I’ve belatedly realised one plausible reason why Paul places homosexual acts at the head of his list of the sinful results of denying the true God in Romans 1:18ff. On the face of it, that particular activity doesn’t seem obviously to follow on from idolatry, nor to be uniquely evil.
I now suspect that it’s where it is in the text not because it’s the most heinous of sins, but because it’s the most characteristic of the pagans that Paul knew from his extensive experience as both a Jew and a Roman citizen. There is a Hebrew word, quedesh which implies male prostitution (usually cultic, according to a disputed consensus amongst scholars). Moses had warned against it as a danger from Canaanite practice in Deuteronomy, it crept into the syncretic religion of Israel leading up to the exile, and was only finally eradicated by King Josiah. It was, in other words, paradigmatic of Israel’s succumbing to false religion.
By the time of Paul, the proscription and virtual absence of homosexual acts was as distinctive of the Jews as was their not practising abortion and infanticide. Josephus the historian draws attention to it, with some pride, for his Roman readership, as does Philo the philosopher, both roughly contemporary with Paul.
By contrast Greek and Roman society, in differing ways, normalised homosexuality – by which I do not mean that it was tolerated in a minority, but customary for a majority.
In archaic and classical Greece, pubescent boys were educated by older men who, as a matter of course, had sexual relations with them. Penetration was seen as a mark of healthy virility, which is why super-virile Alexander the Great was equally at home with either sex. One historian has described paederasty as “the principal cultural model for free relationships between citizens” in Greek society.
The Romans, adopting the practice in the 2nd century BCE, accentuated the dominance-submission element, rejecting the aesthetic or romantic aspect as “somehow Greek,” though to be fair the practice later had come to be seen as “unnatural” by some Greeks, including Plato in his senior years. Regarding Rome, though:
In Archaic and classical Greece, paiderasteia had been a formal social relationship between freeborn males; taken out of context and refashioned as the luxury product of a conquered people, pederasty came to express roles based on domination and exploitation…
It was expected and socially acceptable for a freeborn Roman man to want sex with both female and male partners, as long as he took the penetrative role. The morality of the behavior depended on the social standing of the partner, not gender per se. Both women and young men were considered normal objects of desire, but outside marriage a man was supposed to act on his desires with only slaves, prostitutes (who were often slaves), and the infames [entertainer class – there were thespian “luvvies” even then, it seems!].
And so to Paul, dwelling in a continent-wide Hellenic culture ruled by Rome, unnatural (Rom 1:26-7) sexual activity perhaps appeared a particular fruit of paganism, idolatry being where he begins his argument, whereas the sins he goes on to name subsequently were shared by both Jews and Gentiles. Remember, the aim of the passage is to convict all people, without distinction, of corruption by their contempt for God*. He seems to put most weight on the Greek rather than the Roman pattern, because he emphasises mutual lust rather than power relationships (contrary to some modern interpreters of Paul).
But the particular point I want to make of this is that these cultures give the lie to the received wisdom in ours that sexual orientation is a continuum of inborn preferences. The widespread assumption is that a majority of people shun homosexual encounters because they find them naturally abhorrent, which makes them “heterosexual,” whereas the minority of homosexuals shun heterosexual encounters for the opposite reason. Somewhere in between are the bisexuals, numerically rare:
The Office of National Statistics reports 0.8% bisexuality in 2016, compared to 1.2% identifying as homosexual. Females and young adults predominate, and the percentage has been slowly growing. [ONS, 2016.]
Yet in Greece and Rome, nearly everybody seems to have been “institutionally bisexual.” For all that the apparently near-universal bisexuality of Greek and Roman males was culturally prescribed, such customs could never have arisen, or persisted, at all unless the majority of socially dominant males found them enjoyable (we have no way of knowing about Greek youths, and nobody cared either way about what Roman slave experienced – the whole idea was to shame them anyway.) No man exercises his “male privilege” by doing what is abhorrent to him.
It follows that the modern majority’s distaste for engaging in homosexuality is not predominantly biological at all, but is the result of a complex mix of societal taboo, moral sensibility, religious teaching and so on. The majority don’t engage in it because we think it’s wrong – to the point of suicide in the case of many of those seduced by abusive pastors, teachers or film producers. That’s true “homophobia,” and I’m not going to condemn it because it is what makes us different from imperial Rome or ancient Greece. It came (as even the gay lobby concurs) from the Judaeo-Christian heritage, not from biological programming, and is the reason sex abuse in churches or children’s homes is considered outrageous, rather than laudable and normative.
No doubt, given human biology, natural biological inclination to the opposite sex is in the mix too – the natural law proponents are right in that. But the ancient Greeks and Romans show how easily that may be overcome when the rest of the constraints are absent.
Maybe what prompted my “Aha” moment regarding Paul and Romans 1 was a news item about the utterly scandalous series of child-abuse cases in many cities in the UK, involving, on the one hand, socially disadvantaged white girls as young as 12 and, on the other, mainly Pakistani gangs of Muslim “paedophiles.” Girls were raped, drugged, and passed around as many as a hundred men, over long periods.
For overseas readers unfamiliar with it, the scandal is that, for well over a decade, police forces and other official agencies (including the misnamed “care homes” in which some of the girls were placed) refused to act despite overwhelming evidence, so as not to risk souring relations with immigrant communities. There is even evidence that chief constables received official government guidance to lay off prosecuting such cases. In some cases, the girls themselves were penalised for prostitution as the men remained free. The problem is ongoing, and prosecutions have been few.
There is, I suppose, an intersectional logic to this, in that according to that pernicious and authoritarian creed (now pervading even our courts and police forces), the girls are white, native born, and nominally Christian, whereas the men are “people of colour”, immigrant, and belong to a religious minority (in this case Islam rather than Woke, which is an even more minority creed with more influence than it deserves). On the intersectional grid, this gives the men three “recognised” categories of oppression, which trump their victims’ one – that of being women. Technically, the girls must be the oppressors supporting the Patriarchy by their very identity.
One might discuss that at length, but here I want to focus mainly on a figure: an estimate that across the country there are over 19,000 victims of these “paedophile” gangs. In each case there seem usually to be far more perpetrators than victims, implicating some much larger number of men. I’m not concerned here to make any point about Pakistanis, or Muslims, but simply what the figures say about human sexuality.
Judging the percentage of paedophiles in the country isn’t easy – they don’t ask about it on the census form. But in one article I read:
A Home Office study in the mid-1990s found that at least 110,000 men had a conviction for an offence against a child.
In 2000 Detective Chief Inspector Bob McLachlan, then the head of Scotland Yard’s paedophile unit, extrapolated from this number to suggest that there may be as many as 250,000 paedophiles living among us, including those not convicted. (https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-paedophiles-britain)
That sounds a lot (and may well be exaggerated, since this is all about definitions), but it actually represents only 0.15% scattered through the total population. There is no reason why, if paedophiles are seen as another variety of “sexual orientation” (ie they are “born that way”), that they would be over-represented amongst Muslims, Pakistanis, or immigrants. They are so rare that you couldn’t recruit 100 of them to a gang in Rochdale even if you advertised in the press.
Once again, we find that the criminal predilection for under-age girls has been manifested in ordinary men, based on some warped ideology, bad company and evil choices. It figures that most of us are safe with children not because we would never be tempted, not because we lack opportunity – but because of the way our moral characters have been formed, the choices we make, and so on.
To me, this casts doubt on the whole way we think of sexuality in the west, emphasising as we do something called “orientation,” which has no more claim to validity than the Roman idea that my maleness is proved by penetrating anything socially inferior that moves, or the Greek claim that paederasty is character-forming for kids. It is a lot more likely that sexuality is potentially undifferentiated until socialisation good or bad, experience positive or detrimental, and choices right or wrong begin to lock us into habits and appetites, for better or worse.
This, after all, is what the nature of pornography would indicate: the vast majority involves practices that most people would be ashamed to admit to (have you seen the testimonies of former teen would-be porn actresses, who were pressured into ever more aberrant acts?). Pornography is all about making money, and they wouldn’t maximise their cash by catering for tiny minorities. Their aim, rather, is the easy perversion of the majority – and they find it very easy indeed, to judge by the stats.
That these behavioural complexities are real for the people we encounter is important, whatever progressive activists (or even suffering individuals) may say. Even the ideology of power may be as active in our time as it was in Rome, as this personal story calls us to reflect, seriously. Parts of it remind me of a young patient of mine many years ago, groomed by older men to believe his adolescent sexual confusion required him to recognise an inborn orientation (and so submit to their advances).
Its pseudonymous author has since “come out” as Robert Lopez, A Christian academic at a Southern Baptist College. Sad to say, he has recently been fired from his post, apparently for offending their new policy on social inclusiveness by his testimony. Like those abused girls, he obviously forgot to check his (Latino) privilege.
*EDIT 3/4/20: Lest any casual reader misunderstand, Paul’s reason for showing all to be equally guilty before God is to show their need, and the power, of the gospel “for the salvation of all who believe,” from the pious Jew to the Roman sex abuser. “For God has bound all men over to disbedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (Rom 11:32).