I have just finished reading (for the first time – I will re-read) Bernadette Brooten’s “Love Between Women”, which has been a stimulating, enriching experience. Now, I totally lack the academic credentials to offer a formal review. 6000 miles from home, I am also without some of my standard books that I would normally consult to check the contents of my memory, further limiting any scope for accurate statements of fact.. However, in a former life I worked professionally as a market research analyst, presenting and interpreting research data for marketing managers at leading grocery manufacturers. I regularly told my clients that I didn’t claim to have all the right answers, but I hoped to find the right questions. Brooten’s book certainly raised a lot of good questions for me, and it is in a similar vein that I now share with you some thoughts.
First, the key purpose, methods and findings of the book. The purpose, of course, is clear from the subtitle: “Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism” – with a clear emphasis on “female”. In this, it is the first such investigation, and represents an important complement to John Boswell, who in practice focuses heavily on male history. Like Boswell, she precedes her discussion of specifically Christian responses with a general survey of attitudes and practices in the wider Mediterranean world. Her methods are innovative, as she goes beyond the standard classical texts, adding to them records from magic, astrology and medicine. These are useful, because the standards texts, by an educated male elite, tend to focus on a male elite, with far fewer references to women. But magical binding spells to attract demonstrate the existence and public visibility among non-elites of female homoerotic desire, astrological writings show that the astrologers at least believed that sexual orientations of all kinds were determined at birth, and medical treatises showed a belief that some orientations were seen as diseased.
The two most important conclusions, though, which apply to both Christian and pagan perspectives were that the important distinctions in sexual partners were not on gender itself, but on the appropriate gender roles (that is, as the insertive or receptive partner in sexual penetration), and that there was a marked asymmetry in attitudes to male and female homoeroticism.
By this is meant that men thought of sexual intercourse only in terms of penetration, real or simulated, requiring an active, penetrating partner and a receptive, passive partner. It was further assumed that the natural role for men was active and inserting, the natural role for women was passive and receptive. It then follows that a woman taking an active role, or a man taking a passive role, was stepping outside of approved gender roles, which was at best shameful, and possibly mentally diseased, immoral or sinful.
The asymmetry arises in that the male and female conforming partners are treated differently: passive females are condemned together with their active female partners, while active men who penetrate other men, especially lower status men, generally escape criticism. (In addition to gender, other factors also influenced approved roles, notably age and status. Gender asymmetry continues with many more permutations for men than for women, but I ignore these here.)
This asymmetry is clearly demonstrated in “Love Between Women”, but I thought less clearly explained. Brooten makes clear that the opprobrium on women who are passive partners is because the complete proper role is not just to be receptive, but to be receptive specifically to the male penis and seed. But then why is the proper male role not equally to be not just insertive, but specifically insertive into a woman? But many sources of the period (not all, but I summarise) clearly see no problem with males penetrating other males. Why not? With her focus primarily on women, this is one area where I think Brooten could have done more. Specifically, I wondered if the key might lie in the point made so clearly by Countryman in “Dirt, Greed and Sex”: that women were seen as, and in law treated as, the property of men. Hence the sin of adultery was seen as a crime against another man’s property – and even a receptive women having intercourse with another woman was offering what should have been reserved for a future lord and master.
High status men, however, were seen as naturally dominant, and so could take their pleasures (almost) where they chose without criticism. As Mark Anthony, who had affairs with both genders, has been quoted as saying (but not in this book), “What does it matter where a man puts his dick?” .
And now my questions, which begin to diverge from Brooten, as my interests are from the male perspective. First, those nasty words “para physin” which are widely assumed to refer to the gender choice of a partner. Would male readers or listeners have interpreted them so? Certainly, for a Roman citizen, “against nature” would have had a different meaning: to take the passive role. Otherwise, penetration of any other man would have been seen as natural, and of his slave as a recognised legal right. (Penetration of another citizen, especially an underage boy, was dishonourable, but not unnatural). Men in other societies would have seen things in similar terms.
Secondly, if the above surmise is correct, then the only reason that other forms of same sex intercourse are not acceptable is that they out the receptive male partner into the position of a woman, or in the case of a woman, she is not taking her “proper” place, receptive to a man. That is, the entire system is based on the now outdated belief that a woman is inherently inferior to a man, subjugated to his will (either husband or a male relative), and hence thought of virtually as his property. This was clearly stated by Clement of Alexandria (as reported by Brooten):
For him, nature allows people to enjoy lawful unions as fundamentally asymmetrical. for him, nature allows people to enjoy lawful unions for the purpose of procreation. Clement saw these lawful unions as fundamentally asymmetrical. A husband was head of his wife, and she had to be subservient to him. As a preventive against adultery, women were to shut themselves in their houses, avoiding unnecessary contact with any nonrelatives. If her husband behaved abusively to her, a wife had to endure the abuse and had no option except to leave. The wife may “never do anything against his will, with the exception of what is contributing to virtue and salvation.” Like Philo, Clement assumes that males have been allotted an active role and females a passive role in life: this view forms an important basis for Clement’s teachings about marriage.
But note also Clement’s other views on men. Not only must they not behave as women sexually, they must at all times present a physically appearance which clearly affirms their masculinity:
“Clement particularly opposes shaving off one’s beard or depilating one’s bodily hairs. He argues that men must display their greater physical similarity to Christ by wearing beards, which symbolise men’s stronger nature. their male nature, and their right to rule……..”He who denies his masculinity in broad daylight will certainly prove himself to be a woman at night.”
Now, Clement is an important figure in the development of a heterosexist theology hostile to same gender relationships. So the obvious next question : if the Magisterium has accepted and built on his hostility to homoerotic relationships, why has it not also built on his insistence on beards, male rule, and female submission? Conversely, if it has seen the wisdom in accepting male shaving and more balanced marital relationships, why has it not also seen the injustice in denying the validity of homoeroticism ? This is yet another example of the self-evident selectiveness inherent in the Magisterium.
The answer, I suspect, is that the plain truth of the matter is that for all its insistence to the contrary, in matters of social relationships the Magisterium follows and does not lead social attitudes. This was dramatically demonstrated n the notorious church support for slavery, and was strongly argued by John Boswell in the case of intolerance towards homosexuals.
So take heart – as society continues to accept our relationships, the Magisterium will inevitably be found to support them too.
Brooten, Bernadette – Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism
Boswell, John – Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality
Boswell, John – Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe
Jordan, Mark D – The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology.
Sullivan, Francis A – Magisterium: Teaching Authority of the Catholic Church