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Greek Love: An Exchange

In response to:

Love and Sex in Greece from the March 29, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

Jasper Griffin appears to believe that it was my aim, in writing One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love, to disprove “that some forms of sexual activity were discountenanced” by the ancient Greeks, “and that some people were categorized by their sexual activities” [NYR, March 29]. In fact, I argued not that sexual stigma didn’t exist in ancient Greece but that it operated by a different logic from the way it currently operates in the modern bourgeois West and that different kinds of categories were invoked to label sexual non-conformists.

Oral sex is a case in point. Professor Griffin taxes me with failing to exempt it from the generalization that “no moral value, either positive or negative, attaches to certain kinds of caresses, sexual postures, or modes of copulation.” In fact, I went out of my way to cite “evidence that oral sex was considered degrading to the person who performed it” (p. 185, n. 73). There is no evidence, however, that it was thought equally degrading to the person who obtained genital gratification by means of it (and by means of someone else’s debasement). My point, then, was that the Greeks did not consider oral sex as such immoral in the same sense that the Victorians (say) considered adultery immoral. Here Professor Griffin’s demonstratively commonsense, business-as-usual approach screens out an important cultural difference, even as he claims to be distinguishing the attitudes of the ancient Greeks from those of their twentieth-century interpreters.

Another example. Is the Greek word kinaidos to be translated as “homosexual”? The ancient term carries with it an imputation of gender deviance rather than one of sexual deviance: being a womanish man is not the same thing as being a homosexual, and the sexual activities that typically identify someone as belonging to the first category are quite different from the sexual activities that identify someone as belonging to the second.

Professor Griffin brings to his review of my book an impressive worldliness, but I do not think I am more naïve than he, or than “such bourgeois figures as the authorities who run prisons, navies, and boarding schools,” when it comes to appreciating the sexual versatility of some self-styled heterosexual men and boys (see, for example, p. 173, n. 38). Indeed, I cited the testimony of an American prisoner, first published in these pages [NYR, June 11, 1981, p. 17], for parallels to Greek sexual norms (pp. 38–39). The purpose of that citation, incidentally, was not to show that “the modern Western proletariat…is more broad-minded in these matters” or that “exclusive homosexuality [can] be simply blamed on that universal scapegoat, the modern bourgeoisie,” as Professor Griffin implies, hastening to the defense of that much-maligned class, but rather to suggest that bourgeois sexual categories do not apply to all sectors of contemporary Western society, much less to classical Athens. What I think most modern, middleclass Westerners will find “unintelligible” in certain ancient Greek texts is not the assumption “that many men in positions of power or wealth will go in for sexual relations both with women and boys,” as Professor Griffin claims, but rather “the notion that an act of heterosexual aggression in itself makes the aggressor suspect of homosexual tendencies and the mirror-opposite notion that a person with marked homosexual tendencies is bound to hanker after heterosexual contacts” (p. 33). My position is therefore not so “exaggerated,” “unreal,” “implausible,” or “extreme” as the one Professor Griffin persists in ascribing to me.

Of course, alien cultures are implausible. That is precisely what makes them alien. No reviewer will ever arouse incredulity in his readership by minimizing cultural differences. The same reflex, by which we tend to “recognize” in the changed faces of long-lost friends only those features we remember from the distant past, induces in every interpreter of cultures a series of “recognition effects” which convert what is only superficially familiar into the deceptively plausible, the already known, the real. Nothing is easier than to give in to such pleasing optical illusions. Does Professor Griffin really think there were homosexuals and heterosexuals in ancient Greece? Or does he assume that the ancient Greeks—like most men nowadays, no doubt—were naturally bisexual? He does not say, and he adduces no evidence. If only he did, perhaps readers of his review, and of my book, could better judge which of the two exhibits a stronger “tug of special pleading.”

David M. Halperin
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Jasper Griffin replies:

In his book Professor Halperin quotes, as a “startling and acute conclusion” drawn by Michel Foucault, the statement that in Greek morality “No moral value, either positive or negative, attaches to certain kinds of caresses, sexual postures, or modes of copulation” (pp. 68–69). It is true that a hundred pages later he asserts the opposite. On the question whether there existed homosexuals or homosexuality in the Greek world: the difficulty here is Professor Halperin’s extraordinarily exacting definition of the term. He endorses, for instance, the view—he rightly calls it a paradox—that “what the Greeks exhibit is not homosexuality at all but rather paederastic behaviour without (categorical and unqualified) homosexual desire” (p. 56). What does, then, count as homosexuality, when a rich panoply of homoerotic acts and representations does not? I felt that the standard is set impossibly high. Professor Halperin says repeatedly that by homosexuality he means “a single homogeneous sexual orientation” (20), “a person’s fixed and determinate sexual orientation” (26), a “differently structured psychosexual state or mode of affective orientation” (33); he speaks of persons who possess “two distinct kinds of subjectivity…and who therefore belong to separate and determinate human species” (43)—his italics, in both passages. It is part of this categorization that it must divide the human race into two groups, not (for instance) three, as is done in the myth in Plato’s Symposium (heterosexual, male homosexual, female homosexual): as he emphasizes, “No category of homosexuality, defined in such a way as to contain men and women alike, is indigenous to the ancient world” (24). Our own society, he says, which does categorize people in this way, thinks in terms of “a population of human males who are (supposedly) incapable of being sexually excited by a person of their own sex under any circumstances” (44: his italics).

Now this, it seems to me, simply is not the ordinary view entertained in Western society; whether at the level of popular notions influenced, at whatever remove, by Freud, or in the actual practice of all-male institutions, which show themselves well aware that homoerotic acts are a generally pervasive possibility. Consequently I find the question whether I do or do not think that the Greeks categorized people in that way less of a challenge than Professor Halperin imagines. Hardly anyone, it seems to me, in this or any other society, has thought like that. What the Greeks did think was that men, at least, are in general potentially ambidextrous; a view repeatedly restated, on the theoretical level, by the most influential guru of the early twentieth century, Sigmund Freud, and shown to be the real belief of the middle class by the precautions which, in the real world they have tried to take against it.

As for my speaking up for the bourgeoisie, admittedly a little provocative (you just don’t defend them!), I was perhaps understandably misled into thinking that Professor Halperin held that class specifically responsible for the categorization which he deplores by such passages as these: “the (comparatively speaking) strange and distinctively bourgeois formation represented by exclusive heterosexuality” (45); and “not only does exclusive and ‘compulsory homosexuality’, as Adrienne Rich calls it, now appear to be a distinctively modern Western, even bourgeois production” (54).

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