Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Is the Taboo on Pederasty a Product of Modernity?

Do pre-modern societies have the taboo on pederasty? Or is it a product of modernity?

It's fairly easy to ridicule this photo-essay of the Taliban, pre-fall, posing for glamour shots. The sartorial elegance and sensual homoeroticism of many of the pictures belies our conception of the Taliban as Puritans with Kalashnikovs. However, there's also something inspiring about the sudden jolt of seeing aestheticized and homoeroticized Afghans in vibrant colors, it's a bit like an eruption of flowers and sperm in a sick ward. Beauty springs eternal.

One is again taken aback though by the occasional glimpses of older male warriors with their young erotic charges. This isn't a complete shock; there is certainly much in medieval Muslim poetry about love for beautiful boys, as in Rumi. The Sufi poet often dreams of a shaded place to sit, a jug of wine, and a young boy. This corner of the Islamic tradition is little-commented on and much-forgotten in this era of fundamentalisms; and yet its legacy remains. One can only hope that our neighborhood paladins of anti-Muslim virtual warfare never find this stuff and create websites dedicated to ''exposing'' the boy-loving Muslim menace.

Besides, the Western World has the same tradition: Plato waxed as rapturous as Rumi on the aesthetics of young boys. While most of us could admit that children are aesthetically beautiful, very few of us, thankfully, can understand how these aesthetics can be transmuted into erotics. Preadolescents exhibit no signs of sexuality, and are as erotic as lambs. So, the Greek encomiums to "beardless youths" are as bewildering and off-putting as the images of Taliban Youth with their own beardless catamites.

Never mind the modern taboo about teenagers- the idea that one only becomes sexually attractive upon turning eighteen is the mantra of insensate fools. We know full well that this taboo is a part of modernity, and perhaps of post-modernity. In fact, it seems likely that the taboo on eroticizing young adults (ages 12-18) arose with the development of the nuclear family. Certainly, prior generations thought that 12 was marrying age, as strange as that seems to us.

But the taboo about sexualizing prepubescents seems to arise in all cultures only with the rise of what we call modern civilization. I suspect that the taboo is based, in part, on the fact that most of us just don't find children attractive, and more importantly on an increased awareness of human exploitation. What offends us most about pederasty is that it involves the most abject sort of profiteering. Therefore, I think that the taboo arises as human societies become aware of and scornful towards power-imbalances and the ways that those with power can bleed those without it. Sadly, I suspect that every culture has pedophiles; but they become an object of scorn as societies reach modernity, and hence stop seeing exploitation as somehow natural or supported by tradition. If the taboo is a product of modernity, it's a blessing.

Of course, this is a subject that I have little knowledge of. It could be that medieval societies scorned pederasty as well. But, one wonders about the mercenary warrior class and whether their code of honor said anything about boy-love. I'd suspect that it didn't.

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