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Love and Sex in Greece

One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love

by David M. Halperin
Routledge, 229 pp., $13.95 (paper)

The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece

by John J. Winkler
Routledge, 269 pp., $14.95 (paper)

When Michel Foucault set out to write his History of Sexuality1 , he found that it was impossible to begin with the recent past. Modern attitudes could be understood only in the light of earlier ones, and the investigation of sexuality in the Christian period led inescapably to the world of pagan antiquity. By “sexuality” Foucault meant not facts or actions of the biological order but the “complex political technology” by which society categorizes, discusses, and so creates, the sexual behavior of its members. His book aimed to show that this behavior, and the group of ideas and desires that controlled it, was less a natural than a culturally created affair.

Both David Halperin and John Winkler, who work in close collaboration, write explicitly in the wake of Foucault, who receives forty-two entries in Halperin’s index, and both emphasize repeatedly that ” ‘nature’ stands for ‘culture’ ” (Winkler), and even that “we must accept that ‘sexuality’ is a cultural production no less than are table manners, health clubs, and abstract expressionism” (Halperin). Halperin refers, in an apparently innocent manner, to Foucault’s “matchless penetration.” The other important impulse for these writers is the work of K.J. Dover, especially his Greek Homosexuality.2 This book, pioneering in its refusal to be shocked, collected a mass of evidence on the topic, especially that of representations on pottery—the pictures which earlier scholars had, according to temperament, reserved for private perusal or ignored altogether. In Halperin’s index Dover rates even more entries (forty-six) than Foucault.

The combination of facts assembled with British empiricism and theories expounded with Gallic verve thus forms the point of departure for two current American studies of ancient sexual theory and practice. Both are learned, with a full panoply of footnotes and bibliography, but both are written also with passion and some personal self-revelation. Halperin begins with an emotional passage:

Since 1978…in a period, in other words, when much of western Europe and America seems to have sunk into a reactionary torpor, embracing with a hollow and cynical enthusiasm the comforts of conventional pieties and rushing to rediscover the demagogic possibilities of a self-serving obscurantism, intellectual ferment within the universities has been quietly but inexorably proceeding at an accelerating rate, and research [on the history of sexuality] has made great strides.

The book has a double aim. Halperin wants to show that “our own cultural assumptions are inappropriate to the interpretation of sexual life in ancient Greece.” But a more important aim is to show that “a radical reinterpretation of sexual life in ancient Greece has the potential to transform our own cultural and sexual self-understanding.”

The argument is that in the ancient world, as indeed in all societies until the late nineteenth century, the category of “homosexual” did not exist: “Before 1892 there was no homosexuality, only sexual inversion”—but in that year the word “homosexuality” was used in English for the first time, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Hence Halperin’s title, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality—though One Hundred Days of Sodom, by the Marquis de Sade, seems not to have been in the author’s mind, and one must hope that it will not be in the mind of purchasers of the book, who will find that what they have bought is something very different.

What is meant by saying that homosexuality did not exist in the ancient world? The claim is a surprising one, in view of the freedom with which acts and sentiments of a homoerotic kind are described and depicted in Greek literature and art. And can a change in our view of ancient Greek practices really transform our own self-understanding? In order to uphold his first claim, Halperin argues that Greeks of the classical period attached no importance to the biological sex of the object of a man’s desire. Boys and women were equally acceptable: what mattered was who performed the active sexual role. “Sex is conceived…to define itself around an asymmetrical gesture, that of the penetration of the body of one person by the body…of another.” Or, as Winkler puts the same point, “The calculus of correctness [proper sexual behavior] operated not on the sameness/difference of the genders but on the dominance/submission of the persons involved.”

The whole relationship, according to both Winkler and Halperin, thus was primarily one of power, and of its nature hierarchical. It was assumed that men were naturally attracted both to women and good-looking boys; for an adult male person to be penetrated sexually by another was a disgrace to him, but to perform the act on a boy was not shameful. Thus there was no category of homosexual. “Only in the high middle ages did certain kinds of sexual acts start to get identified with certain specifically sexual types of person”: Halperin even goes so far as to say that in Greece “no moral value, either positive or negative, attaches to certain kinds of caresses, sexual postures, or modes of copulation.”

Here he generalizes and exaggerates an argument of Foucault, who pointed out, correctly, that the preachers and moralists of later antiquity were much less concerned to discountenance particular acts than to insist on the paramount importance of retaining one’s self-command amid one’s pleasures, of continuing to show oneself, even during sexual enjoyment, as a rational and superior being, not swamped and mastered by self-indulgence. That, however, is not at all the same as saying that all positions and caresses are equally licit. All through antiquity there was a highly articulate prejudice against oral practices, for instance, which were the constant subject of insults, graffiti, and dirty jokes; the high-minded moralists whom Foucault has in mind did not tell their readers not to indulge in those pleasures, because they took for granted that their readers already knew that they were off-limits. The sort of people who read such works did not need to be told what even coarse and vulgar people knew already.

What of the assertion that classical Greece classified no types of person by their sexual tendencies? Halperin must face some obvious counterexamples: such as the existence of the word kinaidos, which means a man who chooses to play the passive role in sexual inter-course. The word is an abusive one in that macho society, and not uncommon—although of course it cannot appear in the highest literary genres, like tragedy or epic verse. Halperin replies that “kinaidoi, even if they actually existed, represented a type quite distinct from what is specified by the modern category of homosexual.”

The answer is a curious one. It is hard to know what to make of the suggestion that the men who were regularly referred to by this word might not have existed at all. Winkler, when he discusses the kinaidos, makes the good point that he represents a bad example, a warning held up to men to urge them to their proper role of assertive males and, at need, good soldiers; he does not doubt the existence of “the group,” as he calls them, but is concerned, in the teeth of some of the ancient evidence, to assert that Greeks always said the kinaidos acted for some other motive than pleasure. Halperin’s argument that the kinaidos represented something different from “the modern category of homosexual” raises the question: What is that category?

He finds himself, I think, driven by his argument to an extreme and rather unreal definition. That emerges clearly when he wrestles with another obvious counterexample to his thesis: the unforgettable myth narrated by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. Aristophanes describes how originally the human creature was twice as large as it is now, spherical in shape, with four arms, four legs, two faces, and two sets of genitals. These ancestors of ours were powerful and overweening; they offended Zeus, who cut them in half, pulled their skin tight, and tied it up in a knot, still visible at the navel. The severed halves roam the world in search of the half they have lost: those who were wholly male or wholly female seeking a partner of the same sex as themselves, but those who were originally androgynous seeking a partner of the other sex from their own. Hence unsatisfied yearnings and the need for completion: hence, in fact, love. This story is quite at odds with Plato’s own cherished theories of love, since it seems to support what might be called the Hollywood theory, that there’s somebody made for you. Plato must have included it—a point which Halperin does not make—because such ideas of unique attachment were held by contemporaries, and so they could not be entirely omitted in a work on the nature of love. Plato was confident that his own distinctive and peculiar ideas would succeed in effacing them.

Now, it has seemed to most readers that Plato here does precisely what Halperin denies to the ancient world: he speaks of people as forming separate groups by their sexual tendencies, including homosexuals. That is indeed the view taken by writers of homosexual history such as John Boswell. To rebut it, Halperin argues that Plato’s account differs from “the modern” one in two respects: first, it envisages not two categories (homosexual/heterosexual) but three: heterosexual, all male, all female. Second, Plato describes his homosexual males as liking men when boys and liking boys when men. This is “to avoid conceptualizing sexual behaviors according to a binary opposition between different- and same-sex sexual contacts.” It is in line with the emphatic strictness of that binary opposition that Halperin envisages sexuality altogether: what was missing in the ancient world, and is vitally present now, is “conceptual apparatus available for identifying a person’s fixed and determinate sexual orientation“:

Where there is no such conception of sexuality, there can be no conception of either homo- or heterosexuality—no notion that human beings are individuated at the level of their sexuality…or belong to different types of being by virtue of their sexuality.

Fixed and determinate sexual orientation, different types of being; this is indeed remarkable language. Halperin is convinced that it is the way in which modern society thinks—or, rather, “bourgeois” society; it is “modern European and American middle-class attitudes” which are to blame, and “exclusive and ‘compulsory heterosexuality’…appears to be a distinctively modern, Western, even bourgeois production.” Here as elsewhere the Jewish tradition, for instance, is disregarded: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them” (Leviticus 20:13). Exclusive homosexuality is one thing which cannot, historically, be simply blamed on that universal scapegoat, the modern bourgeoisie—quite apart from the assumption, surely more than dubious, that the modern Western proletariat (say) is more broad-minded in these matters.

Halperin goes so far as to say that “we” find unintelligible the numerous passages in Greek literature that assume that many men in positions of power or wealth will go in for sexual relations both with women and boys. We are bound to misunderstand such passages, “associating as we do sexual object-choice with a determinate kind of ‘sexuality,’ a fixed sexual nature.” He even thinks that by the category of “heterosexuality,” since 1892, is meant “the production of a population of human males who are (supposedly) incapable of being sexually excited by a person of their own sex under any circumstances” (Halperin’s italics); this, he observes, is “a cultural event without, so far as I know, either precedent or parallel.” The reader may be inclined to think that this alleged straight man is a straw man, the first uninflammable straw man, perhaps, in the history of thought.

  1. 1

    Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, 3 vols. (Pantheon, 1978, 1985, 1986).

  2. 2

    Greek Homosexuality (Harvard University Press, 1978).

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