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social sciences

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Mediterranean Homosexuality  
 
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Beginning in the 1970s, studies in the history of homosexuality have postulated that Mediterranean societies have followed a different and even atavistic socio-historical trajectory regarding sexuality. Attitudes conditioning gender relations and intergenerational relations, resulting in absolute adult male sexual privilege over the bodies of both women and boys, have often been assumed to have been widespread throughout the Mediterranean basin and to have largely resisted change from the time of Socrates up to the present day.

Scholars such as Randolph Trumbach have gone so far as to propose the existence of a "Mediterranean model" of male homosexual behavior, in which sexual relations are strongly stratified by the relative ages of the partners. This "age-differentiated" model of homosexual relations is imagined to stand in contradistinction to a "gender-differentiated" model common to other societies around the globe. In the latter model, homosexual behavior requires a change in gender status or identity on the part of one or both partners in order to be consummated. The two models are supposed to be antithetical to one another; indeed, in the European context, the "gender-differentiated" model is assumed to have incrementally superseded the "age-differentiated" model in the centuries following the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

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Qualifications to the Theories

Yet comparing historical and ethnographic evidence from various Mediterranean societies suggests that this distinction is not so absolute, nor its transformation so seamless. In fifth-century B. C. E. Athens, for example, sex between males that was socially sanctioned was conceived as a pedagogical relation between a man and a boy of approximately equal class status, if not age. Sexual relations, instigated by the elder, insertive partner, were considered an element of the youth's initiation into manhood and participation in civic life.

But the Attic conception of permissible sex between males, which has been liberally described, reviled, and celebrated in both antique and modern times, appears to be a rather idiosyncratic phenomenon. Later Mediterranean societies followed the same pattern of stratification by age in male-male sexual relations, but without the same larger social significance. Sex between males in fifteenth-century Florence, for example, was stratified along lines of class as well as age, with unwed bourgeois men seeking out the favors of boys who prostituted themselves on city streets for clothes and other niceties. There was no question here of boys being initiated into manhood, except insofar as boys adopted an insertive role in intercourse upon reaching a certain age, as did Athenian men nearly two thousand years before.

Early modern Florence, as described by Michael Rocke, also provides an example of the curious social and legal approbations attached to male-male sexuality in the Mediterranean basin. Religious reformers railed from the pulpit against the crime of sodomy, so ubiquitous in Florence that an estimated two-thirds of the male population had engaged in it. The city-state went so far as to establish a special tribunal that occupied itself solely with prosecutions, and encouraged the citizenry to inform on practitioners of this vice via anonymous "tip" boxes in prominent locations around the city.

Yet, perhaps because of its ubiquity, the typical sentence for a convicted Florentine sodomite was a small fine, no more punitive than a contemporary parking ticket. Many prominent men were convicted more than once without much apparent damage to their reputations. In northern Europe, meanwhile, sodomy was much less aggressively policed, but the handful of prosecutions most frequently ended in execution.

Conceptions of Masculinity

In both classical Athens and Renaissance Florence, the apparent impunity of sodomy has been explained by the sodomites' adherence to a culturally normative conception of masculinity, one in which adult male sexual privilege extended to women and boys (but not to other adult men), and in which effeminate behavior in men was deemed intolerable.

In the comedies of Aristophanes and in Roman satire, for example, effeminate men who desire to be sexually penetrated by men (and thus usurp the role of boys) are roundly ridiculed and denigrated; Amy Richlin has described these figures, characterized by the Greek kinaidos or the Latin mollis, as the proper historical antecedents to the modern homosexual. Florentine men who had a reputation for effeminacy, or who continued to engage in sodomy once they were of marriageable age, appear to have suffered more at the hands of the tribunal than others.

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