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The Myth of the Heterosexual: Anthropology and Sexuality for Classicists
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The Myth of the Heterosexual:
Anthropology and Sexuality for Classicists

Chamberlain:   We belong to a sort of secret society, the Order of Chaeronea, like the Sacred Band of Thebes. Actually it's more like a discussion group. We discuss what we should call ourselves. "Homosexuals" has been suggested.

AEH:   Homosexuals?

Chamberlain:   We aren't anything till there's a word for it.

AEH:   Homosexuals? Who is responsible for this barbarity?

Chamberlain:   What's wrong with it?

AEH:   It's half Greek and half Latin!

Chamberlain:   That sounds about right.

Tom Stoppard, The Invention of Love (1998.91)

This is not an article on ancient sexuality. It is an article on how to think about ancient sexuality. In particular, it is an article on the widely differing systems that cultures throughout time and the world have used to classify people and their sexual acts.

Our own particular system divides people into two major classes on the basis of whether they have sex with others of the same sex or not (heterosexuals versus homosexuals). This is a surprisingly rare system [End Page 313] anywhere in the world and a comparatively recent development in the West.1 The system shared by the ancient Greeks and Romans was quite different and divided acts and people on the axis of active versus passive.2 Similar ways of categorizing sex are much more widely spread, both historically and anthropologically, but this system, too, is only one of many patterns to be found.3

The vast majority of classicists (as well as historians and anthropologists), when considering ancient sexuality (or any other part of culture), quite naturally assume that sex for the Greeks and Romans meant pretty much the same thing as it does for us, and so speak of "heterosexuality" and "homosexuality" in the ancient world.4 This, of course, has been the standard approach for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.5

We need to note, first off, that this is not such a bad assumption, either methodologically or ethically. It is basically a good idea to start off, at least, by assuming that other people are men of like passions with us (Acts 4:15). The opposite assumption runs the danger of orientalism, exoticism, pensée sauvage, and "They don't feel pain like we do." Of course, with that [End Page 314] assumption goes the responsibility to be on the lookout for exactly those places where they are not of like passions. And, of course, the danger of the assumption is that it's very seldom true and never that simple. Laura Bohannan's "Shakespeare in the Bush" should be required reading for all classicists.6

The difficulties of studying ancient sexuality are shown by the extraordinary inability of many classicists, still, to perform even the most basic of philological tasks: figuring out what the words mean and what the text says.7 The reasons for this failure are many, some political, some personal. More important, however, is a somewhat understandable unwillingness to believe that the categories that rule our lives simply do not exist elsewhere and did not exist elsewhen. The principal obstacle that prevents us from an accurate understanding of the sexual lives and values of other peoples is that we begin the investigation with the assumption that their sexuality is the same as ours, that our sexuality is natural, is given, is the only sexuality there is. This failure is shared by some anthropologists, who ought to know better.8 Even with the best will in the world, which is not [End Page 315] always the case, our habits of thought cause us to make errors about other cultures' sexuality. However, the inapplicability of our sexual categories to other cultures is revealed not only in the failure of anthropologists or historians to ask the most basic questions about other cultures but also by the occasions on which our questions have produced incomprehension, incredulity, or outright laughter.9 The joke of the missionary position is no joke.10

The purpose of this paper is not to outline the sexual systems of Greece and Rome but rather to eliminate some of the assumptions that may clog our minds...