A Disturbing (?) Passage from Modern Scholarship on Ancient Sexuality

I have been weighing the sense and import of the pages below for a few weeks now. Typically, I don’t teach too much about sexuality and I research it even less as a Homerist. I suspect that this is partly disciplinary (Homer is happy to indicate the power and fact of sexual acts with little specification; this is largely a generic characteristic) but part is nurture: my parents were both Lutherans of mid-Western Scandinavian persuasion: sex is fine, as long as no one talks about it.

But I do mention misogyny quite a bit in classes and on the blog and I have long been worried about the ways in which an uncritical presentation of the material in Homer and myth merely recapitulates and strengthens structural biases about gender and power. When it comes to human sexuality, I get a little squeamish with posts on this site: I like to post material that surprises people with the dirtiness of the Ancient world (you know, farting, shitting, middle fingers) and which disabuses people of the notion that what we have from the Ancient Greek and Romans is largely philosophy and Galen. But in a time when people misuse the ancient world for many things–most execrably to support racists and white supremacist views erroneously--I do fear that some postings might appear exploitative or be misused in some way.

This is one reason, for example although I put up a post about masturbation in ancient Greek, I did not follow it up, as requested with one about female masturbation. For one, there is only a small amount of evidence (and the evidence is extremely problematic because it comes from men and is mostly negative). For another, I don’t think there is any way for a male author to post information about female masturbation online without seeming in some way salacious, creepy, or just, well, gross.

(Again, this is where both my nature and my nurture may be causing me problems. Oh, and this: not talking about female masturbation reinforces taboos about female sexuality and agency.)

Another area in which we have posted very little is on topics that pertain to homosexuality, same-sex acts, or non-heteronormative (in a modern sense) eroticism. People respond all too well to lists of words for feces, but descriptions of sexuality that fall under the earlier categories get some strange responses. This is not enough to stop us alone. My worry is akin to my concern in the last paragraph, but more. I fear that some readers will use such material negatively (doing harm to ancient and modern communities); I also feel we run the risk of getting cheap entertainment through the exploitative expropriation of someone else’s sexuality.

But I have been struggling with the line of thought in the passage I am about to cite. The work of the book The Maculate Muse is really groundbreaking (and it is a work to which I have referred for many years), but the comments on comparing modern and ancient ‘homosexuality’ seem skewed in a damaging way. I am posting them not with the intention of shaming the scholar, but instead with the hope that someone will tell me I have read this all wrong.

J. Henderson. The Maculate Muse, 1991 (2nd edition; first 1975): 207

Henderson page 207

The Maculate Muse, 1991: 208

Henderson page 208

I am troubled by a few things here. The bit about “perversion” and “not without reason” seems particularly problematic, especially since it is unexplained. The additional language of compulsion is also borderline for me. Although the second edition is now nearly 30 years old (and the original is closer to 50!), I would have thought that it would be more sensitive in its treatment of sexual categories and notions of sexual activity, sexual identity, gender and sex.

My suspicions about this passage and its implicit definitions of sexuality (and identities) have led me to read a lot of what Henderson says about “pathics”, effeminacy, and the insults which may or may not pertain to these categories with much greater caution.

Update: an important note of context. The comments cited above were not updated from the 1975 edition of the book. The following note precedes the discussion.

A scholar familiar with the development of this book from dissertation to publication and revision was kind enough to share some context. It was dangerous for a career to write this book in the 1970s. Classics has not always been in the social and cultural vanguard.

So, this passage can serve particularly well as a lesson for how our scholarship is shaped by cultural constrainta both in its articulation and ita reception over time.

9 responses

  1. The 1991 is actually the second edition of the 1975 original. I no longer have my copy to check, but it would be a surprise to find the original less disturbing.

  2. From what I can see it clearly expresses an attitude towards homosexuality that many, including me, reject. So I would say, yes, it’s off.

  3. As a former professor of classics, I was delighted to come upon your posts. When I was teaching, I used my classes to open the students to how much their cultural assumptions on race and sexuality were challenged by understanding the classics. Your discussion of your concerns about including certain topics is very sensitive and thoughtful — especially in recognizing how the alt-right is misusing the classics (and medieval studies). The author’s attitudes expressed and analysis would have been disturbing to me in the 1970s, even more so today. But then culture does affect scholarship.

    • Thanks for sharing this and your perspective. one of the author’s former colleagues emailed me to explain how much pressure there was on a young professor in this period not to write a book on profanity etc. and that challenging accepted notions about sexuality and gender would have been even harder. I can accept that as an explanation, but it is somewhat insufficient as an excuse. It makes me question my faith in some of the analyses. I will also think twice about referring students to the book.

  4. I remember some of the pressures as to what was acceptable scholarship. I chose to specialize in Roman collegia and their place in the social structure of Rome (and also Greece). Not exactly the great man approach to ancient history. Not that I did not have precedents for studying collegia, just not ones informed by more current studies in non-classical fields. It was accepted because it involved epigraphical sources. -:) I have been recommending your blog top many friends, including especially former students from the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome whom I have kept up.

  5. There’s definitely a strong current of homophobia in that work, as there was in much older scholarship.
    An ugly trend which I think took a long time to start dying out (sadly, it still ain’t dead yet). Worse still, the “authoritative” text on the subject, Dover’s “Greek Homosexuality”, was itself written by a homophobe, and makes all same-sex practices in antiquity to have been about power relationships as physically manifested by anal penetration.

    I notice the second quote here, the note on the passage, is still outright wrong: he claims to have seen no indication of any class of Athenian males who were what we would call “gay,” having apparently missed all the discussion of Agathon and Pausanias in such high-profile sources as Aristophanes and Plato. The completely casual way in which their long-term relationship as two adult men was addressed by Plato (I’ve yet to read the Aristophanes, though I expect to get to it this semester) is surely proof that while their relationship wasn’t the norm, it wasn’t anything particularly unusual, either. On top of that, if Agathon’s lifestyle choice (as it would have been called in the ’90s) was considered a perversion, I doubt they’d have even let him present his plays at a festival that was (in theory) religiously based, and he surely wouldn’t have been regarded as the #4 tragedian in Athens. And if the author of that book had left Athens behind, what about the Sacred Band of Thebes?

    In general, it seems like almost all scholarship before the 1960s or so, and most scholarship before the 1980s-90s preferred to simplify as much as possible into black-and-white categories, ignoring all the myriad shades of color that real life inevitably produces. Their desire to make all of ancient society have obeyed a simple, boring set of rules is probably one of the reasons so many people assume that studying ancient history is boring. It seems to me that that’s the job of the current generation of teachers and text-book authors: finding a way to show today’s youth that the ancient world was as varied as ours is, and that it’s still relevant and interesting today.

    If what you post on this blog is an indication of what you teach your students, I think you must be doing a great job of living up to that task.

    • I am sorry I took a bit to get to this comment. I wanted to start by saying thank you for the kind words at the end The blog does kind of correspond to my classes, but I do much more ‘nuts and bolts’ in the classroom where I need to teach some facts and declensions now and then.

      I also thank you for the comments on the sense of how scholarship has changed. It is both troubling and comforting to see how much has changed in the treatment of issues such as sexuality in our lifetime. I feel at times that I am always at risk of falling behind while also fearing rushing too far forward. But critically thinking about Henderson’s book–which I do respect a lot–has made me renew my commitment to think both about the needs of the time (students and readers) and the longer duration. No pressure, right?

      I don’t like the language earlier scholars use, at first, because it offends my sensibilities (when it comes to sex, sexuality, and gender). But also, and more, because it offends students and prevents them from focusing on the issues. I know that the following is nearly impossible, but my preference is for a facts separated from judgment as much as possible approach. The problem is that I think that this is what Henderson was trying to do.

      At least, here, we have a justification for continually revisiting difficult topics and rethinking what we think we know…

      thanks again.

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