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social sciences

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Greece: Ancient  
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Otherwise popular sexual acts considered inappropriate for freeborn males in a same-sex relationship were fellatio (typically performed by female prostitutes for their male clients) and masturbation (restricted to foreplay, and practiced solo as a substitute for intercourse).

Malakoi and the "Female Disease"

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The usual Greek noun and adjective for the sexually passive male is malakos (plural, malakoi, and the condition is malakia), literally "soft," unmanly or effeminate, a meaning firmly tied to the sexist convictions--more or less universal in Greece--that the male sex is superior to the female, the female is a "crippled male" and an "aberration of nature" (Aristotle), and the male is active by nature and the female passive.

When used in a sexual context, the word always refers to a passive male. In the Laws, Plato censured the malakia of a man whose sexual behavior imitated that of women. Cratinus, an older contemporary of Aristophanes, satirized such men in his play Hoi malakoi. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, an author of the first century B.C.E., called Aristodemus, tyrant of Cumae, malakos because as a boy he was effeminate and allowed himself to be penetrated. In Lucian's Dialogues of the Gods, Hera calls Zeus a pederast (paiderastes) and Ganymede malakos. And recall that malakoi are the sinners St. Paul pairs with arsenokoitai at 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10: the former being the receptive partners in anal intercourse, while the latter are the inserters.

Greeks medicalized, mythologized, and further problematized passive male desire by naming it the "female disease" (theleia nosos), a curse (so Herodotus tells us) first visited by Aphrodite on a band of Scythians who had plundered her temple at Ascalon in Syria. The goddess turned her victims into "men-women" (androgunoi). This enabling myth would make it easier for later philosophers and doctors of medicine to shame willingly receptive parties in male-male intercourse by diagnosing their preference as the "female disease."

The Hippocratic treatise Air, Water, and Environment, names the condition and discusses its feminizing effects in some detail. When Origen, the greatest of the early Greek Christian theologians, wanted to ridicule the emperor Hadrian's eromenos, the beautiful Antinous, he claimed that the youth's virility was so precarious he was unable to defend his manhood from the female disease.

We can begin to see why the very boys Plato called "best" because they were so bold and brave and masculine, so obviously destined for military command and public office, could nevertheless by some people be judged shameful, shameful because in their adolescence they had been submissive in same-sex intercourse.

One way Greeks tried to ease the tension between honor and shame that strained the pederastic relationship was to argue that respectable pederasty was, and should be, sexless. This was the solution of Plato and other high-minded reformers.

A more practical tactic was to assume as a given fact of nature that boys, precisely because they were not adults and therefore not citizens, were exempt from the reprobation which fell on passive adults.

Other claims were less plausible. Representing eromenoi on vases with tiny unaroused penises and in postures of intercrural rather than anal intercourse (rubbed not penetrated) signalled that decent, modest boys, persuaded to submission only by duty and compassion, got no pleasure from the act, from which it was supposed to follow that even though in fact they allowed themselves to be used sexually as women they were nevertheless free of the female disease.

Sappho and Sapphism

We may get closer to the historical Sappho (she flourished in the first quarter of the sixth century B.C.E.) if we compare her to Socrates, a married man who idolized adolescent boys. Sappho was a married woman who loved adolescent girls. The comparison has ancient sanction: the second-century sophist Maximus of Tyre observed that Socrates and Sappho studied the same kind of love, male-male in the one case, female-female in the other. They were "lovers of many" and allured by all beautiful bodies. "For what Alcibiades, Charmides, and Phaedrus were to Socrates, so were Gyrinna, Atthis, and Anactoria to Sappho."

In sum, the shape of eroticism that emerges from Sappho's single poem to survive complete, and from many of the fragments, appears to have been predominantly pederastic, a female counterpart to the relationship of erastes and eromenos. Sapphists were not depicted as "acting like men," and Sappho herself cultivated the femininity of her girls as carefully as erastai protected the masculinity of their eromenoi.

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