Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.09.22

David M. Halperin, How to Do the History of Homosexuality.   Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 2002.  Pp. x, 208.  ISBN 0-226-31447-2.  $30.00.  

Reviewed by Thomas K. Hubbard, University of Texas, Austin (
Word count: 3336 words

This book brings together five previously published essays by the author, and adds a 23-page Introduction which traces the author's intellectual development in the twelve years since One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, his first collection of essays on the theme. Despite the book's suggestive title, it does not presume to give us a systematic theory of the entire "history of homosexuality." Indeed it remains one of Halperin's principal objectives to contest whether there can be such a thing. Although making liberal use of comparanda and contrastive paradigms from other periods, Halperin's primary focus is on the ancient Greco-Roman world. Since many of these essays were originally published in scattered venues that classicists might not normally encounter, it is useful to have them collected here. The resulting volume will be of interest not only to devoted Halperin-watchers, but to all scholars with a serious interest in the study of gender and sexuality in the ancient world.

The Introduction might have been appropriately subtitled "How to Do the History of David Halperin." While some might dismiss this exercise as excessively onanistic, I actually find it refreshing to see a major scholar admit to us where he was wrong in his previous work, even if I wish that the self-examination had been more complete in certain respects. In short, Halperin tells us that his earlier work was not Foucauldian enough and had not fully internalized the radicalism of Foucault's discursive critique, which he now understands to be aggressively anti-theoretical and anti-dogmatic in its orientation, in contrast to many of the queer theorists who have since appropriated Foucault's name to justify their own dogmatic constructions.

He also reveals that he has been profoundly influenced by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's reformulation of the social constructionist controversy in The Epistemology of the Closet: reconsidering his earlier attempt to "snip the conceptual thread" that links pre-modern same-gender sexual practices and identities to the purely modern notion of "homosexual orientation," Halperin now admits that he may have been relying on too monolithic a model of modern "homosexuality." There was not a sudden displacement of earlier definitions and identities in the middle of the 19th century, as he had earlier assumed, but a more complex developmental process in which earlier models are continually subsumed into later ones rather than being replaced altogether. Modern "homosexuality" is actually the cumulative and unrationalized accretion of multiple earlier styles of sexual difference developed over a long process of historical overlay, and among those who identify themselves as "homosexual" today are various subgroups (e.g. transgendered persons or pederasts) who may in fact have more in common with some pre-modern subjects than they do with modern bourgeois constructions of mainstream, "respectable" homosexuality. In these respects, Halperin concedes that the old debate between "essentialists" and "social constructionists" can be transcended: some strands of what is now called "homosexuality" may have existed in other times and places, even if the concept as a whole did not. Halperin would still defend his insistence on the difference of pre-modern identities not only as a critique of wimpy gay apologetics to the effect that "we were born that way and people like us have always existed," but also as a de-authorization of the modern concept of "normative heterosexuality": for if there was no historical "homosexuality" as such, how can there have been "heterosexuality"?

The first essay, "Forgetting Foucault," laments the various misprisions of Foucault's work that Halperin regards as "forgettings." He especially targets those who have misunderstood Foucault's distinction between the "sodomite" and "homosexual" as that between sexual acts and identities, with the former pre-modern and the latter strictly modern. Halperin insists that sexual identities could and did exist in the pre-modern period, just that they were not a sexual orientation in the modern sense. He adduces the Greco-Roman kinaidos/cinaedus as an example, drawing on the work of J. Winkler, M. Gleason, and C. Williams, he defines this figure as gender-deviant rather than deviant in orientation, since a kinaidos could be sexually active with women as well as passive with men.

The essay proceeds to discuss Apuleius' Tale of the Baker's Wife (Metam. 9.22-29), which was imitated in Boccaccio's Decameron. The baker catches his wife in flagrante with a young man and proceeds to rape the young man as punishment. As Halperin shows, Boccaccio explicitly depicts the husband as a man with sodomitical tastes, whereas Apuleius observes nothing remarkable in the husband's shift of sexual object. For Halperin, this is a sign of the irrelevance of sexual object-choice for Apuleius. However, I wonder whether Halperin may not be missing the point of Apuleius' understated and implicit narrative style: should we not see the humor and irony of the story as residing precisely in the apparent nonchalance and ease with which normally rigid categories are reversed, as the young man turns from active to passive and the husband from woman-lover to pederast? Moreover, the husband humiliates his wife by announcing to her what he will do, effeminizing her lover and showing himself delighting in a different form of sexual pleasure than she could offer. As I have argued elsewhere, Apuleius' period was in fact one of increasingly polarized sexual preferences (see Homosexuality in Greece and Rome [Berkeley 2003] 444-46).

The second essay, "The First Homosexuality?," is a detailed response to Bernadette Brooten's Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago 1996). Halperin faults her for an essentialist assumption of identity between ancient and modern lesbians. He argues that many of the sources from which she draws evidence, such as the medical treatise of Caelius Aurelianus or the astrological treatise of Firmicus Maternus, actually treat only tribads (i.e. active, penetrative women) as a distinct category, but do not classify the passive women to whom they make love as in any way abnormal. While he may be correct with regard to these late texts, the classical Greek evidence does not so clearly divide women into active and passive subcategories: much in Sappho's poetry suggests mutual desire as either a reality or a possibility, and iconographic representations of female couples emphasize their absolute equality (see the useful survey of N. S. Rabinowitz in N. S. Rabinowitz & L. Auanger, eds., Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World [Austin 2002] 106-66). Halperin does not convince in glossing Plato's term hetairistria (from Aristophanes' speech in the Symposium) as a precise synonym for tribad: the root suggests rather women who are "companions" to other women. In arguing that no author comments on Sappho's sexual object-choice until Roman times, Halperin skips over the evidence of Anacreon, fr. 358 PMG, far too blithely; although the text and interpretation are much disputed, a reference to the girl's "Lesbian" identity as manifested in attraction to another girl produces by far the wittiest punchline, most in keeping with Anacreon's epigrammatic technique.

The third essay, "Historicizing the Subject of Desire," insists that Foucault's project was not a history of discourses about sexuality, as often thought, since "sexuality" is not a pre-existent entity and "discourse" is seldom a transparent linguistic medium. Rather, Foucault's aim was to historicize the subject of desire. Halperin illustrates this enterprise with a detailed exegesis of the Ps.-Lucianic Erotes, a debate between an enthusiastic lover of women and a lover of boys. However, Halperin cautions us against seeing in this confrontation our modern categories of sexual orientation, since of course it is only pederasty that is defended, not androphile homosexuality or lesbianism. The difference between the dialogue's two protagonists, Halperin argues, is fundamentally one of taste in aesthetic and physical stimuli, not orientation in the modern sense. Of course, some of us might argue that sexual preferences today are also fundamentally matters of taste and that "orientation" is an overworked concept even in contemporary discourse.

The fourth essay, "How to Do the History of Male Homosexuality," is Halperin's systematic effort to assimilate Sedgwick's critique in The Epistemology of the Closet and modify his constructionist approach by acknowledging some trans-historical continuities that must be recuperated into a genealogy of the modern concept of "homosexuality." Specifically, he enumerates four "pre-homosexual" categories of male sex or gender deviance that contribute to the modern concept, without themselves being fully equivalent to it: (1) effeminacy, (2) pederasty or active sodomy, (3) friendship or male love, and (4) passivity or inversion. (1) is obviously an issue of gender deviance more than of sexual deviance; as Halperin rightly points out, womanizers or adulterers (e.g. Paris or Casanova) were also considered soft and effeminate for most of Western history, as opposed to true warriors, who conducted more austere lives in a spirit of competition with their male peers. Halperin argues that (2) might be regarded as immoral, particularly if indulged to excess, but it was never pathologized by medical authorities in the manner of habitual passivity, at least until the advent of 19th century psychiatry. Conversely, he argues, passivity was pathologized as inversion (4) only if one took pleasure in it, as a kinaidos/mollis/catamite/minion/molly might, but not a boy who submitted out of purely material motives.

In regard to (3), Halperin argues that many ancient friendships that were not necessarily erotic (e.g. Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan) came to be perceived as erotic precisely because they were hierarchical, and the ancients thought hierarchy was "hot." He claims that these relationships must be distinguished from true reciprocal friendships, which by definition can occur only among absolute equals. However, Halperin's choice of examples itself illustrates the problems that stem from his obsession with hierarchy as the fundamental structuring principle in pre-modern relationships. Although Achilles arguably outranked Patroclus, they were both nobles and there was in fact disagreement among ancient sources about who was the older and who was the erastes. The Iliad certainly shows a Patroclus who is independent enough to offer his friend advice and even to disobey his explicit orders in Book 16. As for David and Jonathan, who is hierarchically subordinate to whom? Jonathan was the king's son, but David was the greater warrior and the one God had chosen to be the future king. Neither of these relationships has anything to do with the eroticization of an obvious hierarchy. In contrast, as an example of true reciprocal friendship among equals, Halperin quotes a line delivered by Marlowe's King Edward II to his beloved Gaveston, an upstart commoner whom the king has elevated. What all of these relationships have in common is that love obliterates any vestige of formal hierarchy that might have otherwise existed.

Halperin's insistence on hierarchy as the fundamental characteristic of Greek pederasty continues in the Appendix, where he reprints a response to three essays on ancient manifestations of the practice originally published in M. Duberman, ed., Queer Representations: Reading Lives, Reading Cultures (New York 1997). Of the three, he devotes the most space and attention to an essay by the art historian Keith DeVries, in which the author had argued against Dover's characterization of the eromenoi on Greek vases as "frigid" or indifferent and had produced evidence for reciprocity of feeling between men and boys. This of course flies directly in the face of Halperin's rhetoric about hierarchy and subordination. While conceding that some vocabulary expresses reciprocal love, Halperin reasserts his position that proper boys were never motivated by physical pleasure in the sexual act, but by other motives, even of a mercenary nature; a boy who derived pleasure from the act would be a kinaidos (even though Halperin had earlier emphasized the kinaidos as a category of gender deviance rather than preference for a specific kind of sexual act). Although Halperin acknowledges that a couple of vases do display "puerile erections," he argues that they are overwhelmingly outnumbered by scenes where only the erastes is aroused, which must reflect the expected social norm. However, decoding visual symbols into social realia is a much more complex process than this literalist reading assumes: could it not be the case that boys are typically depicted unaroused because Greek taste considered a small member more beautiful, as we see from the idealizing statuary even of fully adult figures? Fondling a boy's organ (cf. Aristophanes, Birds 142) was one of the most commonly represented courtship gestures on the vases. What can the point of this act have been unless lovers in fact derived some pleasure from feeling and watching the boy's developing organ wake up and respond to their manual stimulation? Surely playing with a dead penis wasn't any more fun then than it is now.

The silliness of Halperin's dogmatism on this point is revealed in his brief discussion of Florentine "sodomy" in Chapter Four. Drawing on the work of Michael Rocke (Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence [Oxford 1996] 89-94), he presents Florence as a culture pervaded by the same hierarchical sexual ethos as ancient Greece, with the reward of physical pleasure belonging only to the socially privileged active partner, but he admits that "passive sodomy" in this culture also included being fellated by an older man; as Rocke shows, some of the legal and literary records specify that the fellation proceeded to the point of the boy's ejaculation. Does Halperin really imagine that these Florentine boys ejaculating into their lovers' mouths received no frisson of physical pleasure from the act? For that matter, does he believe that being anally penetrated was never pleasurable, except for a few pathological cases? Ps.-Aristotle, Problems 4.26, suggests that boys who start being anally penetrated right around the age of puberty (rather than before) find it so enjoyable that the pleasant memory of those early, hormonally supercharged encounters makes them want to keep experiencing it even as adults. This text proves that ancient Greek teenage boys were no less horny than their modern counterparts.

It is entirely true that in ancient Greece, as in the Renaissance, the older partner almost always took the insertive role in anal intercourse, although at least in Renaissance Italy, the roles were typically reversed when it came to oral action. Rather than revealing any fundamental ethos of penetration as a symbol of social subordination, could this not simply reflect what is anatomically obvious? Anal intercourse (not always easily consummated by novices) works better when the bigger and better endowed partner is the top and the bottom is the one with a slim waist and firm buttocks. Could it not also be that the attractiveness and desirability of the partner is a more important consideration when one is penetrating his anus or sucking his penis, but in selecting the one to do the penetrating or sucking, other factors are paramount, such as his experience and technique (not to mention endowment), likely to be more developed in a somewhat older partner? Then as now, nobody wants a top who doesn't know what he is doing or can't deliver what he promises. To make anything more of the stereotypical age difference is unnecessary.

Halperin is also unconvincing when trying to discount DeVries' literary evidence for erotic reciprocity. He tells us that we can dismiss the famous passage on anteros in Phaedrus 255C-E because it forms part of Plato's idiosyncratic, elitist philosophical doctrine and therefore tells us nothing about the social reality of Greek pederasty. But by the same argument, we would have to dismiss much of what Halperin, Dover, and Foucault have written about normative Greek ethics, since it is also derived from texts of Plato. Indeed, the dogma about boys not being motivated by pleasure is itself extrapolated from a tendentious reading of some Platonic passages. Phaedrus 255C-E, which appears almost as an afterthought at the end of Socrates' explanation of the physiology of love as a remembrance of the Ideas, is not in any way integral or necessary to his philosophical argument here; rather it seems intended to anticipate the objection of those who would point out that boys' love for their lovers cannot be explained in terms of the same process of remembering ideal Beauty: that Plato would perceive this as an objection in need of pre-emptive response shows that reciprocal love, which is here explicitly described as a physiological response in the boy, was a well-known social phenomenon.

Halperin also misreads the anecdote about the altar of Anteros in Pausanias 1.30.1. Although Pausanias himself interprets the name of the divinity to mean "love avenged," the original meaning of the altar, which was fourth century or earlier, must have been closer to what Plato meant by anteros. As Pausanias narrates the etiological tale, the unsuccessful metic Timagoras, who committed suicide at his beloved's command, never prayed for vengeance; his beloved Meles later committed suicide himself, not because of a curse, but out of subjective repentance, i.e., because he realized that he had failed to honor the principle of "reciprocal Love," and it was for this reason that an altar honoring that neglected god needed to be erected as compensation.

Like Dover and most other commentators, Halperin shows no awareness of the evidence for age-equal erotic relationships among Greek youths: although clearly articulated into erastes and eromenos, the near equality of the partners undermines the notions of social hierarchy and subordination that Halperin regards as so central to the experience of Greek pederasty, and the apparent preference of many boys for partners close to their own age suggests that physical attraction and pleasure could indeed be respectable motives for the eromenos as well as the erastes (for a preliminary survey of the evidence, see my remarks in Homosexuality in Greece and Rome 5 and 19, and further in Intertexts 7 [2003] 10-17). The Dover-Halperin model of hierarchical pederasty (often wrongly attributed to Foucault, for whom it was not fundamental) has increasingly come under critical scrutiny from a number of different angles (not only by DeVries, but also by James Davidson, "Dover, Foucault, and Greek Homosexuality: Penetration and the Truth of Sex," Past and Present 170 [2001] 3-51, or by me in Arion ser. 3, 6.1 [1998] 48-78, Arethusa 35 [2002] 255-96, and Homosexuality in Greece and Rome 10-14). This work may be too recent for Halperin to have dealt with it in the present volume, but he clearly needs either to answer his critics or revise his model in his next book. I am concerned that Halperin's persistently negative and judgmental rhetoric implying exploitation and domination as the fundamental characteristics of pre-modern sexual models may participate (whether consciously or unconsciously) in a contemporary polemic whereby mainstream assimilationist gay apologists attempt to demonize and purge from the movement all those scary minorities within the minority (e.g. transgendered persons, S & M leathermen, barebackers, bathhouse-visitors, intergenerational or interracial lovers, and worst of all, the "child molesters") who in their pre-modern lack of enlightenment fail to conform to the artificially sanitized public image of gays as an age-equal, income-equal, everything-else equal white professional Jim and John who live next door, go to the Episcopal Church, and are of course in a committed life-long monogamous relationship (at least publicly, but always use condoms when the other one is out of town).

Halperin is clearly erudite and well-read, as the extensive endnotes (nearly a fourth of the book) document. At times he inserts into long endnotes detailed polemics against scholars, such as Amy Richlin, with whom he appears to have an ongoing quarrel. If this polemic is worth reading about at all, it should not be buried in the endnotes. Works by some other scholars with unique contributions, such as Eva Cantarella, Bruce Thornton, James Davidson, and W. A. Percy, are dismissed as "book-length generalist studies designed to reassert the authority of modern conceptual categories," their names consigned to the oblivion of one endnote. I do not think this a fair or adequate characterization of any of these four books, each of which has its strengths and weaknesses, but none of which is merely a derivative survey. Much as I may disagree with some of Halperin's assumptions, I will certainly not condemn his interesting book to a damnatio memoriae, but I encourage everyone interested in the topic to read it, albeit with awareness of its ideological premises.

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