Sex between Men and Boys in Classical Greece: Was It Education for Citizenship or Child Abuse?

By Bloch, Enid | The Journal of Men's Studies, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Sex between Men and Boys in Classical Greece: Was It Education for Citizenship or Child Abuse?


Bloch, Enid, The Journal of Men's Studies


Through most of the past two thousand years, Greek pederasty was a subject no one would discuss directly. Greek philosophy, for example, was read and analyzed by scholars as if it never had contained its innumerable references to erotic relationships between men and boys. In recent years this situation has changed drastically with the publication of important books about sexuality in the ancient world. Indeed, open discussion has reached the point, as one modern scholar has put it, that "the love that once (in Alfred Douglas's words) dared not speak its name ... now cannot shut up."(1)

And yet in all this comment, no one has raised the question of whether Greek pederasty was good for the young boys who were the object of adult male sexual attention. Modern scholars have tended to accept without question or doubt the assertions of ancient pederasts that their activities were beneficial to boys, that they were educating boys in the habits and ways of manhood and of citizenship. This ready acceptance of the rationale of the Greeks is surprising, given the increasing sensitivity in our own culture to issues of child abuse.

Let us explore Greek pederasty from the point of view of the child rather than the adult. Greek boys could not speak for themselves, and all we have in the historical record is the viewpoint of the adults who wrote the accounts we read. However, there are many signs in Greek literature that pederasty posed a serious problem for boys, that it did not simply involve pleasant physical and emotional contact with men, but also deeply traumatic experiences. Both Greek mythology and Greek philosophy give us a way to understand some of the difficulties with which boys were confronted.

Greek pederasty, we shall see, was not as fully accepted in Greek society as modern commentators have supposed, but in many cases brought risks for the boys of intense shame as well as physical damage. Let us compare the ancient material with modern information on the psychological and physical consequences of sexual abuse for boys in our own society, asking whether contemporary experience can shed light on the difficulties of boys in the ancient world.

SEXUALITY IN ATHENS

K. J. Dover first effectively elucidated the basic outline of Greek male sexual relationships in 1978, in his groundbreaking and authoritative work, Greek Homosexuality.(2) As a highly respected classicist and also unquestionably a heterosexual, Dover gave to the study of Greek sexuality both respectability and a thoroughly scholarly approach. His work spurred intense interest among classicists, and a number of other important books followed. Among these were three volumes published in 1990, John Winkler's The Constraints of Desire,(3) David Halperin's One Hundred Years of Homosexuality,(4) and a collection of essays, Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World,(5) edited by Halperin, Winkler, and Zeitlin.

As these scholars make clear, Greek sexuality was based upon a fundamental distinction between an "active" dominant partner and a "passive" submissive one. The Greeks never conceived of sex as a mutually satisfying experience shared by equal partners, for sex by definition had to involve a superior and an inferior. In Athens a man would have been regarded as perverted if he sought a relationship with another person equal to him in age and status. For his sexual needs he could use women, slaves, prostitutes, and boys, in any combination, but not another adult male citizen.

The Greek language indicates how definitively the Greeks distinguished between the active and the passive partner. The one who did the desiring was the erastes, or "lover," whereas the one whom he desired was his eromenos, or "beloved." It was not possible for each of the partners to be called an erastes, for there was no way they could both be "lovers," with the implications in the English language of mutual desire, shared affection, and equal satisfaction. …

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