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Mediterranean Homosexuality  
 
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The Mediterranean basin has borne a paradoxical dual symbolism in the northern European consciousness. On the one hand, the Mediterranean has been regarded as the cradle of human (but more particularly European) civilization, the birthplace of philosophic and aesthetic ideals that have served to guide subsequent initiatives in the arts and sciences for millennia. On the other hand, the Mediterranean has been viewed as a seductive zone inhabited by sexually licentious perverts, notably men who desired and had sex with pubescent boys.

Some admirers of the achievements of classical Greece or the early modern Italian city-states refused to reconcile the fact that many of their idols personified social mores that were in flagrant contradiction with the imagined ideals of a pan-European civilization, as well as the very real sexual customs and religious attitudes of northern European societies. "Omit: a reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks," a Cambridge don cautions his students in E. M. Forster's 1914 novel Maurice, as they read Plato's Symposium aloud.

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Yet other philhellenes (including several, such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, and John Addington Symonds, who were among homosexual liberation's early luminaries) found a synergy in the cultural productions and the alleged sexual excesses of men such as Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander, Hadrian, Leonardo, Michaelangelo, and the Sufi ecstatic Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi. Modern European lesbians drew strongly on the works of Sappho for inspiration and identification.

More recently, the concept of "Mediterranean homosexuality" has been adduced as a contrast to the predominant form of same-sex sexuality in Western Europe and North America. In this contrast, Mediterranean homosexuality is seen as characterized by a sharp dichotomy between active and passive partners, with only the passive partner in sexual relations ascribed a homosexual identity (and stigmatized), while the homosexuality predominant in North America and Western Europe is seen as one that emphasizes egalitarian relationships in which sexual roles are not rigidly polarized. Moreover, in the Mediterranean basin same-sex sexual relationship are often assumed to be age-asymmetrical and perceived in terms of adult male privilege. However useful such generalizations may be, the reality of Mediterranean homosexuality (as well as North American and Western European homosexuality) may be more complex than theory can accommodate.

The Mediterranean as a Site of Sexual Deviance

As social opprobrium and legal prosecution for sexual minorities mounted in northern Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, more and more northern European men and women came to see the Mediterranean as not simply a psychic but also a literal refuge, a place where the inhabitants were unabashed in their sexual expression and where, consequently, their own repressed fantasies could at last be consummated. This idea flourished in the literature and art of the time--from Goethe to the English Romantics, from Leo Tolstoy to Henry James, from D. H. Lawrence to Lawrence of Arabia. The tradition has been continued in contemporary film representations of locations such as Tuscany.

Nor is this knee-jerk identification of the Mediterranean as a site of sexual deviance strictly a modern invention. By the close of the fifteenth century, Italian men had cultivated a reputation for sodomy that was known far and wide north of the Alps. Reformers such as Martin Luther even played upon this scandalous reputation in their widely published (if often libelous) attacks on the corruption and decadence of the Roman Catholic Church. No doubt such pamphleteering may have had the unintended effect of luring others to the South in search of this well-advertised vice.

What these representations of "Mediterranean" sexual life ignore, however, is the limited extent to which the societies of the Mediterranean basin share customs in common, as well as the fact that these customs have changed over time. The Rome of the early Empire is not the same as the Rome of the sixteenth century C. E., which in turn is not the same as Rome today. Moreover, these societies have their own proscriptions for sexual behavior that, while they may be dissimilar from northern European mores, are no less rigidly codified in their particulars.

Theories of Mediterranean Culture

Contemporary interest in developing a general theory of "Mediterranean" culture is likely derived from works of mid-twentieth century comparative anthropology that speculated about the role of honor and shame in national cultures such as Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, the Balkan States, and emerging post-colonial states in Palestine and North Africa. While these studies do not directly address homosexual behavior, sexual expression and gender relations certainly play an integral role in the honor/shame matrix.

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