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.