Image of two men kissingA Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory by Rictor Norton


Most overviews of homosexual history claim that there is a clear line of development from (1) ancient pederastic relationships through (2) early/modern patron/protégé relationships to (3) modern egalitarian relationships. It is no accident that this resembles the alleged dialectic leading from (1) feudalism through (2) capitalism to (3) a classless society. All three paradigms have been simplified and exaggerated, and the alleged shift from one period to another cannot be supported without ignoring a host of exceptions.

The basic premise that the dominant model of male homosexuality has shifted from the ancient and premodern model in which the partners were significantly separated by age (transgenerational, intergenerational, cross-age) to the modern model in which the partners are roughly the same age (egalitarian, androphilia), is challenged by the fact that egalitarian models also existed in ancient times and transgenerational models also exist in modern times. An outstanding exception to the supposed rule, dating from around 2600 BC is the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep discovered at the necropolis of Saqqara in 1964. It is a joint tomb built for two men to cohabit through eternity. On the two pillars flanking the entrance, both men are given the identical title ‘Manicurist and Overseer of the Manicurists in the Palace, King’s Acquaintance and Royal Confident’. Above the entrance, the two men’s names are combined into one name, with a play on words signifying ‘Joined in life and joined in death’. The men were given the tomb by King Niusere of the Fifth Dynasty. Although both men were married and had children, a series of bas reliefs nevertheless depict them embracing virtually as lovers. Greg Reeder (see References), who illustrates these images on his website, describes the culminating image as ‘the most intimate embrace possible within the canons of ancient Egyptian art. Niankhkhnum on the right grasping his companion’s right forearm; Khnumhotep, on the left, has his left arm across the other man’s back, tightly clasping his shoulder. Again the tips of the men’s noses are touching and this time their torsos are so close together that the knots on the belts of their kilts appear to be touching, perhaps even tied together.’ The large relief of a banquet scene curiously has a space behind Niankhkhnum once occupied by an image of his wife, but which was effaced apparently before the tomb was sealed, so as to suggest that only he and Khnumhotep are present at the eternal banquet. The earliest visual evidence from the ancient world concerning two men who loved one another intimately thus depicts two adult men – albeit hairdressers. The earliest written evidence of specifically homosexual relations also shows the love of two adult men, though from different classes: the love of King Pepy II Neferkare (Phiops II; 2355–2261 BC) for his general Sisinne.

The love of Achilles and Patroclus, described by Homer during the sixth or seventh century BC, is clearly an example of egalitarian love rather than institutional pederasty. But authors after Homer imposed a pederastic model upon the egalitarian pair, to accord with the paiderastic model found in Greece at their own time. They oddly portrayed Patroclus as the catamite, though in fact he was about a year older than Achilles. It has become so commonplace to view ancient homosexual relationships as examples of pederasty that we even think of Alexander and Hephaestion as a case in point, when in fact Hephaestion was a nobleman of Macedonia, and the same age as Alexander. Many pairs in lists of famous lovers that feature prominently in the homosexual literary tradition are egalitarian, in marked contrast to the modern attempt to force the pederastic model upon them.

‘Intergenerational’ is commonly used as a synonym for ‘pederastic’ or ‘adult/adolescent’ relationships, but the younger partner is by no means always adolescent. Euripides at the age of seventy-two fell in love with forty-year-old Agathon: ‘A fine Autumn is a beautiful thing indeed!’ Demosthenes is supposed to have fallen in love with Plutarch, who was never young. In the institutionalized homosexual marriages among the indigenous South African Thonga, the nkhonsthana, the ‘boy-wife’, is often more than twenty years old. Just as age inequality is a cultural ideal of romantic love (gay or straight) which does not necessarily mirror reality, so the ‘beautiful boy’ is an icon of the homosexual imagination. Love letters between gay men regularly begin ‘My Dear Boy’, but this is just a romantic form of address. For example, Marcus Aurelius was eighteen years old at the time Marcus Fronto addressed him as ‘Beloved Boy’, George Villiers was twenty-one when he was King James’s ‘sweet and dear child’, the Earl of Sunderland’s ‘dearest Boy’ Captain Wilson was twenty-two, Whitman’s ‘Dear Boy and Comrade’ Peter Doyle was eighteen, Henry Greville’s ‘dear boy’ Frederic Leighton was twenty-six, Henry James’s ‘dearest Boy’ Hendrik Andersen was twenty-seven, and Lord Alfred Douglas was twenty-three when Oscar Wilde wrote his infamous letter to ‘My own Boy’ (Norton 1998).

Historians of homosexuality recognize that the transgenerational relationship was idealized, but they seldom go the necessary one step further to note that the age difference itself is part of an ideal fiction rather than reality. Ihara Saikaku’s work in the seventeenth century ‘makes it clear that the strict formulation of male love as a relationship between an adult man and a youth is frequently maintained only in the form of fictive role-playing’ (Schalow, ‘Introduction’ 1996). In one tale the samurai youth and his boy lover are both nineteen years old. In another the samurai is sixty-six years old and his lover is sixty-three years old but still sports the hairstyle of the ‘youth’. In another, a fourteen-year-old samurai in order to establish his new manhood goes out and gets a ‘youth’ – a twenty-four-year-old kabuki actor/prostitute.

Greenberg (1990) may be the person most responsible for promoting the conceptual category of the ‘intergenerational’ or ‘transgenerational’ relationship, which he regularly conflates with ‘pederastic’. He states as if it were a matter of fact that ‘Many of the male homosexual relations of the time [during the Renaissance] were pederastic. Salai was ten when he began living with the thirty-eight-year-old da Vinci; Michelangelo was fifty-eight when he took up with the young Roman nobleman Tommaso Cavalieri.’ In fact there is no evidence that relations between Da Vinci and Salai actually commenced when Salai was age ten. In fact Cavalieri – whose age Greenberg does not mention – was not a young boy but a young man. Greenberg seems almost intent to deliberately mislead us: ‘Homosexual relations within the male aristocracy were generally pederastic, in congruity with the explicit inequalities that constitute an aristocratic order. George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, who shared James I’s bed, was twenty-five years his junior’. Strictly speaking this example is correctly called ‘transgenerational’, but Villiers was a twenty-one-year-old adult at the time James fell in love with him, so it is quite wrong to call it 'pederastic'. Greenberg, and others in his steps, use their terms indiscriminately, and quite regularly call relationships involving an adult and a child ‘transgenerational’ even though there is very little age difference between them, and relationships involving adults ‘pederastic’ even when both partners are over eighteen or even over twenty-one. Such a practice seriously distorts the meaning of both words, rendering them not very useful for queer history.

It should be emphasized that the extensive friendship literature of Latin classicism and the Renaissance all focused upon love between men of about the same age. Montaigne in his essay ‘On Friendship’, inspired by his love for Etienne de La Boétie, pointedly contrasts this masculine love with the inequalities of pederasty. Sir Francis Bacon explicitly holds up ‘equality’ as a key feature differentiating friendship between men from heterosexual marriage. A major theme of this tradition is that ‘my friend is another myself’, which erases all inequalities. Virtually no ‘anachronistic adjustments’ have to be made in combining sixteenth-century friendship literature with the ‘manly love of comrades’ advocated by Walt Whitman in the nineteenth century – often cited as the locus classicus of egalitarian homosexual love.

The ideology of egalitarian homosexual relationships is not a product of capitalism or the modern age, but is directly traceable to the classical and Renaissance homosexual literary tradition (Norton 1974). Boswell (1994) has similarly pointed out that the ideology of earlier medieval same-sex unions emphasizes their mutuality and equality, in marked contrast to the ideology of heterosexual unions which always emphasize subordination and possession of the woman by the man. Ceremonies of same-sex union closely follow heterosexual marriage ceremonies but notably omit the section about one partner ‘yielding control’ to the other. The rise of ‘companionate marriage’ itself draws upon several centuries of the philosophy of same-sex friendship. ‘Brotherly’ comradeship for many centuries has been emblematic of queer relationships, to such a degree that they have been perceived as a threat to the hierarchical structures of straight society, from the time of Harmodius and Aristogiton to the time of Oscar Wilde and his 'panthers' or working-class boys on the make. The view that all homosexual relationships in the ancient world were temporary and age-related ‘is exaggerated even for Athens, and homosexual relationships in the rest of ancient Europe were certainly far more varied and flexible than this, probably not very different from their heterosexual counterparts. . . . Most ancient writers . . . generally entertained higher expectations of the fidelity and permanence of homosexual passions than of heterosexual feelings’ (Boswell 1994).

A focus upon youth is characteristic of classical discourse about paiderastia not because it is pederastic but because romantic love and desire always presuppose an age difference, and romantic love for the Greeks was often homosexual rather than heterosexual. All romantic desire, heterosexual as well as homosexual, is presumed to be directed towards the young, and ‘most Athenian males married women considerably younger than themselves’ (Boswell 1990). As far as cross-cultural evidence is concerned, many interpreters misleadingly apply the inaccurate term ‘intergenerational sex’ to relationships that typically entail a difference in age of only a half or a third of a generation.

The only valid meaning of a ‘generation’ is the difference in age between parent and child, i.e. the ‘generation gap’. In historical and anthropological studies it is usually defined with reference to the average age at which a male marries and produces offspring, i.e. the difference in age between a father and his first-born child. A generation thus equals twenty to thirty years, and in most historical writing it denotes a period of twenty-five years (i.e. four generations per century). But the average difference in age in so-called ‘intergenerational’ homosexual relationships is usually seven years, rarely fifteen years, scarcely ever a full generation. The classic relationship of institutional military pederasty in Sparta/Crete is between a twelve-year-old ‘hearer’ and a twenty-two-year-old ‘inspirer’: a gap of ten years. Heterosexual relationships in ancient and indigenous societies, in contrast, are invariably ‘intergenerational’ by this standard, in fact usually the age difference between men and women at marriage is significantly greater than between homosexual partners. In the Spartan/Cretan model, the thirty-year-old man would marry an eighteen-year-old woman, a gap of twelve years – two years longer than the gap between ‘hearer’ and ‘inspirer’. Aristotle recommended that men marry at the age of thirty-seven and women at the age of eighteen (Boswell 1994) – proposing nineteen years as the ideal intergenerational gap in heterosexual marriages!

On the other hand, to assert that the ‘modern’ homosexual was invented in the late nineteenth century, and then go on to say that ‘modern’ homosexuality is characteristically egalitarian rather than pederastic or transgenerational, is to completely ignore the fact that pederasty was still a major and perhaps even dominant model for homosexual relations at least until the Second World War. The strongly pederastic magazine Der Eigene was published in Germany from 1898 through 1930. Late Victorian and Edwardian homosexual literature is dominated by pederastic themes (Reade 1970). Young rough trade is a common feature of homosexuality in England at least through the 1930s. In France Pédérasts were the archetypal homosexual roles through the 1950s. In southern Europe today it is common for there to be significant age differences between partners, and even in France the pédérast is still an important queer cultural paradigm.

It really was not until the late 1960s, and specifically in America, that androphilia or egalitarian homosexuality came to be held up as the ideal model for a modern queer democracy, and the pederastic model was characterized as being exploitative. But early gay liberation collections of poetry, such as Winston Leyland’s Angels of the Lyre or Ian Young’s The Male Muse or Paul Mariah’s Manroot journal, contain a superabundance of pederastic verse. Homosexual photographic magazines in London were dominated by the slim adolescent male through most of the 1970s. Chunky rough types were not common until the 1980s, and ‘older men’ were not common objects of desire until the late 1980s (as long as they wore leather). The view that a ‘fundamental transition’ has taken place is hardly tenable for the period since 1969, and demonstrably untrue as an indicator of the ‘modern’ period in general.

Those who think that equal-age ‘androphilia’ rules the day ought to peruse 1990s personal ads and porn videos, a typical title of which is Just Eighteen. In the ancient world the ideal beloved was not a ‘boy’ but an ‘ephebe’ just below seventeen years old; to judge by modern gay literature and videos the seventeen-year-old boy is still the primary object of desire. Late adolescence is the classical ideal, as in The Greek Anthology (third century): ‘I delight in the prime of a boy of twelve, but one of thirteen is much more desirable. He who is fourteen is a still sweeter flower of the Loves, and one who is just beginning his fifteenth year is yet more delightful. The sixteenth year is that of the gods, and as for the seventeenth it is not for me, but for Zeus, to seek it. But if one has a desire for those still older, he no longer plays, but now seeks "And answering him back"‘ (Beurdeley 1994). The ideal Renaissance ephebe is of course Michelangelo’s statue of David, a classic queer icon. Such ephebes feature prominently in the photographs of Bruce Weber and Herbert List – which regularly reappear on the covers of modern studies of gay history and autobiographies.

I am astonished whenever I hear it said that age-asymmetrical relationships are a thing of the past. One look at a photograph of Christopher Isherwood with his lover Don Bachardy ought to dispel the notion that ‘pederasty’ is purely an ancient paradigm. In 1996 Mr Gay UK was twenty and his lover was thirty-six; he has taken his older spouse’s last name, a not uncommon practice. In heterosexual culture May–December relationships are nearly as common today as they used to be in the Middle Ages. Photographs of couples on the ‘social pages’ of contemporary newspapers and magazines make it obvious that wealthy and important men have wives noticeably younger than themselves. When a successful businessman takes a second wife, she is always the same age as his first wife, though he himself has doubled in age. The higher a man’s status in ‘high society’, the younger his wife is likely to be (and his mistress is even younger). It was ever thus.

It is extraordinary how people profess to be shocked by age-biased male-to-male relationships, yet turn a blind eye to the fact that, for example, Charles Dickens began his affair with the actress Ellen Ternan when she was seventeen years old and he was forty-six (in 1858, when he set his wife Catherine up in a separate establishment, which was the scandal; he leaked a letter to the press claiming she suffered from "mental disorder"). Dickens satisfied his sexual needs with young girs by visiting high-class brothels under the expert guidance of Wilkie Collins. Scholars and critics who would castigate the forty-five-year-old Winckelmann for falling in love with twenty-six-year-old Friedrich Reinhold von Berg would barely raise their eyebrows to learn that in 1996 the popular London nightclub owner Peter Stringfellow, age fifty-five, lived with his girlfriend Helen Benoist, age seventeen. When he took her to New York in 1995 and stayed at the Hilton, ‘I kept it quiet that Helen was only 16. . . . Remember, in New York you’ve got to be 21 to drink and 17 to have sex – wonderful American hypocrisy’ (Sunday Times, 26 May 1996).

In sum, the alleged evolutionary progression from intergenerational to egalitarian paradigms is too inaccurately conceived, and too undifferentiated from a common heterosexual paradigm, to be a useful tool for queer history. Foucault's theory of epistemological 'breaks' requires that certain classes of persons must be radically disparate and cannot coexist with one another. If coexistence is demonstrated (as with the continuance of the pederastic model along with the egalitarian model) then the alleged 'break' simply has not taken place. The social constructionist fondness for 'radical breaks' derives from Marx's theory of the end of the 'immanent critique', i.e. the revolutionary transformation of society, which required a radical break with history itself. The ambition of critical theory (i.e. the economic theory of society, as in the Frankfurt School of the 1930s-1940s) is not the creation of an accurate historical model but revolution. It is not a disinterested enquiry, but a committed judgment. Hence its conclusions will always mirror its premises.

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CITATION: Rictor Norton, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "Intergenerational and Egalitarian Models," 1 June 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <>

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