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Actively Passive, Passively Active: a Roman Sexual Conundrum

Monday, January 24, 2022 - 07:40

This article tackles an interesting contradiction in Roman sexual discourse--or perhaps in scholarly discourse around Roman sexuality: how do you integrate the theoretical concepts of "active" and "passive" within sexual activity with the language used to talk about those acts and the people who engage in them? I tend to think that apparent contradictions--rather than needing to be resolved via an additional layer of theory--sometimes simply illustrate the contradictory nature of life and society. "Women are supposed to behave this way, men are supposed to behave that way, but what if they don't?" You can view it as the exception that tests the rule, or as an unavoidable messiness around the edges of normativituy, or as a deeper structural coherence that would make sense if only you could decipher it. Or you could simply accept that people behave in individual ways that don't always follow social rules, and that other people will talk about those diversions from the norm in descriptive ways rather than necessarily tryin to shoehorn them into the standard language. Kamen and Levin-Richardson tackle the question: Given that women are presumed to be sexually "passive" according to the Roman sexual hierarchy, and given that the verb futo/future inherently presumes that the agent of the verb is the "active" partner in m/f penetrative sex, how is it that the agentive feminine noun "fututrix" exists, and what does it mean when it is applied to specific women?

The article become relevant to the LHMP because that question is addressed within the context of sexually "active" women in general, to which category the tribade belongs. But I take issue with the shallowness of the analysis of "tribade" in this article. And, in general, the article gives the feeling of having presupposed a conclusion and then carefully selecting and omitting the evidence in order to come to that conclusion. The question itself is fascinating, but the answers here are somewhat unsatisfactory from a methodological basis.

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Full citation: 

Kamen, Deborah & Sarah Levin-Richardson. 2015. “Lusty Ladies in the Roman Imaginary” in Blondell, Ruby & Kirk Ormand (eds). Ancient Sex: New Essays. The Ohio State University Press, Columbus. ISBN 978-0-8142-1283-7

Publication summary: 

A collection of essays on sex and gender in classical Greece and Rome that looks through a post-Foucaultian lens. The introduction focuses almost exclusively on the subject of men, though the editors justifiably argue that the collection is “remarkable for the attention it pays to female sexuality” in that three of the seven papers concern women. (I’ll be covering only two of those three papers, as the third makes up a chapter of Boehringer 2021 and has been covered previously.)

Kamen, Deborah & Sarah Levin-Richardson “Lusty Ladies in the Roman Imaginary”

This article looks generally at the topic of women with “active” sexuality in a classical Roman context, as understood in the context of three grammatically-feminine nouns derived from verbs of sexual action: fellatrix, tribade, and fututrix. (Crudely translated, fellator, rubber, and fucker, but where the grammatical form of the word unambiguously indicates a female actor.) An example is given of an inscription identifying a woman as Mola foutoutris “Mola, fucker” using an agentive noun that implies the possession and use of a phallus. The thesis is that these terms have in common that the women were conceptualized as “sexual agents”, separate from the question of penetration, as two of the words (fellatrix and fututrix) were used for women who were penetrated (according to Roman understandings) and one (tribade) for women who penetrated. [Note: I’ll be interesting to see how these conclusions are reached, as I’ve previously seen multiple analyses that interpret fututrix as indicating a woman who performs penetration, and context doesn’t necessarily indicate that a tribade engages in penetrative sex, especially given the literal meaning of the word root.]

The article begins with a discussion of how the terms “active” and “passive” have generally been used in academic discussions of classical homoeroticisim, and especially Greek pederasty. In this context, social norms assumed/required an alignment of social hierarchy (older, higher-status) with both erotic attitude and activity (desiring erotic interaction, gaining sexual satisfaction) and with the grammar of the language used (the grammatically active erastes “lover”). The norm for the grammatically passive eromenes (beloved) was to be younger, lower-status, accepting/allowing erotic interaction, and not experiencing sexual satisfaction from the encounter.

Foucault used active/passive in a second way (in addition to the insertive/receptive duality), following his focus on Greek philosophical principles of self-control of desires of all types, where someone “active” sexually was one who exercised control over his (gendered pronoun used deliberately) sexual appetites, while someone who was sexually “passive” was driven by their appetites, with this category expected to include women, children, and slaves, not because of the nature of their physical participation in sexual acts, but because “by nature” they did not have the virtue of self-control. In combination with a number of other dual contrasts, Foucault creates a “polarity” model with one pole being masculine/dominant/active/superior/sexual-subject and the other pole being feminine (or feminized)/dominated/passive/subordinate/sexual-object. This multivalent polarity model is generally used by those studying classical sexuality.

Thus the prevailing model as used by Halperin, et al. is one defined by “the penetration of the body of one person by the body—and specifically, by the phallus—of another.” In this context “active” and “passive” assume the meanings “penetrator” and “penetrated”. Having been developed in the context of Greek sexuality, this model was also taken up by those studying Roman sexuality. But the association of “penetrated” with “passive” becomes less coherent in the context of a named category of men who actively seek and enjoy penetration by other men. Such men might be disparaged as “effeminate” (aligning with another part of the polarity) but they disrupt the idea that being penetrated was, by definition, something that was endured rather than sought.

The standard vocabulary of sex in Latin aligns with two roles (active/passive), two genders (male/female), and three orifices (vagina, anus, mouth), with the assumption that the inserted item is a phallus, and with gaps in the vocabulary for impossible combinations (e.g., men’s lack of a vagina, women’s lack of a phallus). In the following table, note that only masculine agentive nouns occur for the “active” (insertive) role.

(To deal with potential formatting issues, I’ve reorganized this from a table to a bulleted list. Vocabulary is identified as “v” for verb and “n” for agentive noun.)


  • Vagina: future (v), fututor (n)
  • Anus: pedicure (v), pedicator or pedico (n)
  • Mouth: irrumare (v), irrumator (n)


  • Vagina: futui (v), male: cunnilinctor (n)**, female: femina or puella (n)
  • Anus: pedicari (v), male: cinaedus or pathicus (n), female: pathica (n)
  • Mouth: irrumari or fellari (v), male: fellator (n), female: fellatrix (n)

[**A digression for context: As one might guess from the similarity of words, this is the masculine agentive form for “one who performs cunnilingus, oral sex on the vagina.” And its inclusion in this place in the table is a bit confusing and incoherent. The table is taken from Parker in Hallett and Skinner 1997 which has a bit more discussion of this topic. Why this is viewed as a “passive” act has to do with viewing phallic penetrative sex, and sex with at least one man present, as the reference point.  One would expect cunnilinctor to be grouped in the “mouth as orifice” group, with a distinction between whether it is a phallus or a vagina “penetrating” the mouth. But since the grid here assumes the presence of at least one man, then the location of cunnilinctor in this space is treating the (passive) man as having a mouth-as-vagina, since that’s the only available role for a man in this scenario. Thus the mouth is viewed as a “receptive orifice” and the person whose mouth is involved is seen as the passive/receptive partner. How do we assign active/passive roles when two “receptive orifices” are brought together? Mouth + vagina? In this case, it is the social acceptability of the organ that guides interpretation. Romans considered oral sex to degrade and pollute the mouth performing it. Therefore, in order to align status and sexual roles, the person whose mouth performs oral sex is defined as having the lower status (passive) role, even when that contradicts the gender of the people involved. Note that this table doesn’t include language for the hypothetical cases of the “active” vagina that is “penetrating” a mouth, or for the “passive” woman who is performing oral sex on a woman. The feminine agentive form cunnilinctrix doesn’t seem to appear in the Roman corpus, but the act is clearly implied in Martial’s epigram on Philaenis.]

In discussing Parker’s “grid of sexual roles”, the authors note that Parker, in addition to using active/passive as synonyms for insertive/receptive, also uses “active” in the sense of “desiring sexual activity regardless of role.” Thus a sex worker or a woman who has sex outside of marriage is “active” in the sense of pursuing sex in contexts that are not licensed by normative roles for women. Within this sense of “active” a woman could hypothetically be “sexually active” within her role as a married woman, although this would still be considered non-normative.

Having reviewed the various ways in which the concepts of active and passive were used, both by the Greeks and Romans themselves, and by scholars discussing classical sexuality, Kamen & Levin-Richardson move on to considering what Roman writers meant when they used “active” feminine agentive terms for women engaged in sex, such as fututrix. Using both grammatical and social contexts for the language discussing men in “passive” sexual roles, the authors identify a distinction between words that indicate an “accepting/enduring” role, such as pedicatus or irrumatus and words that indicate a “desiring/pursuing” role, such as cinaedus or fellator.

This finally brings us to the heart of the present article: is there language in classical Latin that marks a “passive but sexually desiring/pursuing woman”? because one of the basic tenets of the Roman sexual system is that all normative women (of whatever social status) are, by definition, sexually “passive.” Roman sexual literature is fully of descriptions of women who enthusiastically pursue sexual experiences, but this article focuses somewhat narrowly on women described as fellatrix (a woman who performs oral sex), fututrix (a woman who fucks, linguistically identifying her as an active participant), and tribade (which gets defined in a variety of ways, so I’ll wait to see how these authors interpret it). Although these are agentive nouns, they do not define sexual “identities” but simply sexual activities that are framed in a certain way within the context of Roman sexuality.

“Fellatrix” is the feminine form of the agentive noun derived from the verb “fello” (to suck) which, when used in a sexual context, indicates oral sex (by default, performed on a phallus). The masculine form is more common, appearing in both literature and graffiti, while the feminine form has only been found in graffiti. Descriptions of women performing fellatio do appear in literature, used as mockery or invective, but without using the agentive noun. Oral sex was considered to be degrading and polluting for the person performing it, and description or accusations of the act were often combined with other undesirable characteristics. “Fello” is a grammatically active verb, and therefore implies an active (and perhaps willing) participant in the act. Beside the literary descriptions and innuendos, there are multiple examples of graffiti along the lines of “Rufilla felat” (Rufilla sucks) which, when appearing in a brothel may be more of an advertisement than an insult. But not all such examples appear in buildings identified as brothels, and several of the examples of the form “Secundilla felatrix” (Secundilla the cock-sucker) appear on the walls of private homes.

These uses of derivatives of the verb “fello” can be contrasted with vocabulary derived from “irrumo”, where the agent of this verb is the man (always a man) on whom oral sex is being performed. Thus it might best be colloquially translated as “to mouth-fuck”. The use of this vocabulary set highlights the “receptive” partner in oral sex as both grammatically and behaviorally passive, and contexts in which it is used often focus on the act as aggressive or hostile.

Kamen & Levin-Richardson interpret “tribade,” although literally deriving from a verb meaning “to rub,” as indicating a women who performs penetrative sex. Part of their rationale is the fable by Phaedrus regarding a drunken Prometheus putting male and female genitals on the wrong bodies, thus creating both molles (men classified as effeminate due to preferring a passive role in sex) and tribades. They elaborate their interpretation of this myth as indicating that molles are male beings who have been given female genitals, and tribades are female beings who have been given male genitals, therefore tribades must have been understood as performing penetrative sex.

(Note: Boehringer points out the logical inconsistency of this take, as “molles” was used for people who had male physiology but were considered to have effeminate desires. Thus the basis for interpreting this fable as characterizing tribades as having a penis-equivalent is weak, and the logical chain “tribades are women with a penis, therefore tribades are defined by performing penetrative acts” requires independent evidence.)

The authors note the legal argument quoted by Seneca the Elder about two women caught in a sex act, both of whom are identified as “tribades” but only one of whom is initially believed to be a man. Martial has several epigrams that identify the subject as a tribade who engage in a variety of sexual acts. One sodomizes (pedicat) boys, does an unspecified act to girls (dolat), and also performs oral sex on girls (vorat). Another fucks (futui) her girlfriend. A third “joins twin cunts”. All of these are presented linguistically and situationally as “active” and the authors assert this agency “generally takes the form of penetration”. [Note: although the evidence they present does not at all clearly indicate this.] The tribade’s sexual agency typically involves acts that would be considered normative for a (dominant) man, but are inappropriate for a woman.

The third “sexual agent” word found for women is fututrix “(female) fucker”. The default meaning of the verb “futuo” involves a sexual agent with a phallus who penetrates a vagina. So how do we interpret examples in which the agent is female? There are two examples in graffiti of a person with a feminine name identified as a fututrix. There’s a possible example on a curse tablet. And there are two examples in Martial’s epigrams of a grammatically-feminine body part (a hand, a tongue) that is being used sexually being called “fututrix”.

Reference works of Latin have interpreted this word in opposite ways, depending on whether they relied on grammatical or social context. Grammatically, fututrix indicates an active agent and is directly parallel to masculine fututor, and by this reasoning should be interpreted as indicating a woman who performs penetration. Thus, if one follows the interpretation of tribade as implying penetration, tribade and fututrix should be parallel in meaning. But the authors dismiss this, arguing that there are no examples of a woman described both as a tribade and as a fututrix. [Note: the authors either overlook or avoid discussing Martial’s epigram that describes a woman as a tribade and states that she fucks (futuo) her female partner.]

Interpreting the word fututrix based on social context, one starts with the presumption that, because a woman cannot be an active penetrator (not having a phallus), one can only interpret the word as indicating “the normative female role within a ‘futuo’ scenario,” i.e., a woman being penetrated. However if one wanted to describe a woman as “one-who-is-fucked,” there are other grammatical constructions available, such as the passive participle, which does appear in other graffiti.

The other two instances of the word that are brought to bear involve sexual scenarios in which a man’s body part is being used sexually, and where that body part is grammatically feminine. In the first, the hand is being used to stimulate a boy’s genitals, and in the second, an act of cunnilingus is being described and the man’s tongue is described as a fututrix. Neither of these is a normative example of “futuo”. The hand is not penetrating, and cunnilingus is normally framed as involving being “penetrated.” But they have in common that the male participant is taking deliberate, intentional action. (And possibly that he is the socially dominant partner.) From this, the authors conclude that the “active” grammatical meaning of fututrix comes from agency and desire, not from the “penetrative” role in the sex act. [Note: Since the emphasis in the cunnilingus example is specifically described as penetrating the vagina, this might be an alternate basis for the “override,” but the authors don’t suggest this as a contribution.]

Additional examples are given of descriptions of lascivious women whose participation in sex is given in grammatically and performatively active terms (shake/wiggle, move, thrust).

Thus, the authors conclude, women can be “active” in sex (and have this reflected in active agentive nouns) by expressing desire for the act and engaging in actions/movements during sex. In the context of a m/f sex act (fellatrix, fututrix) this is both non-normative and desired by men. (At least, desired in a non-marital partner.) This same desiring/acting implication for a tribade is both non-normative and disparaged. (Though the authors attribute the negative aspect to them being “penetrating pseudo-men,” as opposed simply falling outside the normative sexual system.) They propose revising the table of sexual vocabulary and roles to reflect this expanded polarity, differentiating between traditionally “passive” roles based on whether active sexual desire and participation is involved.

[Note: I’m not convinced by the argumentation in this article, particularly in light of the more in-depth analysis of some of the examples by Boehringer. There’s a bit too much assuming of conclusions (e.g., “tribade = masculine-style penetrator”) and glossing over of contradictory evidence (e.g., the wide variety of sexual activities by Martial’s tribades). But there’s definitely a contradictory puzzle to be sorted out in the existence of the term fututrix, particularly when appearing in the context of sex work.]

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