Potential origins of misogyny, sexism, homophobia, etc.

10 Sep

Juno is currently reading
Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene; the Followers of Jesus in History and Legend, by Bart D. Ehrman

I know I already posted some quotes from this book, and I will post another entry after this one too (I’ve now finished the book). These few pages though I found particularly interesting. Here we have described the potential origins of misogyny, sexism, homophobia, etc.

“Fortunately, we know a good deal about [what people living in the Roman world normally understood about the relationship between the male and female.] A number of ancient authors talk about the matter, including philosophers, scholars of religion, natural scientists, medical doctors – in fact even ancient gynecologists. …
People today usually think about male and female as two kinds of the same thing. There’s one thing, the human being, and it comes in two types: male and female. There are problems with this understanding, as we ourselves sometimes admit. There are hermaphrodites for example. But basically this is how we see it. It is not, however, how people in antiquity saw it. For them, male and female were not two kinds of human being, they were two degrees of human being. Women, in fact, were imperfect men.
The way to make sense of the ancient understanding is to imagine all living creatures on a kind of continuum. At the far left of the spectrum are plants, to the right of them are animals, and to the right of (other) animals are humans. There are different degrees of intelligence and perfection among animals: slugs might be on the left of the continuum and chimpanzees might be further along. So it is among humans as well. Children and slaves are not perfect as humans, so they would be to the left of the scale. Women too are not perfect, as they have not reached the level of the men. The male body is the perfect human ideal. Moving along the continuum, beyond humans altogether, are other living beings: the gods, who are in fact superhuman, the very pinnacle of living existence.
The goal of humans is to become like the gods, and that requires movement along the continuum. Men have to transcend their mortal limitations. For women to transcend theirs, they first have to move along the continuum through the place occupied by men. …
Many ancients held this view in quite literal terms: women were men who had never developed. Their penises hadn’t grown (the vagina was an inverted penis that never emerged); their muscles hadn’t fully developed; their lungs hadn’t matured; their voices hadn’t deepened; their facial hair hadn’t appeared. Women were men who hadn’t yet reached perfection.

Same-sex relationships

“The problem with [same-sex] relationships in Greek and Roman antiquity was not that it was unnatural for two people of the same gender to have physical intimacy, as some people today feel. The problem had to do with the ancient ideology of dominance as it related to the understanding of the genders.
In the Greco-Roman world, dominance was a firmly held and seldom questioned ideal. It was simply common sense that the human relationships were organized around power. Those who were more powerful were supposed to dominate those who were less powerful. Thus one empire could destroy another with impunity. They had no particular qualms about it. The stronger could and should dominate the weaker. Masters had complete control over slaves. Parents had total dominance over children. Men could, and should, assert their power over women, who were literally the weaker sex.
This ideology of power affected not only military and political ideology but also personal and sexual relations. Free men were made to be dominant. Modern people have trouble understanding how the ancient Greeks could accept the practice of pederasty, where an adult man took a preadolescent boy as a lover. In this system, the man would inculcate moral and cultural values into the boy, teaching him the ways of the society and politics, in exchange for sexual favors. But wasn’t that “unnatural”? Not at all. In fact, Greeks talk about it as the most natural thing in the world. The reason is not hard to find once you understand the ideology of dominance. Boys were imperfect men. The more perfect was to dominate the less perfect. It was natural for a free man to have sex with a young boy. And that’s why pederasty applied only to preadolescent youths. Once a boy reached puberty, he started attaining his manhood, and from that point on it was a shameful thing to be dominated by someone else, since men were to be dominators, not dominated. …
What about when two free men had sex, though: wasn’t that unnatural? As it turns out, most ancient people thought that same-sex relations between men was unnatural for only one of the two involved, the one who was on the receiving end of the sex act. Since the “unnaturalness” of sex involved being dominated by someone when you were to be the dominator, then only the dominated partner acted unnaturally. So when Julius Caeser was known to have been involved in a sexual relationship with the king of Galatia and was suspected of having himself been the submissive partner in the relationship, his troops composed humorous little ditties making fun of him for it. The kind of Galatia hadn’t done anything unnatural, though. He had acted like a man.
When ancient texts [like The Bible], therefore, condemn same-sex relations, it is important to understand what it is they’re condemning. They are condemning a man for acting like a member of the weaker sex, or a woman for acting like a member of the stronger sex.”

Which of course leads to interesting questions like where did the belief come from that same-sex relationships are simply unnatural in their totality? When did pederasty become unnatural? When did civilization’s view of gender change?


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