Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
Chapter 2b: Classical and Hellenistic Greece – Plato’s Laws
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The second topic in this chapter is another work of Plato, and once again a deep context is needed to interpret what the mention of f/f sex actually means for Greek realities. The Laws takes the form of a conversation between three men about what laws are needed for the governance of the ideal city. This is a different take than the one Plate put forth in the Republic. The Republic was more of an idealized thought experiment. The Laws is more of an exhaustive, practical plan of action (but still a purely hypothetical document).
Both texts are surprisingly inclusive of women’s participation in governance, and the Laws provides for a level of equal participation (within an assumption of physical inferiority) that would have seemed revolutionary within the realities of Athenian life at the time. But the well-regulated state that Plato envisions in the Laws is autocratic and more dystopian in its regulation and surveillance than anything a modern mind would consider as ideal.
This is the context for the attitude toward sexual relations in the Laws that provide the context for the two references to f/f sex. There is a strong focus on strict regulation of population for economic and social stability. There is also a very ascetic approach to physical pleasure. These combine in proposed laws that restrict all sexual activity to that which produces legitimate children within social-sanctioned marriages. Both m/m and f/f sex are prohibited on the basis that they do not produce legitimate offspring, but so is m/f adultery and sex between a citizen and a slave. Thus, there is no conceptual category of “homosexual sex” that is being banned, but rather a category of “illegitimate sexual activity” which is defined as everything outside of a fairly narrow category.
The other context for this prohibition is an attitude that non-procreative sex represents a failure to properly restrain passions and appetites that indicate moral weakness. It’s permissible for approved procreative sex to be enjoyed, because it is otherwise licit, but with no licit purpose, other forms of sex represent a lack of self-control.
These attitudes are very much out of line with the realities of Athenian society, as well as being in conflict with attitudes implicit in Plato’s earlier writings. So does this represent a seismic shift in his own attitudes toward sex, or does the difference lie in the specific genre and purpose of the Laws as a text? Boehringer seems to lean toward the latter. She also notes that the Laws do not include unrealistic, fanciful scenarios to address – the topics covered in the text are practical, real-life subjects that would need to be considered in designing a government.
The ultimate conclusion is that despite the superficially negative context in which f/f sex is mentioned in the Laws, the inclusion of the topic, and its neutral treatment vis-à-vis other types of prohibited sex, indicate that it was a reality of Athenian life that would need to be included in any comprehensive proposal regarding governance of sexual behavior.