history of sexuality

4 Things to Learn from Reddit’s AMA on The History of Sexuality

Last week, Reddit brought together several experts on the history of sexuality for an “Ask Me Anything” thread.

Ask Me Anythings, or AMAs, are moderated discussions on Reddit where users can ask experts and celebrities questions about themselves or their expertise.

The topic of sexuality  has been of particular interest to critical theorists since the publication of Foucault’s three volume series “The History of Sexuality,” which argued that sexuality is one of the many sites where power regulates bodies.

The panel included experts on pornography, eunuchs, LBGTQ history and more.

You can see the full thread here, but here are some highlights.

#4 A Big Package Wasn’t Always Desirable, And Was Usually Invoked by Scientific Racism

After being asked about when and how large penises became desirable, user Caferelli answers

At the start of colonialism and through the heyday of scientific racism (human zoos, preserved specimens, eugenics, all that goodness), African “ethnographiers” (I don’t totally want to dignify them with that term) were OBSESSED with the size of African penises, and they were used as evidence of African peoples’ animal nature, over-sexed mind, and lack of evolution. And, naturally, this nature, embodied in their penis, meant they needed colonizing and careful help. So at least still in the 20th century in the Western mind large penises were still seen as crude and undesirable.

Take for example “The Negro as Distinct Ethnic Factor in Civilization” which was published in Medicine in 1903, where the growth of a large penis by black men caused them stop all educational growth at puberty. After that

He will walk the alleys late at night with a penis swollen with disease, and infect his bride-to-be with the same nonchalance that he will an hour later exhibit when cohabiting with the lowest of his race.

Concurrent to that discussion, however, was lots of popular commentary about women preferring these large black penises above all others. Often with some nice harem orientalism as well.

And if you browse around less savory parts of Reddit than our own little academics corner here, you’ll find penis size and racism still go hand in hand. So, in an answer, I’m not personally sure large penises have totally positive connotations yet.

I’m currently reading about this in A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis which is a popular history book, but reasonably well cited and rich in primary source quotes.

#3 Interracial Relations Were A-OK in Ancient Rome, Inter-class Relations Were Not

iamapizza asked:

How were inter-racial relationships viewed in the Roman world (or Egyptian, Grecian, any older ones)? Was it ‘normal’ as it would be in a metropolitan city now, was it seen as a benign aberration, or was it outright hostility? How were their kids treated, were there any nicknames or epithets assigned to them?

heyheymse responded:

Roman views on race were very different than modern views. Inter-class relationships would have been much more scandalous than interracial relationships, which wouldn’t really have registered. People who had particularly different appearances – people from Subsaharan Africa, for instance – would have been seen as remarkable and exotic, but there wouldn’t have been any kind of stigma attached to being of a different race. Remember that while slavery existed, they were drawn from places that Romans went to war with – Gaul, Germania, Persia, etc. – and so would have been as likely to be what we would consider white as someone we would consider black.

Especially in the big cities, which were the melting pots of the empire, interracial relationships would have actually been not abnormal. (Barring the Jews, who wouldn’t marry non-Jews.) I haven’t seen any evidence of stigma for a Roman of mixed race – it wasn’t even something that got discussed.

That being said – people who came from far-away places that had strange accents or customs would have had some people mocking them or being hostile to them. It wouldn’t have been because of the color of their skin, though.

#2 “Gayness” Didn’t Really Exist Until the 1940s

cephalopodie notes:

I don’t know a lot about Oscar Wilde, but this is an interesting perspective, and one that I think is useful in several ways. Homosexuality as an identity began to be “a thing” (as the kids say) in the late 19th century. Homosexual identity was largely tied to the concept of gender inversion. Having and “inverted” gender identity was seen as the source of an individual’s homosexuality, so a homosexual man had sexual desire for other men because of an effeminate gender identity. This meant a few things. One, only inverts (effeminate men, masculine women) were considered true homosexuals. Two, because of this inverted gender, the invert was considered to be more like the opposite gender than their own. In the case of male homosexuals (fairies and pansies, to use the terminology of the late 19th and early 20th century) this made them acceptable sexual companions of “normal” men. As time went on, people began to define homosexuality around one’s sexual attraction to people of one’s own gender, as opposed to an extension of an inverted gender identity. This “gay” identity was inclusive of both gender non-conforming homosexual people as well as masculine gay men and feminine lesbians.
Gayness as an identity really crystalized in the 1940’s when people began really viewing their sexual orientation as a part of their identity while moving away from the “trade” model (in which a gay identified man partnered with a non-gay identified man) of homosexual relationships (not to say that model has completely ceased to exist, but it has changed.)

#1 Ancient Romans Were No Strangers to Gender Bending

heyheymse notes:

So Roman sexuality was not, as you say, on the gay/straight dichotomy. Additionally, with transgender being related to gender identity, and thus different from the spectrum of sexuality, it’s a little tricky to relate all of them together. That being said, I can speak a little to the existence of transgender individuals in Rome. If you don’t mind, I’m gonna c/p from a comment I made on /r/asktransgender:

Obviously Romans didn’t have access to the hormones and/or surgery that make transition more complete, but there were Romans who were biologically male that chose to live as women, and Romans who were biologically female that attempted to live as men! (I say attempted because legally it was a sticky area…) There’s actually a poem by Martial that deals with one such a woman, Philaenis, who lifts weights and plays sports and gets drunk and fucks both men and women. Martial says that the main place she falls short of true Roman masculinity is when she eats out the ladies she fucks, because a Roman man would never. Here’s a translation, though it’s not my favorite.

Also note that the Romans wouldn’t really have had a concept of transgenderism, homosexuality, bisexuality, heterosexuality… these are all modern constructs. A Roman would have seen a woman living as a man as still a woman, just a woman dressed as a man, as in Martial. The concept didn’t exist in the Roman spectrum of gender/sexuality – they operated on a different spectrum than we do.

I hope this covers some of what you were after! The march toward the freedom to live within your own sexuality and gender identity without stigma or worse has definitely been a nonlinear one, especially if you’re looking at that march in a holistic, world-wide sort of way. The biggest difference, in my opinion, is that with the advent of worldwide communication, people are better able to organize, so the push for equality seems a lot more linear than it actually is.

…The Romans viewed sexuality on a spectrum of active to passive, with active being the role a man was expected to take, and passive being the role a woman to take. Honor and sexual morality, or pudicitia, were linked, with a man’s honor being particularly connected to his mouth, as symbolic of his honesty or his word.

To a Roman, the person who performed oral sex was being passive, and the person who was receiving oral sex was being active. Therefore, a man who performed oral sex on a woman was transgressing pudicitia in basically every respect – not only was he being passive, but he was being passive to a woman, who was herself transgressing by taking the active role, and the man using his mouth.

  • Nathias von Helling