George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, by Richard Westall, Copyright National Portrait Gallery, London
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, by Richard Westall, Copyright National Portrait Gallery, London


Summer is the time for conferences and I’m speaking at 3 this year. Last Friday was the Gendered Emotions in History conference at the University of Sheffield and I compared some historic examples of child sexual abuse (CSA) with things that people had told me in my research. I’ll talk a bit more about the other two conferences later.

So the two historic examples I talked about were the life of Saint Frances which I’ve talked about here and the ancient Greek practice of pederasty. Pederasty is an example of CSA that is utilised now to argue that attitudes have changed and thus can change again. Paedophiles use this argument to justify present day abuse.

So what was pederasty in Athenian Greece? It was an arrangement between an adult male citizen and a boy. Sometimes a sexual relationship it was primarily about educating the boy to take up his role as a citizen. The ideal age of the boy was 16 and the abuse of young (pre-pubescent) children was illegal. There was an awareness even at the time that sexual activity in the pederastic relationship was a negative experience for the boy.

The following are 2300 year old quotes about pederasty.

‘there is no real kindness; he has an appetite and wants to feed upon you’

Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus 370BC

“A boy does not even share the man’s enjoyment of sexual intercourse as a woman does: he is a sober person watching one drunk with sexual excitement. In view of all this, it is no wonder if he even develops contempt for his lover.”

Xenophon, Symposium VIII, 360BC

Bloch (2001) argues that many such arrangements were for the political or financial benefit of the father of the child. She points out that to the Greeks being penetrated ‘like a woman’ was seen as shameful and any male who experienced this, and this was known, was banned from participating as a full citizen and indeed could be prosecuted. What Bloch argues here, and the quotes reflect, is that pederasty was not emotionally beneficial for the boy and was likely to feel shameful.

One of the key emotions people, particularly men, have spoken of regarding sexual abuse is my research is shame.

‘I realise I have carried a lot of shame around with me since the abuse.  I am currently working on reframing and healing the shame I feel about being gay as it links with the abuse by a male teacher.’

‘with same sex abuse I think there’s so much shame around it that people (especially the victims) don’t speak out about it as much’

‘You are taught shame at a very early age with sexual abuse’

In Ancient Greece, they didn’t have the same concepts of hetero- and homo- sexuality as we do today but they did define an active and a passive partner with being passive seen as shameful for a man. In Athenian Greece it could literally mean that you were not legally a Citizen, a real Athenian man. I think this connects with modern ideas about masculinity – what a man should be. Child abuse shakes the foundation of that. How can you be a man and be a victim?

Hopefully it is clear, when it is written in this way, that abuse does not affect one’s right to be male. You should not be blamed or punished (even by yourself) for something that was not your fault. It also shows the clear differences between homosexuality and paedophilia – including age, consent and harm. Attitudes have indeed changed over the years about abuse but the fact that it is harmful to the child has not changed.



Bloch, E. (2001) ‘Sex between Men and Boys in Classical Greece: Was It Education for Citizenship or Child Abuse?’, Journal of Men’s Studies, 9, 183–204

The picture is of Lord Byron, the poet, who was abused by his mother’s maid between 9-11 years old.



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