Lucian McMahon's Reviews > Controlling Desires: Sexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome

Controlling Desires by Kirk Ormand
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's review
Mar 26, 2012

really liked it
Read from March 26 to April 02, 2012

"Greek men viewed Persian men as suspiciously feminine, in part because Persian men wore pants." 5

"...Greeks and Romans thought of sexual roles differently than we do--that, in effect, their sexual universe was oriented on a different set of axes than ours is." 6

"The first point we must note about this debate [between a man with a strict preference for female-objects and a man with a strict preference for male-objects in Pseudo-Lucian's 'Erotes'], in any case, is clear: This is not an argument between a normal heterosexual and a less normal homosexual about whose kind of sex is better; rather, it is a disagreement between two men who are both odd in their strongly held preference for one kind of perfectly acceptable sex over the other. The grounds of the debate are simply not those that would occur in our day." 8-9

"...Charicles never suggests that feeling this sort of desire [for a male sexual object] is unnatural or unlikely; rather, his argument thus far is simply that although we all feel such desires, we would do better not to act on them because they do not lead to the survival of the species." 9

"Here...that which is shameful and truly deviant is for a man to enjoy being penetrated. Penetrating, whether the object is a boy or woman, is presumed pleasurable." 10

"...[T]he ancient Greeks are not concerned with homosexuality per se. What they are concerned with is a notion of masculinity that requires a man to be the active, penetrating partner in sex. To be a man (not a boy) who desires to be penetrated is, then, the deviant position. For women, the opposite is true. Women are assumed to be passive by nature, and the deviant woman is not deviant because she desires women, but because she desires to take on the active, penetrating role in sex. Thus for the Greeks, sexuality is closely bound to their understanding of gender roles." 13

"...[N]either the Greeks nor the Romans have a word, or seem to have a category, for individuals who prefer sex with one gender rather than the other." 14

"Unfortunately, what the reader must realize is that the translators of those texts [disparaging socially deviant sexual behavior] are translating Greek and Roman sexual terms into terms from our own culture, and that in the process, a certain amount of distortion takes place. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of these insults and jokes are directed against men who wish to be penetrated in sex (or women who are active in sex, 'playing the part of the man'). Very rarely, a man will be criticized for penetrating a boy, and if he is, it is generally not in terms that suggest that such action is in itself wrong--rather, he is criticized for damaging a wellborn citizen boy, or for failing to keep his desires in proper check, or...for engaging in nonprocreative sex. None of these insults, then, are attacks on homosexuality itself." 19

“I conclude this chapter, then, by asking the crucial question, is Sappho a lesbian, in the modern sense of the word? The answer can only be ambivalent, and that ambivalence marks the divide between our modern erotics and that of the archaic Greeks. If by lesbian we mean simply that Sappho is a woman who loves women, and that her expression of desire for those women provides evidence of a less hierarchical, more mutual form of desire than that expressed by male poets, the answer is yes. But we still have very little evidence that Sappho’s desire for women was thought of as a different kind of desire than that of men for women, or women for men, or men for young men. And there is no solid evidence that Sappho or other women from Lesbos were thought of as belonging to a particular sexual type. Sappho may have a sexual orientation, but to the ancients, her poetry does not seem to have suggested a sexual identity or sexual morphology.” 44

“Adultery with a married woman was, in Athens, a serious crime. In fact, if an adulterer was caught in the act, the husband had the right, if he acted immediately and without forethought, to kill the adulterer. Whether the husband killed the adulterer on the spot, or brought him to court, however, the Athenian laws on adultery deal rather differently than do modern laws when it came to the wife. A husband who knew that his wife had committed adultery was required by law to divorce her. Failure to do so amounted to an admission that she was not his wife, but a prostitute, and that the husband was running a brothel.” 87

“The Greeks did not define men’s sexual desire by the gender of the love object; that is, a man could love women or boys with equal legal, moral, and social approval. What he could not do, morally and socially, was desire to be penetrated once he became an adult. Legally, there were no restrictions on homoerotic behavior per se, any more than on heteroerotic behavior, though considerable legal protections existed to keep citizen boys’ futures as active adult males intact, just as legal protections prevented men from having sex with citizen women who were unmarried or married to another man. And most importantly, it does not seem that the Greeks though of people who preferred one kind of sex over another as types of people.” 126-7

“It is true that Roman law did not allow for the Greek practice of pederasty, in which an older citizen man would cultivate a sexual relationship with a citizen boy. The reason for this, however, is not that the Romans disapproved of sexual relations with boys; rather, they disapproved much more strictly than did the Greeks of sexual relations with citizen boys, which they viewed on par with sexual relations with unmarried citizen women.” 133

“Gender in Rome, then, was more than a question of biological sex; it was also a question of citizen status. Only citizen men were fully men when it came to sex, and others were relegated to an inferior position. Such a notion of gender was also reflected in the language that was used to talk about males who were penetrated by viri: such a man was said to pati muliebria, literally, ‘to suffer womanly things.’ When it came to sex, then, Rome consisted of two kinds of participants: men and everyone else [non-men]…Obviously, within the group of non-men, there were significant differences: a rich citizen woman was not subject to the same kinds of sexual abuse and availability as was a slave boy. But from the point of view of a desiring man, the important thing was that everyone else belonged to this inferior gender/class and that he did not.” 135

“To be sure, Nero’s sexual adventures are an essential part of the narrative of his excess. It is far from clear, however, that the Romans of the first century CE found Nero’s sexual behavior as the most problematic aspect of his character. I would argue, in fact, that the Romans were much more concerned with Nero’s love of Greece…and his interest in appearing on the public stage.” 229

“…[I]n virtually all Greek and Roman literature before [the popularity of the novel], the presence of eros, ‘erotic desire,’ generally signals trouble for the protagonists. Erotic desire was considered an overwhelming force, one that led to foolish, sometimes risky behavior, and one that resulted, as often as not, in humiliation or death. In the novels, by contrast, eros, at least that experience by the hero and heroine, becomes a positive force, one that leads to a celebration of their mutual love for one another.” 263

“…[T]here is evidence that the Christian tradition introduced two strong breaks in the history of sexuality: first, Christian teachings supported the idea that desire in itself was sinful, potentially damaging to the one desiring and in need of being rooted out from one’s very soul…Second, Christian doctrines opposed to same-sex sexual activity resulted, eventually, in serious criticism of, and legal punishments for, even the penetrating partner in male homoerotic activity.” 266

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