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Homosexuality Is a Linguistic as Well as a Moral Error
by R. V. Young
For thousands of years, until the late 1800s, our ancestors were completely oblivious to the existence of a fundamentally distinct class of human beings. Indeed, during the long period of Greco-Roman antiquity and more than a millennium and a half of Christian civilization, man did not even have a name for this class.
Or so asserts an almost universal assumption fixed in the language almost everyone uses: that “heterosexuals” and “homosexuals” are two permanently and innately different kinds of human being, and that “sexual orientation” constitutes a difference comparable to the difference between male and female. Widespread acceptance of “homosexuality” and associated terms thus biases discussion of the subject before an argument is even formulated.
What might be called the philological evidence calls this notion into question. If it were true, someone would long ago have given this class a name. That no one did until very recently suggests that the notion is not true.
In the first footnote of the first chapter of Greek Homosexuality, which is generally regarded as the definitive treatment of its subject, Oxford classical scholar K. J. Dover points out that the ancient Greek language “has no nouns corresponding to the English nouns ‘a homosexual’ and ‘a heterosexual’.” Such an observation would seem to call for more notice than is accorded by a single short footnote, but even the apparent concession is misleading, insofar as it suggests that the absence of these terms is a peculiarity of Greek.
In fact, Latin also lacks these terms and the same is true of Old and Middle English. Among modern European languages the word that corresponds to the English “homosexual” is generally a variant on the same word: in Spanish homosexual and in Dutch homoseksueel, for example. German also offers gleichgeschlechtlich, which is simply a combination of two Germanic roots, gleich and Geschlecht, that correspond to the Greek (homo = same) and Latin (sexus = sex) of the English word.
This English word is itself a very recent coinage. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, both “homosexual” and “homosexuality” first appeared in English in 1892, along with “heterosexual” and “heterosexuality,” in an English translation of Richard von Kraft-Ebing’s Psychopathologia Sexualis (1886) and turn up again five years later in Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex.
In other words, only in the late nineteenth century, when physicians began discussing sexual perversion as a medical rather than a moral problem in Latin treatises intended only for the learned and required a neutral, clinical term, was there a perceived need to refer to “homosexuality.” Moreover, it is not at all clear that the originators of the term had precisely in mind what is usually meant by “homosexuality” in contemporary parlance.
Kraft-Ebing, for example, does not write a separate chapter on this subject (Ellis, however, does); same-sex attraction is rather an attribute or additional characteristic of other specific activities—regarded by Kraft-Ebing as abuses of the sexual organs and the pleasure associated with erotic stimulation. Ellis says that the term actually originated in 1869 with an obscure Hungarian doctor, Benkert (or Kertbeny), and endorses its use because “its significance—sexual attraction to the same sex—is fairly clear and definite, while it is free of any question-begging association of either favorable or unfavorable character.”
The Greek Example
Contemporary advocates of “homosexuality” often invoke the Greek example to make acts of sodomy seem acceptable or even normal. They assume that the Greeks believed in “homosexuality” in the modern sense because some Greeks praised the erotic relations of men and boys; they read the Greeks as if they were modern Americans or Europeans.
Of course our ancestors were quite aware of what are now called “homosexual” acts or behavior. Latin and Greek are both rich in words that designate the penetrating member and the penetrated orifices, as well as the active and passive participants. Interested readers may find in J. N. Adams’s The Latin Sexual Vocabulary an abundance of such terms (usually with Greek counterparts). Almost all of them are obscene as well as pejorative, and their usage is almost always in a context of coarse humor or insult.
Clear verbal distinctions are drawn between those who take the active, male role and those who assume the passive female role; men who submit in the latter fashion are almost universally regarded with contempt, since they are ordinarily slaves or male prostitutes. The only real exception seems to come in the ancient Greek city-states with the pubescent boy (eromenos) who is the beloved of an older man (erastes), who is ideally a kind of intellectual mentor as well as lover to the youth.
This situation is discussed at length in Plato’s Symposium (discussed in more detail shortly), and this is the principal cultural phenomenon that provides Dover the opportunity to give a generally favorable account of “Greek homosexuality.” But his account undermines the claim implied in the title of his book. He begins his study by defining “homosexuality” as “the disposition to seek sensory pleasure through bodily contact with persons of one’s own sex in preference to contact with the other sex.” “Disposition” suggests a condition considerably less permanent or innate than the term “sexual orientation,” which has become a fixture in current discourse.
Still more revealing is Dover’s rationalization of the absence of a Greek word for “homosexual” in that first, uncomfortable footnote. The Greeks, he wrote, “assumed . . . that (a) virtually everyone responds at different times both to homosexual and to heterosexual stimuli, and (b) virtually no male both penetrates other males and submits to penetration by other males at the same stage in his life.”
This explanation amounts to an admission that the ancient Greeks did not recognize the existence of the permanent “homosexual orientation” that is nowadays taken as a given: “Since the reciprocal desire of partners belonging to the same age-category is virtually unknown in Greek homosexuality,” Dover remarks, “the distinction between the bodily activity of the one who has fallen in love and the bodily passivity of the one with whom he has fallen in love is of the highest importance.”
In a very defensive “Postscript” to the 1989 edition, Dover feels constrained to defend “my inclination to treat homosexuality as ‘quasi-sexuality’ or ‘pseudo-sexuality’. My reasoning was simple: we have the word ‘sex’ because there is more than one sex, definable in terms of reproductive function, and I accordingly use ‘sexual’ to mean ‘having to do with (difference of) sex’.” This acknowledgment that “heterosexual” and “homosexual” are incommensurable with “male” and “female” or “man” and “woman” practically dismantles the significance of Dover’s title.
Plato’s Symposium is the most prominent work that seems to provide evidence for the notion that “homosexuality” was a normal and accepted aspect of ancient Greek society, since all but one of the characters in the dialogue gives a speech in praise of the god of love (Eros) and specifically designates pederasty, the desire of a man for a youth, as the ultimate expression of love.
The speech attributed to the comic playwright Aristophanes even suggests that “sexual orientation” is a permanent feature of human beings, since desire is, literally, a longing to be reunited with our “other half.” Human beings were once, he says, creatures with four legs and four arms, two faces and two sets of genitals, and so on. Anxious about the threat of such formidable creatures, Zeus used his thunderbolts to split them in half, creating men and women as we know them now.
If one’s other half were of the opposite sex in this mythical past, then he desires physical intimacy with a member of the opposite sex; but if one’s other half were of the same sex, then union with the opposite sex fails to satisfy. It is difficult to judge the tone and import of this myth, especially as Aristophanes disparaged Plato’s mentor Socrates in his comedy, the Clouds; but in any case it hardly constitutes a philosophical endorsement of same-sex erotic relationships.
There are, however, substantial reasons for finding the status of “homosexuality” in the Symposium problematic. The dialogue is set at a dinner party celebrating Agathon’s victory in the Athenian tragedy competition. The guests are all artists and intellectuals—hardly a representative sample of moral opinion in fifth-century B.C. Athens.
Moreover, the one speaker who does not praise Eros as the inspiration of “boy-love” (paiderastia) is Socrates. Having declared himself incapable of matching the splendidly rhetorical speeches of the others, he instead expounds the wisdom of the “prophetess” Diotima (a nicely ironic touch, since so many of the other speakers admit to preferring boys because they find women so contemptible). According to her, Socrates says, the desire aroused by the sight of a beautiful body should lead us to seek not physical gratification, but rather the beauty of the soul, of which the body is merely an ephemeral expression, and this in turn should lead us up the steps of the “ladder of love” until we contemplate the Idea of the Beautiful itself.
A “Platonic relationship” is thus a spiritual affection, not a carnal satisfaction. The drunken tirade of the latecomer Alcibiades, which brings the dialogue to a close, ruefully upbraids Socrates for having refused his effort at seduction, thus making the point about Socrates’ chastity clear for anyone who has missed it.
Yet the most revealing qualification of the praise of boy-love in the Symposium is not Socrates’ exaltation of the idea of purely spiritual love, but a digressive comment in the discourse of the sophist Pausanias who, having denigrated the love of women and even of immature boys, concedes that even in Athens not everyone is happy about erotic relationships between men and youths. If a man finds out that another man seeks to become the lover of his son, Pausanias complains, the father puts the boy in the charge of a tutor who is instructed to keep the lover away. If the other boys find out about it, they ridicule the one who has drawn the attraction of the older man.
Thus even in Athens many men are uneasy about pederasty, failing to distinguish between the mere sensual indulgence of the followers of the “earthly Aphrodite” and the gratification of a virtuous lover, a follower of the “heavenly Aphrodite,” who really has the boy’s interest at heart. Given the genuinely transcendent vision of love offered by Socrates later in the dialogue, it is hard to see Pausanias’s complaint as anything but a sample of ironically undercut special pleading.
A Kind of Fornication
Severe condemnation of any deviation from procreative sexuality seems, however, to have been in force in the ancient world only among the Hebrews, but it was incorporated into both the morality and the law of the Christian society emerging at the end of classical antiquity and became the standard view of the Western world.
On the basis of Genesis 19, Christians applied the term “sodomy” specifically to erotic acts between persons of the same sex. In his typically brisk, dispassionate style, St. Thomas Aquinas classifies “sodomitical vice” among “the species of lust contrary to nature,” and says that it is not quite so grave a sin as bestiality, but worse than the failure of a man and woman to observe “the proper manner of lying together.”
The worst form of this last is neglecting to observe the use of “the appropriate organ,” meaning the deposit of semen somewhere other than in the vagina rather than “some other disorder pertaining to the mode of copulation.” Obviously, sodomy between persons of the same sex is further down the scale of vice and a graver sin because it necessarily excludes the use of the proper organ.
St. Thomas thus points out that while even simple fornication is “against properly human nature, of which the act of generation is ordered to the appropriate education of children,” sodomy is “against the nature of every animal” because it is not aimed at generation at all. Nevertheless, actions today designated “homosexual” are for Thomas just one manifestation of lust among others; the commission of such sins, even the persistent desire to commit such sins, does not constitute a particular class of persons.
Writing for university theology students, St. Thomas is considerably more explicit on the subject than most Christian writers. The author of a fourteenth-century preacher’s manual, Fasciculus Morum, calls sodomy a “diabolical sin against nature” and passes over it “with horror, leaving it for others to expound” and Chaucer’s Parson likewise calls it “thilke abhomynable synne, of which that no man unnethe oghte speke ne write.”
Scriptural writers likewise tend to be reticent on the subject: The epistle of Jude, for example, refers to the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah as fornication and, in a curious circumlocution, the pursuit of “other flesh,” and in writing to the Ephesians St. Paul shrinks from mentioning “things . . . done by them in secret” that “it is a shame even to speak of.” This reluctance even to name or describe sodomy and other forms of lechery seems to undermine the argument that sodomy is of little consequence in the Bible because it is mentioned infrequently.
Although the lecherous act defined as sodomy is simply a sin like any other, its implications are grave, since in Romans St. Paul describes this particular sin as a punishment for the prior sin of unbelief, of a refusal to acknowledge God. From his perspective sodomy results not from an innate condition, “homosexuality,” but from faithlessness. Similarly, the popular argument that Paul meant that sodomy is only a sin when it is committed by those who are “not really homosexuals,” is (at best) problematic, since the authors of sacred Scripture, like the ancient Greeks and Romans, did not recognize the category, “homosexual,” for which they had no term.
A Gay Argument
To be sure, some men and women who identify themselves as “gay” also reject the label “homosexual,” or are at least indifferent to it. This viewpoint is very much in evidence, for example, in the essays and excerpts collected under the title Reclaiming Sodom, where we learn from Jonathan Ned Katz about the very different view of the matter in colonial New England:
As sin, sodomy was an act “committed” or not “committed,” an act (and inclination) for which one was “guilty” or “not guilty,” ashamed or unashamed. As sin, the act of sodomy might be taught by “bad” example, but no one thought (as did late-Victorian doctors) of distinguishing between “acquired” sodomy and “congenital.” A sodomitical impulse was an inherent potential of all fallen male descendants of Eve and Adam. Only in the twentieth century would the doctors’ allegedly objective and scientific concept of “homosexuality” hide the negative value judgment explicit in the colonial concept of sodomy as a sin.
The candor of this passage is admirable even if one does not accept Katz’s belief that the attitudes of the New England Puritans toward sex are irrelevant to us. We study them, he asserts, because “perceiving our own sex and affection as a historical, socially constructed form we better understand the possibility of reconstructing it.”
Similarly, on the book’s first page, the editor, Jonathan Goldberg, extols “the productive role that sodomy has played and can play as a site of pleasures that are also refusals of normative categories” (emphasis in original). In other words, to engage in sodomy is a deliberate means of rejecting traditional moral standards, what Goldberg elsewhere calls “heteronormativity.” This attitude vindicates St. Paul’s assertion that “use which is against nature” is punishment for those “who changed the truth of God into a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”
The “gay” liberation movement, like feminism, is a branch of the wider sexual revolution that depends upon the postulate that traditional morality is false and untenable because it assumes a stable human nature with corresponding norms of conduct—moral absolutes, in other words. Modern relativism has always maintained to the contrary that our “sexuality” is like every other human capacity and attitude, “constructed” by our social milieu; in Marxist terms it is an ideological “superstructure” arising from the inexorable evolution of the material “base.”
Hence what we call our “nature” is really no more than a temporary accommodation to social pressures generated by the forces of the human environment; hence men commit sodomy not because they are innately “homosexual,” but because the peculiar configuration of their desires in relation to the dynamics of a particular historical moment drives them to it. Since “human nature” is limitlessly malleable, human institutions like “marriage” and “family” lack a specific essence, and we may attach these terms to any arrangements that currently suit our fancy.
Katz and Goldberg, in other words, lay bare the hypocrisy of the claim that individuals are born with an innate and unchangeable “heterosexual” or “homosexual” orientation.
Sex Has New Meaning
So our public language asserts the reality of “homosexuality” as a permanent condition, though there is little if anything in our history (Greek, Roman, and Christian) to justify the idea and even some “gay” theorists do not accept it. The imposition upon an ingenuous public of the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” required a prior bit of linguistic legerdemain, namely, the redefinition of “sex” and the displacement of its principal original function by the term “gender.”
Latin provides the root (sexus or secus, probably from “cut” or “sever,” but more pertinently to “divide” or “halve”) for the English word “sex” and for its Romance language equivalents. Since the twentieth century, the word “sex” first evokes the specific notion of sexual intercourse and everything associated with it rather than the simple division of a species into male and female, or the division of humanity into men and women. “Sex” now means primarily an activity rather than a state of being, as in the awkward and ugly, but ubiquitous, phrase, “having sex” (of which the OED attributes the first usage to D. H. Lawrence in 1929).
Once “sex” had acquired this new semantic profile, it became easier to substitute “gender” for “sex” as the denomination of the difference between male and female, man and woman. If the first change, however, was the gradual result of recreation replacing reproduction as the principal association of “sex” in Western culture, the introduction of “gender” as the differentiating term was deliberate and fraught with ideological baggage.
The first edition of the OED (1933) lists sporadic usages of “gender” for “sex” from the fourteenth through the nineteenth centuries, but notes that such usage is “now only jocular.” The second edition (1989) adds this to the entry: “In mod. (esp. feminist) use a euphemism for the sex of a human being, often intended to emphasize the social and cultural, as opposed to the biological, distinctions between the sexes.” It gives 1963 as the date of the first such usage of “gender.”
Before the sixties, “gender” was largely confined to marking the distinctions between “masculine,” “feminine,” and “neuter” nouns and pronouns in various languages. The gender of a noun is quite often purely arbitrary or, if you will, “socially constructed”; that is, there is no particular reason why the Spanish word for pen (la pluma) is “feminine” while a pencil (el lápiz) is “masculine.” Or why in Latin, French, and Spanish the hand (manus, la main, la mano) is “feminine,” while the foot (pes, le pied, el pie) is “masculine.”
The application of the term “gender” to the difference between men and women thus implies, without the argument ever being made, that the differential roles of men and women in family and society are as arbitrary as the gender of nouns. The routine use of “gender” to identify as men or women, test-takers, applicants for driver’s licenses and insurance policies, and virtually all those who fill out almost any kind of document marks the bureaucratic imposition of the feminist view of the sexes on society as a whole.
Two linguistic developments over the past several decades have thus been effected by academic and media elites: “gender” has been substituted for “sex” as the designation of the distinction between men and women, and “homosexual” and “heterosexual” have been accepted as legitimate terms for distinguishable classes of persons.
The first development provides an official linguistic approval for the feminist notion that distinctions between men and women are based, not on the intrinsic nature of humankind, but on arbitrary social constructs. The second, conversely, asserts that the compulsion to commit sodomy results not from any disorder, moral, spiritual, or psychological, but from an inherent “homosexual” nature. Apart from the obvious contradiction, further ironies are involved in these verbal manipulations.
If “sex” is understood in its proper sense, then “homosexual” and “heterosexual” are senseless words. Etymologically, “sex” means the “difference” or “division” that makes men and women separate and complementary. To link the unique Latin word sexus with the Greek word for “same” is a contradiction in terms—an unnatural verbal conjunction. “Heterosexual,” on the other hand, is tautological: Sex, by definition, requires someone “other” or “different.”
Former President Clinton was technically correct in denying that he “had sex with that woman.” What he was doing with Monica Lewinski did not require a woman, or even another human being. Orgasm can be reached by a variety of means, but only a man and a woman can engage in actual sexual intercourse and transform the physical difference into conjugal love: face-to-face in the much-maligned “missionary position,” mutually acknowledging the personal identity of each spouse.
“Homosexual” and “heterosexual” can only make even a modicum of sense if “sex” means nothing more than carnal coupling in its myriad ways and is no longer associated with the natural complementary relation of men and women. To have recourse to this definition is, however, to rely on the social-constructivist relativism that drives the sexual revolution, which is an absurd basis for the assertion that “homosexuality” is an innate condition.
To deny that marriage is natural does not make the contrary alternatives “natural” in its stead (to assert thus is to commit the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent). If marriage is not natural, then nothing is, and the claim that a man is “homosexual” by nature undermines the very basis on which the term has been erected, because if “sex” is no more than erotic acts and urges, nothing permanent or intrinsic can be built on the shifting sands of “gender.”
Given the sinfulness of our nature and the mysterious blend of genetic features and external influences that shapes the specific character of particular human beings, it is probable that some individuals are, in fact, born with erotic proclivities toward persons of the same sex (or, for that matter, towards children or beasts or random promiscuity). Nevertheless, compulsive behavior arising from peculiar inclinations is not an adequate basis for establishing social institutions, much less for threatening those upon which society has long depended.
While men and women who are possessed by an urge to commit sodomy with others of the same sex should always be treated with justice and charity, they should not be allowed to determine the norms of moral discourse.
The words in which we express our ideas have consequences. To insist that words be used rationally and consistently is a first small step toward recovering moral reason. We should, therefore, refuse to accept “gender” as a relativistic substitute for the fundamental difference indicated by “sex,” while the latter term is expropriated to mean any kind of physical coupling. Above all, we should not acquiesce in the labels “heterosexual” and “homosexual,” when we are referring to men and women.
To concede the validity of such linguistic novelties is to allow the ideologues of the sexual revolution to control the terms of the debate. “Male” and “female,” “masculine” and “feminine,” designate normative components of actual human nature: anatomical, physiological, affective, and rational.
“Homosexuality” is now used to suggest that numerous urges and actions that deviate from these norms hold equivalent status as an element of human nature, but the peculiar use of a natural organ or faculty does not change its nature. A man can walk around on his hands, but that does not turn hands into feet; and society ought not to be obliged to redesign sidewalks and staircases to accommodate compulsive “handwalkers” (manambulants?), even if they are born with the inclination.
No really existing class of persons of a specific, distinct nature corresponds to the word “homosexual” in the way that men and women are distinct, complementary kinds of human being. A claim for specific “homosexual rights” is, therefore, frivolous, and the word is merely an ideological construct aimed at undermining the sexual norms inscribed in human nature. &38226;
The references are, in order, to: K. J. Dover’s Greek Homosexuality (Harvard University Press, 1978 & 1989); Plato’s Symposium 189c–193d (Aristophanes), 198b–212b (Diotima), 180d–183e (Pausanias); St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologicae II 154 11 & 12 ad 4 and De Malo XV ad 7; Fasciculus Morum VII.Xi; Chaucer X.909; Reclaiming Sodom, edited by Jonathan Goldberg (Routledge, 1994), pp. 49, 58, and 1; Symposium 190b.
Sex with a Difference
While the appropriation of “sex” as a generic term for erotic activity only takes hold in the twentieth century, John Donne’s Songs & Sonets deploys the word in ways that sound suspiciously modern. The speaker of “The Extasie,” for example, assures his beloved that the origin of their love is “not sexe,” which could be taken as a term for erotic gratification. The usage of the word in “The Relique,” however, suggests that there is more to it than that: “Difference of sex no more we knew,/ Then our Guardian Angells doe.”
Although for Donne and his seventeenth-century readers, “sex” has erotic overtones, it is anchored in “difference of sex.” The complexity of the concept of sex—the way it sets carnal coupling in a context of the natural division of men and women—emerges in another Donne lyric, “The Primrose”:
For should my true-Love lesse then woman bee,
She were scarce any thing; and then, should she
Be more then woman, shee would get above
All thought of sexe, and thinke to move
My heart to study her, and not to love.
It is difficult to imagine even so racy a poet as Donne availing himself of our very modern derivative “sexy,” with its suggestion of shameless provocation attached to abject want of inhibition. Donne and his readers understood that “sex” in the modern sense is more gratifying if an expression of the difference of the sexes: that we cannot properly speak of sex in one sense without speaking of sex in the other.
— R. V. Young
R. V. Young is Professor of English at North Carolina State University. His most recent book is Doctrine and Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Poetry (Boydell & Brewer), and he is currently at work on a book on Shakespeare and on a translation and critical edition of the Flemish humanist Justus Lipsius?s De Constantia. He and his wife, who are parishioners at St. Joseph?s Catholic Church in Raleigh, have five grown children and eight grandchildren.