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LHMP #334s Boehringer 2021 Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome Chapter 5: Conclusions

Full citation: 

Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2

Chapter 5: Conclusions

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I rather like the conclusions chapter—neither a rote summary of the analysis nor an unrelated philosophical excursion. Boehringer starts by noting that there’s an inherent anachronism in defining the scope of the book in terms of modern categories. Whether you consider that scope to be “female homosexuality” or even the narrower “love and sex between women”, the definition assumes the existence of a category that the research has yet to demonstrated existed in classical Greece and Rome. Her second point is that, in studying a data set that is largely cultural representations of the topic, rather than direct records of it in everyday life, we are still looking at “reality.” Texts such as the Satyricon are just as much a part of Roman reality as the real-life dinner parties that we can appreciate only through a filtered lens, in the same way that the characters and stories appearing in contemporary advertising or television shows are “part of our reality”. They are not the whole story, but are an integral part of it and provide useful data.

The largest part of Boehringer’s conclusions involve recognizing the asymmetry and non-binary nature of classical Greek and Roman systems of gender and sex. With regard to gender, the societies under study did not revolve around a gender binary of male/female, but rather a central reference point of “dominant, virile, male citizen” with all other social categories operating in contrast. There were no “natural categories” defined solely by biological sex that people identified with, and that affected their experience of the world. Given that “male human being” was not a cultural category, it follows that “male homosexual” cannot be a cultural category, particularly in light of the expectations and judgments that shaped how sexual pairings were evaluated.

But the asymmetry of all categories being defined and understood in relation to a central model that is (among other things) biologically male means that love/sex between women will always fall outside the frameworks and structures that are defined in relation to that model. A m/m pairing will always be evaluated with respect to whether it follows the hierarchical rules regarding “male virtue/honor”. Those rules by definition will be irrelevant to a f/f pairing. F/f pairings are not legible within the existing system. One obvious effect of that illegibility is the dearth of surviving documentation regarding them, as they simply weren’t culturally important. Another effect is that when they are discussed (by elite male authors), there will generally be a sense of incoherence—an absence of inherent meaning as an independent concept.

But, that said, it is still possible to extract themes and motifs relevant to love/sex between women. They are not universal or consistent, but are recurring across time.

  • There is an “amorous and erotic tension without a consummated physical relation.” Obviously this is not universal! But it is one repeating motif, seen in the works of Sappho but also in text such as Iphis where the supposed inability to “consummate” the relationship (via sex as defined for m/f pairings) is a feature.
  • There is “social illegibility tied to the lack of differentiation between partners.” M/f and m/m pairings always involve the assignment of differentiated and contrasting roles, and the adherence to or divergence from those roles creates social meaning. A consistent them in imagining f/f pairings is a lack of differentiation, an equality and similarity between the partners and how they are understood.
  • There is “a gender shift that is not systematized or articulated in terms of the active/passive binary.” That is, when f/f pairings are described in terms of “acting like a man” it is inconsistently applied and does not align systematically with expectations of sexual behavior.
  • There is “physical excess that is not socially inscribed as erotic.” Women who engage in f/f sex may be depicted as acting “immoderately” in other ways, but those extreme behaviors are not seen as being part of their erotic life. (Perhaps, rather, their erotic life is simply one more example of their immoderation.)
  • There is “an essentially discursive imaginary, not figured in images or embodied by real people.” What Boehringer seems to mean by this is that the information we have about f/f sex comes from the fictional stories people tell about it, but where it is not (or rarely) a subject of visual art or represented by relating the experiences and relationships of actual historical people (even when we may assume that actual historical people participated in f/f sex).

Individually and in isolation, these themes have given rise to conclusions about classical female homosexuality that Boehringer considers to be inaccurate, such as the archetype of the hypersexual, macro-clitoral, masculine tribade (which certainly appears as a motif in much later ages), or the image of a sentimental non-erotic love between equals (similar to the ideals of 19th century romantic friendship). But even when such conceptual connections can validly be traced, the elaborations and social forms found in other ages should not be projected back onto classical societies in their later forms. Social categories have meaning only within the cultural systems that developed them. But (Boehringer emphasizes) one of the modern cultural systems that cannot be projected onto classical societies is the assumption of symmetry between “male pre-homosexual” concepts and “female pre-homosexual” concepts. The evidence and arguments that scholars such as David Halperin bring to bear on the question of “male homosexuality” in pre-modern times are not necessarily relevant to the question of “female homosexuality”. And, to a certain extent, Boehringer does think that a concept roughly identifiable as “female homosexuality” existed in classical Greek and Roman society (assuming I have not drastically misunderstood her), even though it cannot be equated with modern sexual orientation concepts.

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