The ubiquity of homosexuality
The revolutionary nature of Judaism’s prohibiting all forms of non-marital sex was nowhere more radical, more challenging to the prevailing assumptions of mankind, than with regard to homosexuality.
Indeed, Judaism may be said to have invented the notion of homosexuality, for in the ancient world sexuality was not divided between heterosexuality and homosexuality. That division was the Bible’s doing. Before the Bible, the world divided sexuality between penetrator (active partner) and penetrated (passive partner).
As Martha Nussbaum, professor of philosophy at Brown University, recently wrote, the ancients were no more concerned with people’s gender preference than people today are with others’ eating preferences:
Ancient categories of sexual experience differed considerably from our own. The central distinction in sexual morality was the distinction between active and passive roles. The gender of the object … is not in itself morally problematic. Boys and women are very often treated interchangeably as objects of (male) desire. What is socially important is to penetrate rather than to be penetrated. Sex is understood fundamentally not as interaction, but as a doing of something to someone…
Judaism changed all this. It rendered the “gender of the object” very “morally problematic”; it declared that no one is “interchangeable” sexually. And as a result, it ensured that sex would in fact be “fundamentally interaction” and not simply “a doing of something to someone.”
To appreciate the extent of the revolution wrought by Judaism’s prohibiting homosexuality, and demanding that all sexual interaction be male-female, it is first necessary to appreciate just how universally accepted, valued and practiced homosexuality has been throughout the world.
The one continuous exception was Jewish civilization – and a thousand years later, Christian civilization. “None of the archaic civilizations prohibited homosexuality per se,” notes Dr. David E. Greenberg.
Judaism alone declared homosexuality wrong. And it said so in the most powerful and unambiguous language it could: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22) “And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed an abomination.” (Leviticus 20:13)
It is Judaism’s sexual morality, not homosexuality, that historically has been “deviant.”
In order to make this point clear, consider but a handful of examples from throughout the world. Without these examples, this claim would seem unbelievable.
Unless otherwise noted, these examples are taken from a major work of scholarship published in 1988 by the University of Chicago, “The Construction of Homosexuality,” by New York University sociology professor David E. Greenberg. It is the most methodical sociological study of homosexuality throughout history ever written. (Each of his examples cites numerous sources.)
Pre-Columbian Americas: In North America, the Spanish and French explorers and missionaries who visited the New World quickly became aware of widespread Indian transvestism (men dressing as women) and homosexuality. Writing in 1776, Father Charlevoix, a Jesuit priest, found the Iroquois to have “an excess of effeminacy and lewdness. There are men unashamed to wear women’s clothing and to practice all the occupations of women, from which follows corruption that I cannot express. They pretend that its usage comes from their religion. These effeminates never marry and abandon themselves to the most infamous passions.”
In Central America, among the Mayans, there was widespread male homosexuality: “A strong homosexual component pervades close friendships of young married Mayan men as well as bachelors in southern Mexico and among Guatemalan Indians.”
Among the Aztecs, “Sodomy was virtually universal, involving even children as young as six. Cortez also found sodomy to be widespread among the Aztecs, and admonished them to give it up – along with human sacrifice and cannibalism. One of the Aztec gods, Xochipili, was the patron of male homosexuality and male prostitution.”
Ancient Near East: In Mesopotamia, Hammurabi, the author of the famous legal code bearing his name, had male lovers.
Egyptian culture believed that “homosexual intercourse with a god was auspicious.” Having anal intercourse with a god was the sign of a man’s mastery over fear of the god. Thus one Egyptian coffin text reads, “Atum [a god] has no power over me, for I copulate between his buttocks.” In another coffin text, the deceased person vows, “I will swallow for myself the phallus of [the god] Re.”
Greece: Homosexuality was not only a conspicuous feature of life in ancient Greece, it was exalted. The seduction of young boys by older men was expected and honored. Those who could afford, in time and money, to seduce young boys, did so. Graphic pictures of man-boy sex (pederasty) adorn countless Greek vases.
“Sexual intimacy between men was widespread throughout ancient Greek civilization. … What was accepted and practiced among the leading citizens was bisexuality; a man was expected to sire a large number of offspring and to head a family while engaging a male lover. … The male homosexual act usually involved anal intercourse with a boy.”
“The interchangeability of boys and women was widely taken for granted.” But the culture most appreciated boys: “Athenus, for example, remarked that Alexander the Great was indifferent to women but passionate for males. In Euripides’ play ‘The Cyclops,’ Cyclops proclaims, ‘I prefer boys to girls.’ Plato never married. The philosopher Bion (third century B.C.) advised against marriage and restricted his attention to his (male) pupils. The stoic philosopher Zeno … was also known for his exclusive interest in boys.” And “Plato makes clear in ‘Symposium’ that it was perfectly acceptable to court a lad, and admirable to win him.”
As Greenberg writes, “The Greeks assumed that ordinarily sexual choices were not mutually exclusive, but rather that people were generally capable of responding erotically to beauty in both sexes. Often they could and did.”
“Sparta, too, institutionalized homosexual relations between mature men and adolescent boys.” In Sparta, homosexuality “seems to have been universal among male citizens.”
Greek philosophical systems:
Epicureanism – “Within the framework of Epicurean philosophy … no distinction was made between homosexual and heterosexual partners.”
Stoicism – The Stoics “held the sexual function of the body to be morally indifferent, just like other bodily functions – from which it followed that love of men or women was to be viewed strictly from the point of view of expediency.”
Cynicism – The founder of cynicism, Antisthenes, a student of Socrates, “considered homosexual affairs acceptable provided the partner was worthy, and so did his disciple Diogenes (412-323 B.C.).”
Rome: Homosexuality was so common in Rome, that Edward Gibbon, in his “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” wrote that “of the first fifteen emperors Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct” (i.e., not homosexual).
According to psychiatrist and sexual historian Norman Sussman, “In contrast to the self-conscious and elaborate efforts of the Greeks to glorify and idealize homosexuality, the Romans simply accepted it as a matter of fact and as an inevitable part of human sexual life. Pederasty was just another sexual activity. Many of the most prominent men in Roman society were bisexual if not homosexual. Julius Caesar was called by his contemporaries every woman’s man and every man’s woman.”
Polybius, the Greek historian who visited Rome in the second century CBE, wrote that most young men had male lovers. And Greenberg notes that “Many of the leading figures in Roman literary life in the late Republic – Catullus, Tibullus, Vergil and Horance – wrote homophile poetry.” In addition, “male prostitution flourished throughout Italy.”
The emperor Trajan was known for his love of boys; his successor, Hadrian, put up sculptures of his male liver and Commodus “kept a little boy, naked except for jewelry, and often slept with him.” Tatian, a Christian who lived in Rome in the second century, wrote that the Romans “consider pederasty to be particularly privileged and try to round up herds of boys like herds of grazing mares.”
Other ancient and feudal societies:
Carthage – As testified to by the 5th century priest, Salvian, the Carthaginians “glorified in pederasty.”
The Celts – “According to Aristotle, the Celts esteemed homosexuality.” And writing in the 1st century BC, Diodorus Siculus wrote: “The men are much keener on their own sex; they lie around on animal skins and enjoy themselves, with a lover on each side. The extraordinary thing is they haven’t the smallest regard for their personal dignity or self-respect; they offer themselves to other men without the least compunction. Furthermore, this isn’t looked down on, or regarded in any way disgraceful…”
The Gauls – “In lists of national characteristics, pederasty was considered the particular distinction of the Gauls.”
Scandinavia – “Cult transvestism persisted for centuries in Scandinavia. … Adam of Bremen, a church historian of the 11th century, reports that ritual human sacrifices were carried out every nine years at Uppsala, during which obscene incantations were sung.” These “obscene incantations” were described by a Danish historian in the 12th century as essentially involving “womanish body movements” and other features of cult homosexuality.
England – “The people of England,” wrote St. Boniface in 744, “have been leading a shameful life, despising lawful marriages, committing adultery and lusting after the fashion of the people of Sodom.” According to Greenberg, this was because “there was no prejudice against it [homosexuality].”
China – According to Robert H. Van Gulik I his classic “Sexual Life in Ancient China,” during the last centuries BCE and the first century CE male homosexuality was quite fashionable in China. The first three emperors of the Han dynasty, for example, kept “powdered and rouged boys.”
Sex historian Arno Karlen reports that “two Arab travelers trekked through India and China in the 9th century, and in their chronicles said the Chinese were addicted to sodomy and even performed it in their shrines.” During the Five Dynasties Period, 907-960, man-boy sex was generally accepted. Six hundred years later, “When the Jesuit Matteo Ricci visited Peking in 1583 and again in 1609-10, he found male prostitution to [be] altogether lawful, and practiced openly. …To his dismay no one thought there was anything wrong with it. Several hundred years later, European travelers still reported that no one was ashamed of homosexuality.”
In the 19th century, according to a visiting French physician, male bordellos acquired boys as young as 4 years old to train as prostitutes. “The boys received depilation, dilation of the anus, massages to develop the buttocks … They were effeminate and luxuriously dressed.”
Sir Richard Burton summed up the Chinese in these words: “Their systematic bestiality with ducks, goats and other animals is equaled only by their pederasty.” The Chinese, he wrote, are “the Chosen people of debauchery.”
It is also extremely important to recognize that one reason for homosexuality’s acceptance in China (and in Japan) was Buddhism. “Chinese Buddhism considered homosexuality to be a minor transgression…”
“During the feudal age, it [homosexuality] flourished among the military aristocracy. A samurai warrior went to battle accompanied by a favorite youth, who also served as a sexual partner. … Literary sources depict the relationships as highly romantic, sustained by undying loyalty. Sometimes samurai fought duels on behalf of their lovers.”
As noted above, Japanese Buddhism posed little obstacle to male homosexuality. “Japanese Buddhism appears to have disregarded it [homosexuality] altogether. …Buddhist monks were not allowed to have intercourse with women; but as male partners were not explicitly prohibited, many monks took youthful male lovers, a practice that was considered quite acceptable. The Jesuit missionary Fancis Xavier registered his shock at the indifference of the population to the open homosexuality of the Buddhist priests on the occasion of his visit to Japan in 1549. Legal codes of the period do not even mention homosexuality.” In the 1630s, emissaries of the Dutch East India Company reported that “all the priests … are strongly attached to unnatural lusts…”
Thailand – In Siam in the 17th century, “pederasty was extremely common, virtually universal.”
Indochina – In French Indo-China, “adult men commonly had boy lovers, even if they were married.”
Arabs and Muslims:
Arabs – In the Arab and Islamic worlds, “A de facto acceptance of male homosexuality has prevailed in Arab lands down to the modern era.” As early as the 10th century, German historians depicted Christian men as preferring martyrdom to submitting to Arab sexual demands.
In the words of one of the world’s great scholars of Islam, Marshall G.S. Hodgson, “The sexual relations of a mature man with a subordinate youth were so readily accepted in upper-class circles that there was often little or no effort to conceal their existence.”
“It is a common belief among the Arab-speaking mountaineers of Northern Morocco that a boy cannot learn the Koran well unless a scribe commits pederasty with him. So also an apprentice is supposed to learn his trade by having intercourse with his master.”
“In Morocco … pederasty has been an ‘established custom,’ with boys readily available in the towns. As late as 1952 … male students of the Islamic University engaged in homosexual relations openly and publicly.
“In 19th-century Algeria, ‘the streets and public places swarmed with boys of remarkable beauty who more than shared with the women the favor of the wealthier natives.’
“In Siwa, an oasis town in Libya, pederasty was practiced very widely [in the 20th century], with parents prostituting their own sons.
“A psychiatric survey [reported in 1971] of Iraq found male and female homosexuality to be common among men and women.”
Non-Arab Muslims – As for non-Arab Islam, “the situation,” Greenberg concludes, “has been little different.”
“Ever since the 16th century, Western visitors have commented on the pervasiveness of Turkish pederasty. Large numbers of boys were captured or purchased for personal use, placed in brothels, or resold; the demand for them stuck all observers as remarkable.”
The Marlukes, who ruled Egypt from 1249, “were renowned for their pederasty with youths purchased from non-Muslim peoples.”
In Northwest Pakistan, men “consider the most satisfying form of sexual gratification to be anal intercourse with a bedagh (passive male partner).”
“John Fryer, who traveled to Persia in the late 17th century, found that “The Persians, when they let go their Modesty … covet boys as much as women.”
Another visitor to Persia in the same century, John Chardin, reported that he had found “numerous houses of male prostitution, but none offering females;” and “some of the greatest Persian love poetry is written to boys.” In 1985, Paul Cowan reported that an Iranian student who wore Western-style clothes and who laughed at a Khomeini demonstration was raped by a group of teenagers loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini.
In Afghanistan, at the end of the 19th century, Sir Richard Burton found a country “saturated with the Persian vice.” He saw Afghan merchants invariably “accompanied by a number of boys and lads almost in woman’s attire with Kohl’d eyes and rouged cheeks, long tresses and henna’s fingers and toes, riding luxuriously in Kajawas or camel-panniers. They are called Kuch-I safari or traveling wives…”
Louis Dupree, perhaps the West’s leading scholar on Afghanistan, wrote in his 1973 book on Afghanistan that male homosexuality remains common there.
Among the Moguls (Muslims who ruled in India), a Dutch traveler wrote that male homosexuality “is not only universal in practice among them, but extends to a bestial communication with brutes, and in particular with sheep.”
Summary: David Greenberg summarizes the ubiquitous nature of homosexuality in these words: “With only a few exceptions, male homosexuality was not stigmatized or repressed so long as it conformed to norms regarding gender and the relative ages and statuses of the partners…The major exceptions to this acceptance seem to have arisen in two circumstances.” Both of these circumstances were Jewish.