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The Greeks "were not really gay"

Originally Published 04 November 2002

Dr James Davidson, of the Department of Classics, has been awarded the Mosse Prize for the best essay in gay and lesbian history for the years 2000/1: "Dover, Foucault and Greek Homosexuality. Penetration and the Truth of Sex", Past and Present (2001). The jury consisted of Henning Bech of Copenhagen, Lesley Hall of London, Harry Oosterhuis of Maastricht (chair) and Marion de Ras of Frankfurt. At the First Mosse Lecture by Hafid Bouazza on 18 September of this year, Marion de Ras gave the following laudatio to James Davidson:

"It gives me great pleasure to present Mr James Davidson with the George Mosse Prize for his outstanding academic contribution to the field of gay and lesbian studies. His wide-ranging and comprehensive article entitled "Dover, Foucault and Greek Homosexuality: Penetration and the Truth of Sex", is original, innovative and thorough, profound and yet delightfully provocative. For Davidson critiques Kenneth Dover, but above challenges the great Foucault, using an impressive range of early and contemporary sources.

A daring mission, he completes in a brilliant and sophistic way, arguing that penetration was discursively placed at the centre of Greek sexuality by Kenneth Dover and Michel Foucault, constructed as an active/passive distinction and as such understood as the crux of male same sex eroticism. Linking penetration to power and politics the authors encouraged a discourse of sexualization of Greek male same sex eroticism. A discourse that recent scholarship has picked up and enfolded further. Idea and image of Platonic love was lost. Though Davidson wouldn't want to return to an exclusively platonic explanation of homosexual sex.

Why this construction took place you can read in his article. Various complex arguments are given of which a most interesting and challenging one is homophobia. Interesting of course because you know that Foucault himself was homosexual."

In his own words, James says he argues in the article that the "'wham-bam-thank-you-Ma'am' penetration-obsessed approach to sex, which the consensus ascribed to the Greeks was simply the modern approach to heterosexual acts dressed up in ancient costume, that the evidence that was adduced to demonstrate that such an attitude existed in antiquity was very flimsy and based on prejudiced interpretations of obscure isolated words and ambivalent images, and that the whole notion that the ancient Greeks were into homosexual sex rather than homosexuality, was (paradoxically) driven from the 1960s onwards by a desire to prove that the Greeks 'were not really gay'."