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Ancient Sexualities for Tourists

Andrew Lear

Oscar Wilde Tours

Four years ago, I decided to leave academia.  I did not, however, abandon my interest in the topics I worked on.  Instead, I took my work to the general public, founding 2 tour companies, first Oscar Wilde Tours, a company that offers tours focused on the history of same-sex love, then Shady Ladies Tours, a company that gives tours focused on women’s history, but in particular (as the name makes clear) courtesans.  Any Classicist will recognize that this bipartite structure reflects the common trope in Greek culture of desire for either (or both) paides and gunaikes—meaning, inevitably, hetairas—the only category of woman regularly treated as an object of desire in Greek literature.

Both companies have been fairly successful, and both rely on my developing sense of how to tell the public about the sexual practices and ideas of distant cultures.  Since I need them to purchase tickets and recommend my products to their friends and on-line readers, I obviously can’t upset my customers.  But the material of the tours clearly challenges their assumptions about sex and gender—an aspect of ideology about which people are particularly defensive.

I could tell many a tale about this topic.  I find it interesting for instance that my gay customers on the whole never express discomfort with Greek pederasty; this may be because my tours attract a relatively educated audience, and they are aware of it, at least in general terms.  There is however considerable resistance to the flipside of that coin, the concept of katapugosune/kinaidia:  many do not like to hear that adult-adult male-male relationships were considered shameful/comic in Greek culture, or that anal sex (important in our culture’s vision of male-male love, although recent research suggests that it is less common in actual sexual practice than we imagine).  My women’s history groups on the other hand show discomfort with age-discrepant male-male erotic relations.  This usually comes up in the context of the relationship between Hadrian and Antinous, as there are busts of the two of them close to each other in the Metropolitan Museum, my companies’ home base.  They express this by asking questions about the two men’s relative ages, clearly an important issue in our culture—hoping, I suppose, that the relationship will turn out to be somewhat acceptable in modern terms.

My tours however have an advantage over most courses on gender and sexuality in the ancient world, which might be hard to replicate in the classroom.  My tours are never (except in Greece) directly about Classical sexual practices/ideologies.  Instead, when I give information about ancient Greek or Roman sexualities, it is always in the context of the history of sexuality, the “gay secrets of the Metropolitan” or the “sexy secrets of the British Museum” etc..   Thus more comfortable (more) modern issues will reassert themselves relatively quickly; also works from other, equally distant cultures (such as representations of initiation rituals from New Guinea, third gender ‘mahus’ from Tahiti, or at the Met, a Baroque castrato singer and his Cardinal lover) will appear and make without theoretical discussion the point that concept dn practices of gender and sexuality vary by culture.  Examples from multiple cultures make this point more easily than Classical examples alone, weighted as they are by concepts and practices so directly in contrast to modern Western ones.

Would this affect my pedagogical practice if I ever again taught a course on gender and sexuality in the Classical world?  I’m not sure, but I leave that to other speakers to comment on. 

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LGBTQ Classics Today: Professional and Pedagogical Issues

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