According to the Phaedrus, the first-century Roman fabulist, tribades and molles men were created when Prometheus got drunk and accidentally mixed up their genitalia: adplicuit virginale generi masculo, / et masculina membra adposuit feminis. / ita nunc libido pravo fruitur gaudio (4.16.12-14: “He attached the virginal part to the masculine race, / and placed masculine parts onto women, / thus lust now enjoys perverted pleasure”). According to the common interpretation of this fable, line 12 describes molles men and line 13 describes tribades: effeminate men have a vagina and tribades have a penis (Butrica 2006; Hallett 1997; Williams 2010). Hallett argues that this fable is part of a larger tradition of denying the biological reality of female same-sex relationships by insisting that sex requires a penis – even sex between two women. However, there is another possible reading of this fable: namely, that line 12 describes tribades and line 13 describes molles men. In this interpretation, tribades are men accidentally given a vagina and molles men are women accidentally given a penis. Not only would this reading conform more to the physical reality, but it would also help explain the origin of the unusual desires of such individuals: tribades desire to penetrate because they are men, and molles men desire to be penetrated because they are women. However, because of Prometheus’s mistake, they lack the equipment to fulfill their desires, and hence must fall back on pravo…gaudio, pleasure that is both physically “irregular” (since “regular” sex is impossible for them) and morally “perverted” (cf. Butrica 2006 for the possible double meaning of pravo).
This latter interpretation is currently the minority opinion. It appears in a footnote of Boyarin and is mentioned in passing by Brooten, but it has not received an in-depth discussion or defense. In my talk, I will defend the minority reading by adducing new arguments. First, a close reading of Fable 4.16 will demonstrate that my interpretation best fits the fable as a whole. Next, I will look at this fable in context, for the fables that come immediately before and after this fable similarly deal with gender nonconformance, and thus must influence how we read this fable. Fable 4.15 is unfortunately fragmentary, but seems to be an etiology for women who enjoy oral sex: they enjoy it because their tongues are made from the same material as their genitals, again thanks to a mistake of Prometheus (cf. Hallett 1997 for a different reading of this fable). These women, like the molles men of Fable 4.16, wish to be penetrated, but because their genitals are in the wrong place, they enjoy this penetration in the wrong way (cf. Richlin 1992 and Williams 2010, among others, for the negative view of oral sex in Roman sources). Fable 4.17 involves female bearded goats who lack fortitudo; their external gender markers (beards) belie their actual feminine nature, in much the same way that molles men in Fable 4.16 have external genitalia but are still women. Finally, I will discuss how my reading of Fable 4.16 is consistent with a common fable theme: appearances belie inner nature, for the body is not a reliable sign. Fable 4.16 applies this theme to the genitals: they are part of the physical body, and are hence not necessarily a reliable sign of “true” gender.
My reading of these fables demonstrates the complexity of Phaedrus’s perspective: tribades and molles men have bodies whose genitals do not match their gender identity. Sexual desire, however, is closely linked to gender in Phaedrus’s view: men desire to penetrate and women desire to be penetrated. Thus tribades and molles men are those whose gender identity and sexual desire are both at odds with their physical body.