'dancing boys' in Afghanistan represents nothing but unalloyed abuse and exploitation, any more than it would be accurate to say that about the practice of paiderastia in ancient Greece. Or , in fact, any more than one could assert that heterosexual relations in traditional cultures worldwide have ever really been unalloyed with some degree of culturally normative, and often severe, abuse and exploitation of women and girls.

Sex (and history ) just ain't that simple. Can we save today's dancing boys, and trafficked and exploited children worldwide, without spinning theories that succumb to the illusion that contemporary, culturally bound ideas of what sex should and shouldn't be can be applied in an absolute way across time and place?


Your points are well taken and I agree that the current fiasco in Afghanistan is in significant part the result of the USA's meddling in that nation. First by supporting the Islamic fundamentalists fighting the Soviets and then by the USA's involvement in the country since 2001. Due to hubris on the part of George W. Bush and others, the USA arrogantly has interjected itself into a situation that it cannot win or control. Thousands of years of Afghan history should have made that obvious.

The only real point I ever sought to make in the post is that extreme and bizarre religious beliefs often make a bad situation worse and result in damaging and even lethal conduct. The significant anti-woman mentality in hard core Catholicism which is shared by fundamentalist Islam cannot be dismissed from playing a part in the dancing boy phenomenon in Afghanistan. Were women not kept veiled and in seclusion largely due to relion, things might be quite different.

I ran across this story at Crooks and Liars yesterday, and I'd like to point out that the SF Chronicle article is highly slanted. I also read the "study" by AnnaMaria Cardinalli, "Pashtun Sexuality," and found it highly prejudicial, more than a little homophobic, and displaying no understanding of Afghani culture. (No surprise -- it was commissioned by the DoD, though I have wonder to at the boneheadedness of anyone who would commission a woman to study sexual practices among Muslim men.)

I'd also like to point out that there is some evidence, admittedly tenuous, that the type of relationship described is possibly pan-Indo-European in origin and not necessarily linked to the status of women. This is glaringly obvious in the case of the ancient Irish, who scandalized the Roman commentator Diodorus Siculus (who, admittedly, made a career of being scandalized) by their widespread practice of homosexuality. While we have little documentary evidence on the nature of those relationships, there are a few literary references that indicate it may have been the same type of institution. Irish women of the period were quite independent, owned property, and were even warriors themselves, so the link to women's subjugation becomes a little chancy. I'd also like to point out that Ian Buruma, in Behind the Mask, points out quite strongly that real power in Japanese society rests with women -- another case of outward forms not reflecting the reality.

My own suspicion is that, in the case of Afghanistan, we are dealing with one of those instances where a new religion, Islam, has been modified to accommodate an old tradition. (That's a fairly common phenomenon -- think about our modern celebration of Christmas, with Christmas trees, wreaths, and caroling -- all Pagan in origin. Even the date is Pagan.)

While I haven't seen the Frontline documentary, from the tenor of Brinkley's article and Cardinalli's "study," I suspect we're getting only the sensational parts and nowhere near the whole story on Afghanistan, all conveniently wrapped in the "Save the children!" mantra. The Church, on the other hand, is only too well documented.

I actually posted on the Afghanistan story yesterday here. This comment is something of a precis, something of a tangent to that post. My caveat, however, is still that we are making judgments based on our own cultural and moral assumptions about a society in which those are not necessarily valid, and doing so on the basis of sources that may very well be biased.

That's a good point, but I think what Paige is saying is that those religious beliefs don't come out of nowhere. The Catholic Church's comes from a system involved in global domination, Afghanistan's from decades of being colonized.

I don't know if that's true. But it is true that Afghanistan was modern not too long ago, and I agree with you that we need to pull out.

A slight elaboration of your comment: both Catholicism and Islam come from a tradition that is strongly patriarchal and authoritarian, at least in broad outline. One thing that's relevant, I think, is that before the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, when, as you rightly point out, Afghanistan was "modern" and relatively liberal, especially in its treatment of women, the institution of the "boy dancers" was quite prevalent; the Taliban suppressed it, along with just about every freedom that women had enjoyed. Based on that, the linkage between suppression of women and the "boy dancers" phenomenon becomes a little more tenuous.

Paige Listerud | September 6, 2010 12:12 AM

Actually, Alex, I'm not making any comparisons between Roman Catholicism or Islam--nor am I linking all aspects of those religions to colonization or global domination.

Those imams in Afghanistan who are fighting for women and girls to receive an education--something totally validated in Islam--actually aid the process of modernization.

I'm saying that we Americans--the cowboys of the New World Order or New American Century (take your pick)--bombed, and continue to bomb, and supply the weaponry to keep bombing Afghanistan back into the Iron Age. Why, then, do we become surprised when Iron Age customs re-emerge with a vengeance--whether it be depriving girls of an education and marrying them off when they are 13 or taking boys to be sexual partners at the ages of 8 to 15? Are we scandalized/fascinated with a sexual practice too bizarre for our so-called "civilized" Western understanding and standards of "decency"? Or are we distracting ourselves from our own culpability in child sexual exploitation?

These kids have no future! Are they even going to live to be 45? Where are their schools--reduced to ruble? Where are they going to receive job training? Who among them is going to Kabul for university? What kind of economy are they going to be integrated into that won't involve either war or the drug trade? That's why they are being used up now. If any of them makes it to 45, they will look 60. This is the situation that our constant warmongering in the region has created for them.

The coverage is what is fucked up. "Male victims are seen as more valuable than female ones, the male right to be free of rape (from men) more important that a female's right. Also, the ability to utilize homophobia in the men raping boys narative makes it a cultural favorite as well." From my first comment. This is exactly why stories of the rape of boys are much more highly publicized than those of the rape of girls, because of sexism and homophobia.

From Newsweek: http://www.newsweek.com/2010/04/14/what-about-the-girls.html

"In fact, Ernie Allen, president of the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children says that best estimates are that two thirds of victims of molestation are girls, although offenders who target boys tend to have much larger groups of victims."

"Barbara Dorris, a victim of priest abuse as well as the national outreach director for SNAP, concurs: "In part because of sexism and homophobia, journalists, police, prosecutors, attorneys, and sometimes even parents feel even more outraged when a boy is sexually abused by a powerful man than when a girl is assaulted, and are thus more apt to take action, pursue charges, file lawsuits, and talk publicly." Dorris says she's come to believe that church officials are "more apt to write down, save, and take seriously an allegation by a boy than a girl, and that's one reason the bishops' stats on this are skewed.""

Rape of nuns by priests has have happened in at least 23 different countries:

"While most of the abuse happened in African countries, Sister O'Donohue reported incidents in 23 countries including India, Ireland, Italy, the Philippines and the United States."

(source: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/vatican-confirms-report-of-sexual-abuse-and-rape-of-nuns-by-priests-in-23-countries-688261.html)

And in Ireland:

"Girls supervised by orders of nuns, chiefly the Sisters of Mercy, suffered much less sexual abuse but instead endured frequent assaults and humiliation designed to make them feel worthless.

"In some schools a high level of ritualised beating was routine ... Girls were struck with implements designed to maximise pain and were struck on all parts of the body," the report said. "Personal and family denigration was widespread."

Religion is the enemy.

Religion is a form of insanity composed of equal parts of greed, superstition and ignorance that comes howling straight out of the Dark Ages and prehistory.

Religion is humankinds greatest tragedy.

That's true whether it's paracticed by islamists, christers and judaists.

Bill do you think for one minute that if there was a world wide ban on religions that greed, superstition and ignorance would vanish? I suspect they would increase.

That's wrong, Deena. The technical term for organized greed, superstition and ignorance is religion.

I see you provided no citation for your definition. As much as I admire many of the things you say that one appears to me to be heaped in prejudice.

It's an opinion, Deena, one that honors the memory of hundreds of thousands killed by the inquisition, in witch burnings, slavery, the conquest of the Americas and the murder of GLBT folks by islamists, christers and judaists.

You'll just have to pardon my hatred of that.

Consider it a non issue between us. Unique perspectives are always interesting to me. I share your opinion btw on who is the real hero (PFC Bradley Manning - in a different thread).

There are going to be local and national anti-war demos this month so now is a good time to make some antiwar and GI allies and defend Manning.



We did the same sort of thing for an antiwar GI during the Vietnam war, Lt. Henry Howe, and forced the Pentagon to drop charges and release him from the brig at Leavenworth.