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The Book on Clasical F/F History I've been Longing For

Monday, October 11, 2021 - 07:00

When I blogged Dover (1978) Greek Homosexuality, I started off by quoting the author's own assessment: “That female homosexuality and the attitude of women to male homosexuality can both be discussed within one part of one chapter reflects the paucity of women writers and artists in the Greek world and the virtual silence of male writers and artists on those topics.” But the "paucity" of material isn't the only factor at play here. The more focused one's topic, the more scope there is for uncovering meaning from a deep assessment of the context that material exists within. But when a historian defines their scope of interest at a broader level, there is a tendency for the result to reflect the proportions of topics in the data, rather than aiming for a balanced coverage of the target subject itself.

In a sense, this is why the field of women's history and the field of queer history and especially the intersection of those two topics are so essential. A study of history that assumes that the past exists as a reflection of the proportions of subjects covered in the surviving artifacts is a study of history that perpetuates and amplifies the biases and erasures of past societies. While it's certainly been the case that historians have often been seduced into operating from the viewpoint of the voices that dominate their source material, a good historian recognizes that temptation and acts to counter it. Until all historians are self-aware enough to recognize and account for their own biases in this line, we need to treasure and cherish the works that begin from a principle that it is vital to put in the work of addressing marginalized topics. Boehringer's study is just such a work to be cherished--and I say that even not having read it in its entirety yet.

My very personal hope is that I will come out of this book with the same sort of brain-bending re-understanding of women's homosexual experiences in classical Greece and Rome that I had for men's experiences from Williams 2010. I want that shifting of ground where I feel like I've been allowed a glimpse of how a different culture understood their own sexual and romantic experiences, even when--especially when--that understanding feels alien to me. A history of homosexuality in any era--even as recent as the mid-20th century--will trip up if it is a quest to find exact correspondences with contemporary identities and experiences. (I often point out that the lesbian experience of the '70s when I came out is already an alien culture to 21st century understandings.) But we needn't entirely abandon the desire to find connection with people in the past. And a more diffuse “history of the varieties of gender/desire/affection” still allows us to make those connections between historic and modern experience while allowing past societies their distinct particularity and individuality.

I keep coming back to the metaphor of translating prepositions between different languages. We all share the same physical experience of up/down, near/far, contact/separtion, movement/stasis. But even apart from bundling the multitude of spatial relationships differently across languages, we assign different priorities, defaults, and cultural meanings to those basic physical relationships. Learning a language means letting go of the idea that prepositions (or whatever form spatial language takes) will translate precisely from one language to another. It doesn't mean letting go of the assumption that we live in the same physical world, but it may give us an entirely new way of thinking about that world.

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Full citation: 

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

Front Matter

Front Matter

Preface to the English Translation

The author discusses the reception of the original 2007 text and sexist/homophobic responses from even the French publisher who put it out, attacking the very concept of academic gender and sexuality studies—a reaction out of line with French academic traditions.

[Note: In a curious echo of centuries of cultures always attributing lesbianism to “foreign” influences, certain voices within the culture that produced Foucault derided sexuality history as an American contamination.]

This translation provides an opportunity to reconsider and update certain elements in light of continuing scholarship in the field. The author notes that she uses the term “homosexuality” as an abstract concept, rather than implying personal identity in a modern sense. She reviews the history of scholarship on Greek sexuality, colored by the era and attitudes to those studying it. Up through the mid 20th century these studies largely excluded women as a topic, with the narrow exception of Sappho studies, which often took place outside academia. The rise of women’s studies as a field changed this, alongside interest in the history of sexuality from a historical, not a psychological, perspective.

But new, more expansive studies of ancient sexuality continued to overlook female homosexuality as a topic, treating it as an afterthought or appendix. Rare breakthrough exceptions include Hallett 1989. Only since the late 1990s has female homosexuality in antiquity come into its own as a topic of serious and independent study, rather than an addition to studies of male homosexuality. Brooten 1996 sparked lively debates about the category/term “homosexuality” in classical contexts. Important works include Snyder 1997, Rabinowitz and Auanger 2002 among others. A new phase of scholarship begins around 2010 as female homosexuality appears more often in general collections on ancient sexuality.

Boehringer follows Halperin’s constructionist approach but cautions against mapping male-centered concepts like active/passive onto female experience, but rather seeks to retrieve how classical societies understood their own world in its particularity. Boehringer defines her book's focus as “ancient documents referring to amorous and/or sexual relations between women.”

Preface to the Original French Edition by David Halperin

He gives the general background to the essentialist/constructionist debate and acknowledges the attraction of identifying with cultures and individuals in the past, as well as the social and political uses of historical identification. There is a discussion of the definition of the term “sexuality” and he asserts that studies of its history often focus on eras when sexuality, as such, didn’t exist.

A quest to find a history for the specific modern experience of homosexuality (supposing there is one) becomes a teleological search for a past connection between an array of characteristics and attributes that were not necessarily connected to each other except in the present moment. The history of relations between women raises the question of “which relations?” Love? Desire? Intimacy? Sex? Masculine women? Women seeking to live outside heteronormative and patriarchal structures? Women who made personal and social alliances with women instead of men? What parts of modern “lesbian identity” are we studying when we study lesbian history?

There is a discussion of the slipperiness of the word “lesbian” itself. What has it referred to in different times and contexts? If we are looking to identify concepts and experiences in the past that can be identified as “lesbian” how is this affected by the difficulty in defining what we mean by the word today? Are we looking for a continuous, unbroken tradition of lesbianism or are we comfortable associating the term with a discontinuous heterogeneous sequence of concepts—similar to the changing understandings of concepts like “marriage” or “family”? Such identifications across time are unescapable, but also hazardous to the practice and understanding of history.

[Note: I feel this is a key thing to keep in mind. When you look at the concept/category of "lesbian" in the last half century, and how contested and debated its boundaries and definitions are, it should be apparent how complicated it would be to trace a "history of [modern] lesbianism" even if that were the goal. Even if you boil the definition down to "women who love and/or have sex with women", the love/sex branching point instantly creates more than one "history" to trace.]

Introduction (by the author)

The introduction starts by defining the topic of the book: love and sexual relations between women (including real, fictional, and fantasized women) in Greek and Roman contexts of the seventh century BCE to the early third century CE. Because the people of those eras did not view relations between women as being parallel to relations between men or to relations between a man and woman, this topic must be studied in its own context, with regard to the place and function of women within society. Due to the nature of the sources, such a study will invariably give undue weight to men’s experience and perception of the topic.

There is a discussion of gender as a concept (i.e., a cluster of social characteristics) as contrasted with sex (biological characteristics, with a nod to the fact that different societies assigned sexual categories to intersex persons in different ways). There is a discussion of the academic politics of “women’s history” and the pressure for it to include men but not the other way around. “Men’s history” is allowed to silently ignore the presence and contributions of women while “women’s history” is required to include men in order to be taken seriously.

As with gender, perceiving sexuality as socially constructed frees the historian from trying to impose modern experience on the past and allows the study of each culture in its own context.

There is a detailed review of previous scholarship on the topic of the sexual/erotic culture of Greece and Rome. The author particularly takes note of the presence and absence of interest in relations between women in prior work. There is a discussion of the author’s approach and some definition of terms to be used. She will use “homosexual” to mean simply “same-sex”, rather than implying cultural or psychological resonances.

The ways people experienced and managed their sex lives are to be understood as focusing around actions, not identities, though identities in the sense of gender, free/unfree, class, etc. certainly were significant. Sexual actions were perceived as asymmetric between partners and might use entirely different words for each one’s experience of the same activity. That means a sexual encounter could never be categorized and evaluated solely on the basis of the gender of the persons involved without regard to status. Source material that appears to judge sexual activity cannot be understood to be judging that activity on the basis of the gender of the participants. Criticism is always in regard to some other specific aspect, and should also be understood as performative with respect to the speaker’s own identity. Little can be taken at face value, especially when men are opining about women. With regard to classical relations between women, the scholar is often more like a paleontologist than a historian, trying to reconstruct an understanding from isolated and incomplete fragments.

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