Mediterranean Homosexuality

3 April 2019

(Content Warning: Homophobia, heterosexism, pornographic content, sexism and misogyny, slurs, transphobia, transmisogyny)

I wonder what it’d be like if Grindr had existed in the Roman Empire. Nude torsos, an appetite for gay sex and toxic masculinity—the Romans certainly weren’t that different (well, except for 4G and smartphones). In fact, if we compared the Roman Grindr to today’s, we’d find a surprising number of similarities, including users’ fear of “fems”.

Hadrian (76 CE – 138 CE) was an odd Roman emperor. Unlike his predecessors, he chose defence over conquest, granted certain autonomy to nations under his rule and spent little time in Rome, preferring to venture beyond his walls rather than rely on informers’ reports. There was, though, one additional factor which set Hadrian apart: his open relationship with the handsome Greek youth Antinous.

Homosexual activity was by no means a rarity in Hadrian’s time. Elite men could have anal sex with slaves—so long as they were the top. Rome’s quest to dominate the world was echoed in the bedroom, where submitting to another man was not only emasculating, but unpatriotic. “The passive partners who … endure the disease of effemination,” wrote Roman philosopher Philo, “let both body and soul run to waste.”

Hadrian’s relationship with Antinous, however, defied those rules. The two were free-born and so, when they had sex, it wasn’t along the master/slave paradigm. Hadrian was instead openly affectionate towards his lover. After Antinous’ mysterious death on a cruise along the Nile, Hadrian had him deified, founded a cult to worship him and named a city, Antinopolis, in his honour.

It’s hard, therefore, to see Hadrian as the oppressive top Rome would demand he be. Perhaps this is why (in part) he was so unpopular with the Senate; his sexuality zig-zagged their narrowly drawn lines of masculinity.

Two thousand years later, and the perceived power dynamics of anal sex—where the top is dominant and the bottom submissive—still exist. This phenomenon even has a name: ‘Mediterranean homosexuality’. Mediterranean homosexuality conceives the bottom as the quintessentially effeminate gay, while the top is not considered homosexual at all. This is because the penetrator assumes the violent, masculine trappings of the heterosexual macho. They can consequently deny any same-sex attraction, even after engaging in anal sex, while the submissive bottom is always presumed to be homosexual. This means that if you bottom, your partner can turn around and say “no homo”—but you’re stuck with a label. Hardly seems fair, does it?

Mediterranean homosexuality is misleading as a name: the myopic binaries which privilege certain types of masculinity are common, from the Strait of Gibraltar to Australia. Anyone who’s used Grindr in Melbourne knows it’s polluted with terms like ‘masc4masc’ and ‘straight-acting’. Like the popularity of ‘straight guys’ on PornHub, these expressions suggest a fetishisation of heterosexuality; a lunging for straightness with homoerotic fingers.

Our obsession with a patriarchal form of manliness has ramifications for anyone who does not fit the alpha-male-as-top archetype. Within Mediterranean homosexuality’s hierarchy of masculinities, there is no space for any gradation of queer identities. Where do those who engage in both sexual roles, or abstain from non-penetrative sex altogether, fit? What hope is there for trans men who want to bottom without feeling emasculated? And what about bisexual and pansexuals, or those experimenting?

Being a cis gay man, I can’t answer firsthand how Mediterranean homosexuality oppresses the large diversity of queer genders and sexualities. Nevertheless, we have to ask the above questions: it’s clear that heteronormative structures affect more than just cis gay men, and it’s important to remember that.

In the gay clubs of Spain, there was one particular song that would get everyone dancing. This parody of Girl on Fire by Alicia Keys would have club-goers, myself included, sculling our drinks, bouncing out of our chairs, and belting “esa marica es pasiva”. Only recently have I begun thinking about the lyrics.

The phrase translates two ways: “that faggot’s a bottom” or “that fairy’s a bottom”. Either way, it denigrates the bottom—the marica pasiva—for their supposed femininity.

These sexist slurs aren’t limited to Spain. English gives us “poofter”, “nancy” and “daffy” (from “daffodil”), which similarly deride men perceived to be too feminine.

This is the real rotten core of shaming bottoms: since the Roman Empire, we’ve shamed them not necessarily for their same-sex attraction, but because they are seen as feminine, and feminine is seen as lesser.

One extreme form of this intersection between internalised homophobia and misogyny comes from “G0y” is a self-identifier for gays repulsed by the rainbow flags and progressive politics of queer liberation. According to their website, the zero in “g0y” aims to return homosexuality to ground-zero. What this means, I’m not sure. Handjobs in Roman baths and fucking slaves, perhaps?

The website’s banner is telling and screams in capitals, “N0 BOTTOMS, N0 ANAL, N0 BITCHES, N0 TRANNYS, N0 MANGINAS”. Later, they announce that they find anal sex to be “dirty, degrading and damn un-masculine”. There’s a lot to unpack here, but what’s clear is that homophobia and transphobia in the gay community go hand in hand with sexism.

I wish I could claim immunity from this internalised homophobia. It would be easy to laugh at these repressed men in their dark corner of the internet. But I haven’t been able to undo the shackles the Romans bound us with.

I used to cry after watching porn. Perhaps it was just residual Catholic guilt squeezing itself through my tear ducts. But now, with the neurotic self-analysis of an Arts student, I think I can intellectualise why, by way of example:

Step one: google ‘gay porn’ and click on PornHub. It’ll be the second result. (The first one’s Gay Male Tube, but it has too many ads.)

Step two: don’t overcomplicate things. Just go to this month’s most popular videos; the crowd can’t be wrong.

Step three: Choose any video that tickles your fancy. Your options for March include “Daddy breeds his femboy princess” and “Straight military jock barebacks his best friend”.

I wish this were a quirky hypothetical: a procedure that I hadn’t repeated day in, day out in lieu of a healthy sex education. But it’s not—it’s an experience common to so many.

Nothing has changed since Philo wrote that bottoms “endure the disease of effemination”. We still watch videos that deride bottoms as “whores”, “sluts” and “bitches”, whereas tops get to be hypermasculine “military jock[s]”. We still rush to the dancefloor to chant songs about “maricas pasivas”. We still use misogynistic insults like “pussy” and “bitch” to chastise men not deemed manly enough.

The day after I lost my virginity, I had an eight-hour work shift. I’d just started working at The Athlete’s Foot and was still coming to terms with touching customers’ feet. I took myself out the back, sat in the storeroom and cried. I felt irredeemably dirty; corrupt; vulnerable. I could hardly serve customers that day. Every time I spoke, my voice cracked for fear that they were judging me. You dirty little faggot. You filthy poofter.

I’d like to say I no longer worry about emasculation, but it’s a work in progress. I remind myself, daily, that bottoming should be celebrated. It’s a threat to the patriarchy, I tell myself, with the revolutionary fervour of a politics major. Bottoming opposes the sexist ‘masculine as active/feminine as passive’ dichotomy!

While this is true, it’s not really about bottoming, is it? The greater issue is that so many men, gays included, have a problem with the feminine.

So, what can be done?

Well, for one, I’ll be watching no more misogynistic porn.

But individual solutions aren’t enough. Structural changes are needed so that people value femininity. Place tougher sanctions on homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic behaviour; include queer identities as part of compulsory sex education; increase funding for art that represents a wide diversity of sexualities—these are just some of the changes that could be enacted.

Through this, I hope that “you’re so gay” loses its bitter sting; that the phrase “femboy princess” falls out of erotic favour; and that when “marica pasiva” plays, the dancefloor empties.

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