Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #98 Halperin 1998 “Lesbian Historiography before the Name?”

Full citation: 

Halperin, David. 1998. “Lesbian Historiography before the Name?” in Gay and Lesbian Quarterly 4:557-630. [A panel discussion of Brooten 1997]

* * *

David M. Halperin -- Halperin focuses specifically on the social and historic context of varieties of sexual activity in ancient Greece and takes the position that Brooten fundamentally misunderstands the nature of Greek sexual hierarchies and of the institution of pederasty (in its ancient Greek sense). Although Halperin’s work was focused entirely on male culture (and at one point he specifically notes that everything he knows about women’s sexual culture in ancient Greece comes second-hand from a colleague), he accuses Brooten of being a “scholarly tourist” in the field and doing too much projection of modern attitudes and understandings onto the material. [He’s also insufferably condescending and pompous. He actually uses the word “tendentiousness” of Brooten -- I think “condescending and pompous” may be too kind.]

Halperin appears to be a “strong Foucaultian” in holding the position that there are no objective “facts” with regard to sexual or erotic orientation, but only socially constructed roles that dictate what behaviors and understandings people are able to inhabit. This puts him in direct opposition to Brooten’s implied position that there is an objective concept and category of “lesbianism” that can be studied in the past. Having posited that one can only understand historic sexualities by studying the historic data in context, he then more or less concludes that the data about female homoeroticism is so rare and decontextualized that it’s hardly possible to study it at all. He also seems to have his nose out of joint because he feels that he and his friends weren’t given sufficient credit for some of the ideas that Brooten presents in her work. But in the end he does seem to concede Brooten’s point that the histories of male and female homoeroticism cannot be treated as related and parallel, and therefore the study of one (typically, men) cannot stand in for the study of the other.

Ann Pellegrini -- Pellegrini supports Brooten’s emphasis on understanding the history of female homoeroticism as being inseparable from the history of women’s place in (patriarchal) society and that previous studies have been flawed in tacitly assuming an equation with men’s experiences. Pellegrini’s challenge to Brooten’s work and conclusions largely revolves around a perception that Brooten has “sanitized” lesbian sexuality and constructed an idealized image of egalitarian romantic love as the organizing principle for the history of lesbianism (projected from modern ideals) in order to make her arguments for modern Christian acceptance of lesbian relationships. And furthermore, that to do so Brooten has in some ways thrown historic male homoeroticism under the bus in order to create an exaggerated distinction between “bad” hierarchic, status-driven, asymmetric relationships and the “good” egalitarian “sacredness and holiness of a woman expressing her love for another woman.” [And I have to think that she has a valid point, in retrospect.]

Ken Stone -- Stone focuses primarily on the uses of history and exegesis to argue for and against policy positions of the modern Christian church. He points out that, purely from a logistical point of view, Brooten undermines several of the prevailing counters to Paul’s Letter to the Romans (e.g., the position that he wasn’t actually talking about loving homosexual relationships at all, and certainly not about women’s sexuality in particular), substituting instead an argument that Paul actually did mean to be misogynistic and homophobic, but because these were attitudes that he inherited from pre-Christian Classical cultures, they cannot be considered intrinsically “Christian” and therefore can be discarded in favor of more liberal Christian values. (Stone, too, feels that in this context Brooten is throwing gay men under the bus.)

Natalie Boymel Kampen -- Kampen praises the scope and thoroughness of Brooten’s collection of historic sources and agrees with her conclusions regarding the sources and innovations in early Christian attitudes towards female homoeroticism. But she takes issue with the way the second part of the book (the study of Pauline texts and their context) centers and foregrounds modern Christian philosophy and politics in what is otherwise an objective study of a historical phenomenon. She notes that the book “may be problematic for non-Christian readers” for whom the arguments pleading for a re-examination of Paul as a basis for modern Christian policy are entirely irrelevant. She, too, notes that Brooten has constructed a “sanitized” version of lesbian sexuality (in contradiction to large chunks of her evidence) in support of this plea.

Dierdre Good -- Good also focuses on the Biblical exegesis aspect of Brooten’s work, though noting that she takes a firmly historical approach, in contrast to many other critiques of Paul which are more theological in approach. Good finds the latter lacking in failing to address the historic context of Paul’s writings in a way similar to Brooten. The remainder of Good’s discussion focuses on details of the Biblical context.

Bernadette J. Brooten (response) -- Perhaps the last third of the article covers Brooten’s response to the above comments. She begins by summarizing their points of agreement and the highlights of their points of difference. Subsequent sections address: whether undue attention is paid to Paul’s Letter to the Romans; whether sex between women had been overly idealized in the work; whether anachronistic interpretations have been projected on the data; whether her presentation of Classical pederasty is accurate and fair; and several other more minor topics. I won’t cover these in detail as they largely reiterate positions given in the book, as well as noting that many of the objections involve the same cherry-picking of data that they attribute to her.

Aside from the guided tour in how professionals critique each others’ historical work, this article gives a peek into the forms and nature of academic argument.

Event / person: 

Add new comment

historical