A Note on Athenian Pederasty
This is one of the posts from my other blog that disappeared into the ether with our technical difficulties. It seems to deserve reposting here for a couple of reasons. First, it fits well with “Desire and Deviance,” below, and also with our upcoming discussion of Plato’s Symposium. Second, I think it was just a really good post, one of the best I’ve done in a long time. I’ve only very lightly retouched it here.
There’s a very interesting essay by Mary Eberstadt in First Things this month titled “How Pedophilia Lost Its Cool.” She argues that a cultural window briefly opened for pedophilia during the 1970s and 1980s, but that it slammed shut with the advent of the Catholic Church’s sex scandals in recent years. One of her big pieces of evidence is the almost universally negative reaction to those who would shield Roman Polanksi from arrest and trial, a reaction I certainly shared. Child rape is child rape. It’s a crime, and we should throw the book at him even if he’s brilliant, and old, and in (perhaps conveniently) poor health.
Our own Jon Rowe makes an appearance in the comments section, where he casts doubt on Eberstadt’s wider thesis:
As I understand the tale, traditional moral norms have been eroded since the 1960s watershed — fornication, homosexuality, adultery, and now perhaps pedophilia (with homosexuals leading the way for pedophilia).
But there is NOTHING “chic” about almost all of the examples she raises and terms “pedophilia.”
It might be true if it were all sex between adults and prepubscent children — that I think is and has been a “marker of right and wrong in a world where other markers have been erased.”
But almost all of her examples involve post-pubescent teens and there is nothing “chic” about them being sex-able.
In fact, the opposite is true — the post 1960s world has seen an average INCREASE in “age of consent laws.”
13 or 14 historically, traditionally and legally been an acceptable age for marriage and hence sex.
And THAT hits on the reason for the change. When fornication was stigmatized, fathers and older brothers protected the chastity of their daughters and sisters. And if she got pregnant a marriage ensued (sometimes at the point of a shotgun).
With fornication no longer stigmatized (and more fatherlessness) younger teen girls became more susceptible to sexual exploitation (a shocking number of abortions that young teen girls have involve men over 18). Hence the legal and social standard for when girls are “sex-able” had to raise to closer to 18.
But the idea that a 13 year old girl having sex with someone 18 or over is “pedophilia” is what is “chic” and “novel.” I would agree that it’s wrong, but not part of some clinical sexual disorder.
Loretta Lynn’s husband and Jerry Lee Lewis were not viewed as “pedophiles” for being in marriages where one party was an adult, the other a 13-year-old girl (as both were in the conservative South in the 1950s).
I think he’s basically right, and here’s where those crazy, crazy Greeks come in.
I would submit that while classical Athenian pederasty and classical Athenian marriage were by our standards both morally appalling institutions, marriage was far worse — provided only that we hold homosexuality vs. heterosexuality morally neutral. The fate of the classical brides was way, way worse than that of the classical boy lovers. [Note: Might this have something to do with why Plato ranked homosexual love higher than heterosexual love? A question for our meta-symposium.]
Yes, I’m aware that many of you won’t want to take this step, and you won’t hold homosexuality morally neutral. This post probably isn’t for you, then.
Greek women typically married at around age 14 or 15. Greek men typically married at age 30, an enormous age difference by today’s standards (which, as Jon points out, are fairly recent). In a pederastic relationship, there was certainly an age gap, but it was also usually a smaller one. The younger member of the relationship — I hesitate to say “partner,” because it implies an equality that didn’t exist — could be anywhere from 14 to 18, and he was often above that. The older member of the pair could be married but did not have to be, and could easily have been younger than thirty. If the age difference is what creeps us out about Athenian pederasty, then we haven’t been looking very hard, because the age difference was equal or greater in marriage.
And what about the non-monogamy that this setup entails? Well, yes, the married pederast was non-monogamous. But given the cultural acceptance and integration of pederasty into Athenian society, it’s difficult to say that non-monogamy was the fault specifically of pederasty — and not the fault of marriage, where non-monogamy was likewise grudgingly allowed. Women just had to accept that sometimes their husbands took boy lovers. Sometimes they took girl lovers, too, and in both cases there wasn’t a lot that the wife could do about it. This in my book counts as a strike against the Athenian marriage norms, not against that culture’s pederasty per se.
Life as a married woman was one of near slavery. Married girls were secluded from the world. Typically they were confined to the women’s quarters in the back of the house, wholly in the thrall of husbands. They could sometimes travel to a limited number of places to buy essentials for the household, but that was all. Seclusion was the ideal. If a wife had servants, she was to send them instead.
Beloved boys, however, were allowed their freedom to move about, and the relationship between lover and beloved could be interrupted at any time by the boy’s father if he thought it in his son’s best interests to do so. While in the relationship, the boy continued his education (which women never got) and continued to exercise, to compete in games, and to prepare for life as a citizen (which women also never got… typically, they didn’t even get the exercise).
For women, initiating divorce was exceedingly rare. Of course, we all believe that divorce ought to be rare, but in Athens, woman-initiated divorce was so rare that historians have difficulty identifying any genuine historical cases of it at all. Surely this is too few divorces, given the reality of spousal abuse. Fathers did not typically watch out for the welfare of married daughters, and, unlike with their sons in pederastic relationships, the fathers were loath to take their daughters back. Judging by Athenian law, it appears that they would do so only if the dowry was also returned — with interest.
Even death didn’t end a woman’s obligations in marriage, which lasted as long as she lived. On death, and if she had no sons, she could be legally obliged to marry her husband’s closest kinsman in order to keep the property (that is, the real estate as well as her body) in the family. Marriage was even more binding than “till death do us part.” It was a sexual and property contract with an entire family.
Oh heck, let’s just let an ancient Athenian explain it. Here’s Sophocles; the voice is that of a married woman, believed to be Procne, in his only partially extant play Tereus:
But now, separated from my home, I am undone. Often, indeed, I have observed how miserable my sex is in this respect. When we are girls, our life in our father’s house is the sweetest, methinks, that can fall to mortal; for the days of thoughtless childhood are ever glad. But when we come to years of discretion, we are thrust out, and sold in marriage far away from our ancestral gods and from our parents; — some of us to other parts of Hellas, some to barbarians, some into houses where all is strange, some into places of reproach. And in all this, when once the nuptial night is past, we must acquiesce, and deem that it is well. — Sophocles, fragment 583. Cited in The Fragments of Sophocles, ed. by A. C. Pearson, MA. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1917, vol II, p 228.
Where am I going with all of this? I do not mean to defend Athenian or any other pederasty as a good thing. I only mean to point out that the attention — and the particular odium — attached to Athenian pederasty is curious. Side by side with it, we have an institution that was even more age-disparate, a great deal more restrictive of individual freedom, and a very great deal more legally binding. And what is it that attracts our attention? Why, it would appear to be the sheer fact that pederasty is between two males. Icky!
The payoff here, with regard to Eberstadt, is that pedophilia isn’t a level playing field, and if it’s skewed in any direction, it’s very generously skewed in favor of excusing heterosexual pedophilia. Some types of pedophilia, like ancient Athenian marriage, were never “chic.” That’s because they were never problematized. They were always just considered normal. Gay men today are made to disavow Athenian pederasty as a cultural antecedent, if ever they are tempted to claim it. Why isn’t Athenian marriage similarly disavowed? I can think of no good reasons whatsoever for this distinction.