For all of the titillation about thongs and cigars, the story of the impeachment and trial of William Jefferson Clinton was not so much about sex as it was about power. — Peter Baker, The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of
When has discourse about sex ever been exclusively about sex? Moreover, has there ever been a time when sex itself was not also about power? Peter Baker's observation that the Clinton scandal was about power states the obvious to those who have followed the debates of feminist and cultural critics over the last several decades.1 Of course the impeachment was about power, power framed and negotiated in terms of accusations about sex. The trial of a former American president is only the most recent example of a long history of the intersection of sex and politics. Charges of sexual misconduct of various kinds against leaders of all sorts have frequently served as important rhetorical weapons. Indeed, at about the same time that former President Clinton was apologizing for misleading the American people about his extramarital affair, the deputy prime minister of Malaysia was arrested for sodomy and illicit sex with "numerous" men and women. The prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, expressed disappointment with his deputy, noting that the arrest was necessary since "I cannot accept a man who is a sodomist as leader of the country."2
From ancient times until today, accusers have sought to undermine, embarrass, and even overthrow political leaders on the basis of their (real or alleged) sexual wrongdoing. Such charges do not appear only in the contentious realm of governmental power politics; sexual slander has also served as an important tool in the production of group boundaries.
Outsiders are accused of being sexually deviant in some way while insiders are described as sexually pure.3 So, for example, European explorers and missionaries regularly denounced the sexual promiscuity of the native peoples of the Americas. They were described by one Jesuit missionary as "extremely lazy, gluttonous, profane, treacherous, cruel in their revenge, and given up to all kinds of lewdness, men and women alike, the men having several wives and abandoning them to others, and the women only serving them as slaves."4 Similarly, a Spanish Renaissance humanist compared the "base" morals of the natives to the superior temperance of the Spaniards "in greed as well as lust." He concludes that the natives really are slaves by nature; their (alleged) moral turpitude proves it.5 According to the logic of such discourse, colonization and Christianization were not only justified, they were absolutely necessary for the "good" of native and European alike. Sexual slurs are not only excellent weapons when attacking specific political rivals; they are also effective instruments for attacking entire groups, often to the benefit of a self-proclaimed elite.
Charges of sexual impropriety can be employed to further the interests of an elite; they can also be useful to those who wish to undermine the moralizing pretensions of their rulers. The "governing elite," as Peter Brown has suggested, must present themselves to themselves and to the world at large as "in truth governing";6 claims about the excellent morals of the ruling class often figure into this process.7 Thus, bawdy jokes, gossip, and sexual slander targeted at privileged "models of virtue" can serve to challenge these pretensions and the authority they were designed to validate. Vine Deloria, former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, offers an amusing example in the form of a joke involving a missionary and an Indian interlocutor. The missionary was brought up short by the allegedly innocent confusion of his interlocutor over the differences between hell and the white man's city, Albuquerque, New Mexico. The story goes as follows: A missionary warned his Indian traveling companion that, without Christ in his life, he would soon be headed to a place full of sinners, where the "wicked dwell in the depths of their iniquities," and "sinful women who have lived a bad life go." When the missionary asked his potential convert the name of this place, instead of supplying the expected answer—hell—the Indian replied "Albuquerque."8 The humor of this joke depends on white Christian claims about the superiority of "their" religion and civilization, displayed, in part, by "their" good women, and the absurdity of such claims given the "reality" of "sinful" white Albuquerque. Such an interchange reverses the expected categories, employing terms used to define Indians as outside of civilization to suggest that it is the white man who is incapable of the very civilization he enjoins on everyone else. Seen in this light, a joke is hardly "just a joke": it is a potent weapon capable of voicing the shared disdain of the dominated for their dominators.9
This book explores the use of sexualized slander by the earliest Christians and their contemporaries in the context of ancient rhetorical invective and in light of ancient assumptions about sex and gender.10 Christian authors have at times been taken at their word when they accused others of sexual misbehavior; thus, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire has sometimes been attributed to a rotting from within brought about by excessive luxury and manifested in sexual degeneracy.11 The outrageous emperor Caligula—guilty of incest and orgiastic sexual romps and labeled an effeminate—has been offered as a paradigmatic example of the evils that Roman luxury inevitably produced.12 Some historians have adopted the views of church fathers, arguing that at least a few of the Christian heretics actually were sexually promiscuous promoters of orgies for Christ.13 Such historical reconstructions fail to take into account the rhetorical and discursive functions of accusations of sexual depravity. Of course it is at least possible that Caligula had sexual intercourse with his sisters or that the heretical Simonian Christians collected seminal emission and menstrual blood for religious purposes.14 As we now know, the American president in fact did have sexual relations with "that woman." Still, accurate or not, sexual slurs provide a window into more than the titillating sexual misdeeds of presidents, emperors, and heretics.
Charges of debauchery, unrestrained lust, and the like illuminate cultural assertions about sex and morality while providing evidence of competitive power relations between individuals and the groups they claim to represent. "Good" and "bad" sexual behavior is not given, natural, or obvious; these categories are produced and enacted within history. Definitions of sexual deviance change; there is no universal, generalizable category "the sexual"; and gender is not determined by some unalterable biological fact.15 Therefore, sexual slander both describes and delimits ever-shifting definitions of sexual impropriety. Once the legitimacy of a position or a group has been linked to a particular definition of sexual virtue, accusations of sexual vice become a potent weapon for distinguishing insiders from outsiders, policing group boundaries, and eliminating rivals. Moreover, sexual slurs, whether by means of jokes, gossip, or outright accusations, can serve as an important resistance strategy: the pretensions of an elite are efficiently skewered by their (supposed) subordinates once the emptiness of their claims to virtue have been exposed.16 As we shall see, early Christian authors employed sexualized invective for all of these purposes, defining virtue in such a way that they, and they alone, were capable of sexual self-mastery; everyone else was said to be incuraably debauched.
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