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Sexuality and gender in Alciphron's Letters of Courtesans Funke, Melissa

Abstract

Current studies on the topic of sexuality in the ancient Greek world tend to favour the active/passive paradigm of understanding sexual relations which was originally proposed in Kenneth Dover's Greek Homosexuality (1978) and Michel Foucault's three volume History of Sexuality (1978, 1985, and 1986). In Dover and Foucault, the sexual behaviour of the classical Athenian male takes primacy, so much so that the reader of either scholar can be left with the impression that the role of the active partner was available only to adult citizen males. Alciphron's Letters of Courtesans (Book 4 of his works) depict a group of desiring female subjects who demonstrate that sexual agency, the assumption of the active role in a sexual relationship, need not be the exclusively masculine phenomenon that Dover and Foucault describe. Letters of Courtesans prove that female sexuality can be portrayed as active and therefore that women in literature can be sexual agents. Additionally, these letters demonstrate the limits of the approaches of Dover and Foucault, that sexuality need not be defined as exclusively active or exclusively passive. By approaching Letters of Courtesans from this perspective, we are able to see that ancient Greek literature includes depictions of active female sexuality that Dover and Foucault overlooked. Letters of Courtesans are therefore a way to challenge and develop the work on ancient sexuality that has followed from these two landmark studies. Because of their fictional nature and their epistolary format, Letters of Courtesans lay bare the process of Alciphron's construction of sexuality and gender. I shall therefore show that Alciphron's Letters of Courtesans are an ideal locus for a discussion of these topics. This study will establish that Letters of Courtesans ought to occupy a place of importance in any discussion of ancient ideas of sexuality and gender.

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