November 5, 2015

Do you have a sufficient supply of pronouns yet?

Filed under: Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Another link I saved a while back and then didn’t get around to using until now:

A private Southern California women’s college now offers students eight different gender pronoun options from which to select, expecting professors and others on campus to use the choices.

The Claremont-based Scripps College, nicknamed “The Women’s College,” offers the gender pronoun options to students through its online student portal accounts. Students use a drop-down menu to select their preference from ten choices – eight of which are various gender pronoun sets such as “Hu, Hum, Hus,” “Per, Pers, Perself” and “Ze, Zir, Zir.” The other two are “none” and “just my name.”

Once students select their preference, a note of it appears on class rosters and other documents informing professors and others.

Though an all-female institution, the drop-down list does not default to the “She, Her, Hers, Herself” option, but instead, “Select Pronoun.” In fact, the choices are listed in alphabetical order, which places the traditional “she/hers” choice as the seventh possibility.

The list of options, along with phonetic pronunciations for the less frequently used choices, was provided to The College Fix by a campus official:

    1. E/Ey, Em, Eir/Eirs, Eirself/Emself (A, M, ear, ears, earself)
    2. He, Him, His, Himself
    3. Hu, Hum, Hus, Humself (hue like HUman,/hue-m like HUMan, hue-s, hue-mself)
    4. Just My Name Please
    5. None
    6. Per, Per, Per/Pers, Perself (per/purr, pers, perself)
    7. She, Her, hers, Herself
    8. They, Them, Their/Theirs, Themse
    9. Ze, Hir, Hir/Hirs, Hirself (zee, hear, hears, hearself)
    10. Ze, Zir, Zir/Zirs, Zirself (zee, zeer, zeers, zeerself)

October 3, 2015

The TSA and the transgendered traveller

Filed under: Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Scott Shackford on the special hell the TSA reserves for transgendered air travellers:

When Shadi Petosky began tweeting about her terrible treatment at the hands of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers at Orlando International Airport on Sept. 21, she detailed an experience of being ordered around, patted down, dehumanized, and threatened. She was describing a situation familiar to anybody who gets caught up in the agency’s airport security theater.

Petosky is also transgender, and that played heavily into her experience. But being transgender and tripping up alerts at airports and getting taken aside or treated poorly is also not a new problem with TSA screening, though it was the first time Petosky, a writer and producer, had an encounter this bad. While she was tweeting her experience, other transgender people on Twitter responded about having similar problems.

What’s new is that Petosky’s encounter ended up getting significant news coverage, from The New York Times, to the Los Angeles Times, to Vox.com, along with television networks. The coverage highlighted a problem that has persisted for a while: TSA agents are not well-trained to deal with transgender travelers, leaving these flyers uncertain of what to expect when going through airports. Furthermore, the screening technology used for scanning bodies passing through the airport has no real mechanism for recognizing the biology of transgender travelers, prompting confusion to trigger completely unfounded security fears.

Many travelers may not even realize it, but as they’re forced in to spread eagle for body scanners in security lines at the airport, a TSA agent is pressing a button telling the machine whether the person inside is a male or female. They don’t ask—they just look and decide. In Petosky’s case, the TSA employee saw a woman and pressed the appropriate button. And then the employee declared there was an “anomaly,” which Petosky bluntly explains to Reason, is her penis.

September 22, 2015

A unique genetic population in the Dominican Republic

Filed under: Americas, Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

BBC Magazine on the extraordinary lives of the Guevedoces, children who suddenly develop male sexual characteristics at puberty:

The discovery of a small community in the Dominican Republic, where some males are born looking like girls and only grow penises at puberty, has led to the development of a blockbuster drug that has helped millions of people, writes Michael Mosley.

Johnny lives in a small town in the Dominican Republic where he, and others like him, are known as “Guevedoces“, which effectively translates as “penis at twelve”.

We came across Johnny when we were filming for a new BBC Two series Countdown to Life, which looks at how we develop in the womb and how those changes, normal and abnormal, impact us later in life.

Like the other Guevedoces, Johnny was brought up as a girl because he had no visible testes or penis and what appeared to be a vagina. It is only when he approached puberty that his penis grew and testicles descended.


So why does it happen? Well, one of the first people to study this unusual condition was Dr Julianne Imperato-McGinley, from Cornell Medical College in New York. In the 1970s she made her way to this remote part of the Dominican Republic, drawn by extraordinary reports of girls turning into boys.

When she got there she found the rumours were true. She did lots of studies on the Guevedoces (including what must have been rather painful biopsies of their testicles) before finally unravelling the mystery of what was going on.

When you are conceived you normally have a pair of X chromosomes if you are to become a girl and a set of XY chromosomes if you are destined to be male.

For the first weeks of life in womb you are neither, though in both sexes nipples start to grow.

Then, around eight weeks after conception, the sex hormones kick in. If you’re genetically male the Y chromosome instructs your gonads to become testicles and sends testosterone to a structure called the tubercle, where it is converted into a more potent hormone called dihydro-testosterone This in turn transforms the tubercle into a penis. If you’re female and you don’t make dihydro-testosterone then your tubercle becomes a clitoris.

September 20, 2015

Perhaps this is the real reason Bruce became Cait

Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Dr. Helen Smith may have figured out the key motivation for Bruce Jenner’s decision to become Caitlyn:

Really, Kris is now happy for Caitlyn and didn’t want to talk to her when she was angry? Why wasn’t she that considerate when Caitlyn was Bruce? Even Caitlyn mentions what crap she was treated like in their marriage when he (she) was just Bruce for years. If you doubt me, take a look at the past episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians where Bruce’s opinions were ignored; he pretty much lived in the garage and anger was thrown his way with abandon by the family and Kris in particular. Sound familiar? This is the way many men are treated by families every day, and no one gives a crap. After all, they’re just men and probably have no feelings.

Now that Bruce has come out as a woman, his feelings are treated with care, and everyone, including Kris, is walking on eggshells. Why? It is socially unacceptable to trash talk women, particularly transgender women. Kris must feel angry inside, but can’t really express it. She has to pretend to be happy for Cait. To profess otherwise makes her into the bad guy. Now, if Cait were a man, she could talk with abandon and her anger would be justified. But she has been one-upped by Caitlyn. Maybe more men should transition to women as an act of self-defense as misandry spreads. Bruce joined the winning team and really, who can blame him?

I don’t know how much water this theory holds, but I have to admit that I had to Google search the phrase “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”, so perhaps it’s not something I really need to have an opinion on…

September 4, 2015

Slate: Testosterone changes the brain

Filed under: Europe, Health, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Perhaps it’s not just a social construct after all:

However much we’d like to think of gender as a social construct, science suggests that real differences do exist between female and male brains. The latest evidence: a first-of-its-kind European study that finds that the female brain can be drastically reshaped by treating it with testosterone over time.

Research has shown that women have the advantage when it comes to memory and language, while men tend to have stronger spatial skills (though this too has been disputed). But due to ethical restrictions, no study had been able to track the direct effect that testosterone exposure has on the brain — until now. Using neuroimaging, Dutch and Austrian researchers found that an increase in this potent hormone led to shrinkage in key areas of the female (transitioning to male) brain associated with language. They presented their findings at last week’s annual meeting of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology in Amsterdam.

July 24, 2015

Glasgow Free Pride’s inclusivity dilemma

Filed under: Britain, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Katherine Timpf on the beleaguered organizers of the annual Glasgow Free Pride event:

The organizers of Free Pride Glasgow in Scotland have hit a snag in their mission to plan a totally inclusive event: Some activists think drag queens are offensive to transgender people, others think banning drag queens is offensive to transgender drag queens, and still others think allowing only transgender drag queens is offensive to cisgender drag queens.


Although drag performances had been part of Free Pride Glasgow for years, the event organizers announced in a statement on Saturday that they would not be allowing them this year because some transgender individuals found “some drag performance, particularly cis drag,” to be offensive because it “hinges on the social view of gender and making it into a joke.”

In the original statement, the organizers maintained that since they felt it would “not be appropriate to ask any prospective drag acts whether or not they identified as trans,” they would just cancel drag performances altogether. You know, just to make sure that no one would be uncomfortable. One problem: The attempt at appeasing transgender people who are offended by drag performers wound up offending transgender people who are drag performers. Whoops.

July 16, 2015

China’s LGBT communities

Filed under: China — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Yuxin Zhang looks at China’s misunderstood history of tolerance for gay culture:

The Chinese LGBT community and culture have attracted interest among Chinese youth in recent years. Evidence of this is the use of the Internet slang term gao-ji, indicating two men of the same sex having an affair, which has become well-accepted and entered daily use (including among straight people, as a way of teasing each other). The prevalence of the Internet has contributed to gay activism in contemporary China. Gay parades and campaigns have emerged, as young and sometimes middle-aged Chinese are inspired by the LGBT activism overseas that they learn about online, and by events such as the coming-out of celebrities such as Tim Cook and Anderson Cooper, the legalization of same-sex marriage in Western countries, and the discussion of a same-sex marriage bill in Taiwan, with its linguistic and cultural similarities with the Mainland. Some have taken bold actions. In 2010, two Chinese men, Wenjie Pan and Anquan Zeng, hosted the first public same-sex wedding ceremony in Sichuang, a city in China’s southwest.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Chinese gay dating application Blued has scored a $30 million round of investment co-led by DCM Ventures, as its users reached 15 million at the end of last year. This number is likely to grow, as China has both the world’s largest population and the most Internet users. A concomitant outcome, however, is worrisome. Most gay Chinese men who use online dating applications do so to have casual sex, and this has fueled a spike in sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV/AIDS. Thus, some middle-aged and older Chinese associate homosexuality with infection by HIV/AIDS and other STDs, and this has contributed to discrimination against the gay community.

One main reason why many people in China oppose homosexuality is because it clashes with their notions of traditional Chinese values. Some even think that homosexuality does not exist in China, and must just be something from the West.

July 13, 2015

Japan’s cross-dressing WW2 spy in China

Filed under: China, History, Japan — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

In The Diplomat, Stephen Joyce reviews Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army, a recent book by Phyllis Birnbaum:

Divisive figures often make the most compelling biographical subjects; and Kawashima Yoshiko is no exception. During her life and in death opinions have varied markedly. Loathed by the Chinese as a traitor, extolled by the Japanese for her talents as a spy, more recently she has even become a heroine to the LGBT community.

In Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army, Phyllis Birnbaum provides a measured assessment of the fascinating rise and fall of this erratic, narcissistic, cross-dressing, bisexual princess.

Born in 1907 as Aisin Gioro Xianyu, Kawashima Yoshiko was the 14th daughter of Prince Su of the Qing imperial family. Soon after the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, she was unwillingly sent to Japan to be adopted by family friend Kawashima Naniwa.

Her formative teenage years were spent in Matsumoto being educated in Japanese language and culture. It was not the happiest of upbringings. An attempted suicide and sexual assault by her new father are noted as potentially life-defining events but are hard to verify. Whatever the root cause of her discontent, in 1925 she shaved her head and started wearing men’s clothes.

In 1927 she married a Mongolian prince in a politically convenient union that quickly failed and Yoshiko soon travelled to China to pursue her dream of a honorable return to power for the Qing dynasty, beginning with Manchuria and Outer Mongolia.

With Japan increasingly active in China she soon found herself a raison d’etre: a spy in the service of the Japanese. Several incidents define her status as a spy; all are shrouded in mystery.


Although it would be hard to argue that she had a major influence over the key events of her time, Kawashima Yoshiko is a superb subject for biography and should interest all lovers of Asian history. And despite living her life in the public and media glare her essential mysteriousness remains—even in death. Did the Chinese Nationalist government execute her (as Kim Bai Fai) in 1948 or, as some would have it, did she escape and live out her last days quiet obscurity? Birnbaum concludes that the latter outcome is questionable, to say the least. Assuming she was indeed executed, her memoirs reveal a wry acceptance of her ultimate fate, despite her life aims lying in tatters.

The sheer wealth of material — autobiographies, Yoshiko’s letters, interviews, press reports, sensationalist magazine articles and official documents — with which to write a biography to some extent serves to cloud rather than illuminate the life of Yoshiko Kawashima. Much like her futile efforts to restore the Qing dynasty in China, any attempt to firmly pin down her real life story and true character seems destined to fail.

June 12, 2015

The psychic powers of the Python crew…

Filed under: History, Humour, Politics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

… all those years ago, they still managed to foresee the kind of political arguments we’d be having in the twenty-first century:

H/T to American Digest, among others who pointed out the prophetic powers of the Pythons.

April 5, 2015

1 in 20 British students have earned money through sex work

Filed under: Britain, Law — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

A rather surprising result from a new study by Swansea University:

Nearly five percent of U.K. students have engaged in some form of sex work, according to new research that contradicts conventional wisdom about the sex industry in several significant ways. For starters, more male than female students participated in sex work. And while money was one motivating factor, students also cited flexible scheduling and personal enjoyment or curiosity among their main reasons for getting involved.

The research was part of the Student Sex Work Project, a 3-year initiative led by Swansea University. Researchers surveyed more than 10,000 students from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, whittling the final data sample down to 6,673. Students answered questions about their attitudes toward sex work — broadly defined as “the exchange of sexual services, performances, or products for material compensation” — and any personal experiences with it.

Among the key findings: 4.8 percent of student respondents had done some sort of sex work, including 5 percent of male students surveyed and 3.4 percent of female students. [While the report mentions transgender student sex workers, it does not include any specific numbers.] Nearly nearly 22 percent of respondents had considered doing sex work.

Of the male students surveyed, 2.4 percent had engaged in what researchers call “direct sex work,” aka prostitution, as had 1.3 percent of female students. Three and a half percent of male respondents and 2.7 percent of females had done “indirect sex work,” which includes things such as stripping, porn acting, nude modeling, webcam or phone sex services, and nude housecleaning. A combined 1 percent of students surveyed were involved in sex work in an auxiliary manner, such as working as a receptionist or a driver for an escort company.

March 24, 2015

Everything’s Awesome and Camille Paglia is Unhappy!

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 19 Mar 2015

Growing up as “a gender nonconforming entity” during Eisenhower’s America wasn’t easy for cultural critic and best-selling author Camille Paglia. Her adolescence in small-town, upstate New York was marked by rejection, rebellion, and cross-dressing—all in reaction to the stultifying social norms of the 1950s and early ’60s.

So what does Paglia think of contemporary culture, with its openness to a wide variety of ever-proliferating gender, racial, and sexual identities?

Not much.

“I do not feel that gender is sufficient to explain all of human life,” Paglia tells Reason TV‘s Nick Gillespie. “This gender myopia, this gender monomania, has become a disease. It’s become a substitute for religion. It is impossible that the feminist agenda can ever be the total explanation of human life.”

Whether the subject is feminism or the fate of Western civilization, Paglia is no Pollyanna. In this wide-ranging discussion, she says higher education is going to hell, the Fourth Estate is an epic FAIL, millennials are myopic, contemporary criticism has croaked, and Hillary Clinton might singlehandedly destroy the universe. Even Madonna, once Paglia’s ideal of sex-positive feminism, seems to have lost her way.

Does the celebrated author of Sexual Personae and Break Blow Burn have any reason to get out of bed in the morning? Does she have any hope for the universe at all? Watch the video to find out.

March 21, 2015

Who was Sappho?

Filed under: Europe, History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In the New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn discusses our evolving views of the poet Sappho:

One day not long after New Year’s, 2012, an antiquities collector approached an eminent Oxford scholar for his opinion about some brownish, tattered scraps of writing. The collector’s identity has never been revealed, but the scholar was Dirk Obbink, a MacArthur-winning classicist whose specialty is the study of texts written on papyrus — the material, made of plant fibres, that was the paper of the ancient world. When pieced together, the scraps that the collector showed Obbink formed a fragment about seven inches long and four inches wide: a little larger than a woman’s hand. Densely covered with lines of black Greek characters, they had been extracted from a piece of desiccated cartonnage, a papier-mâché-like plaster that the Egyptians and Greeks used for everything from mummy cases to bookbindings. After acquiring the cartonnage at a Christie’s auction, the collector soaked it in a warm water solution to free up the precious bits of papyrus.

Judging from the style of the handwriting, Obbink estimated that it dated to around 200 A.D. But, as he looked at the curious pattern of the lines — repeated sequences of three long lines followed by a short fourth — he saw that the text, a poem whose beginning had disappeared but of which five stanzas were still intact, had to be older.

Much older: about a thousand years more ancient than the papyrus itself. The dialect, diction, and metre of these Greek verses were all typical of the work of Sappho, the seventh-century-B.C. lyric genius whose sometimes playful, sometimes anguished songs about her susceptibility to the graces of younger women bequeathed us the adjectives “sapphic” and “lesbian” (from the island of Lesbos, where she lived). The four-line stanzas were in fact part of a schema she is said to have invented, called the “sapphic stanza.” To clinch the identification, two names mentioned in the poem were ones that several ancient sources attribute to Sappho’s brothers. The text is now known as the “Brothers Poem.”

Remarkably enough, this was the second major Sappho find in a decade: another nearly complete poem, about the deprivations of old age, came to light in 2004. The new additions to the extant corpus of antiquity’s greatest female artist were reported in papers around the world, leaving scholars gratified and a bit dazzled. “Papyrological finds,” as one classicist put it, “ordinarily do not make international headlines.”

But then Sappho is no ordinary poet. For the better part of three millennia, she has been the subject of furious controversies — about her work, her family life, and, above all, her sexuality. In antiquity, literary critics praised her “sublime” style, even as comic playwrights ridiculed her allegedly loose morals. Legend has it that the early Church burned her works. (“A sex-crazed whore who sings of her own wantonness,” one theologian wrote, just as a scribe was meticulously copying out the lines that Obbink deciphered.) A millennium passed, and Byzantine grammarians were regretting that so little of her poetry had survived. Seven centuries later, Victorian scholars were doing their best to explain away her erotic predilections, while their literary contemporaries, the Decadents and the Aesthetes, seized on her verses for inspiration. Even today, experts can’t agree on whether the poems were performed in private or in public, by soloists or by choruses, or, indeed, whether they were meant to celebrate or to subvert the conventions of love and marriage. The last is a particularly loaded issue, given that, for many readers and scholars, Sappho has been a feminist heroine or a gay role model, or both. “As far as I knew, there was only me and a woman called Sappho,” the critic Judith Butler once remarked.

February 27, 2015

The changes in language describing changing gender

Filed under: Health, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Charlotte Allen discusses how quickly the language has changed when talking about transsexuality over a very short time:

In 2012 the board of trustees of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) approved a set of proposed revisions to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the new version is the DSM-5), designed to remove the stigma of mental illness from the transgender classification. Earlier versions of the DSM had defined transgenderism as “gender identity disorder,” which seemed to imply illness. The DSM-5 changed that term to “gender dysphoria.” The change paralleled the association’s removal of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973. It signaled that whatever problems transgenders might experience were not due to a pathological misconception that their bodies and gender identities were mismatched but to the fact that their bodies and gender identities were mismatched. Hormones, surgery, cosmetics, and different clothes might still be the “cure” (enabling transgenders to qualify for medical reimbursement for a variety of procedures), but the APA was making it clear, as far as it was concerned, that the problem was not inside the transgender’s head.

The medical evidence for a mismatch between brains and bodies is ambiguous. The two studies cited most frequently by transgender activists, published in 1995 and 2000, examined the brains of a total of seven male-to-female transgenders and found that a region of the hypothalamus, an almond-shaped area of the brain that controls the release of hormones by the pituitary gland, was female-typical in those brains. But those studies have been criticized for not controlling for the estrogen​—​which affects the size of the hypothalamus​—​that most male-to-female transgenders take daily in order to maintain their feminine appearance.

Accompanying the APA’s change of classification was a change of vocabulary. Ever since the days of Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989), the World War II serviceman whose surgery in Denmark during the early 1950s brought transgenderism under the media spotlight for the first time, the procedure was known in popular parlance as a “sex change operation.” Then in the 1990s, when the idea of one’s “gender” as something distinct from one’s biological sex began to take hold (thanks to the efforts of academic feminists and other postmodernists, who argued that gender is “socially constructed”), the preferred term became “gender reassignment surgery.” Now the preferred phrase seems to be “gender confirmation surgery.” The change in terminology renders more credible transpeople’s claims to have always belonged to the gender to which they have transitioned.

The once commonly used word “transsexual” has thus become passé ​—​ even verboten in the most sensitive circles —​ just during the past decade. For example, Washington Post reporter Abby Ohlheiser issued a severe scolding to news media for using the word “transsexual” in reference to a 27-year-old male-to-female victim of a grisly murder and dismemberment at the hands of her 28-year-old male lover (who subsequently committed suicide) in Brisbane, Australia, in October 2014. “Although some individuals do identify as ‘transsexual,’ the term is often viewed as old-fashioned and not an appropriate umbrella word,” Ohlheiser wrote in a column deriding the coverage of the crime as “transphobic.” Ohlheiser also objected to media describing the victim, Mayang Prasetyo, as a “prostitute” (Prasetyo had been working as an escort before her death) and reproducing photos of Prasetyo’s busty self clad in a tiny swimsuit that she had posted on the Internet. “Many of the articles covering the murder are laden with provocative photographs of the victim in a bikini, as if any story about a trans person is an excuse to view and scrutinize trans bodies,” Ohlheiser wrote.

February 7, 2015

To the TERFs, “it is a genital form of blackface”

Filed under: Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Jim Goad on an unexpected new front that has opened up in the social justice wars:

This is a struggle — laden with a hilarious level of acrimony — between men who insist they’re women and women who insist that the most crucial part of being a woman involves popping out of your mother’s vagina with a vagina of your own. The latter group is disparagingly referred to as TERFs — Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists — due to the fact that they feel male-to-female trannies are trying to party-crash their struggle against historical oppression. The TERFs argue that for men to pretend they’re women is insulting to real women. To them, it is a genital form of blackface.

The TERF worldview can be loosely summarized as follows: So-called “trans women” are actually privileged males who use such privilege in an attempt to co-opt women’s historical suffering without enduring any of the social stigma attendant to bleeding for five days a month without dying. They are essentially delusional men who wear dresses or, in some cases, mutilate their genitals in a near-suicidal quest to validate their delusions. Trannies should under no circumstances be able to use women’s bathrooms or attend events that are exclusively designed for women. For trannies to invade such female-designated “safe spaces” is at best intrusive, at worst yet another form of rape. Since “gender” is a social construct and “femininity” is a patriarchal imposition, transsexuals are merely reinforcing anti-female memes by aping sexist stereotypes of how women should behave. Therefore it is they, and not the TERFs, who are the true reactionaries.

Robert Anton Wilson famously said, “It only takes 20 years for a liberal to become a conservative without changing a single idea.” Whereas those who would now be defamed as TERFs were on the far bloody cutting edge of leftist politics a generation ago, they now find themselves outdated or, as the kids like to say, “irrelevant.” Without having changed a single idea, they find themselves labeled not as bold freedom warriors fighting the good fight against oppression but as hateful reactionaries who stand in the way of true progress.

One especially amusing bone of contention between the two groups of shaggy yipping poodles regards the vaginal authenticity of male-to-female transsexuals. Old-school feminist Germaine Greer recently asserted that trannies aren’t women because they don’t realize what it’s like “to have a big, hairy, smelly vagina.”

February 3, 2015

QotD: Sexuality in the late classical world

Filed under: History, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

There are two opposed beliefs about sexuality in the ancient world. Both are false, though not equally so. The first is that the ancient world fizzled out in an orgy of bum fun, and that we need to be careful not to let this happen to us. Where do you begin with a belief so completely unfounded on the evidence? I suppose you look to the evidence. Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar both had a taste for all-male sex. So did Mark Antony. So did Hadrian. So had most of the famous Athenians — Euripides being one of its most notable enthusiasts. No signs there of moral or any other weakness. If Mark Antony came to a bad end, it was because he married an ambitious foreign woman.

A growing prejudice against all-male sex becomes visible in the fourth century, when Constantine established Christianity as the official faith. He made the first laws against it. Within a century, the Goths were across the Rhine and had sacked Rome. Oh, and one of Constantine’s own sons had a taste for Gothic boys!

It’s absurd to try correlating national greatness or decline with sexual customs. Ancient civilisation didn’t collapse because its rulers were too worn out from buggering each other to take up swords. The ultimate cause may have been a mild global cooling, which lowered the Malthusian ceiling. There was an undoubted growth of rural impoverishment that left populations open to the pandemic diseases that swept through the Mediterranean world from late in the second century. Population decline was then worsened by various forms of misgovernment, and by the need to hold frontiers that had only made sense in an age of economic and demographic expansion. Rather than bursting through in unstoppable floods, the barbarians seem eventually to have wandered, in small bands, into a demographic vacuum.

The second false belief is that the ancient world was one big al fresco bath house. I once watched a television documentary in which it was seriously maintained that straight sex was out of fashion in Athens during the classical period. I thought of writing in to ask what books the researchers had been reading.

Because it lasted over a thousand years, and flourished on three continents, you should be careful with generalisations about ancient civilisation. But one good generalisation is that free men were expected to marry and beget children. These were societies with high death rates. They needed high birth rates not to die out. They particularly needed large numbers of young men to fight in their endemic wars of conquest or survival. Those men who wouldn’t breed were sometimes punished. Those who couldn’t were expected to adopt the surplus children of their poorer friends and relatives.

There were also strong prejudices against men who took the passive role in oral and anal sex. Take, for example, this epigram somewhere in Martial:

Secti podicis usque ad umbilicum
Nullas reliquias habet Charinus
Et prurit tamen usque ad umbilicum.
O quanta scabie miser laborat:
Culum non habet, est tamen cinaedus.

[Of his anus, split right up to the belly button,
Nothing remains to Charinus.
And still he longs for it right up to his belly button.
O behold the poor dear’s itching:
No arse left, yet still he longs to be fucked.]

On the other hand, the ancients didn’t have our concept of gay and straight. Latin has a large and precise sexual vocabulary — though you won’t find meanings in the standard dictionaries. See, for example: Irrumator, one who presents his penis for sucking; Fellator, one who sucks; Pathicus, the passive partner in anal sex, Exoletus, the active partner; Cinaedus, a male prostitute; Catamitus, a boy prostitute or lover; Glabrarius, lover of smooth-skinned boys; Tribas, a woman with a clitoris large enough to serve as a penis — and so it continues. The Greek vocabulary is larger still. There is no word in either language that means “homosexual.” Sodomitus is a late word, brought in by the Christians, and may not have had its present meaning until deep into the middle ages.

So long as legitimate children were somehow begotten, and so long as he didn’t disgrace himself by taking the passive role, what else a free man did was legally and morally indifferent. Elsewhere in his works, Martial boasts of sleeping with boys, and scolds his wife for thinking ill of him. In Athens and some other classical city states, it was a social duty for men in the higher classes to have sexual affairs with adolescent boys. We all know about the Spartans. In Thebes, an army was formed of adult sex partners. If anyone had said that all-male sex was in itself wrong, he’d have been laughed at. The Jews, who did say this, were despised. The Christian Emperors may have made laws against it. They were mostly enforced against political enemies when no other charges were credible or convenient.

Indeed, while there was a prejudice, and sometimes laws, against sexual passivity, it’s obvious that, once in private, men did as they pleased. One of the fundamental rules of the man-boy affairs in Athens was no anal penetration and no fellatio. Sex was supposed to involve mutual masturbation or intercrural friction. You can imagine how that rule was kept in private. There were problems only if the truth got out. Philip of Macedon, for example, kept a boy as his lover. One day, in public, he poked the boy in the stomach and asked why he wasn’t yet pregnant. The boy was so outraged that he murdered the King.

Then we have slavery, and the total power of an owner over his slaves. A slave-owner could demand whatever he liked, and expect the world not to be told about what he liked. So long as they weren’t physically injured, slaves were universally expected to do as they were told and not complain. As for prostitution, Rome and the larger cities were filled with brothels offering every sexual act imaginable. When Bible quotes failed, Christians were warned away from the brothels on the grounds that they might accidentally sleep with their own abandoned and enslaved children.

Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake”, 2014-03-14.

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