06 August 2011

On Pederasty, and Power Relations in Greek Sexuality

One thing that baffles me about the whole Norris discussion is this ludicrous idea that Greek-style pederasty could ever be defended as a worthy way of initiating male youths into sex. He said this to the Sunday Independent's Joe Jackson back in 2002 and has held to that line even this year, when speaking to the Mail on Sunday's Jason O'Toole, saying:
'There was a distinction between paedophilia and the classical Greek idea of pederasty, where in Plato's Symposium and these sort of books you'd find that an older man will take a younger man under his wing. Introduce him to life. Well, I said that would be much more preferable to the kind of ignorance and stupidity and fumbling that I was exposed to.'
Well, maybe, but that would hardly warrant calling pederasty 'lovely'. It's worth going to your library and working your way through the late Sir Kenneth Dover's Greek Homosexuality, or at least reading the three pages on the topic in the latest edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary. Doing so should dispell some myths.

To start with, it's utterly meaningless to speak of homosexuality -- or heterosexuality for that matter -- in the context of ancient Greece. While homosexual relations were certainly common in antiquity, homosexuality wasn't seen as a phenomenon in its own right. This is effectively why it's correct to say that Saint Paul, strictly speaking, never criticises homosexuality itself: all else aside, it would have been impossible for him to have done so, as he had no concept of such a thing.

Putting it quite bluntly, and I learned this in one of my first lectures on ancient Greek comedy back during my undergraduate degree, the Greeks understood sex as being defined not in terms of heterosexuality and homosexuality, but in terms of sexual penetration and phallic pleasure, such that the participants in any sexual act were understood as being either 'active' or 'passive'. This polarisation correlated with other critera, such as social superiority and inferiority, maleness and femaleness, and adulthood and adolescence.

The OCD sums up the meaning of this by saying:
'Any sexual relation that involved the penetration of a social inferior (whether inferior in age, gender, or status) qualified as sexually normal for a male, irrespective of the penetrated person's anatomical sex, whereas to be sexually penetrated was always potentially shaming, especially for a free male of citizen status. [...] In Classical Athens [...] boys could be openly courted, but a series of elaborate protocols served to shield them from the shame associated with bodily penetration, thereby enabling them to gratify their male suitors without compromising their future status as adult men.'
What of paiderastia, then, the ancient pederasty that Senator Norris has so espoused? Well, it described sexual relations between adult men and adolescent males, and the language generally used to describe such relations makes it very clear that pederasty was primarily about gratifying the desires of grown men, rather than those of teenage boys. The older partner in a pederastic relationships is typically identified as the lover (erastēs) with the younger partner being described as the beloved (erōmenos); lest this be construed as a romantic distinction, it should be remembered that erōs is better translated as 'sexual desire' rather than 'love' in any purer sense. One could perhaps better translate the terms as 'desirer' and 'desired'; in any case we should be aware that for the Greeks sexual desire, in this context, was regarded as a one-way street.

Although there are some sources -- notably Plato's Symposium, as trumpeted by David Norris -- that try to promote pederasty as a noble exercise, there's little evidence that its main purpose was 'the education and moral improvement of boys instead of adult sexual pleasure, to quote the OCD. On the contrary, it seems that those a boy who chose to gratify -- and yes, that's the word -- his older lover's desire could be motivated by any number of things except for sexual desire or pleasure. While boys in pederastic relationships were deemed capable of non-passionate love (philia) for their partners, they were regarded as incapable of returning their desire. Pederastic relationships were always deemed inherently unbalanced.

This, of course, makes perfect sense, given how the Greeks divided sexuality into active and passive categories. For a youth to desire an older man would have required the youth to wish for a subordinate role, a role unfit for someone who would hope to play a prominent role in society or politics, say. A boy who indicated any such desire risked being identified as a kinaidos, and though we translate this as 'catamite', we have no real word in English that conveys the stigma of such an identity. 

Ancient pederasty, for all that it may have been dressed up by Plato to sound like something noble, was a profoundly exploitative arrangement. That anybody could sing its praises strikes me as, frankly, reprehensible.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but Plato's Symposium DOES NOT promote pederasty. Really, Dr. Norris is simply banking on the fact that very few people have actually read the dialogue, or, indeed, if they have, that they have not understood it.

Please at least read the last paragraph of the page here linked. It is Leo Strauss on how Plato was unfolding something that has since become thoroughly debased: philosophy, or how truth may overcome opinion.