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Re: And as for a reply that actually has to do with the book... Camilla Send a noteboard - 27/06/2011 07:38:49 AM
Despite its ridiculously clichéd, pink cover (in the edition I read, at any rate), this is a very interesting book. It is replete with fascinating information on sexuality in a variety of geographical areas during a large part of human history. William Naphy traces sex between men (and occasionally sex between women) from the beginnings of human history to the present; and in each chapter (covering a period of time) he discusses a number of cultures from all over the world, thereby presenting a series of synchronous slices which also allows a semblance of diachronic lines of development): a world history of homosexuality.

That does sound interesting, despite its flaws... I might have to read it.

If this sounds like it might be too ambitious, that would be right. The book is just under 300 pages long, which makes any in-depth investigation of such a wide topic unattainable. Possibly as a result of the same restrictions it is at times a little careless with regard to methodological considerations: because there is no room to discuss the complex reasoning behind interpretations of sources that only contribute a very little, there is a tendency towards simply skirting over the evidence for homosexuality (or, rather, sex between people of the same sex, homosexuality being a terribly anachronistic term) in periods and areas where there is little written material. Quite often I found myself wishing there were footnotes with sources for me to look at (simply saying "there is evidence that X" makes me want to see the evidence).

I'm not sure what the difference between "sex between people of the same sex" and "homosexuality" is, unless you mean that the latter implies it's a permanent preference or inclination. But still, anachronistic? Does that mean that in all or nearly all of those cultures he mentions, people who only had sex with people of the same sex were exceptions, and most were what we'd now call bisexual?

"Homosexual" is a very recent term, and the whole point of Naphy's book is that applying modern categories to other periods obscures their particular way of being. Bisexual would be another anachronistic term. The point is that juggling of gender roles and sex varies widely across the world and time. "Homosexual" will evoke ideas which do not apply.

I have one other objection to get out of the way before telling you why you should read the book anyway: women are all but absent. This is not to be laid entirely at Naphy's door: I imagine the restrictions are very much there in the source material. And women do pop up occasionally. But I believe he omitted Sappho entirely during his discussion of the Greeks, and as a whole the book is rather too focused on penetration as a classification tool. It is always sad when a book which sets out to redress a marginalisation ends up committing the same sin all over again.

That it is. Omitting Sappho is rather impressive.

I thought so.
That said, his focus on penetration as a mode of classification is very, very interesting. This is another reason why the term "homosexual" does not really work. There is a very strong distinction in a number of cultures between men who penetrate and men who are penetrated, and at which periods of life the one or the other is acceptable. The term would also obscure the fact that sex between women would in all probability function within entirely different classifications.

Despite the flaws, however, this is a very well written and interesting book full of fascinating details about remote cultures (geographically or historically or both -- certainly from a Western point of view), described and discussed in order to place the current attitudes to homosexuality in a wider context. And it is here that the main interest of the book lies. Rather than taking the Judeo-Christian culture(s) as a norm and marvelling at the strange things people elsewhere and -when have been up to, it sets out to show the Judeo-Christian (and to a certain extent the Islamic) as the "other", the aberration in human history.

I'm not sure that's such a great idea... if you're showing your own culture as the "other" and the aberration, you're still putting the focus on your own culture and singling it out for special treatment.

Hmmm. I disagree. The Judeo-Christian/Islamic view has singled itself out through its extraordinary spread through conquest. Because it is now the dominant, thinking of it as an aberration is salutary.

It argues that the focus on sex exclusively for procreation was an idiosyncrasy of Jewish culture which Christianity and Islam took up and spread to the areas in which their cultures became dominant. Naphy spent a great deal of time establishing the older sources of traditions of same-sex sexual relations as well as alternative gender roles in areas that later came to present the received perception of sex and gender as their "true traditions" and homosexuality as a decadence of the invaders (Africans calling it an Islamic tendency, Hindu nationalists referring to it as either a Muslim or British tradition). He also discusses the changing attitudes in Europe, seeing the Black Death and similar cataclysmic events as triggers for periods of homophobia (that correspond to persecutions of Jews, for example).

Islam certainly is more liberal than the other two in matters of sex, homosexuality included. Or was, anyway.

Yes. He goes into quite a lot of detail on the ghazal and other forms of poetry. And the translations. Apparently English translations have had a tendency to translate hymns to beautiful boys as hymns to beautiful girls.

The aim of the book is to show that a homophobic rhetoric based on what is "natural" must fall flat if history is taken into account. Because it is written (to a great extent) in the context of the American debates surrounding the rights of gay people to adopt/marry/serve in the armed forces/be gay it has a polemic tint at times; but as I agree wholeheartedly with his position on the matter, this does not bother me. It does make me worry that the people who ought to read this book, will not, however, because a polemic is more easily dismissed.

I think it's safe to assume few people who think homosexuality is a sin will be reading this book. :P

True. The packaging alone...

Even for those who, like me, need no convincing, however, it is a very interesting book which will (I am fairly sure) point out something you did not know/had not thought about with regards to human sexuality and the way we fall into classifying things as if our constructions are already there as "nature".

Yeah, no doubt it will... I'll keep an eye out for it.
structured procrastinator
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Re: And as for a reply that actually has to do with the book... - 27/06/2011 07:38:49 AM 1604 Views

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