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  • Penetration and Its Discontents: Greco-Roman Sexuality, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, and Theorizing Eros without the Wound
  • Maia Kotrosits (bio)

Ancient constructions of sexuality, it has generally been thought, hinged not on the gender of the person with whom one had sex but rather on what position one occupied in the sexual act: penetrator or penetrated. Indeed, penetration, and concomitant notions of active and passive, structured not only ancient senses of selfhood but also, by metonymic implication, social relations at large.1

These assumptions have proceeded largely from K. J. Dover’s Greek Homosexuality and from Foucault’s similar but much more theoretically sophisticated thesis that the notion of an identity based on what we would now call sexual orientation was an invention of modern (specifically, bourgeois) culture.2 Foucault emphasizes that the word “homosexuality” was not coined until the nineteenth century, and he argues that sexuality is a politically flexible category for self-understanding—a “technology” of culture, as it were, that has a history.3 Influenced by this argument, studies [End Page 343] of sexuality in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds have focused largely on questions of power and dominance at both individual and collective levels. David Halperin’s work on classical Athens in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, for example, emphasizes that there was no concept of a “sexuality” per se as an essential or ontological feature of one’s character, only a set of behaviors and tastes that either illustrated or fortified one’s social position: “Not only is sex in classical Athens not intrinsically relational or collaborative in character; it is, further, a deeply polarizing experience: it effectively divides, classifies, and distributes its participants into distinct and radically opposed categories.”4 These opposed categories are notably hierarchical. Halperin and others emphasize that these ancient attitudes toward and imaginations of sex, linked as they were to notions of masculinity and femininity, coincided with discourses of social stratification and conquest: the ideal body was a masculinized body, not only impenetrable/invulnerable but actively dominating/violating other bodies/peoples.

Halperin’s book has been particularly influential in the field(s) to which I belong—New Testament and early Christian studies—for the specific historical traction it gave to Foucault’s broader mission. While there have been some rather hot contestations of this model, ancient sexuality is rarely (if ever) described without recourse to an ideological paradigm in which penetration reigns supreme.5 Penetration and its assumed relationship to [End Page 344] the active/passive binary is the overdetermining model not only for erotic experience but also for social relations at large and is also occasionally opposed via idealized notions of nonhierarchical mutuality, as I will discuss in what follows.6

The primacy accorded the penetration paradigm is not just an effect of rigorous historicism, however, and it is certainly not a habit displayed only by classicists or early Christian historians. So many of the reigning or most often elaborated portraits of sexuality and erotic life propagated by the overlapping fields of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and queer theory (Georges Bataille, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Leo Bersani, Julia Kristeva, Emmanuel Levinas, to name a few) imagine erotic life itself through or as penetration.7 Indeed, penetration, either the word or its implicit figurations, has been so thoroughly naturalized onto sexual topography and even relational encounters at large for both the ancient and modern worlds that it seems almost counterintuitive to articulate other ways to theorize sex, interrelationality, and erotic life. But penetration is a very particular construction of the body and subjectivity, one in which the boundaries of the body or self are strongly delineated only to be punctured and, as I would like to emphasize, one that problematically constructs both bodies and selves in terms of surface/depth binaries.8

This is not to say penetration is a bad or wrong way to envision sex or interrelation, especially given all the compelling literature that has been engendered by that figuration. (I have myself relied heavily on this paradigm.) But I find myself, well, dissatisfied with it as of late, especially as a way of understanding the total organization of social relations and erotic experience in both...


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pp. 343-366
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