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.

Ahem…

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.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

23 thoughts on “A Note on Athenian Pederasty

  1. You mustn’t forget, though, that pederast relationships in ancient Athens were strongly encouraged insofar as it provided a sexual education for men who would typically marry relatively late in life. Even on the island of Lesbos, women engaged in similar pederast relationships in order to prepare themselves for their later roles as wives. Thus, we can’t forget the functional aspects of these relationships.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  2. I think you’re neglecting some important components of these marriages between young brides and older men. The first is that marrying off one’s daughter was one less mouth to feed in the house. Secondly, it could strengthen social, political and economic ties between families so in that sense daughters were almost like bribes. Lastly (and this may be most important), infant mortality was extremely high until only very recently. A couple could expect to lose one or more children during their marriage. Marrying a young wife meant she had more productive years ahead of her and a greater chance of having children that survived. I believe the young age also lead to less deaths from childbirth.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • Your first two considerations don’t do much to redeem the moral status of Athenian marriage. As to the latter, yes, infant mortality was high. But why not at marry these girls off to boys their own age? At least, that’s what my modern sensibilities suggest. The Athenians don’t seem to have found a problem here, which is part of what makes the issue so interesting.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • Let two 14-year olds go off to make their way in the world?

        You have a daughter who, for some reason, you’re actually fond of. Yes, she’s a bit of a money drain but… well. She’s your daughter. You just couldn’t turn your back on her.

        She’s hit 14 and has two suitors. One is a kid her age who makes all these moony eyes at her. One is a peer of yours who has just hit 35 and his vineyard is doing well, he makes enough olive oil every year to barter some away to you, and you know she’ll never go hungry under his roof.

        You love your daughter and you want her to flourish.

        Who do you choose to give her care?

          Quote  Link

        Report

          • If I had my choice, I wouldn’t want my daughter marrying anyone at age 14 or 15. But in particular I wouldn’t want her marrying a creep who was twice her age. (And let’s not forget about the men in this situation: What on earth did they see in girls that young? Certainly it wasn’t a spiritual or an intellectual bond.)

            Where would she do best? Where would she flourish? Married women had very little chance of personal flourishing anywhere in Athens, at least by my way of seeing things. Uneducated, secluded, unable to participate in civic life, unable to make even the most basic decisions for themselves… Married women were quite badly off regardless. Insisting my daughter marry someone of roughly equal age wouldn’t level the playing field in all respects, but it might be a good start.

              Quote  Link

            Report

            • Sure – all of those things sound great. And if only they had figured out internal combustion life on the streets of Athens would have been a grand. The fact remains, their culture was radically different than ours and for a number of reasons, marrying off a 14 year-old was not only typical but somewhat understandable.

                Quote  Link

              Report

              • I was asked a question, and I answered it. Given that the entire premise of the question was part of an extended attempt to judge ancient Athens by present-day moral standards, it’s rather unfair of you to fault me for doing just that.

                Also, I do think by now we’re very far from the initial point, which was simply to observe that if we’re going to apply today’s social mores to ancient Athens, it’s curious that we so seldom condemn Athenian marriage customs, while we nearly always manage to condemn its man/boy love. Both are properly judged wrong, but in every relevant dimension, I’d say that the marriages were worse.

                  Quote  Link

                Report

                • Ahhh…but you aren’t just using modern day moral standards. You are talking about things like compatibility (“What on earth did they see in girls that young? Certainly it wasn’t a spiritual or an intellectual bond.”).

                  Let me ask you this: Let’s say you own two dogs, one of whom was a great hunting companion, brought you your slippers, guarded the henhouse, etc and the other didn’t really do anything. Your boss takes an interest in your dog and promises you a promotion if you give it to him, plus he will feed it and make sure it has a warm home. Would it be immoral to give him the dog?

                  When I was working on my history degree we were often reminded by our professors to be very, very careful when viewing ancient sensabilities through modern lenses.

                    Quote  Link

                  Report

            • Jason, I would just like to inform you that what we call the “proper” age of consent (i.e 18 or 21) is a very recent thing.

              Hell, both my grandmothers were married by the time they were 15. My maternal grandmother to a man 4 years older and my paternal one to one who was more than 10 years her senior. (Subtext: I’m going to be put out with you if you assert anything improper about my late paternal grandfather)

              Besides, with arranged marriages, sexual attraction does not have to exist between spouses in order for them to get married. They very well may have compatible personalities, or they may get married simply because their parents tell them to do so (on both sides of the equation. In traditional societies, it is my understanding that the offspring are still kind of like children to their parents until they get married, no matter how old said children may actually be) Besides, my paternal grandmother only had kids when she 17-18 years old. (which is certainly more acceptable by today’s standards) And she presumably grew to love my grandfather as they subsequently had 8 kids (my father was the 5th)

              The fact that adults married children in the old days gives no indication of whether said adult ha some unhealthy interest in pre-pubescent girls, especially since the practice was so common in the old days. Any paedophilic tendencies would have been incidental to the actual practice.

                Quote  Link

              Report

  3. Jason:

    From our layman’s view of Athenian society, you may very well be right that Athenian pederasty was better in some ways than their hetro marriage. I’m not trying to be harsh, but who cares as we all live in another culture and in a different age? Modern commentators may not specifically disavow Athenian hetro marriage but on the other hand, I don’t hear anyone saying how great it was either.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  4. Jason,

    I guess for the record I should say that I try to be skeptical when anyone makes a direct comparison between our way of life and the ancient Greek way of life. The endurance of Greek myths and dramas and texts often tricks us (i.e. for a long time tricked me) into thinking Greek culture was more like our own than was actually the case. And I’m with you in saying that from a modern standpoint Athenian marriage was probably the more wretched bargain.

    To actually explain why Athenian marriage doesn’t have to be disavowed, I think we have to look at Judaism and Christianity. The Old and New Testaments sanction forms of marriage that are similar to Athenian forms in relevant ways. The Old Testament gives unambiguous prohibitions on homosexual relations, and in the New Testament Paul seems to focus on heterosexual monogamy as a major point of difference between Christian practice and Roman life. Set that traditional Christian interpretation alongside texts like Plato’s Symposium, and you’ve got a recipe for an enduring cultural self-definition — “this is how we are different from the Greeks.”

    The above paragraph is meant to be a guess at why “gay men today are made to disavow Athenian pederasty as a cultural antecedent,” not an argument that anyone should have to make this disavowal.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • I think if we were to look at Old Testament marriage, we’d find it repugnant in mostly the same direction. Tell me again why it gets a pass? Merely because the Old Testament vilifies gays, and thus draws a line we recognize? I’m really not following this.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • I don’t mean to say that Old Testament marriage should “get a pass” in the context of this discussion. I agree with the main point of the post, about Athenian marriage being worse, with respect to age and freedom, than Athenian pederasty. We shouldn’t give Athenian marriage a pass.

        The question is — why do we? I think you are right that the “ick factor” part of it, but then there’s also the general understanding that most (all?) of the cultures that “Western Civilization” takes as inspiration were strongly patriarchal and their institutions of marriage would be repugnant from a modern standpoint. Athens doesn’t necessarily stand out in that respect, though maybe it should. (I don’t have information at hand to compare marriage practices in Greece, Rome, Jerusalem, pre-Roman Europe, etc.) Athens does stand out for the frank discussion of pederasty in its philosophical literature.

        You should probably take my comment as pointless speculation on the historical roots of ickiness, or as a ill-considered account of the origin of a double standard.

          Quote  Link

        Report

  5. This need not be taken as a problem posed by the ancients and their weird customs. You can go to rural Greece right now and find women in their 40s who were married when they were 15 or 16 years old. And you can find, for example, 63 year old women who could celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary if it were polite to keep track of such things. There is some good ethnography on this, even if my familiarity with it is a couple decades out of date.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  6. I’m well aware that our currently accepted age of consent is very new. What this says about Athenian marriage norms is relatively minor in light of all the other differences that this doesn’t address.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  7. Hey, I think we’re all forgetting what the girls themselves thought about this marriage. I’m a 15 year old girl, and I personally would not mind at all being married off to a guy twice my age as long as it meant I would have a secure and happy life. I don’t really think the age difference is that creepy. Men married later than women for several reasons: they were obligated to serve in the army; they needed to be well-established in life to be able to provide for any wife they might take, and then children; and they can reproduce for longer than women can. I’m not saying that the repression and lack of education for women wasn’t sad, but I am saying that it isn’t everything in life.

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *