Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Constructing Ancient Sexuality

Any “thing” we interpret is a direct application of who we are, how we experience the world around us, how we contextualize this “thing” within our limited understanding, where we come and where we are going, and of course what we want to be true.

Think of two women walking down the street. I might regard them as a lesbian couple, someone straight will interpret them as two friends, and this straight person’s traditional mother will note that one of them has childbearing hips, making her a very suitable potential wife for her son.

We apply our ideas of normality to these two unsuspecting women. I find comfort in seeing lesbians on the street, I want to see, and therefore I see. The aforementioned straight person will interpret things the within his own frame, must be friends…maybe sisters? And the mother can only see women in terms of their baby-making potential, just as she was regarded when she was younger, and  this is the only way she knows how to view women.

This is just illustrating how we apply our understanding of the world to everyday sights. It actually has nothing to do with this post.

Similarly, we apply our normative understanding of the world to our interpretation of history, as have historians and archeologists for years, forgetting that thousands of units of time and space stand in between.

Yes we LGBTs and our friends know that sexuality is fluid, and labels suck. However, scholars and archaeologists (aside from many of those who are specialized in the theory of sexuality) often try to analyse, define and label ancient sexuality using modern terms and constructs (think of the gay caveman discovered a few months ago), despite the lack of evidence for this intangible entity, and despite their biases and constructs that affect their interpretations.

Approaching the interpretation of ancient sexuality is tricky. Some scholars of the theory of sexuality ascertain that a discourse on sexuality is modern construct, and “the norms, the practices, even the very definitions of what counts as sexual activity have varied significantly from culture to culture” (Halperin 1990: 3). How do we approach ancient sexuality when we are barely able to define modern sexuality?

How do we venture into the murky waters of defining the gay caveman as gay, or as a transgendered person, or a transsexual, or a third sex? Perhaps before archaeologists labeled him, they should have specified whether they were defining him according to the modern archaeologists/modern world should regard him, or how he (or she) defined himself? Do archaeologists have the duty of attempting to interpret ancient sexuality as they would have experienced it? (Which is not easy, given the scarcity of tangible archaeological or textual evidence of sexuality, which comes with its own set of problems and biases).

I can fill many posts about ancient sexuality…

I leave you with a quote by David M. Halperin, Professor of the History and Theory of Sexuality (amongst other topics):  

“…sexuality…is an area of discussion in which many different social projects (marriage, luxury, politics, housework, inheritance, to name but a few are contexts. Sexuality, as cultural historians view it, it not so much a subject in and of itself – a unitary category of analysis – as it is one of the languages for defining, describing, interpreting and (hence) transacting all manner of other business.

HALPERIN, David M. et. al., eds. (1990): Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World. Princeton.

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