Sexual Consent and the Adolescent Male, or What Can We Learn from the Greeks?

By Hubbard, Thomas K. | Thymos, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview
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Sexual Consent and the Adolescent Male, or What Can We Learn from the Greeks?

Hubbard, Thomas K., Thymos

Classical Athens offers a useful comparative test-case for essentialist assumptions about the necessary harm that emanates from sexual intimacy between adults and adolescent boys. The Athenian model does not fit victimological expectations, but instead suggests that adolescent boys could be credited with considerable powers of discretion and responsibility in sexual matters without harming their future cultural productivity. Contemporary American legislation premised on children's incapacity to "consent" to sexual relations stems from outmoded gender constructions and ideological preoccupations of the late Victorian and Progressive Era; that it has been extended to "protection" of boys is a matter of historical accident, rather than sound social policy. Rigorous social science and historical comparanda suggest that we should consider a different "age of consent" for boys and girls.

Keywords: boys, Greece - Ancient, age-of-consent, pederasty, adolescence, sexuality

Bruce Rind's paper (this issue) explores the perspectives that anthropology, psychology, and even zoology can bring to bear on the ethics of adolescent sexual activity and consent. I propose to interrogate further the historical contingency and social constructedness of our concept of childhood sexual innocence. Historical study has usually been considered irrelevant to discussions of contemporary social and legal policy, particularly in the area of sexuality, where most historical societies are assumed to be exploitive, sexist, un-democratic, and non-egalitarian. Few responsible historical scholars would break down the wall of separation between past and present by proposing that earlier cultures might offer positive paradigms worthy of consideration by policy-makers today. However, I wish to propose doing just that by examining an advanced historical culture from which we have abundant material and textual remains illuminating the nature and consequences of adolescent male sexual activity and moreover by testing against that evidence the validity of the essentialist normative assumptions prevalent in modern AngloAmerican society, as Dr. Rind has just outlined them.


Although Athens of the Classical period was arguably not a model worthy of emulation in its treatment of women and slaves, it was democratic and egalitarian with respect to male citizens, including adolescent males on the road to becoming full citizens. And although temporally distant from us, the ancient Athenians are generally regarded as a dynamic, creative, and successful society, indeed as the ancestors of Western civilization and values; we have far more in common with them than either civilization does with the highlanders of New Guinea or the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. Accordingly, Athens does provide a useful comparandum for interrogating the ethical and legal status of both age-equal and age-discrepant adolescent male sexuality. In effect, I want to introduce ancient Greece to contemporary social scientists and policy makers as a useful tool to think with.

As I have documented elsewhere (Hubbard, 1998), our evidence suggests that Athenian pederasty was primarily an upper-class institution; the most valued objects of desire were not easily manipulated slave boys, but youths of good family and education between the ages of puberty and full beard- growth, in other words between about 14 and 21. 1 Their lovers would typically be unmarried men in their 20s or 30s, but in some cases married men (such as the tragedian Sophocles) would also enjoy the company of boys, and in other cases there would be very little age difference between the pursuer and the pursued.2 The lover could act as a surrogate father-figure for an adolescent boy, since demographers estimate that as many as one-third of Athenian boys had no living father by the age of 18, due to the relatively late age of marriage for Athenian males and the overall shorter life expectancy.

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