Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Was Augustine Bi-Sexual?, The Conclusion

Probably.

What does it matter?

It doesn't, depending on what a person thinks of the implications. Because Augustine converted with a simultaneous vow of celibacy, all of his sexual activities are strictly pre-conversion.  It would be hard for GLBT groups to use him as much of a poster boy for their causes considering he in no way condones his own sexuality, or hardly anyone's sexuality for that matter.  In Augustine's eyes, sex is worldly, temporal and usually lustful, so any attempt at expressing acceptance of any kind of pleasurable sexuality is cut off before it even begins.

For some Christian groups, it might be unsettling to imagine their patron saint engaging in sexual acts with other men/boys and I would think many would resist any idea speculating about Augustine's bi-sexualty.

On the other hand, I can imagine that some Christian groups would gladly take Augustine as the prime example of an "ex-gay/ex-bi" person whose behavior was changed by belief in and commitment to the Christian God.

Augustine could be co-opted by either side of the divide.

14 comments:

JSA said...

I don't think it's correct to use the term "bi-sexual". I think it's quite possible that he had physical relations with male friends, but I don't think this is the same as what people today call "bi-sexual". He was operating in a different cultural milieu, and the term "bisexual" carries a lot of connotations that don't make sense in Augustine's milieu.

Today, the term is defined as being against a presumed norm of "heterosexual". IOW, saying "I'm bisexual" is to say, "Don't assume that I'm like every other guy. *I* have no problems messing around with my buddies". People today use the term as a statement of hard-won identity that is an enduring part of who they are.

But that would make no sense in Augustine's world, or even in C.S. Lewis's boarding school. Of the boys who screwed around with other boys as youth, only a small fraction would have continued with that into their thirties. The ones who did might be worthy of the label "bi-sexual", but the fact of having messed around with other young men would generally not be evidence of an enduring personality trait.

Think of it this way. Is every reprobate little boy who does "red rocket" on the family dog, really a "beastosexual"? Is every young man who masturbates a "handosexual"? For that matter, most gay men have messed around with women in their youth. I have at least 3 gay friends who were exclusively with women, had married, and were into their adulthood before realizing they were gay. And my old friend Aaron Carl ranted about this before:

"If a "straight" man gets a blowjob from another guy, it does NOT make him GAY." Don't ask me how THIS conversation got started, but it did. I've had this same conversation plenty of times with plenty of folks -- and it's surprising to me how much I've had to ARGUE my stance on the subject!!! Let's flip the script, shall we? I've eaten "the cookoo's nest" a few times throughout my life... Does that make me a hetero? Because I like to watch the Detroit Pistons games, am I automatically straight? Stupid question, I know. But I swear, I deal with stupid people on a daily basis. I'll say it like this: Since you're so certain about YOUR sexuality, then go out and experience sex with someone of the same gender... Enjoy it. See how it feels... Then ask yourself the next day, if you've been converted. ...I HIGHLY DOUBT IT!!! I have never, nor have I ever tried to convert someone from straight to gay. Or vice versa... Personally, I don't give a fuck either way. Straight, gay, bi... If you're handsome, willing and able, that's all I care about. Go back home and be straight. I'll go back home and be gay. And the world will continue to spin..."

terri said...

I have already acknowledged in my past comment on this subject that the modern category of "bi-sexuality" is a modern, mental construct.

The term is simply an easy identifier for "having sex with other men in the context of close relationships but still also being attracted to and having sex with women". That's too long to write out every single time! :-)

Sex is not one of my usual topics on the blog. I am actually quite victorian when it comes to publicly talking about sex and sexual acts...and my reaction to South Park and your link is merely..."Ewwww!! that's gross!" But then...we are talking about South Park, the comedy writing equivalent of sixth grade boys! :-)

As far as the whole Augustine thing, I don't really care whether he was omni-sexual. It's just something that popped out at me and I had never heard anyone address. I wasn't expecting that impression because I went into Confessions imagining him as the womanizer he is always portrayed to be and expecting to read about his long-term relationship with the mother of his son. I was taken aback by how utilitarian his language about her was and how very little he wrote about her.

JSA said...

Yeah, I'm just belaboring the point because, in your Victorian naivety, you're bound to be offending gay and bi people. It's far from clear that Augustine would fit any historical or current definition of bisexual. You might be more accurate to say "Did Augustine have sex with other young men, according to the typical youthful behavior of men of his standing?".

Using the word bisexual risks pandering to modern homophobia and invoking the spectre that Augustine was somehow deviant from normal. In fact, I think that Augustine would find modern young men's copious consumption of porn to be far more deviant than the behaviour you suspect he may have engaged in. I think we need to be very careful when staring across such wide cultural gulfs. (And this applies also to your negative commentary about the way he spoke of women -- he was a creature of his time and culture, and love for women in those days was no less loving because it was not the sort of adulation we practice today).

terri said...

Well, I certainly don't mean to offend gay or bi people. Considering that I have found GLBT sites using the same language about Augustine, it hadn't occurred to me that the GLBT community would take offense at the term.

As far as how Augustine talks about women....Sorry, no dice or concession from me. Was his attitude culturally accepted? Most definitely.....but that saddens me and no matter how "loving" he and his cultural equals may have thought they were being, I can't help but cringe at the way women are treated and discussed.

Augustine's use for women was wholly selfish, ego-driven, and utilitarian. Saying that's just the way it was doesn't do much for me as a woman and it certainly doesn't lead me take him seriously when he's talking about marriage or love between men and women. He doesn't address that specifically in Confessions, but I came across many footnotes and supplemental material that bore out my feelings about how he writes in Confessions.

Look...I can read someone from the past and try to appreciate their ideas. I can grant them leeway and realize they are part of a particular culture and outside the thought-world I currently live in...but sometimes it's not going too far to realize that they can be a real jerk or a selfish clod in some areas.

Augustine did not love women...period.

The only poignancy he expresses is when his mother dies and he writes a very beautiful tribute to her, crediting her many prayers for his salvation.....but even in that he makes the comment that her faith wasn't like a woman's, but was masculine in nature.

It's always lurking there...a certain level of misogyny. As a woman, it's hard not to see it.

JSA said...

Of course there are people in the GBLT community who would love to claim Augustine as bi, but my point is that they wouldn't be talking about the same thing that you are talking about here. You are talking about "enjoyed same-sex sexual relations", while they are actually talking about bisexual. You've made a potential case for the former, but not for the latter (a case for the latter may be possible, but seems completely out of scope for your discussion). To the GBLT community, those are two very different things, and for very important reasons.

"Augustine did not love women...period"

What man in that age did love women, per your definition? My point isn't that Augustine's perspective on gender relations is worthy of emulation -- it isn't. My point is that it's not Augustine's perspective. It's the perspective of every man in the his world. It was taken as a given that the female was the passive, receptive, and weaker sex; while the man was active, potent, and stronger. The sexes were not to be taken as peers, and for Augustine to adore a woman as moderns do would've been seen to be even more perverse than his youthful playing of "bottom" to his friend's "top". At least in those relationships he was playing subservient to someone who was his natural peer, rather than someone who was inferior.

Obviously it was misogynistic, but you can't single out Augustine or even claim that he should've bucked the dominant cultural milieu. Furthermore, I think it's a bit extreme and bigoted to say that he didn't love women, simply because it wasn't how you would want to be loved. It's analogous to radical Islamic societies today, where the husband would never dare to express public affection for the wife, and may consider her partially a beast and beat her at times, but it's not our right to claim that there are no bonds of affection or tenderness between them, or that they don't love one another.

terri said...

First, I would like to do more reading from AUgustine's time in order to say that his particular view is normative. Although I generally feel that it isn't excessively abnormal, I don't know that there aren't contemporary to Augustine's times examples of women being more appreciated than Augustine appreciated them. I'm going to reserve judgement on that because I have found that my initial impressions about ancient history aren't always supported by the evidence.

Second, I'm not talking about "adoring" women. WOmen have lived in misogynistic cultures throughout most of history, but there are degrees to misogyny. There are many men I think of as sexist who still can express some sympathy, or appreciation for women even in their own limited way.

Third:

It's analogous to radical Islamic societies today, where the husband would never dare to express public affection for the wife, and may consider her partially a beast and beat her at times, but it's not our right to claim that there are no bonds of affection or tenderness between them, or that they don't love one another.

That makes me want to throw up. Abusive and dysfunctional relationships abound. WE don't need to go to Islamic countries to see that. I know that abusive women "love" their abusers and car about them. I know that abusers "love" their victims and "care" about them.

I would imagine that an abusive father would claim to love his abused children and have affection for them sometimes too.

That is not healthy love or true love. And I do have a right as a human being and a woman to express the opinion that any man who beats women and thinks of them as beasts doesn't truly "love" his woman.

Cultural understanding can only be extended so far before it becomes utterly ridiculous.

And to put in a good word for Augustine, even he seems saddened by the beatings his father inflicted upon his mother, though he does admire her for bearing up under them and not complaining about it....gag.

So even though he's removed by me by 1700 years, he's still human and an see that beatings aren't fun or loving.

JSA said...

I'm not trying to say that I, personally, consider the radical Islamic manifestation of marriage to be loving. I'm just saying that a billion other people have their own definition of love, and they're sticking with it. From my understanding of Augustine's cultural milieu, he was a lot more loving (under our modern definition) than the typical radical Islamist, and probably significantly more loving than the typical noblemen and businessmen of the time.

Remember that corporal punishment of children was also considered to be a very loving thing to do, and parents did not place their children on an equal level to the parents. As Augustine's comments seem to show, he considered women to be something like in a state of permanent childhood, though a bit higher than children, not capable of loving the way that men could love. Even the Biblical admonition of "Husbands love your wives; wives respect your husbands" shows something of this prejudice. The way that parents love their children is disanalogous to the way that children love parents; and it would make sense to say "Children respect your parents; parents love your children".

Anyway, I am very hesitant to condemn an entire period of history, or an entire culture of 100 billion people, just because I feel more enlightened than them. We ALL love imperfectly, and I am sure that you and I would appear more hideous in contrast to Christ's love as the radical Imam appears to us. On this earth, none of us owns big-L Love; we just try at little-l love.

terri said...

I'm going to push back a little, and I don't want this to be as confrontational as it may come across.

On the one hand you worry that I might be offending gay/bi-sexual people....pandering to homophobia by using the term bi-sexual. I honestly don't get your concern. I'd be pandering to homophobia if were using Augustine's sexuality to disparage him. I'm not and I'm not using an offensive term to describe him.

Then you worry about me judging that radical Islamists who beat their wives and think of them as beasts are not having affection for them. You made similar comments on that Donald Rumsfeld post a while back, listing a bunch of stereotypes about how that reporter would or should behave in his own culture.

Do you not see that you are doing the very thing you accuse me of?

You are making stereotypical, sweeping, cultural comments and then fretting about whether I might hurt "radical islamists'" feelings?

You can characterize them all as wife beaters, but I can't say their actions are unloving?

Sorry. I just think that's ridiculous and a little disingenuous when you are the one claiming to accurately portray the feelings of the gay community and Islamists and how "they" behave.

I somehow doubt that if you saw an American couple in which the husband and wife dynamics were equivalent to your description of radical islamists that you would be so quick to caution me to not be so "judgmental".

JSA said...

Well, I didn't mean to come across as judgmental. I happen to have a lot of personal experience with both issues, and I'm just trying to share a perspective that might not match yours, for your consideration.

For the first, a man who has enjoyed sex with other men isn't necessarily bi or gay. And I'm just letting you know that heteros who insist otherwise are judged with suspicion by the GBLT community. This is because it's usually a prelude to saying that gays or bis can be "cured", or that it's a lifestyle choice or a preference. And it's just not accurate.

You can take that however you want. No skin off my back if you want to insist on your own definition of bi. I'm just sharing information.

Second, I'm not at all worried about you expressing disgust at Mediterranean men circa 400AD, or Muslim men circa now. Go right ahead, and I'll mainly agree with you. But I think it's really weird to say that they didn't really "love" their wives, just because you think their definition of love is reprehensible. I think you're confusing your moral disgust with a debate over the definition of words, when the definition of words (and *especially* a word like "love") can vary widely from individual to individual and from culture to culture.

terri said...

I'm not expressing disgust at men. I'm expressing disgust at the attitude. I try not to personally disparage people or groups of people.

Whatever love Augustine felt for his mistress, it was extremely minimal. You can read Confessions for yourself to see what I mean.

Augustine broke with his mistress not because he wanted to convert, but because he wanted to marry and advance his career. He states this himself. The girl he was arranged to marry was only ten and not wouldn't be marriageable for 2 more years.

He didn't even know her. His emotional bond with his mistress was never powerful enough for him to consider marrying her, even though he could have.

Now, was he acting in accordance with his culture? Maybe, but even taking that into consideration I think there is room for personal excess in this area.

james said...

If he were alive, would he consent to be so co-opted?
I'm trying to imagine what he would say about Rev. Young's "Seven Days of Sex Challenge."

terri said...

Would he want to be co-opted? I highly doubt it.

I'm sure Augustine would hate any discussion of sex in church that wasn't cautionary. He really viewed sex, even within marriage, as an obstacle in Christian faith. It was sinful in most instances and a distraction even in marriage.

During this time, many of the early Christian leaders were celibate, so there may have been a motivation on Augustine's part to want to emulate those whom he admired. Plus, he took very seriously those verses from Paul about being better able to serve God by remaining single and the instance of Jesus discussing people who were eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

JSA said...

"I'm not expressing disgust at men. I'm expressing disgust at the attitude."

Sure, but it's a pretty unalterable part of who they are.

I did read Confessions not too long ago, and maybe my issue is that I identified too closely with his story about his mistress. The world is a messy place, and it's not realistic to expect that every couple will be on their first intimate relationship forever, and that nobody will have their hearts broken. People move on for various reasons, and leave a trail of wreckage. I *will* say that the women a guy feels most guilty about are not going to be the ones who he used for physical comfort, but the ones he formed a strong emotional bond with, and allowed to form a strong emotional bond back. The ones you leave behind are not the necessarily the ones you didn't love.

Anyway, I'm not defending it; I wouldn't claim to be a shining example of how to love, but neither would Augustine, I presume. I just think he's expressing a very real situation that many men today end up in, and maybe he could be a cautionary tale.

To your point about arranged marriage and marrying someone you don't even know -- I have tons of Indian friends, and am close friends with at least 4 couples in mixed Indian/Caucasian or Indian/Chinese marriages. Indian people marrying people they don't know at all is still quite common, and cultural gender expectations are very different for Indians. Thirty years ago, I would've labeled many of these relationships to be either non-existent, unhealthy, or in some cases even co-dependent. But when I've known these people for a decade or more and see how their relationships go, I think they love each other very much.

Likewise, I'm on my second marriage, both to women from completely different cultures. Entering a committed relationship with someone who has very different cultural expectations about what love means, can be like kick in the teeth. You have to abandon what seems obvious and sometimes adopt behaviors that you would have previously considered dysfunctional, if you really care about the other person.

Anyway, I'm not arguing some postmodern B.S. about "Everybody loves different, so anything you do could be seen as love". What I'm saying is that everybody thinks their love is the most unique and most perfect, but the truth is that most of us are pretty crappy at it. I think there *is* one universally true definition of what real love looks like, but none of us has any right to boast about achieving it.

terri said...

I'm sorry if my comments hit you in a spot that is closely identified with Augustine.

In the same way that you can identify with certain parts of Augustine, I have great sympathy for the mistress. Here's a woman who spent 15 years of her life with this man...gave him a son...followed him everywhere..and then she finds out he's going to put her aside for a marriage intended to further his career. She's given him the best years of her life and is left with nothing.

No security. No marriage. No love.

Of course this is a story that has been played out for millennia between men and women and her tale is a cautionary one even today. Many contemporary women have lived an exact replica of her life.

I don't identify with her through personal experience, but simply from the common bond of womanhood.

I'm not down on arranged marriages, in general. I only object to Augustine's because he already had someone he had a built a sort of life with, and having it cast aside for an arranged marriage with a girl who isn't old enough to marry yet just further underlines his utilitarian-ness in my mind.

Arranged marriages between adults who are willing to accept them can work out beautifully. I can't say that I would be able to relate to it, but I can see the benefits in entering marriage through a more contractual process than relying on mere emotion.