Friday, April 24, 2015

Phalli, Vulvae, Thought: Part 3

            I would apologize for the break. Except I've been enjoying it very much.
            Part 3 of however many, with diversions also forthcoming.

Relation of Sex to Power

Older Man/Younger Man

            As I mentioned in the last entry, the starting point for a discussion of homoeroticism in Ancient Greece is still Sir Kenneth Dover's Greek Homosexuality, originally published in 1978. There, Dover argues for a relatively codified framework for sexual relations between men. And as I also mentioned, Hubbard argues that a strict formation — the erastai-erōmenos pair — was not ubiquitous.
            Hubbard makes a fair point that we have ample evidence, both literary and visual, that romantic and sexual relationships between men who were close in age did occur. On the one hand, I can appreciate his point: we still don't have scholarly consensus on what homoeroticism would have looked like, across whatever spectrum it undoubtedly displayed itself in.
            However, Hubbard goes a step too far and, I think, shows his hand. First he points out that not all same sex relationships between men adhered to the erastai-erōmenos structure. But he then goes on to argue that even when an older man was in love with a younger man, we shouldn't be too quick to read the erastai as being in the position of power:
To the extent that literary texts display a power differential, it is rather to emphasize the powerlessness and even emotional helplessness of the lover and a privileged position of control occupied by the beloved youth... Even poems in which a lover congratulates himself on becoming free of a youth's tyranny...or admonishes the youth to beware of the future...reflect a sense of desperation on the part of an unsuccessful lover. (Hubbard 2003, 11)
I just... I just don't even know where to begin. Hubbard's blindness here took my breath away when I read the above passage. "A privileged position of control"? The issues I have with Hubbard here are several:

      a)  First, in considering any individual pair of men, we would have to distinguish between slaves and freeborn Athenian boys, as well as consider the propertied (or not) status of the beloveds in question. The authors and artists who so lavishly declared their passion often fail to give us this information. For their purposes, it hardly mattered of course, but for the lives of the young beloveds, the questions of property and citizen status were paramount.

      b)  Even for a freeborn citizen erōmenos, we must remember the pedagogical aspect of the relationship. The whole argument for why the relationship was advantageous for him was based on the fact that the older man had access to political connections, power, and resources which the younger man lacked.

      c)  For a slave who was being sexually pursued by a landed aristocrat, Hubbard's argument reads as a blatant insult. For a freeborn citizen erōmenos, who could plan on inheriting from his own family, the consequences of rejection were not (necessarily) dire. For a slave, retaining the affection of the older lover could very well be a matter of survival.

            For the purposes of my humble blog, I mostly wanted to point out two things. Firstly, even an extremely intelligent modern scholar can have blind spots, and Hubbard's here is glaring. Only a person in a position of power could ever look at someone they are lusting after* and think the object of desire actually possesses more power than they do.
            And secondly, we as modern readers of Ancient Greek history, literature, and philosophy should never forget that power was just as real — and just as life-shaping — as it is now. In patriarchy/kyriarchy/hierarchy/what-have-you-archy, power is distributed unevenly. It just is. Things like monetary and property resources, political connections, race, gender, language/accent, familial ties, religious affiliation... all contribute to place people in a ranking system.

Power Consolidation/Distribution

            In considering how male homoeroticism would have impacted women, the reader is, as with almost all things Ancient Greek, confronted with the problem of documentation. For reasons which may or may not be causally linked, Athens had a flourishing literary scene and was highly litigious and it generally sucked for women. Which means we have the best documentation of what life was like for women in Ancient Athens, as opposed to other contemporary cities. Maybe life was much better as a Corinthian woman, or a Theban; maybe not. If you were ever interested in reading a book on the situation of women in the Ancient world, I strongly recommend Sarah B. Pomeroy's book Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. In fact, if you just feel like reading an actually measured study of something to do with women, I would be hard pressed to think of another suggestion. Pomeroy is well aware of the inherent sexism of academia, but she is also conscious of the ways that feminism can find the things it wants to. (I myself am certainly guilty of this flaw.) In the book, Pomeroy over and over again says possibly the sexiest thing a scholar can say: "Well, we know fragment X, and fragment Y, but we can't really make any conclusive statements based on so little." Be still my heart.**
            Pomeroy, while reminding us how little we know about women in the Ancient Greek city states in general, has done a good deal of research on Athens and Sparta in particular. Spartans weren't big on writing things down, but their fellow Ancient Hellenes were quite keen on talking about the Spartans. (If I'd lived in the time of Leonidas, I would, too.)
            As I was reading about Athens' manifestations of (male) homoerotic relationships, a thought kept popping into my head. Something along the lines of, "Barely disguised misogyny." Because rather than stopping to consider whether their under-education of women — not to mention their under-nourishment, which was a big surprise to me — might be the reason the women weren't their intellectual equals — and rather than questioning a system which consistently paired men with girl-wives who were literally young enough to be their daughters — the ancient Athenians simply affirmed to themselves that women were dumb. The occasional woman who wasn't, such as the odd Aspasia or two, was perceived as an aberration. (Note that Aspasia wasn't from, nor was she educated in, Athens.) Athenian men wanted, as I would assume most normal humans do, equals in mind and thought. Sexual relationships with educated, well-fed young men, who were not only permitted to exercise but were encouraged to do so, were a shortcut to such relationships of equality. Meanwhile, upper class women were rationed less food, forbidden from public exercise, and educated only in the activities and needs of the home; hardly a recipe for female intellectuals. Lower class women were in roughly the same position — as far as the real or potential erastai was concerned — as a male slave. That is, available sexually, but not someone to whom anything was socially or politically owed.
            Such were my thoughts both as I read Hubbard's collection, and as I started Pomeroy's book. One potential outcome of the pedagogical pederasty in Athens was an even more radical consolidation of power than I previously realized. By denying women the ability to interact with men, and solidly establishing homoerotic relationships as a norm amongst men, even aristocratic women were largely shut out from the circles of power. One can condone or condemn the historic use of sex as a tool to gain access to power, but either way, it is a time-honored method for women to get what they want. Having this tool's effectiveness curtailed means that even the women we would expect to see doing moderately well — that is, the freeborn, aristocratic women — remain almost entirely silent in Athens.
            Sparta, though, seems to have potentially had a different outcome to their own practice of pedagogical pederasty. Because of how Spartan society was set up — with young Spartan men living in their syssitia, even remaining for several years after they married, and Spartan women having property rights and education — the effect of pedagogical pederasty may very well have been to free up the women. Spartan women were literate and numerate, and were (in)famous amongst contemporaneous Hellenes for speaking their minds. Spartan men were frequently away on military campaigns, while the citizen women stayed home and ran the city state. Because Spartan society assumed that the healthier and better educated the women were, the better off the newborns would be, Spartan women had the resources to do something with the freedom that pederasty gave them. And with less concern about rivals threatening their access to resources, the women may have enjoyed an effective distribution of power.


            Because I believe the pervasiveness of chattel slavery, "the glory that was Greece," and hierarchy in general are not entirely unrelated, I want to spend a moment dwelling upon this before I'm done with the subject of male homoeroticism.
            I believe I mentioned this in the first entry on this subject, but my interest here is slightly prejudiced: I notice, over and over again, that modern Americans and Europeans frequently smirk comically, and possibly even wistfully, when the subject of sexual relations between men in Ancient Athens and Greece in general comes up.
            A young boy who is owned by a pimp, and leased out to be fucked on the ground by men with the resources to gratify themselves, hardly represents a symbol of sexual freedom and the generous spirit of love. A slave who serves wine to wealthy assholes — like, say, Plato himself —at Symposia, where the men famously got raucously drunk, and has to submit to whatever sexual desires the citizens may have that night... not him either.
            On the one hand, it would be overly simplistic to assume that all homoerotic relationships were characterized by an enormous power differential, or were by their nature abusive. I want very much to believe — and in fact I do believe — that a tiny handful of human beings throughout time have lucked out enough to both fall in love, and to have that love sanctioned, no matter the genders concerned. Some Ancient Greek citizens consistently felt attracted to men, were able to enjoy their sexuality, and even to form satisfying long-term relationships with their lovers. This has, in my opinion, not been the case for enough non-heteronormative people. But the portrait that emerges when one digs even a fraction of an inch under the pseudo-liberal idealization of Athens is one of coercion and the blindness of privilege; not free love and a celebration of erotic pleasure.
            Ancient Greece's advances were made possible by leisure; a leisure that would not have been possible without the extensive use of slaves. The same power dynamics that enabled people like Plato and Socrates and Solon and Herodotus to sit around contemplating, processing, and forming innovative ideas radically disenfranchised boys and young men.*** Some would get lucky enough to possibly get together enough money to purchase their own freedom, although we don't have a good sense of how prevalent that eventuality was. The only question this leaves me with, before I do move on to women's sexuality in the Ancient Greek world, is to what extent such a power differential is still the case. I am currently typing away on what, from a global-historical perspective, is a very expensive device. Only I didn't pay what it's probably actually worth, because it was assembled by Chinese workers whose lives seem to have sucked pretty bad. And I promise you the money I paid for my clothes didn't get evenly distributed amongst the people who actually made it, and the designers who drew it.

* And realistically, any older lover who threatens a younger person with punishment for not returning their love is in the throes of lust and not love. This is a frequent cry of the "enslaved" older lover in Attic poetry.

** My generation is so facetious, I never know how my odd little statements come across. I'm not being sarcastic. Pretty much the way to my heart is to say things like, "Nothing is so impossible as a conclusive statement."

*** Obviously women were also completely, radically disenfranchised, but I read so much feminist literature, I'm never in danger of forgetting it. I do think that sometimes feminism forgets the abuses men suffer.