Voices of Sexism: the Active, the Passive, and the Middle

One of the great things about being a Classics lecturer is that I get to supervise a wide range of fantastic final-year projects every year: the creativity as well as the range of interest of my students is truly astounding, and this easily is one of the most rewarding aspects of my professional life.

Not all topics are surprising or altogether unpredictable, however.

Every year, without an exception, some students will propose to work on ‘the role of women in Roman antiquity’, typically coming from the perspective that ‘the role’ (what ‘role’? what is this, scripted theatre with stock characters?) has changed so much since then – and that Roman antiquity needs to be told off, from a Feminist or Gender Studies perspective, from the chronocentrist moral high ground of the twenty-first century.

Feminist Scholarship and Gender Studies have transformed my discipline, and they have changed – sometimes in quite radical terms – the way in which Classicists approach the ancient world nowadays: this is a success story, no question about that. Of course, I fully support these topics as best I can – under one firmly imposed condition: the approach must be academic and multifaceted (I work for a University after all), not polemic or political. It is not that I would not thoroughly enjoy the latter – but there are marking criteria to be met (and I am only male after all).

One of the more recent projects that I got to supervise had to do with the role (gah! there is that blasted ‘role’ again!) of women in ancient rhetoric. This experience – resulting in an excellent, critical assessment – urges me to comment, just very briefly, on the role of women in modern rhetoric.

Wait, why did I not qualify that last ‘role’, whereas I highlighted all the others?

Well, there is a reason for that. It has to do with the coverage of a recent indecent incident in Magaluf, on the Spanish island of Majorca.

What had happened?

A young woman, now commonly referred to as ‘Magaluf Girl’, participated in a party game that required of her to perform acts of oral sex on a number of men in order to win a holiday. A holiday, as in ‘a drink called holiday‘, not as in ‘a vacation‘. This was taped, and once the footage had hit the desks of the British tabloids (The Sun in particular), all hell broke loose – in news articles, but also in the wide, wide world of social media, where an activity, hideously referred to as ‘slut shaming‘ – the twenty-first century’s pillorying (we are so much more civilised now, aren’t we?) –, continues to be all the rage.

What was remarkable, certainly in the early stages of this staged outrage, was the focus on the female part of this group event:

The female was subject to abuse (as if the public shame was not bad enough), dwelling on the public visibility of her sexual life as well as on the promiscuous behaviour that thus was exposed. The male part of this set-up remained invisible (and, notably, it was primarily the face of the female, too, that was exposed in the footage that was leaked, whereas those at the receiving end remained anonymous), and one must very much doubt that any of the males involved had to walk much of a walk of shame subsequently.

Ancient 'slut shaming' (from Pompeii). – Image source: http://db.edcs.eu/epigr/bilder/$IFabioRufo_00002.jpg.

Ancient ‘slut shaming’ (from Pompeii). – Image source: http://db.edcs.eu/epigr/bilder/$IFabioRufo_00002.jpg.

Is this really an indication of much progress from the times of first-century Pompeii, where, in the house of Fabius Rufus, a woman called Romula was ‘complimented’ on her exploits (cf. Varone, Erotica Pompeiana pp. 70–1):

Romula cum suo hic fellat et uubique

‘Romula sucks her man here and everywhere’


Romula viros mile trec[en]tos

‘Romula . . . thousands of men’

What is interesting, of course, is how shame continues to be assigned to the female (or, more broadly speaking: the penetrated) part of an sexual act. Less frequently, but equally predictably as the ‘role of women’ topics, I also get requests to supervise topics on Roman homosexuality – usually surrounding precisely surrounding that ancient distinction of active/passive parts, stressing the ‘positive-to-neutral’ view of the active player, as opposed to the ‘neutral-but-generally-more-negative’ view of the passive one. Surely, what worked for Socrates in his erastes/eromenos relationship to Alcibiades cannot be wrong now, can it?

There is an important (and hardly new or surprising) lesson in this: when two people do the same thing, it’s still not the same, or, as the Roman playwright Terence put it: aliis si licet, tibi non licet, ‘if it is allowed to some, it’s still not allowed to you’ (Ter. Heaut. 797).

British Proto-Feminism: 'Had Juno seen the bull's attempts at swimming, she'd have been even more justified to visit the halls of Aeolus'. – Image source: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/lullingstone-roman-villa/history-and-research/history/4-from-paganism-to-christianity/.

British Proto-Feminism: ‘Had Juno seen the bull’s attempts at swimming, she’d have been even more justified to visit the halls of Aeolus’. – Image source: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/lullingstone-roman-villa/history-and-research/history/4-from-paganism-to-christianity/.

The same sentiment was expressed by later times as quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi, ‘Gods may do what cattle may not’ – a proverb that reaches its limits in such cases where the gods and the cattle are, in fact, identical. (Incidentally, does anyone else find it disturbing that our continent bears the same name as the victim of a case of mythical sodomy?).

There is another dimension to all of this, however, and this tends to be forgotten in current debates about debauchery and sexism – something that one may wish to call ‘the middle voice’ of sexism: there are companies and organisations making money out of this (from the organisers of the drinking event to news corporations). They exploit both males and females, at the expense of everyone’s integrity and humanity by means of staged scandals and a questionable prescription of moral standards.

There is no reason to feel morally superior to the inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean, as long as such blatantly gendered responses, such blatant sexism, prevails.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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