Transcultural Development Sexology: Genital Greeting Versus Child Molestation

John Money, K. Swayam Prakasam, and Venkat N. Joshi*

ABSTRACT: Child rearing practices in the the Telugu-speaking people of India include behaviors of touching and kissing the penis.  The meaning of these customs is not erotic or sexual, but if engaged in in America would most likely be misconstrued and the parents suspected of child sexual abuse.  This example illustrates the importance of transcultural issues in assessing the meaning of genital gestures and practices.

In America today, when an older male establishes manual contact with the genitopelvic region of an infant or child for purposes other than hygienic care, that behavior is likely to be classified as child molestation or sexual child abuse.  Legally it is criminal and is subject to severe penalty.  By contrast, among the Telugu-speaking people of central southern India, similar behavior toward boys may be customarily prescribed.  The traditions of the Telugu-speaking people are of ancient origin.  Telugu kingdoms in central southern India are known to have existed as far back as the 2nd century B.C.  During the reign of Raja Raja Narendra in the 9th century A.D. the poet, Nannaya, wrote the first grammar of the Telugu language.  He also translated the great Indian epic, Maha Bharata, from Sanskrit into Telugu and thus laid the foundation stone of Telugu vernacular literature.

Telugu-speaking people today constitute the ethnic majority of the state of Andhra Pradesh, but they are not confined exclusively to this state.  The capital city of Andhra Pradesh is Hyderabad.  The total population of the state is 75 million or more.  The majority of the population is Hindu in religious affiliation, a minority Moslem, and lesser minority Christian.  One of the holiest temples and centers of Hindu scholarship in all of India is situated in the Telugu region.  It is the Balaji Temple of Lord Vishnu on the sacred hills of Tirumala, above the town of Tirupati.

Two of the present authors have participated in Telugu Hindu customs from birth to fatherhood.  The purpose of this paper is to present and discuss data drawn from their first-hand knowledge and experience.

Clothing and Nudity

In early infancy, babies become accustomed to being nude as they lie on a piece of cloth, covered by a second piece.  The cloth on which they lie accompanies them if they are picked up to be nursed or held, as it serves as a substitute for a diaper.  Adults expect that their own clothing will become wet if the baby urinates while being held.  It is considered auspicious to be wetted for the first time by a new baby.

After the first six months, a parent may squat the baby over his or her own bare feet and, making a shishing sound, condition the baby to eliminate in that position.  After the age of autonomous locomotion, it is expected that, wearing no pants, the child will eliminate on the stone floor of the house, or wherever it may be outdoors, and that an adult will clean the child and dispose of the mess.  Around the age of 18 months, the child is expected to go outside to eliminate, where pigs and dogs dispose of the waste.

Before the age of two, boys and girls run around naked most of the time, indoors and out.  Their clothing, dresses for girls, and shirts and pants for boys, is worn only on special occasions.  After age two, girls seldom are seen naked, awake or asleep.  Boys, by contrast, continue to wear no clothes most of the time in and around the home and neighborhood, but they dress to go to school which begins at age five.  Six is the age of changeover from being naked to being clothed at all times, day and night, including wearing a loincloth while washing.  Among the classes of poverty, the time of changeover may be extended to age eight.

Homage to the Penis

The parents and their close kin rock, hug, fondle, cuddle, and kiss a baby, boy or girl, unstintingly.  Lip-press kisses are bestowed all over the baby's body, except for the orifices of the mouth and anogenital region.  In boys, the penis is excluded only until the baby is a year old.  Thereafter, his father, as well as other adult male kin, but not his mother or female kin, will bounce a kiss of approval off his penis by first lifting him up to mouth level.

From infancy until age six, children of both sexes continue to be affectionately held, rubbed, smoothed, and patted by parents and kinsfolk.  Inclusion of the genitals continues to be the prerogative of boys and their male relatives.  The gesture changes, however, from direct lip-penis contact, to a two-stage gesture.  First the man flicks or pulls the foreskin of the boy's uncircumcised penis with his thumb and the first three fingers of his right hand.  Then he lifts his bunched finger tips to his lips, makes a kissing sound, and throws the kiss back to the penis.  This gesture may be repeated two or three times.  If the man is a visitor, say an uncle, it serves as an act of greeting.  The visitor approaches the boy, puts his left hand around the boy's right upper arm and with his own right hand carries out the penis gesture.  Such a greeting is an act of homage that honors the superiority of the son over the daughter.  As a male in a line of patrilineal descent, a son is destined to ensure his father's spiritual welfare after death.

At a corresponding age, a girl's genitals receive no corresponding act of homage from her female kinsfolk.  It will come, if at all, only from a woman of a lower social rank.  As a visitor, such a woman may touch the young girl's pudenda with bunched fingers, raise them to her own lips, and throw back a kiss of homage not to the girl's femininity, but to her superior social status.

These genital customs tangentially overlap with eating customs.  The fingers are bunched in the same way as they are for kneading cooked rice with condiments and eating it without utensils as finger food.  Only the right hand is used for eating, as it is also for genital homage.  The left hand is reserved for washing the anus after defecation.


Contemporary American overreaction to child sexual abuse and molestation has become a contagious frenzy, virtually a monomania.  Having spread through the law, government, religion, education, medicine and the media, it has itself become an epidemic threat to public sexological health (Money, 1988; 1991; in press), creating barriers to healthy sexological communication and development in childhood.  False accusations of molestation terrorize parents, teachers, and others into suppressing affectionate body contact despite its function as a precursor of healthy sexological maturity.  Telugu child-rearing practice demonstrates what ethologists have long known from animal studies (Waal, 1989; 1990; Taub, 1990), namely, that genital gestures and practices are not exclusively sexual and erotic communications.  Telugu parents in their own land know that the significance of genital contact in child-rearing practices will not be misconstrued.  Those same parents, if they migrated to America and carried those same practices with them, would today be likely suspects for arrest, conviction and imprisonment.


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* John Money is a psychologist and K. Swayam Prakasam and Venkat N. Joshi are physicians at the Johns Hopkins University and Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland 21205.  Preparation of this paper was supported by USPHS Grant HD-00325-33 and a grant from the Laurance S. Rockefeller Fund.  [Back]

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