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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 416-441

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Thinking with and about "Same-Sex Desire":
Producing and Policing Female Sexuality in the Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena

Jill Gorman
Temple University

And while we were giving the letters of the brethren to Paul, one ran and told Xanthippe of the arrival of Polyxena. And she made haste and came to us, and seeing Polyxena, was overcome by an unspeakable joy and fell to the ground; but Polyxena embracing her and caressing her for a long time brought her back to life. Then Xanthippe said to her, I, my true sister, Polyxena, went forth not at all for forty days, praying to the loving God that your virginity might not be stolen. And Paul, the preacher of God, said to me, "Her virginity will not be taken away and she will come quickly." And Probus said to me, "It was assigned to her by God to be thus afflicted. Do you see how by many devices God saves many?" But now, my beloved sister, having unexpectedly seen your face, just now I shall willingly die.

--Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena, 41 1

WHAT CAN THE modern reader learn about the past from examining the fourth-century Christian Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena (AXP)? Bernadette Brooten's work presents one possible clue. Brooten has written [End Page 416] that history provides evidence of "women who found their primary identification in other women and who may or may not have expressed that [identification] sexually." 2 The above excerpt from the concluding chapter of the Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena invites its reader to share in the reunion of Polyxena, a beautiful young virgin, and her "true sister," Xanthippe. Despite the implied presence of the apostle Paul and of Xanthippe's husband, Probus, Polyxena embraces the collapsed Xanthippe, "caressing her and bringing her back to life." In addition, the AXP constructs these two female heroines using the same techniques with which the Greek novel fashioned its own pairs of committed male and female lovers. Judith Perkins summarizes the typical Greek romance as "the story of two souls that were joined together or wished to be joined together, that underwent adventures to test their commitment and devotion to each other, and by proving their commitment were reunited or united forever in an ongoing social unity." 3 With these factors in mind, the historian of ancient sexuality immediately ponders whether Xanthippe and Polyxena might fall within Brooten's historical trajectory mentioned above.

Still, the message of the AXP is not a simple celebration of the relationship between these two women. This study will show that the AXP, while it constructs female same-sex desire and commitment, simultaneously condemns that desire. This rhetorical move within the AXP would seem to support Brooten's arguments, given elsewhere, that female same-sex relationships were disdained, marginalized, and literally damned in Christian writings. 4

Anyone writing about same-sex representations in late antiquity, however, realizes that discourse about sexuality is much more than discourse about sexual acts. David M. Halperin notes that Michel Foucault "treat[ed] sexuality as the instrument and effect of a series of discursive and political strategies, [and] translate[d] sex from the realm of individual fantasy to the domain of social power and knowledge." 5 A close methodological attention to such discursive strategies informs my analysis of the same-sex [End Page 417] relationship in the AXP. While I argue that the text constructs women who identify with and desire other women, I take Foucault's injunction seriously and pause to ask how this sexual construction might serve other discursive agendas as well. In short, I assert that the AXP adds a previously unexplored dimension to understanding late antique female sexuality because it stands as another example of not only how Christians thought about female same-sex desire but, indeed, how Christians may have used this desire "to think with."

My discussion consists of four parts. First, I...


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