The more things change

July 3, 2017 at 10:38 am 11 comments

| Gabriel |

I just listened to a podcast conversation [transcript / audio] between Tyler Cowen and Ben Sasse and very much enjoyed it but was bothered by one of the senator’s laugh lines, “Turned out sex was really similar in most centuries.”* Now in a sense this is obviously true since any culture in which sex lost a certain aspect would only last one generation, and indeed this has happened. But there is still a lot of variation within the scope condition that in pretty much all times and places, sex is procreative at least some of the time. What kinds of sex one has varies enormously over time, as does with what kinds of and how many people. We can see this over big periods of history and within living memory in our own culture. My discussion will be necessarily detailed, but not prurient.

Dover’s Greek Homosexuality uses detailed interpretation of comedies, legal speeches, pornographic pottery, and similar sources to provide a thorough picture of sexuality in 4th and 5th c BCE Greece, especially among Athenian upper class men, but not limited just to the idiosyncratic and often idealized views of philosophers. There were two big differences with our culture, the most obvious being that with whom you had sex varied over the life course and the less obvious but equally important one being that what role you played was equally important as with whom you played it. An aristocratic Athenian male would typically be an eromenos (“beloved” or passive homosexual) in his late teens and when he reached full maturity would be an erastes (“lover” or active homosexual) but also get married to a woman. As long as you stuck to this life course trajectory, no money changed hands, and the eromenos had love but not lust for his erastes, the relationship was honorable. However for someone to remain an eromenos into full maturity was scandalous and bearded men who continued to accept passive sexual roles were stigmatized. Interestingly, what exactly is the action that occurs between active and passive varies enormously based on source, with philosophers downplaying sex entirely, pornographic pottery suggesting intercrural sex, and Aristophanes joking about anal intercourse (e.g., the best food for a dung beetle).

One thing the sources seem to agree on is that fellatio generally did not occur among Greek men. Dover argues that the avoidance of fellatio, avoidance of prostitution, and age separation of partners all served the purpose of avoiding hubris (assault that degrades status) otherwise implied by one male citizen penetrating another. Generally, our culture’s ubiquity of fellatio, and especially our common assumption that it is less intimate than vaginal intercourse, is exceptional across cultures. This is not only an issue of Greece, fellatio was exceptionally rare in 18th c elite French prostitution (although anal sex was common) and in early 20th c New York city. Interestingly, Dover notes that the women of Lesbos were legendary in Greek culture for heterosexual fellatio. While our culture derives our word for gay women from that island, largely through it being the home of Sappho, the cultural meaning in antiquity was of fellatrix, though the two meanings made sense in the Greek mind as relating to women who were especially open to sex of many varieties. This sounds bizarre to us, but as I’ll describe in a bit, this reflects emerging practice in our own culture.

For changes in recent decades, we do not need to rely on measuring the angles of penetration depicted on a kylix or on epithets in old comedy but can go by systematic survey data.** The main finding of Laumann et al’s 1994 Sex in America study was that sex was much more focused on monogamy, marriage, and vaginal intercourse than anyone expected based on Kinsey (who relied on convenience sampling) or popular culture. However things have changed a lot in the last two decades and in ways much more profound than that my undergrads don’t like rock music. The National Survey of Family Growth 2002-2013 replicates most of the research questions of Laumann et al and found that sex had gotten much more complicated since the early 1990s.  One major finding is a substantial rise in same sex intercourse. Women born from 1966-1974 are half as likely to have had same sex intercourse as women born from 1985-1995. In contrast to ancient Athens, this rise in same sex intercourse is limited to women (and the base rate is much higher), but as in ancient Greece, it is mostly an issue of youthful experimentation that is complementary to heterosexual practice and on the margin women self-identify as straight or bi, not lesbian. Chandra et al’s analysis of the same data showed a corollary that echos ancient stereotypes of Lesbians, which is that female experience with same sex partners is positively correlated with lifetime number of male partners. In addition, Chandra et al found that heterosexual anal intercourse is rising substantially, with about 30% of women aged 18-44 in 2002 having experienced it, or almost double what Laumann et al found twenty years earlier. This likely reflects influence from pornography, as does the almost universal (~85%) adoption of pubic grooming among women under thirty. However, again, this reflects ancient trends as ancient Greek women would singe off pubic hair and indeed the punishment for a male adulterer was to be symbolically feminized through pubic depilation and penetration with a radish.

* Sasse elaborated that he meant that in all times and places sex serves a mix of recreation, procreation, and pair-bonding and I think he’s right about that.

** I am not relying on pornography production or usage data as I strongly suspect that pornography follows a zero-inflated over-dispersed count distribution and thus consumption data, especially that showing that pornography is increasingly bizarre, is mostly informative about a relatively small minority of intensive users.


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  • 1. Wednesday assorted links - Marginal REVOLUTION  |  July 5, 2017 at 9:06 am

    […] How similar is sex over the centuries? (not at all obscene, but very frank language at the link.  Btw, I am not convinced by the […]

  • 2. whomever  |  July 6, 2017 at 10:22 am

    And yet another example is the Romans and the huge distinction between fellator and irrumator.

  • 3. Someone  |  July 6, 2017 at 12:03 pm

    Perhaps 1 percent of males today are pedophiles, or are primarily attracted to prepubescent kids. I believe almost nothing is known about this group in history. Do you agree?

    • 4. gabrielrossman  |  July 6, 2017 at 12:11 pm

      Dover is about teens and older. I am not familiar with literature on the historical prevalence of attraction or behavior regarding prepubescents. My guess would be that it is blessedly extremely rare.

  • 5. Chet Goodman  |  July 7, 2017 at 2:48 pm

    Rather limited vision here, almost purely Western Civilization. What about influences from non-Western cultures? Asians and Africans left out here altogether. Tribal practices in the New World? And no mention of current day Afghanistan and the “tea boys”.

    • 6. gabrielrossman  |  July 7, 2017 at 2:57 pm

      If I were trying to show universality it would be a reasonable complaint to say I’m only looking at one cultural tradition, however my aim is to show variety and so limiting to the west is a conservative assumption. That said, sexuality in many other cultures more closely approximates the ancient Greek model than it does our own, in particular emphasizing active vs passive as more salient than gay vs straight. You see this in bacha bazi. Likewise the Zulu empire saw life course homosexuality similar to Greece.

  • 7. edlongshanks  |  July 7, 2017 at 8:22 pm

    If I understand this data correctly. The generation that normalized viewing porn on the internet is actually behaving more responsibly and staying married longer. This is not surprising from this psychiatrist’s point of view, but will take a lot of those “Your Brain On Porn” zealots by surprise.

  • 8. Links: July 9, 2017  |  July 17, 2017 at 5:51 pm

    […] → Can These Pornographers End ‘MILFs,’ ‘Teens,’ and ‘Thugs’? :: Balances well with The More Things Change, which examines how, with sex and sexual practices, the more things change, the more things, well, […]

  • 9. Micha Elyi  |  July 31, 2017 at 4:29 pm

    edlongshanks, you misunderstand the data.

  • 10. Walter Sobchak  |  August 6, 2017 at 6:39 pm

    My father owned, and I inherited, some 18th and 19th Century porn — “Fanny Hill” and “A Night in a Moorish Harem”. I have not looked at them in a very long time. But, I do not recall fellatio in either one.

    • 11. Walter Sobchak  |  August 6, 2017 at 6:42 pm

      I should have checked before I posted, both books are now available on line for free. I assume they are now taught in high school literature classes.

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