Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2334
Chapter 2c: Classical and Hellenistic Greece – Presence and Absence
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This section of the chapter looks at patterns of reference and silence across various types of media to try to interpret the absences of representations of f/f sex. Different genres had different implicit rules about what could or could not be depicted. For example, visual arts that depicted m/m sex invariably stuck to the “ideal” of a desiring older man and a passive youth. Human men were not depicted in scenes with deprecated sexual practices, such as performing oral sex, but such scenes might show a satyr performing the male role, “standing in” for the human man. Sexual scenes do not include persons identifiable as slaves or prostitutes. Female genitals are very rarely depicted and do not appear to have been a site of erotic interest for the expected male viewership. (Though the expected viewership could depend to some extent on the type of object displaying the art.)
Within the larger context, how do we interpret that extreme scarcity of depictions of f/f sex? Boehringer reviews several genres of art that have been interpreted as f/f eroticism and argues that some are regularly misinterpreted. For example, a review of artwork depicting women (or other figures) with an “olisbos” (dildo), when taken together with references to the object in textual material, undermines the theory that it is a signifier of f/f sexual activity, as opposed to solitary female sexual activity. (This discussion is extensive and detailed.)
Certain other individual artworks, such as an image of two women with one kneeling before the other touching her genitals, can be interpreted in light of other highly parallel examples where such an interpretation is impossible (as when the kneeling figure is a satyr). Scenes of naked women bathing together, or of drunken women walking arm in arm, are not clearly erotic. On the other hand, it feels like Boehringer is sometimes working fairly hard to exclude certain depictions, while silently ignoring certain features of the art, For example, a depiction of a seated woman and a standing woman facing each other, both holding garlands (previously noted as featuring in courtship scenes), with the seating woman touching the standing woman’s breast or shoulder is dismissed as difficult to interpret due to the ambiguity of which body part is being touched. An image of two maenads (characters who reject male sexual advances) holding a single cloak around them, is declared to be “not erotic” with no clear explanation, only a reference to another publication on the topic.
But certain marginal possibilities aside, it does seem to be the case that f/f sex in art is vanishingly rare. The overall interpretation of presence and absence in art with regard to sexual topics seems to be that art depicts how society chooses to see itself, rather than being a reflection of everyday reality.
Silence about f/f sex in “Old Comedy” (a genre of drama that often played on bawdy and satiric themes) is harder to make sense of, as the genre regularly indulged in sexual humor of all types, including mockery of non-normative m/m relations, and regular lampooning of women’s stereotypical over-sexualization. Even in a play such as Lysistrata where the women’s lack of access to men for sexual satisfaction is a lynch-pin of the comedy, there are no jokes about f/f sex taking the edge off. Boehringer’s conclusion is “pottery shows us the Greek men did not find sex between women erotic; the silence of comedy…shows ups that they did not find it funny, either.”
Though most genres of literature are silent on f/f sex in the classical period (history, poetry, drama, politics, law), Plato is not the only philosopher whose writings can provide information, if only tangentially. Aristotle was a contemporary of Plato and familiar with the Symposium, so any silence on his part is not ignorance of f/f possibilities. While silent on human females, he notes female same-sex courtship among doves, where he notes treading, billing, and egg laying without making a distinction of active/passive roles as worthy of note. He claims this only occurs in the absence of males, and notes that the resulting eggs are sterile. His interest seems to revolve around reproduction rather than abstract behavior.
Aristotle’s discussions on the relationship of eros and philia focus on m/m relations as the highest form, with sexual pleasure being only a means to achieve philia, not an end in itself. Eros, for its own sake, is not of interest to him. In discussing relations, he makes no distinction or judgment between m/f and m/m relationships, but does not include f/f examples in his discussions. Ero and philia are not exclusive of each other but phila is seen as a more virtuous goal. Women are considered incapable of the virtues that make philia possible (though they can engage in phila with a husband who has those virtues). But, by this reasoning, two women cannot engage in philia together.
This, then, may be the explanation for Aristotle’s failure to speak of f/f relationships: they operate only on the level of eros and therefore are not worth notice. [Note: Boehringer isn’t saying that Aristotle says this explicitly, only that it aligns with his reasoning.] Thus f/f couples are not of interest, not because the relationship is homosexual, but because it involves women.
Plato’s two references to f/f couples exist in a context where the author was developing comprehensive systems (of law, or regarding eros) and therefore chose to account for all possibilities. Aristotle, having a different purpose and program, had no similar need to be comprehensive.
Another meaningful “absence” in writing about f/f relations is the idea (present in later cultures) that there is an element of masculinity behind f/f relations. Women derived from primordial ff creatures were more feminine than women derived from mf creatures. There is no suggestion that they have a masculine appearance or behavior. In both the Symposium and the Laws, what distinguishes women in f/f relationships is their social behavior (attraction to women) or reproductive status (non-reproductive) but not any specific sexual activity. Plato’s f/f women are not “tribades” in the sense of being defined by a sexual act. To the extent that it may be meaningful, Aristotle’s discussion of doves also avoids making any distinction of categorization on the basis of specific sexual behavior.
There are classical Greek writers who describe women who adopt masculine behaviors, but no sexual interpretation is placed on this. Instead, the behavior is considered virtuous, though incapable of achieving the same status as men. Whether in histories or comic drama, Women acting in a masculine way are perceived as trying to “better” themselves, but with no sexual implications. In this, the Archaic and Classical texts are similar, and in contrast with later framings.
In the Classical era, f/f relations are not a cause for concern or condemnation because they are not seen as having any impact on social or political life. Thus, in contrast with some scholars, Boehringer proposes that the Classical Greek silence on f/f relationships, rather than reflecting a taboo driven by male anxiety, reflects and apathy due to lack of male anxiety. What did provoke anxiety are things like concerns about birth rates, as we see in the Laws.
Distinctions regarding sexual partners that were considered relevant in the Classical period included social status, the forms the sexual relations took, and conformity to gender expectations, but not the specific sex of the partners (except to the extent that at least one partner is male). But what set f/f relations apart such as to constitute an identifiable and meaningful category was that both (all) persons involved were female. This distinguished f/f relations from all other possibilities and created what might be thought of as a “proto-category” of female homosexuality in a context where neither “heterosexuality” nor “male homosexuality” were identifiable or distinct as categories. This proto-category is internally homogeneous with no distinction of behavioral role or distinction of moral judgment regarding what relations they might engage in.