The ancient Greeks distinguished between many different types of love. Just to name four of these:
- Storge refers to familial love
- Philia refers to the love of friends
- Eros refers to sensual or romantic love and is the etymological root of the English word “erotic”
- Agape refers to a universal form of love, as opposed to the love of specific individuals (e.g. the family, friends, and lovers of storge, philia, and eros). It is sometimes translated as “brotherly love” or, in later eras, as “Christian love.” The word “philosophy” or “philosophia” is made up of the words philia and sophia (wisdom) and thus means “love of wisdom.”
In this module we will focus on eros which, for the Greeks, referred not only to a concept but also, when capitalized, to a divinity. According to different myths Eros was either the assistant or the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and fertility. The Romans called Eros by the names Cupid (desire) and Amor (love).
Starting with the ancient Greek context that deified erotic love, the first part of this module will focus on the most famous treatment of erotic love in the Western philosophical canon: Plato’s Symposium. After that, the second, shorter part of the module will turn to 20th-century feminist reflections on the erotic.
Plato, who lived between 428/427 BCE and 348/7 BCE, was the student of the philosopher Socrates and, later, would be the teacher of the philosopher Aristotle. Socrates left no written works, having philosophized only in oral or spoken form, primarily by engaging the young men of Athens in philosophical dialogue or discussion. Dialogue – or the practice of asking philosophical questions and engaging philosophically with the answers one receives – is sometimes referred to as the “Socratic method.” Plato was one of the young men who discussed philosophy with Socrates in ancient Athens, and when his teacher was put to death for charges of impiety and corrupting the youth, he began writing philosophical works primarily to record the thoughts of his teacher. As such, Plato’s early works were written like transcripts of conversations, either between Socrates and an individual interlocutor or between Socrates and a series of interlocutors. Even when there are several people present in a scene that Plato describes, Socrates tends to have one-on-one conversations with one companion after another rather than engaging in group conversations. Given their one-on-one conversational style, these works are called “dialogues,” and the men whom Socrates engages in philosophical dialogues in Plato’s works were often historical figures. Usually Plato’s dialogues are named after these interlocutors, so, for example, the Crito is called the Crito because Crito was the name of Socrates’ primary interlocutor in this work.
“Evil is the vulgar lover who loves the body rather than the soul, inasmuch as he is not even stable, because he loves a thing which is in itself unstable, and therefore when the bloom of youth which he was desiring is over, he takes wing and flies away, in spite of all his words and promises; whereas the love of the noble disposition is life-long, for it becomes one with the everlasting.”Plato, The Symposium
Some of Plato’s early works include the Apology, which describes Socrates’ trial, and the Phaedo, which describes Socrates’ death. These early works by Plato are thought to be relatively accurate records of the ideas and personality of his teacher. Later, however, Plato would continue to write philosophical works in dialogue or “Socratic” form, however it is believed that his writings increasingly reflected his own philosophical views rather than those of Socrates. Socrates remained the main character in these later dialogues, however his character became a mouthpiece for the ideas of his student. The work by Plato that treats the topic of love, the Symposium, is a middle work, and so the extent to which it is an accurate portrait of the historical Socrates and of his ideas is unclear.
The Symposium is the work by Plato from which the concept of “Platonic love” derives. As seen in the quote above, Plato’s Symposium suggests that it is better to love the spiritual rather than the physical and, although the Symposium still describes this love of the spiritual as “erotic,” “Platonic love” refers to love without a physically sexual component. The Symposium is the first assigned resource for this module and you might like to begin reading it as you work through the discussion of this work below.
A “symposium” was a gathering at which men drank together, and the guests at a symposium were called “symposiasts.” A symposium typically also had a leader, called a symposiarchos, who determined how much each symposiast had to drink.
The Symposium is different from Plato’s other works in that it is not written entirely in dialogue form. Rather, it is like the script of a play with multiple characters. In this play, the characters – who are mostly historical figures – agree that instead of drinking that evening they will give speeches in praise of Eros, and much of the text of the Symposium consists of these speeches. When it is Socrates’ turn to speak we see Plato’s usual dialogue form, because rather than give a speech, Socrates engages the person who spoke before him in a discussion of his speech. Socrates then recounts a conversation he had with a teacher earlier in his life, shifting again into dialogue form. After Socrates finishes speaking, a final symposiast, the historical figure Alcibiades, gives a speech, but it is a speech about his love for Socrates rather than about Eros.
Characters in Plato’s Symposium
Apollodorus – Apollodorus is the narrator and his name means “gift of Apollo.” He heard about the symposium from Aristodemus and narrates it to a companion.
Aristodemus – Aristodemus was a follower of Socrates and was a guest at the symposium. He does not give a speech in Plato’s work but we are told that he is the one who recounted the events of the evening to Apollodorus.
Glaucon – Plato’s brother was named Glaucon, but it is unclear whether the Glaucon mentioned at the beginning of the Symposium is meant to be Plato’s brother or if he is another man with the same name.
Agathon – Agathon is the host of the symposium. His name means “good” or “good man.” He is a historical figure and was a tragic poet but in Plato’s Symposium he gives a comic speech.
Pausanias – Pausanias is a historical figure and was the lifelong lover of Agathon.
Aristophanes – Aristophanes is also a historical figure. He was a comic poet but in Plato’s Symposium he gives a tragic speech.
Eryximachus – Eryximachus is a historical figure and was a doctor in ancient Athens. His name means “belch-fighter.”
Phaedrus – Phaedrus is a historical figure and was the beloved of Eryximachus. He is Socrates’ main interlocutor in another dialogue, called the Phaedrus. His name means “brilliant.”
Diotima – Diotima is a fictional character whom Socrates claims to have met in his youth and who he says taught him the art of love. She is the only female to speak in any of Plato’s dialogues. She is a priestess and her name means “Zeus-honour” or “God-honour.”
Alcibiades – Alcibiades was the leader of the Athenian navy and an important figure in ancient Athenian history. He will be discussed more below.
Same-sex erotic love in ancient Athens
Men and women in upper-class Athenian culture were segregated from one another, living in separate quarters. You will notice, for instance, that when the men at Plato’s Symposium send the flute girl away, they send her to the women’s quarters. This meant that there was little possibility of meaningful heterosexual relationships, and marriage was primarily a familial obligation. We know virtually nothing about relationships between women in this period, while a great deal is known about romantic relationships that standardly occurred between older and younger men, or between men and older boys, of the same social class and education. Such relationships were ideally understood to be a kind of mentorship of the younger man or boy by the older man, and they were not intended to last. Once the boy or young man reached adulthood – signified by his growing a beard – the relationship of mentor to mentee as well as the erotic relationship was supposed to end and the relationship was to transition into a friendship between equals.
The older man in such relationships was called an “erastes,” meaning “lover,” while the younger man or boy was called an “eromenos,” or beloved. These are active and passive variations on the word eros, referring to “the one who loves” and “the one who is loved.” It was the older man who was expected to take the active role both emotionally and physically, romantically pursuing and seducing the younger man or boy and taking the active sexual role. The ancient Greeks understood sexual relations to always entail an active partner and a passive partner, and while with heterosexual couples it was taken for granted that the active partner would be the man and the passive partner would be the woman, it was equally taken for granted that in relationships between older and younger men or between men and boys, the older partner would take the active role and the younger man or boy would take the passive role.
Women were understood to take pleasure in passive sexuality, but boys and men were not supposed to. For a boy or man to enjoy taking a passive role would have been shameful in ancient Athenian culture, and so it was thought that the younger male partner submitted to this role out of affection for the older man and in exchange for the mentorship he received, not because he physically desired or took pleasure in it. No eromenos is shown in ancient Greek art with a beard. It is always clear who the older partner is (bearded) and who the younger partner is (beardless), and it is also made evident that the older man is the active partner, as he is shown pursuing or touching the younger partner. Even more significantly, in all ancient Greek erotic art, no eromenos is ever shown with an erection, even when his genitals are being touched by an erastes, whereas the erastes are often shown with erections, even before sexual contact.
The Athenian philosopher, historian, and military leader Xenophon wrote in his own Symposium:
“The boy does not share in the man’s pleasure in intercourse, as a woman does; cold and sober, he looks upon the other drunk with sexual desire.”Xenophon
The absence of desire and pleasure on the part of the younger men and boys in ancient Greek art reflects anxiety about future adult men and citizens being treated like women or made into passive or “womanly” sexual partners. Although man-boy relationships were common and generally accepted in Ancient Athens, they were also the cause of concern, but not for the reasons we would worry about such relationships today. The problem wasn’t what is now called “pedophilia,” or that adults were having sex with minors. On the contrary, it was only the fact that the younger partners were minors that made these relationships acceptable at all, since minors were expected to be passive in relation to adults. The worry was instead that those minors would grow up and be men, and men should have no taste for passivity. What if, by being beloveds as boys, these men developed a desire for passivity, or for engaging in “womanly” behaviour? What if the men and boys fell in love, and didn’t want to end their relationships when the boys grew up? Then you would have a relationship between adult men in which one would need to be passive, and this violated ancient Athenian constructs of masculinity.
Thus although ancient Greece is often held up as a model of a more gay positive society (at least for men) that not only tolerated but celebrated (male) homosexuality, in fact there was a lot of anxiety about these relationships, and we see this anxiety addressed in some of the speeches in Plato’s Symposium. For these reasons, some parents tried to protect their sons from being wooed by older men, and male couples were encouraged to have intercrural intercourse, the older man rubbing his penis between the boy’s thighs rather than penetrating his body.
Of course, reality was certainly different from the cultural ideal that is depicted in ancient Athenian art. In reality, there were relationships between men that continued well into the adulthood of the younger partner and even lasted for lifetimes, with pleasure and desire experienced by both partners. All of the men at Plato’s Symposium are adults, for instance, and they include two long-term couples (Eryximachus and Phaedrus and Pausanias and Agathon), while other men present (such as Socrates, Alcibiades, and Agathon) engage in overt flirtations with one another.
Below are the first two of four mini-video lectures for this module. The first of these two videos introduces the Symposium and the first three speeches, while the second video focuses on the speech of Aristophanes. These first four speeches are rich in insights into ancient Greek sexual culture.
The superiority of (male) same-sex love
It would have made no sense in ancient Greece to say that someone was “homosexual” or “heterosexual” or “bisexual.” Indeed, it would be two millennia before these terms were invented. The question of whether sexualities are innate or historical constructs will be explored in later modules, but for now suffice it to say that the Greeks had no words for modern concepts such as sexual orientation or sexual identity. Most Athenian men engaged in relationships with other men or with boys but also married women and had mistresses or had sex with female courtesans. There is certainly evidence – including in the Symposium – that some people had a preference for relationships with either men or with women, but it was common and accepted for men to be involved in both kinds of relationships at the same time. Socrates himself had a wife but is depicted in many of Plato’s works flirting with men.
Although many of the men in Plato’s Symposium would have had relationships with women as well as men, several speeches explicitly state that love between men is superior to love of women. Even Aristophanes – the only one to put love between men and women on the same footing as love between men or men and boys, says that “manly” men are drawn to men rather than to women, while lecherous men and women are the ones who tend to be drawn to the opposite sex. Note that today there is a stereotype of gay men as “effeminate,” but the symposiasts in Plato’s work argue that homosexual love is preferred by the more “manly boys.” According to their logic, if you are “manly” you will like “manly things,” including other men, whereas it is only if you are more “feminine” that you will like “feminine things,” such as women. Today there is a common idea that “opposites attract,” but the Greeks believed that similar people would be attracted to each other.
In this context, it is striking and strange that when it comes time for Socrates, following Agathon, to give a speech, he first interrogates Agathon on some points he has made, and then speaks of a relationship he had in his youth with a woman named Diotima. This is the only sustained account of a heterosexual relationship in the Symposium and it is Diotima, Socrates claims, who taught him the art of love. The third of four mini-video lectures for this module concerns the speeches of Agathon and Socrates, the latter of which includes Plato’s portrayal of Diotima.
Why is Diotima a woman?
Much ink has been spilled pondering why Plato has Socrates tell a story about Diotima rather than simply having Socrates make the points that he attributes to her himself. Socrates could have gone on questioning Agathon, making all the same points which he will attribute to Diotima. Instead he tells a story of when he was a young student of Diotima, attributing to his former self the views that Agathon has expressed, and attributing to the priestess the views that are now his own. Why does Plato choose this complicated literary device? Why present himself as an earlier Agathon and Diotima as an earlier Socrates, when we have the contemporary Agathon and Socrates right there? It is particularly strange that he did this because he is attributing the most sophisticated philosophical views of the symposium to a woman, at a time when women were not thought to be capable of philosophical thought. We have seen that the other symposiasts claim that men should love boys rather than women because with women you can only have a physical relationship, whereas with men or boys you can have an intellectual relationship, and yet the most philosophically and pedagogically fruitful relationship of all those described in this dialogue is that between Diotima and Socrates, a woman and a man.
Socrates says that it is Diotima who taught him the art of love, by which it is not clear whether he means that they had a physical relationship, or just that she taught him her philosophical views on love. In either case, it is Diotima who seems to know the most about both love and philosophy at this symposium, more than any of the men. According to Socrates’ telling, Diotima was even condescending towards Socrates, saying that she is not sure he is capable of being initiated into the highest mysteries of love. She nevertheless teaches him the doctrine of the scala amoris, which involves the Platonic doctrine of Forms. In Plato’s other dialogues, Socrates is the older teacher figure who expounds on Plato’s theory of Forms, but here he is a young, ignorant student, and Diotima is the older, wiser teacher, and it is she who teaches him the theory of Forms. Diotima also questions Socrates according to the Socratic method of questions and answers, and so Plato is attributing not only the Theory of Forms to Diotima, but also the Socratic method of dialogue.
Even if Plato wanted to give Socrates a teacher, why make her female? Given that the other speeches praise homosexual relations for their pedagogical function, why didn’t Socrates tell us about an older man whose beloved he was in his youth who taught him about love? It would be tempting to answer that Plato describes Socrates having a female teacher because he did, or to believe that there really was a priestess in history to whom we could attribute this key philosophical role in the development of Socrates, and thus of Plato, and thus of the history of Western thought. Yet it doesn’t seem that Diotima existed, and certainly her speech is not an authentic recreation of a speech that Socrates heard in his youth. For one thing, her speech refers directly to points made in Phaedrus’, Aristophanes’, and Agathon’s speeches, and so it seems to be an invention made to respond to the other speeches of that evening, not a real speech that took place decades before.
After Socrates has finished recounting the teachings of Diotima, Alcibiades arrives, late and drunk, accompanied by flute girls.
Who was Alcibiades?
Alcibiades was a wealthy young aristocrat and part of the political elite, having been raised by Pericles. He is described as having been extraordinarily beautiful, intelligent, charismatic, and eloquent. He was vain about his beauty, calling it his “amazing good fortune” and his “windfall from the gods.” He used his wealth to finance extravagant spectacles. He was one of the best military commanders and strategists Athens ever knew. He was also a skillful orator, able to enchant people with his speeches. He was morbidly concerned with criticism and gossip, wanting to be loved and popular, and to have glory and fame. He nonetheless had a transgressive streak and was emotionally volatile, moving rapidly from love to anger for Athens as well as for individuals. It is said that he sliced off the tail of his own dog, saying “I am quite content for the whole of Athens to chatter about this. It will stop them from saying anything worse about me.” As will be discussed further below, he betrayed Athens and committed acts of religious sacrilege.
The paintings above and below are early 19th-century depictions of the imagined relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades. Although nothing like this is suggested by Plato’s Symposium, these paintings show Socrates more or less angrily attempting to steer his follower away from a life of physical pleasure towards a more ethical and philosophical life.
At the time that the Symposium is set, Persia had tried twice to conquer Athens. Amazingly, given that the Persian troops vastly outnumbered the Athenians, Persia failed to take Athens both times, although they did manage to sack some of the other Greek cities around Athens. To make themselves safer, the various Greek cities formed what was called the Delian league, named after its base on the sacred island of Delos. The Greek city-states formed this league so that they would band together to protect themselves from the Persians. Although none of the city-states could stand up to the Persians indefinitely on their own, the idea was that if they formed a league they would be strong enough to resist the Persians. With time some of the city-states wanted to secede from the league, however, and Athens quickly crushed them. Thus, instead of being a coalition of the willing, the Delian league came to be ruled by Athens, and anyone who tried to leave the league would be attacked and conquered by the Athenians. Athens even moved the treasury of the league from Delos to Athens, indicating that it was Athens that was now the center of the league.
Needless to say, the behaviour of the Athenians resulted in the various Greek city-states resenting Athens, and they decided to band together to fight them. Sparta was the most powerful of the Greek city-states that were now enemies of Athens. The war between Athens and the other Greek city-states is known as the Peloponnesian War, and it meant that Athens was now at risk not only from the Persians but from other Greeks.
Pericles, Alcibiades’ godfather, was a brilliant leader during the first part of the Peloponnesian War because he managed to make the Athenians remain cautious. He insisted that they not try to engage the Spartans in land battles and not try to expand the empire too quickly. Then there was a plague that killed a third of Athenians soldiers and thousands of other Athenians, including Pericles, and the leaders of Athens who succeeded Pericles were more reckless. They attempted and lost major land battles against the Spartans and tried to rapidly expand the empire. These reckless leaders included Alcibiades, who was commander of the army, an elected position in ancient Athens. Using his charisma and skills in rhetoric, Alcibiades convinced the Athenians to attempt battles against other city-states, such as Sicily, whose strength he greatly underestimated.
The Religious Scandal
The morning that Alcibiades’s fleet was to set sail for Sicily, the morning light revealed that something terrible had happened – a sacrilegious outrage – during the night: the statues of Hermes which stood guard at Athenian houses had been partially smashed, their extremities (noses, genitals) broken off. Hermes was the god of luck and travel and so this was a terrible omen for the campaign to Sicily.
Alcibiades and his friends were accused of committing this outrage and also for another sacrilege: performing the secret rites of Eleusinian Demeter in Alcibiades’ private home and in front of non-initiates. This was a mystery religion which only initiates were supposed to perform in the temple, so for non-initiates to perform it in a private home, and to mock it, was considered to be a great profanation.
The Athenians were outraged at Alcibiades, but the campaign to Sicily was considered urgent and so they decided to let Alcibiades go and postpone his trial until he got back. Once he was gone they regretted this decision, however, and summoned him back to stand trial, confiscating his property in Athens. Upon hearing this news, Alcibiades was furious and defected to Sparta, giving the Spartans valuable military secrets and encouraging them to build a permanent garrison near Athens, which proved crucial to their eventual victory. Alcibiades also told the Spartans about the campaign in Sicily which resulted in their sending a Spartan commander to fight off the Athenians. This resulted in one of Athens’ greatest defeats: the Athenians army was massacred, the leaders were executed and the remaining Athenian soldiers were left to starve to death at the bottom of a quarry. Alcibiades then became friends with a Persian official, thereby befriending Athens’ other great enemy. The Athenians responded to these unthinkable betrayals by having their priests and priestesses curse Alcibiades, and they condemned him to death in absentia.
Alcibiades and Athens
Eventually Alcibiades got over his anger with Athens and decided to return to the Athenian side. The Athenians were in such a desperate situation that they took Alcibiades back, reversing the sentences they had pronounced on him in the belief that only he could save them from the Persians and Spartans. Alcibiades won some victories for Athens, and returned home in glory once more. Then some of his subordinates lost battles, and Athens held Alcibiades responsible for these losses and did not re-elect him as commander. This was a mistake on Athens’s part because the commanders they elected instead were inferior to Alcibiades, and they lost the Peloponnesian war within 2 years and were conquered by the Spartans: Athens was almost sacked, Sparta dictated the humiliating terms of Athens’ surrender, and Athenian democracy was over. The Athenians recognized that they had made a mistake, and wished they could have Alcibiades back for a third time. This is how Plutarch describes the Athenians’ regret:
“The loss of their supremacy dealt a terrible blow to the spirit of the Athenians. But when Lysander [leader of the Spartans] went on to deprive them of their freedom as well and handed over the city to the Thirty Tyrants, their eyes began to be opened – now that their affairs were irretrievably ruined – to the various actions they had failed to take while it was still in their power to save themselves. In their despair they recalled their past mistakes and follies, and they considered that the greatest of all had been their second outburst against Alcibiades. They had thrown him aside through no fault of his own, but simply because they were angry with one of his subordinates for having disgraced himself and lost a few ships, yet they themselves had behaved far more disgracefully in depriving the city of the finest and most experienced general they possessed.”Plutarch
So the Athenians were still hoping, even after their defeat and surrender, that Alcibiades would come back and save them, restoring democracy. The Persians and Spartans seem to have feared the same thing because they had Alcibiades assassinated: he was killed by Persian agents with a poisoned arrow on the advice of the Spartan leader.
Alcibiades was with his mistress, the courtesan Timandra, at the time that he was assassinated. The night before he died, according to Plutarch, he dreamed that he was dressed as a woman having make-up applied to his face by a courtesan. After he died, Timandra wrapped him in her own clothes and buried him, and so, at least according to Plutarch, his dream was fulfilled: he was buried in a woman’s clothes.
Alcibiades’ fate seemed caught up with that of Athens: he represented Athenian individualism which was in contrast to Spartan subordination of the individual to the state. Alcibiades’ death meant the loss of the last hope for Athenian democracy. Plato has Alcibiades appear with wreaths of ivy in his hair, which represented Dionysus, but also with violets in his hair, a symbol of Athens, indicating that Alcibiades was an embodiment of the city-state. The violets are also a symbol of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty – and Alcibiades was beautiful, and gives a powerful speech on love. Plato sets the Symposium in January of 416: one year before the disastrous voyage to Sicily and the desecration of the Herms. Thus the dialogue is set at a time when Alcibiades is still popular and beloved of Athens, right before the disaster is about to strike.
Neo-Platonism was a school of theology that adapted Plato’s dialogues to Christian themes. There have been numerous Christian readings of the Symposium. These see Socrates as a Christ-like figure, his followers likened to Christ’s disciples. Notably, both Socrates and Jesus could have escaped execution but instead accepted their death, martyring or sacrificing themselves for their understanding of the Good or Holy. We can interpret the portrayal of Socrates in the Symposium as Christ-like: he is half human, half-god, surrounded by his disciples, one of whom will betray him. Alcibiades is this Judas figure. He betrays Athens directly thereby indirectly betraying Socrates and getting him killed.
The fourth and final mini-video lecture for this module concerns the speech of Alcibiades that concludes the Symposium.
Feminism and Eros
Since at least the 18th century with the work of Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist authors have drawn attention to the ways in which love has been used to maintain patriarchal relations. Emma Goldman, Alexandra Kollontai, Clara Zetkin, Shulamith Firestone, Ti‐Grace Atkinson, Catherine MacKinnon, Nancy Hartsock, Silvia Federici, Nancy Chodorow, Juliet Mitchell, and Jessica Benjamin have all made arguments to this effect. Simone de Beauvoir included a chapter titled “The Woman in Love” in The Second Sex, in which she focuses on heterosexual love, arguing that romantic love is far more important to women than men due to women’s oppression and socialization. Women, she argues, are raised to depend on men both materially and for their identities, and so their relationships with men matter much more to them than they matter to their male partners. Romantic love, for de Beauvoir as for many other feminist authors, is a source and manifestation of women’s oppression.
In her 1983 book, The Politics of Reality, radical lesbian feminist theorist Marilyn Frye wrote:
“The attachment of a well-broken slave to the master has been confused with love. Under the name of love a willing and unconditional servitude has been promoted as something ecstatic, noble, fulfilling and even redemptive. All praise is sung for the devoted wife who loves the husband and children she is willing to live for, and of the brave man who loves the god he is willing to kill for, the country he is willing to die for.”Marilyn Frye, “In and Out of Harms Way” in The Politics of Reality (1983)
Importantly for Frye, however, this is a “confusion,” and she explains that in each case the lover has been subsumed into what is loved such that the interests of their loved ones are mistaken as their own. In fact, however, the subsuming of the other into the self and the failure to see the other as separate is arrogant, and she contrasts the “arrogant eye” with what she calls the truly “loving eye.” According to Frye, seeing the beloved in a truly loving way means knowing the boundaries of the self and recognizing the independence and distinct interests of the beloved. This is true, according to Frye, whether the beloved is another human being, an animal, or nature itself. So, for instance, environmental feminist scholars have taken up Frye’s work to argue that if we really love animals and nature, we do not see them as our “best friends,” “babies,” “property” or “resources.” We recognize them as independent beings whose interests are distinct from and at times incompatible with our own.
“The loving eye does not make the object of perception into something edible, does not try to assimilate it, does not reduce it to the size of the seer’s desire, fear and imagination, and hence does not have to simplify. It knows the complexity of the other as something which will forever present new things to be known.”Marilyn Frye, “In and out of Harm’s Way”
“the erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough… The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self respect we can require no less of ourselves.”Audre Lord, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”
Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic” was originally published in 1978, a few years before Marilyn Frye’s essay on love (1983), Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality” (1980) and Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex” (1984). Writing in the same context of feminist sex debates that we saw in the works of Rich and Rubin, Lorde builds upon a distinction between the pornographic and the erotic. Unlike Rubin, Lorde does not object to anti-pornography feminism, and accepts the view that pornography is a site of women’s subordination. This does not make Lorde anti-sex or sex negative, however, and she cautions her feminist audience against conflating pornography with eroticism and thus distancing themselves from the sensual altogether. On the contrary, while Lorde sees the pornographic as sex without feeling or spirit and as a form of sex that uses the other, the erotic is about the consensual sharing of joy and connection with another. Thus while she describes the erotic as useful, it is not other people who are used in eroticism. Rather, it is what the experience of the erotic teaches us about ourselves that we can put to use as we move forward in our lives.
The erotic is useful, for Lorde, because it connects us to our deepest feelings and allows us to experience complete fulfillment, and this experience of the body’s capacity for joy, she suggests, can become a yardstick by which we assess all aspects of our lives, including our jobs and relationships. Having experienced the erotic, for instance, Lorde suggests that a woman will not be willing to settle for an unsatisfactory marriage or unfulfilling career simply because this is what is expected of her or what the dominant society values. In this way, the erotic can be used as a source of empowerment, teaching us what we may strive for not only in bed but in our lives more generally. As Lorde stresses, the erotic is not just about sex, but is an experience of creativity, empowerment, and joy that can infuse all aspects of our lives, helping us to resist resignation, self-denial, depression and despair. Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic” is the second assigned resource for this module, and a video of Lorde reading the essay can be found in the Assigned Resources page.
Writing twenty years after Lorde, bell hooks is another Black feminist American author who has seen love not simply as a site of women’s oppression but also as an important political resource in struggles against domination. hooks has written a number of books on the topic of love, including All about Love, Communion: The Female Search for Love, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, and Salvation: Black People and Love. Her essay, “Love as the Practice of Freedom,” is not a required reading for this course but, if you are interested in reading further on this topic, you can find it here.