BMCR 1997.12.03

Response: Halperin on Brennan on Brooten

Response to 1997.05.07

Response by

Might I be permitted to comment on a small point in T. Corey Brennan’s superb review of Bernadette Brooten’s Love Between Women (BMCR 97.5.7), a point that pertains not to Brooten but to me?

Late in the review, Brennan writes, “B. also makes a very important point—against David Halperin and others—that “the astrological sources demonstrate the existence in the Roman world of the concept of a lifelong erotic orientation” (p. 140; cf. 242f).” I would like to dispute that point.

Brooten writes that “astrologers in the Roman world knew of what we might call sexual orientation” (140). What is the evidence for this? Well, Ptolemy and Firmicus Maternus, among others, identify certain configurations of stars which cause women who are conceived or born under them to become “tribads” or “viragos,” words which refer (though not in every instance) to masculine, phallic women who desire and sexually penetrate other women and even boys. Now that fantasized image of gender inversion, that phobic male construction of a hypermasculine woman does not exactly correspond to any “sexual orientation” I know—nor does it correspond to Brooten’s notion of lesbianism, as she makes perfectly clear (7)—but never mind all that for the moment. Brooten concludes that “the stars [according to these ancient astrologers] determined a woman’s erotic inclinations for the duration of her life” (140), and hence that there was “a category of persons viewed in antiquity as having a long-term or even lifelong homoerotic orientation” (8-9).

Of course, the astrologers’ sexual system is rather more complicated, as Brooten hastens to point out: according to Ptolemy “activeness and passiveness are more fundamental than biological maleness and femaleness” (128). Moreover, “Ptolemy, for example, distinguished between active and passive orientations, and he also took account of such factors as age, wealth, and whether the person to whom one is attracted is a foreigner” (140; also, 242). This bizarre proliferation of sexual categories, and the weird focus of the astrologers on tribads to the exclusion of their female or male partners, which Brooten also acknowledges (128: “The question of the tribas‘s partner remains open; Ptolemy devotes no attention to her”), nevertheless fails to deter Brooten from sticking by her basic conclusion, which is that the ancients had a concept of sexual orientation and of homosexuality that we might recognise as more or less our own.

All this should be cause for some disquiet. But the problems with Brooten’s attempt to translate the ancient astrological categories into modern sexological categories do not end here. For the astral configurations that, according to Firmicus Maternus and others, produce tribads also produce, with only slight astrological variations, female prostitutes—an unexpected contiguity in the ancient sexual spectrum whose logic Brooten spends some time puzzling over (140-41). What Brooten does not notice, though, is that, whatever sort of identity is implied by the terms tribad and virago, a meretrix or “prostitute” is NOT the name of a lifelong erotic orientation. Rather, it describes a particular and particularly disgraceful kind of social actor, a deviant from the norms of female social and sexual propriety, a recognisable figure on the fringes of ancient Mediterranean societies. To explain why some women become prostitutes by reference to the astral signs under which they were conceived or born is not to impute to these women a peculiar sort of sexual interiority, a pathological condition, or an innate, lifelong orientation of their sexual desires. No doubt, such women, in the eyes of the male astrologers, were bad women and had a whorish disposition. Still, what the stars explain is not a subjectivity but a career choice. The astrologers are accounting for the origin of certain social types. Prostitutes, like tribads, are recognisable and disgraceful types of female sexual impropriety. To trace their origins to the influence of the stars is to explain why some women turn out to disgrace themselves and their families, not to ascribe to such women an innate, fixed, life-long psychological dimension of the personality, a deep-seated sexual or erotic orientation. At the very least, it makes no more sense to see in the astrological account of tribads evidence for the ancient notion of a life-long erotic orientation than it does to see evidence for it in the astrological account of prostitutes. And we would not be likely to infer from reading the astrological texts that “meretrix” was the name of a lifelong erotic orientation. So in my view the ancient evidence does not support the thesis that Brooten bases on it.

Another similarly motivated misreading occurs in Brooten’s account of Aristophanes’s famous speech in Plato’s Symposium. According to Brooten, “Aristophanes … speaks of hetairistriai, women who are attracted to women, as having their origin in primeval beings consisting of two women joined together” (41). When Brooten comes to discuss the use of the same word by Lucian, some five hundred years later, in the fifth Dialogue of the Courtesans, she writes that “Lucian also presupposes that his readers know the meaning of hetairistria… In fact, Lucian’s dialogue assumes a familiarity with the phenomenon of sexual love between women” (53). Now since what Lucian’s characters relate is the story of the seduction of one Leaena, your average girl, by a wealthy, shaven-headed, hypermasculine woman who claims to be “all man” (as Brooten, 52, notes), what Lucian’s readers would seem to be familiar with is nothing so blandly non-specific as “the phenomenon of sexual love between women” but rather the stereotype of gender inversion, of sexual role-reversal—the phenomenon of “tribadism,” in a word, NOT homoeroticism as such—which is the only sort of female same-sex sexual behaviour that regularly evokes sceptical or disapproving comment from the ancients. And in fact the ancient scholia on Lucian gloss hetairistria as “tribad.” In this context, Brooten’s assertion that ancient readers were familiar with sexual love between women in a categorical sense depends on the exact meaning of hetairistria in Plato and Lucian.

Unfortunately for Brooten, no one knows exactly what hetairistria means. Its etymology points in two directions, companionship and prostitution—”companioniser” and “courtesaniser” would be rough etymological approximations—but its actual meaning is anybody’s guess. For the word occurs once and only once in all of extant Greek literature before Lucian (unless we interpret the scholion which Brooten cites, 55n, as evidence that the word was used, in conjunction with “tribad,” by the Athenian comic poet Philocrates) and that one occurrence is in the tantalising passage from Plato’s Symposium under discussion. The word evidently refers to some type of sexual attraction between women, but a glance at the larger context in Aristophanes’s speech prohibits any secure inferences as to its meaning. For when Aristophanes mentions the men and women who descend from an original androgyne, he says that the majority of moikhoi and moikheutriai come from this race (191d-e). Now, if the meanings of those words were as utterly lost as the meaning of hetairistria, we might feel justified—as Brooten does—in construing all those words categorically, taking moikhoi and moikheutriai to mean “male heterosexuals” and “female heterosexuals,” or, at least, “men who are attracted to women” and “women who are attracted to men.” In the event, however, we do know what those words mean, and they mean something altogether different and something quite specific. To be exact, a moikhos is a male who has consenting but unauthorised sex with a female under the guardianship of an Athenian citizen. No student of Greek would ever think of translating moikhos as “heterosexual” under any other circumstances.

Aristophanes’s reference to moikhoi makes a joke about certain extreme types who owe their sexual dispositions and their disreputable behaviour to the passionate erotic longings they have inherited from their distant ancestors—much in the same way that the astrologers trace the origin of certain disreputable types of people to the influence of the stars. Presumably, the reference to hetairistriai makes a similar sort of joke, but it is now lost on us. And whatever the point of the joke was, taking hetairistriai to mean “lesbians” certainly doesn’t produce a terribly witty solution. Lucian doesn’t seem to have understood the point of Aristophanes’s joke any better than we do—no doubt it was the very enigmatic and mysterious quality of the term hetairistria that grabbed his attention, just as it still grabs ours—but he wanted to show that he could put a five-hundred-year-old word from a classic text into the mouth of contemporary reprobate for humorous effect in a plausible approximation of its original meaning. Even Hesychius’s definition of dihetairistriai merely echoes the language of Plato’s Aristophanes.

Let me take up one more passage that seems to be in dispute between Brooten and me—namely, the chapter on molles (4.9) in the fifth-century treatise On Chronic Diseases by Caelius Aurelianus, a translator of Soranus. Here, too, Brooten’s interpretation seems to me to be compromised by her neglect of the culturally significant distinctions. She begins by claiming categorically that “same-sex desire and behavior did fall within the realm of medical theory” in antiquity (144) and she criticises me in particular for maintaining that Caelius Aurelianus “is unconcerned about same-sex love per se” (162). Yet she admits that Caelius is interested “only in sexually passive men (and not in the active male partners in anal intercourse)” and that he presumes “penetrating males to be healthy” (148)—which would seem to indicate precisely that, in the case of males at least, Caelius “is unconcerned about same-sex love per se.”

When it comes to Caelius’s treatment of tribads Brooten notes, as I do, that Caelius “emphasizes their bisexuality over their same-sex preference” (151n) and she agrees with me that “the text is concerned with reversing proper sex roles or with alternating between behaviors and characteristics proper to women and to men respectively” (161-62). She objects to my reading of the text on the grounds that Caelius sees no way “for women to have sexual contact with other women other than to take on male sex roles or to alternate between characteristics and practices proper to women and those proper to men,” which means that on Brooten’s reading Caelius ends up condemning all forms of homoeroticism in the case of women. But this objection of Brooten’s to my reading of Caelius—namely, that women, unlike men, “cannot both respect phallocentric protocols and obtain sexual pleasure from contact with other females” (161)—is neatly disposed of by Brooten herself. For Brooten also emphasizes that “the women whom the tribades pursue are of no interest to the text,” that the female partners of tribads are not regarded as diseased (151). So, despite what Brooten claims, there is a way for women to have sexual contact with other women while respecting all the phallocentric protocols: all they have to do is to get themselves seduced by a tribad.

The woman whom a tribad seduces will obtain sexual pleasure from contact with another woman while conforming to her proper (passive, receptive, feminine) role in the phallocentric system. Indeed, the pagan sources Brooten examines do not contain a single instance in which a conventionally feminine female partner of a tribad is unambiguously and categorically treated as deviant or diseased. (Let me appeal to the readers of this journal to identify such a passage, if one or more exist.) That does not mean that women who had non-tribadic sex with each other were necessarily beyond reproach: Asclepiades, in an epigram which Brooten discusses briefly (42), voices disapproval of two women who prefer women to men (although a scholiast on Asclepiades 7, cited by Brooten, understands the poet to mean that the two women were tribads). But it does mean that to be fucked by a tribad was not necessarily to assume a deviant identity.

In short, Brooten seems to have forgotten all about the femme. Like Amy Richlin, who seems to believe that, in the case of men, there is something more homosexual about getting fucked by another man than fucking one, 1 Brooten seems to believe that there is something more lesbian about being butch than being femme. 2

So what about that femme? Brooten herself appears to be of several minds about how the female partners of tribads were viewed. Caelius himself says absolutely nothing about them. Being seduced by a tribad certainly does not, per se, necessarily make you a tribad yourself. Some texts do refer to the partner of a tribad as a tribad (e.g., Seneca, Controversiae 1.2.23 [discussed by Brooten, 43-44, 45]), but they are exceptional (cf. Brooten, 6-7, 18, 128). Brooten argues, rather theoretically, that “women who derive sexual pleasure from contact with women … have to be medically problematic” (161). Here Brooten quite uncharacteristically steps into the realm of pure speculation, into a hypothetical world quite beyond the limits of the evidence. Why do the female partners of tribads have to be medically problematic? So that sexual asymmetries can be banished from the ancient record and the undifferentiated category of “female homoeroticism” can be upheld as an ancient concept? Brooten asserts that there is “no positive evidence that passive sexual behavior by adult women in relations with other adult women was societally acceptable” (161n), but she presents no positive evidence that it was considered sexually abnormal in and of itself. Lucian’s portrayal of Leaena as an ordinary girl testifies eloquently to the contrary, but Brooten does not seem to notice this. In sum, Brooten’s argument that Roman-period medical writers considered women who responded to the erotic advances of a tribad to be “medically problematic” is based on nothing but the silence of our sources, on the absence of statements explicitly endorsing the behaviour of such women—but such endorsements are hardly to be expected from ancient Greek and Roman writers.

Brooten’s recurrent imprecisions are regrettable especially because they could so easily have been avoided: earlier research had already indicated the traps into which unwary modern students of ancient sexual discourses are likely to fall. Since Brooten bases large-scale conclusions about the history of sexuality on matters of semantics, claiming about words like “tribad,” “virago,” and hetairistria that “all of these nouns demonstrate that people in the ancient Mediterranean had the concept of an erotic orientation with respect to women” (5), her tendency to reformulate the meanings of the ancient terms in conformity with modern sexual concepts seems to beg the question she addresses.

I understand that it has become fashionable in classical studies these days to assert that Michel Foucault, John J. Winkler, and I, among others, were wrong to argue that the ancients did not employ a normalising apparatus of sexuality in order to organise their concepts, their social institutions, and their experiences of erotic desire. But the contrary view that the ancients did “acknowledge the existence of a life-long erotic orientation” (as if such a thing were simply waiting around to be acknowledged, then as now) does not seem to have produced notable interpretative gains in its own right. Rather, it continually and systematically generates misreadings of the ancient texts [3]. I can’t figure out why such an error-prone approach to the study of antiquity recommends itself to those who specialise in the accurate decipherment of the ancient documents.

1. See Amy Richlin, “Not Before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men,”Journal of the History of Sexuality, 3 (1992/93), 523-73. Richlin’s entire argument that sexual relations in the ancient Roman world were “not before homosexuality” rests on the unshakable (if unvoiced and unexamined) presumption that passive males were the real homosexuals of antiquity and that ancient discourses of male passivity were therefore really discourses of homosexuality. The sexually insertive male partners of Richlin’s cinaedi, who are not comparably vilified by our sources, somehow don’t seem to enter into her thinking on the subject or to qualify for inclusion in her concept of homosexuality.

2. For a recent and brilliant critique of such presumptions, see Biddy Martin, “Sexualities without Genders and other Queer Utopias,”diacritics, 24.2-3 (Summer/Fall 1994), 104-21; more generally, Teresa de Lauretis, “Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation,”Theatre Journal 40 (1988), 155-77, rpt. in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993), 141-58 (cited approvingly by Brooten, 6n).   3. For some further examples, see my “Questions of Evidence: Commentary on Koehl, DeVries, and Williams,”Queer Representations: Reading Lives, Reading Cultures, ed. Martin Duberman (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 39-54.