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Correcting Some Misconceptions about St. Augustine's Sex Life
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Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.4 (2002) 545-569



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Correcting Some Misconceptions about St. Augustine's Sex Life

Alan G. Soble
University of New Orleans


Augustine, Everyman, Adam. This secret identity governs the subtle development of the Confessions. 1

FOR ABOUT twenty-five years I have been writing about and teaching courses in the philosophy of sexuality. 2 During that time I have frequently lectured about the philosophy of Augustine along with the sexual views of his predecessor Paul, his contemporary Jerome, and his successor Thomas Aquinas. In these lectures, before getting on to Augustine's theology of sexuality (for example, that Adam's prelapsarian erection would have been under his voluntary control; that the passionate, troubling, disobedient sexual impulses we experience in our postlapsarian existence are part of the punishment visited on humankind by God; that sexual activity between married spouses, if done for its own pleasurable sake and not for procreation, is a sin but forgivable), I provide a short outline of Augustine's life: his early allegiance to [End Page 545] Manichaeism; his living with a woman and having a child with her out of wedlock; his reputation for having been sexually promiscuous; his intellectual turmoil over the Problem of Evil; his conversion to Christianity; and his subsequent life as bishop of Hippo.

In a recent course (summer 2001) an unprecedented event occurred: a student raised her hand at the end of the biographical sketch I provided of Augustine and offered to the class the "fact" that in addition to having been promiscuous with women Augustine had had sexual relations with men. Because I had, in my study of Augustine, never come across this contention, I was incredulous, not fully believing my student but also embarrassed: had I been, for years, leaving out an important biographical fact? I requested the source of my student's information and was shown a 1999 human sexual psychology textbook. The author, Bruce M. King, stated in the briefest possible terms that Augustine "had a mistress and a son at an early age and continued to have numerous sexual affairs into his early thirties, including some with male friends (Boswell, 1980)." 3 I was intrigued by this declaration of Augustine's "sexual affairs" with men, especially since it was attributed to John Boswell's respected Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. 4 The author of this psychology textbook did not supply any page numbers in Boswell's book, so I went through CSTH, which I had read with delight once before, searching for Boswell's assertion of Augustine's "sexual affairs" with "male friends." I found only two passages in the book, discussed below, relevant to whether Augustine ever had same-sex sexual experiences. Neither justified citing Boswell to support that claim.

Note that my question is whether Augustine ever had sexual relations with men or whether there is any good evidence that he did. That is, I am not concerned with making claims about Augustine's "sexual orientation" or with whether it is accurate to talk about Augustine as "bisexual" or "homosexual," whatever those vague terms mean. Thus I do not get involved in questions about the social construction of (homo)sexuality. This is why, in what follows, I restrict myself to speaking, in a positivist way, about "same-sex" sexual acts instead of "homosexuality" in either an essentialist or social constructionist sense (although the scholars I discuss often do use the terminology I eschew). 5 In this essay I argue that there is no evidence that Augustine ever had same-sex sexual relations. [End Page 546]

Boswell Passage Number 1

It is not surprising that Augustine, having grown up in and retired to rural North Africa, where homosexuality was probably clandestine and publicly denigrated, should have considered it bizarre and alien. It is striking that the major treatment of homosexual relations per se in his writings occurs in his description of his first sojourn in a great city, where he abandoned himself to urban pleasures with an enthusiasm he was later to regret bitterly. (CSTH...