Active-Passive Contrast (EoH)

From William A. Percy
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Common usage divides homosexual behavior into active and passive roles. These terms are ambivalent and often confusing.

A truism of physics is that bodies may be either at motion or at rest. Inert objects, however, can only respond to external attraction and repulsion. It is the property of living things that they can initiate activity as well as respond (or refuse to respond] to stimuli. This last distinction is the basis of commonsense notions of active personalities as against passive ones. Some individuals seem to expend energy freely while others conserve it. In addition to this expend-conserve model, the active-passive contrast corresponds in large measure to those of lead-follow and command-obey.

Around such notions the popular morality of ancient Greece and Rome constructed a sexual dichotomy that classified participants in sexual acts not so much accordingto the male-female difference, based on body build and genitalia, or the heterosexual-homosexual contrast of object choice, both of which are familiar to modem thinking, but in a stark opposition of the doer and the one who is done to. The doer (agent) is the phallic male, his receiving partner (patient or pathic) either a female or a pubescent boy. (Sometimes older males could enact the passive role, but they were generally disprized in consequence, for the paradigm admits of only one role for the adult male.) The active-passive contrast largely corresponds to the penetrator-penetratee dichotomy. In modem sexual encounters, the penetrator can be, with respect to overall body movement, largely passive, amounting to a contradiction. The ancients avoided this problem by their tendency to analyze oral-phallic activity as irrumation, that is, where the penetrator engages his partner with vigorous buccal thrusts. A common belief in this system is the notion that only the active partner experiences pleasure; the role of the passive is simply to endure. It is easy to see how such a model of dominator and dominated would accord with the mindset of a slave-owning society.

This contrast of active vs. passive is abundantly illustrated in Greek and Latin sexual texts, and as these are the foundation of the Western tradition their formulae have often been echoed, though changed-consciously or unconsciouslyto fit new social norms. The contrast is also found in medieval Scandinavia, in our prisons, jails, and reformatories, and to a large extent in contemporary Latin America.

All these manifestations stem from popular modes of thought which tend to privilege the active, even predatory male. Other trends were found, however, in more cultivated spheres of Greco-Roman thinking. Self-restraint is a quality much praised in ancient ethical philosophy, and insofar as this ideal filtered down it tended to mitigate the notion that the more rapacious copulation the active male could engage in the better. The Platonic tradition also reserved a special place for contemplation, a preference which passed into Stoicism, where it even may take the form of commendation of nonaction. These contemplative and Stoic trends migrated into Christianity, which however did break with classical tradition by excluding the adolescent youth from the category of licit sexual objects, thus clearing the way for the male-female dichotomy that has been dominant in Western culture ever since. Nonetheless, the pederastic ideal never completely died out, despite the winds of theological disapproval. Many medieval and Renaissance texts attest to the survival of pederastic patterns, at least among a cultivated few.

In modern heterosexual practice the identification of the male with the active and the female with the passive was sealed by the repressive norm of the passionless female and the standard injunction of the "missionary position," in which the penetrating male lies atop his partner. Feminism has sought to combat such restrictions and today a variety of sexual positions are noted in every sex manual. With respect to male and female homosexual conduct, however, the notion lingers that sexual activity, and indeed the whole relationship, must be structured around the active-passive contrast. Thus gay men and lesbians are often asked: "Are you active or passive?" It is frequently difficult to persuade the interlocutor that the two roles are assumed alternately, or that one pattern may prevail in bed while the opposite occurs in everyday life. That is to say, a "butch" lesbian accustomed to take the lead in social encounters may be responsive rather than aggressive in bed. For a time "politically correct" gay and lesbian thinking condemned sex-role differences in couples, claiming that they were a reactionary mimicry of heterosexual norms, but it is now generally recognized that whether these patterns are to be honored or overcome should be a matter of individual choice.

See also Pederasty; Slavery.

Wayne R. Dynes

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