I’ve recently been reviewing what I know about the historical evidence for how homosexuality has been viewed in other times and places, and doing a bit of additional research into the area. This, which is partly a response to comments by my regulars on some recent essays here, has led me to an interesting perspective on modern debates about homosexuality and sexual liberty.
First, let me be clear that I’m deriving my tentative conclusions from considering (translated) primary sources – graffitti preserved in Pompeii, descriptions of the penalties for cross-dressing in Norse sagas, the lampoons of Catullus, and Japanese accounts of homoeroticism among the samurai are among those I’m familiiar with. Closer to the present day, I have read ethnological sources on homosexuality among the Afghans and in the modern Arab world, and made at least one relevant observation first-hand a few years back, in the red-light district of Bangkok.
I’m emphasizing primary sources because this is one of many, many areas where contemporary scholarship is severely corrupted by politics; it is probably no longer possible to achieve tenure at a major American university after giving offense to the homosexual-activist lobby. Fortunately, I don’t have that sort of career issue to worry about, and can therefore speak without fear.
Most educated people in the U.S. and Europe have a default model or construction of homosexual behavior which I will call “romantic homosexuality”. Romantic homosexuality is homoeroticism between equals; men or women of roughly the same age and social position, with the relationship having affective elements similar to the emotional range in heterosexual relationships (from one-night stand through lifetime marriage).
At one opposite extreme from romantic homosexuality is what I’ll call deprivation homosexuality – homoerotic behavior by men or women who are normally heterosexual but isolated from contact with the opposite sex for long periods of time. I won’t discuss this further in this essay except to note that for good analysis of what goes on in (for example) prisons, the difference between deprivation homosexuality and other kinds is significant.
We are generally aware of two other types of homosexual behavior. One is pederasty: homosexuality between adult men and adolescent or prepubescent boys in which the older partner is always, or nearly always, the one doing the penetrating. It is a significant datum, to which I’ll return later, that neither modern Western culture nor any other that I am aware of has a well-defined category equivalent to pederasty among women.
The last category I’ll discuss here is what I’ll call domination sex. In this kind of homoeroticism, penetration is equated with dominating or humiliating an inferior, the slave, the prisoner, the catamite, the helpless object. It is in this spirit that Sioux Indians threatened to rape the corpses of their defeated enemies, and gangsta rappers speak of “making him my bitch”. It provides the threat and the hostile charge when someone says “Fuck you.”
When we examine the behavior of humans in the large, over a broad sweep of history and culture, and compare it with homoerotic behavior in nonhuman primates closely related to us, a startling pattern emerges. Romantic homosexuality is almost all of what we see in homosexual human and higher-primate females, but almost none of what we see in homosexual human and higher-primate males.
Over and over again, the pattern of male homosexual behavior in pre-modern sources is overwhelmingly one of pederasty and domination sex. And not just in pre-modern sources but in most of the present-day world as well. When I tried to brush off a pimp in the red-light district of Bangkok who waved a brochure full of naked women in my face, he didn’t ask me if I wanted to fuck another man instead – he tried to rent me a boy. (I refrained from punching him out, because I recognized that from his point of view it was a reasonable next question.)
We may further note that there are, broadly speaking, two contending models of “normal” — acceptable or semi-acceptable male homosexual behavior — observable in human cultures. In one model, that of the modern West, romantic homosexuality is relatively tolerated, while pederasty and domination sex are considered far more deviant. I’ll call this the homophilic construction. It’s what most of my readers accept as normal.
But in the other, older model, pederasty and domination sex are considered more “normal” than romantic homosexuality. In cultures with this model, the “top” in an episode of pederasty or domination sex is not necessarily considered homosexual or deviant at all; any stigma attaches to the passive partner. Romantic homosexuality is considered far more perverse, because it feminizes both partners. I think of this as the “classical” construction of homosexuality, as it describes the attitudes of ancient Rome – but it persists in cultures as near to our own as South America and the Mediterranean littoral.
It’s the classical construction that is the rule in human cultures. The homophilic one is the exception; in fact, I am not able to identify any culture which held to it until after the Industrial Revolution in Europe. And not all of Europe has acquired it yet. Even in the English-speaking countries, where the homophilic construction is most entrenched, the connotations of sexual insults and threats in our language still reflect the older model.
To put it another way, the male homosexuals of the last two centuries in our culture have engaged in a massive reinvention of homosexuality that is still underway. Specifically the male homosexuals; lesbians began the game with romantic homosexuality as their dominant mode. I have not identified any culture in which it was considered more normal for lesbians to have sex with prepubescent girls or with dominated inferiors.
Why this asymmetry? I suspect, ultimately, it can be traced back to a tragic flaw in mammalian neural architecture – the fact that the limbic system handles sexual arousal and the anger/fear arousal involved in dominance transactions among social animals with adjacent circuitry that can relatively easily become cross-wired
Only this can really account for the observed fact that some (mercifully, only relatively few) human beings derive visceral sexual satisfaction from killing. The use of anal penetration as an expression of dominance, and of accepting it as a submission ritual, probably has the same source. It is phyletically old enough to be found not only in primates but in other mammalian lines as well. And, in the nature of things, it is not a threat females can make; thus, while thrill-killing is neurologically possible to females (and there have in fact been female serial kllers), domination sex has been pretty much outside of the repertoire.
This analysis raises two interesting questions. The first one is about the past: what changed? That is, how did the homophilic construction replace the classical one, where it did? I’m only speculating here, but I think the proximate cause may have been the sentimentalization of family life around the turn of the 19th century in Europe, which in turn was enabled by a sharp fall in infant mortality rates. Both processes started earlier and moved faster in England and the Anglosphere than they did elsewhere.
The other interesting question is whether this reinvention is sustainable in the longer term. If my analysis is correct, modern homosexuals are bucking a pretty strong biological headwind. How strong can be judged by a chilling little statistic I picked up years ago from a how-to manual written by homosexual SM practitioners for newbies, er, learning the ropes; it noted that, adjusted for population size, male homosexuals murder each other at a rate 26 times that of the general population.
That suggests to me that a tendency for male homosexuals to drift into the darker corners of domination sex is still wired in beneath the modern homophilic construction. It might take actual genetic engineering, of a kind we don’t yet have, to fix that wiring. Until then, I wish them luck. Because (and here I make the first and only value claim in this essay) whatever one’s opinion of homophilic homosexuals might be, the behaviors associated with the pederastic/dominating classical style are entangled with abuse and degradation in a way that can only be described as evil. Modern homosexuals deserve praise for their attempt to get shut of them.