- Craig Williams
The textual and visual material surviving from ancient Greece and Rome is informed by systems for categorizing and evaluating sexual desires and acts in which, rather than the question of whether partners are of the same or opposite sex, various gendered criteria are of fundamental importance. Masculinity is associated with the penetrative role, regardless of the sex of the partner; the penetrated role is coded as feminine; performing oral sex, whether with female or male partners, is seen as disreputable. The assumption that men, as a group, will naturally and normally experience desire for beautiful and preferentially young people of both sexes goes unquestioned. While a handful of philosophical texts urge that sexual acts be limited to the procreative, no surviving text condemns desire of male for male as such.
Specifically characteristic of Greek culture are pederastic relationships joining bearded men and younger, beardless males; allusions to other kinds of male-male relationship represent them as scandalous or exotic departures from a norm. A Roman code of sexual behaviour protecting the integrity of freeborn citizens means that pederastic relationships on the Greek model can be described as disgraceful, but this is not because they involved sexual desire or acts between males. Even in the quintessentially masculine sphere of the military, it was taken for granted that soldiers might experience and act on sexual desire for males as well as females, and Roman writers of the classical period assume that these understandings of masculine desire were shared by their venerated ancestors.
- Gender Studies
Updated in this version
Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.