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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #55c - Brooten 1997 Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (ch 7-12)

Full citation: 

Brooten, Bernadette J. 1997. Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-07591-5

Publication summary: 

Brooten provides part of the conversation in response to Boswell, countering both the position that early Christian sexual mores were qualitatively different from those of the surrounding Roman culture, and that female homosexuality can be studied obliquely via male-centered data. The first portion of her book surveys a variety of evidence for female same-sex desire and how it was understood in the culture of the larger Roman empire. The second portion looks at early Christian texts and commentaries that address concerns about sexual relations between women. The ultimate goal of the work is to provide a context for understanding early Christian writings about (or that have been interpreted as being about) erotic relationships between women.

I'll be covering Brooten in three parts: the Introduction and "miscellaneous data" chapters, the chapters on specific types of written genres that form the focus of her study, and the section of the work using the preceding data to understand Christian writings.

Chapter 7-12

The latter part of Brooten's book uses all the preceding context to try to interpret the underlying meanings and motivations of early Christian writings on female homoeroticism. The very need to bring such extensive data to bear suggests that the writings themselves provide an obscure view of the topic, so my summary of these chapters will be a brief skim through any new and explicit data.

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Part 2 chapters 7-12

In chapters 7-12, Brooten looks at how to interpret early Christian writings that concern (or have been interpreted as concerning) female homoeroticism, in the context of opinions and understandings on the matter prevalent in the society in which Christianity developed.

Chapter 7 lays out the plan of analysis. Chapter 8 covers the ambiguous sentence in Paul's Letter to the Romans regarding "women who give up natural intercourse for unnatural" (the only point where he may have addressed the topic) from the point of view of gender and sexual attitudes. Chapter 9 analyzes the entire Letter in terms of structure and themes. Chapter 10 places the Letter in the context of other texts with similar language that it may have been evoking or drawing on. Here there are some new, relevant texts. Understandings of "natural law" based on observations of nature were contradictory with regard to same-sex sexual behavior, but Aristotle and Pliny both record female-female courtship and nesting among various types of birds, especial doves (a potent symbol of romantic love). With regard to the nature of gendered behavior, a story is presented from Diodoros of Sicily about a hermaphrodite (or intersex person) who had been raised and who identified as a woman until, after marriage, male genitals emerged and after various legal issues were dealt with he took up life and identity as a man. [Not directly relevant to the purpose of my Project, but an extremely fascinating story.]

Chapter 11 covers the writings at the early Christian fathers, in the 2nd through 5th centuries. These, in general, confirm the interpretation that Paul was addressing female homoeroticism and that it was condemned as gender transgression, with both partners considered guilty. Unlike Paul, these texts are often explicit in describing women who have sex with women, frequently in the context of apocalyptic punishments for various classes of sins. Clement of Alexandria denounces women who marry other women. There is a detailed discussion of various forms of marriage in the Roman world that support the plausibility of practices this could refer to. Chapter 12 sums up the overall conclusions, which are that early Christian thought did not bring a qualitatively different interpretation of female homoeroticism, but inherited the mysogynistic and phallocentric understandings of sexuality that were prevalent in the non-Christian ancient world, combined with a touch of xenophobic disapproval inherited from Jewish culture, and enhanced (but not driven) by the early Christian leaning towards asceticism.

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