Toward a Sustainable Ethics of Sexual Liberation: What Ancient Greece Can Teach Modern Progressives

I. Three Modern Trends

This essay owes its inspiration to three contemporary observations that are usually considered independently of one another, but are, as I shall argue, closely interconnected: (1) young people’s growing awareness of the environmental devastation wrought by capitalist pursuit of economic expansion as an end in itself, (2) the multiplication and unprecedented acceptance of non-reproductive paths of sexual and gender identity, and (3) an asymptotic rise in mental health problems among the young in conjunction with a decline in partnered sexual activity. From my perspective as a queer historian of ancient Greek sexuality, I would posit that the Greeks provided an early model for the avoidance of (1) and (3) by positive assimilation of (2). While every society has its own internal cultural logic, there are lessons to be drawn from how issues are addressed in other times and places.

Before turning to ancient history, let us first consider evidence concerning the three recent social developments I outline. (1) Ever since the first Earth Day in 1970, threats to our environmental future have frightened the young. Substantial warming of the planet appears to be inexorable even under the most optimistic scenarios for compliance with international protocols for reduction in carbon emissions. Renewable sources of energy, far from being a solution, are affronts to the natural landscape, ecologically disruptive, inefficient, unreliable, and dependent on rare earth minerals, which can be extracted and refined only at the cost of highly toxic pollution. Even if an as yet unforeseen technological miracle were to satisfy modern civilization’s energy needs without substantial poisoning of the environment, global population increase will continue to erode natural habitat, as it is consumed to provide more housing, agricultural production, and economic growth demanded by the populace of both developed and developing nations. Although expanding population is seldom discussed openly as the cause of the world’s environmental maladies, any serious effort to reduce the human footprint on the planet needs to acknowledge the finitude of the Earth’s carrying capacity. By 2050, world population is projected by the UN to increase almost 30% to 9.8 billion,i and stabilization, much less reduction, of human demands upon the Earth seems hopelessly out of reach, short of coercive demographic restrictions like China’s now abandoned one-child policy.

(2) Whether consciously or unconsciously, young people in advanced industrial societies have responded to these bleak prospects by deferring marriage and childbirth or opting out of reproductive sexuality altogether. According to World Bank data, the fertility rate in the US, UK, and Australia is below replacement level at 1.6 per woman, lower in most continental European countries, and lowest in wealthy and densely populated Asian jurisdictions like Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore.ii While this is a source of concern to right-wing nationalist factions, the trend should be celebrated by all who seek environmental sustainability. Equally welcome is the growing adoption of LGBTQ identities by younger cohorts in the West: according to Gallup, 20.8% of Americans born 1997-2003, 10.5% of those born 1981-1996, compared to far lower numbers in earlier generations.iii This should not be attributed just to the increasing social acceptance of non-heterosexual identities, which would result in an equal willingness to so identify regardless of age. It also cannot be attributed to more gay sex, as those rates are down for the young and many adopt the labels, especially the more amorphous “queer,” without ever having had an actual same-sex experience.iv It more likely reflects resistance to the traditional procreative family paradigm and its freedom-compromising strictures, as if the organic response of a species that senses its own degradation through excessive multiplication.

(3) Despite a degree of general prosperity, tolerance of sexual and gender diversity, and de-stigmatization of mental health challenges that is unprecedented in modern Western history, young people, including the LGBTQ, are unhappy and suffering mental anguish at record levels, as attested by suicide rates and standardized measures of depression and anxiety.v It is popular to blame social media, but much of the rise in these measures pre-dates its advent, and studies are inconclusive whether excessive attention to social media is a cause or effect of mental health problems or even correlative at Some psychologists have associated poor mental health with young people’s sense that they have too little autonomy or control over the most important aspects of their personal lives.vii Despair over our collective inability to save the Earth or stop war, famine, homelessness, crime, and inequality is only part of what ails the young.

Teens’ lack of autonomy and ability to control their destiny haunts them on a more primal level. Children experience the powerful onrush of puberty at ever younger ages and are exposed to ubiquitously sexualized media, including easy access to hard-core pornography online, but actual real-world experience is criminalized (up to the age of 18 in progressive California, with no like-age exceptions, and very strict legal rules for establishing explicit verbal consent among college students). Whereas the youth revolution of the 1960s and 70s envisioned young people’s sexual liberation and independence of bourgeois norms, the media and educational discourse of sex that has confronted young people in the last four decades has been a cascading torrent of terror, risk, and trauma: “stranger danger,” AIDS, child sex trafficking rings, Satanic cults abusing children in day-care centers, therapeutically induced “recovered memories” of abuse by one’s own parents, online predators lurking in chatrooms, pedophile priests, coaches, and Scoutmasters, widespread sexual harassment and rape on campus and at work. Some of these, like AIDS, were real problems at one time, but are now largely treatable and preventable. Others, like the campus rape “epidemic,” are limited problems exaggerated by media sensationalism based on tendentious studies generalizing from biased convenience samples.viii Others, like Satanic cults and QAnon, are mass delusions. Alarmed by this array of real and imagined threats, parenting during this period has become intensely protective: according to one study, 46% of parents restricted younger children’s outdoor play and mobility due to exaggerated fears of “child predators.”ix Among all Western countries, the US ranked highest in parental anxiety, with 62% of parents agreeing with the statement “I feel I need to be over-protective of them in this world.”

Letting minors adopt a sexual or gender identity becomes an acceptable substitute for actual experience that might help them test or discover their identity, but in other respects formal sex education today is as conservative and admonitory as it ever was: “you aren’t old enough and don’t have enough judgment to do this safely.” Lessons about sex as an instrument for creating mutual pleasure and personal growth are absent from this curriculum. It should not surprise us that young people, whatever their professed identity, are gaining less real-life sexual experience and self-confidence compared to their age-peers in earlier generations. The effect on young males is particularly severe, with an ever lower proportion choosing to attend college, more failing to launch, and many finding a community of fellow losers in the bottomless abyss of online gaming or the toxic swamp of “incel” culture.

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II. The Greek Model

Greece was fairly unique among ancient Mediterranean cultures in judging men’s worth by memory of their individual and collective accomplishments rather than the number of their offspring. The Greeks were acutely aware that the poverty of their soil, mountainous terrain, and aridity of the summer climate could only sustain a limited population. Hesiod, one of our earliest extant poets, composed a didactic poem on agricultural life, and explicitly advised men to delay marriage until the age of 30 and avoid having more than one son, lest the brothers quarrel and the estate be divided into unsustainable fractions. The Athenian lawgiver Solon also designated the 30s as the right age for a man to marry, and this appears to have been the norm for most Greek states in the archaic and classical periods, with the exception of the late fifth-century BCE, when Athens was at the height of its mercantile empire and had acute manpower needs due to losses from plague and war.

Late marriage did not, however, necessitate sexual abstinence for young males. The same Solon who advised late marriage also made provision for low-cost state-sponsored brothels that could satisfy the needs of young men of all economic classes. Unmarried youths also had the option of courting and establishing romantic/sexual relations with other men or adolescents. Aristotle (Politics 2.10) connects the origin of male same-sex relations with the legendary Cretan lawgiver’s prescribing the social isolation of women and men’s dining with other men apart from their wives; he says the specific goal was that the women not bear too many children. That these relations extended to adolescent boys needs to be understood in the demographic context of a system where only about 50% of boys reaching 18 still had a living father, since Greek men married late and died early (particularly in times of war).x In a culture where learning advanced arts and professions was done by individual instruction rather than institutions, the texture of relations between older and younger males was often one of pedagogical mentorship and encouragement in public arenas of vigorous masculine competition: athletics, hunting, cock-fighting, drinking, clever conversation, musical performance, politics, oratory, philosophy, and even war.

Within the unique cultural logic of the Greek demographic system, same-sex relations were socially functional by instilling a strong competitive ethos and self-confidence in young men, whether adolescents vying for the attention and approval of adult role models whom they admired, or young adults competing to win the favor and company of a particularly beautiful and promising adolescent. But as Foucault has emphasized, adolescence was also a time of testing the discretion and wisdom of a boy’s choices in company and deportment, and intemperate sexual behavior as a youth could later be used as grounds of political attack.xi That pederastic relations were particularly common among boys and youths of the leisured upper classes suggests that they were not motivated by an impulse to prey upon the weak and vulnerable, although there is some evidence that a wealthy and well-connected lover could offer his younger partner a path to social advancement that might not otherwise be available to him.

Greek pederasty was not without its contemporary critics, but it never occurred to them that such associations were psychologically harmful to adolescents in virtue of being “unequal” or featuring a “power imbalance.” If anything, a desirable younger partner was considered to have the upper hand in manipulating a love-stricken admirer, as reflected by the laments of love poets about boys’ inconstancy and the frequent scenes of both gift-giving and rejection depicted in Greek vase painting. Plutarch relates that the young aristocrat Alcibiades’ older lovers put up with outrageous treatment at his hands. The criticism of pederasty was rather that it corrupted some boys by giving them an unfair advantage, training them to feel entitled and become meretriciously acquisitive, manipulative, too prone to bribery, and overly ambitious in politics. The comic poet Aristophanes said that the majority of the city’s most prominent politicians and intellectual leaders were euruprôktoi (literally, “wide-assed” in virtue of taking a receptive role in anal intercourse when younger). Non-consensual assault of a boy was an outrage that merited either human or divine vengeance, but there is no evidence that consensual relations were anything but beneficial in a culture that aestheticized the developing male physique and accorded pederastic relations positive social reinforcement. Arguably, by allowing men to avoid the burdens associated with supporting a family until they were older and financially established and by engaging masculine energies toward molding the next generation of men, same-sex relations contributed to the unique intellectual and cultural productivity that distinguished Greece from its contemporary neighbors.

Greek society usually dealt with female sexuality by arranging early marriage (early teens for the upper-class girls with generous dowries) to older husbands. Like pederasty, heterosexual marriage linked an adolescent’s sexual development to guidance by a more experienced partner. In most respects, Greek practice does not provide a good model for female happiness and fulfillment, but it should be noted that the most gender-egalitarian society among the Greeks was that of Sparta, where women were conditioned from an early age to be as much like men as possible: unsentimental, unemotional, bold, physically fit, unashamed of naked exercise in front of young men, and encouraged to ridicule any young men whom they perceived as weak or cowardly. Spartan women, not men, were supreme in matters of household and estate governance and often accumulated considerable property in their own name. Since Spartiate men lived in a state of semi-permanent military mobilization, marital bonds were relatively weak and women could enjoy separate relationships with men other than their husbands. We are also told that a version of female pederasty was practiced in Sparta, initiating girls into the mysteries of love and sex much as Sappho did in 7th century Lesbos.

Greek science also recognized a spectrum of gender diversity that was biologically determined by the mixture of seed at the moment of conception (Parmenides, fr. 18; Hippocrates, On Regimen 1.28-29): some men were soft and feminine, some women were bold and self-assertive like men, some men hyper-masculine heroes, some women of exceptional beauty and grace, and most just average.

So to summarize, ancient Greece provides the model of a vigorous, successful culture in its time, that eventually (under Alexander) came to influence the entire Eastern Mediterranean and ultimately Rome. For most of its history, it maintained a population in stable balance with its natural environment through demographic strategies that encouraged non-procreative sexual alternatives and limited procreation within marriage, with colonization as a relief valve any time the population outstripped local capacity. Young males in particular were from adolescence exposed to invitations by sex workers, older men, and their peers, and were entrusted with the self-determination and judgment to consent or not consent. Our sources give no evidence that this relative sexual freedom harmed them, as long as they avoided socially disruptive adultery with another man’s wife.

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III. Can Adolescents Consent?

While the political and economic determinants of our contemporary environmental crisis are well understood, the sources of the present sexual and mental health malaise among young people are less clear. How, when, and why did sexual activity come to be policed and criminalized until young people were of an age to provide independent financial support of children they might procreate? In the US and most European states, the age of consent was in the range of 10 to 12 for most of history; in 1885 Victorian reformers, alarmed by sensationalist reports of factory girls being exploited in “white slavery” rings, induced Parliament to raise the age to 16 in Britain and Ireland, and in the US the Women’s Christian Temperance Union added an age of consent of 18 to its platform of moral reformation, along with prohibitions on alcohol, gambling, sex work, and a variety of other “social purity” issues. By appearing to make it safer for rural girls to migrate to cities and work in factories, these mainly elite and middle-class Protestant reformers evaded the real problems of economic inequality that necessitated child labor to feed a rapidly industrializing economy. In practice, they were more concerned to curtail population growth and out-of-wedlock births among poor immigrant and African-American populations; their goals were often explicitly eugenicist, but they in practice found allies in socially conservative immigrant populations themselves, accustomed to arranged marriages and patriarchal control of daughters’ bodies. In the same period, vague laws on disorderly conduct and vagrancy were used to incarcerate unmarried women of any age whose behavior was deemed morally suspect. However, even at the height of this Progressive Era crackdown on vice, the age of consent laws did not pertain to males, except to use the threat of prosecution to compel any young man responsible for a pregnancy to marry the girl.

That age of consent laws came to apply to “protection” of males at all was more a result of historical accident in the US than consciously designed policy based on scholarly research concerning male sexual development.xii The push for gender neutral language in legal statutes beginning in the 1970s had the effect of imposing on male adolescents a regime of paternalistic regulation originally designed to police adolescent females and discourage premature pregnancy. In the face of AIDS and moral panics spurred by a tiny handful of actual pedophile abductions (and even more lurid fantasies implanted by ideologically-fixated child therapists, given credence by mass media at the time), more stringent regulation of sexuality was demanded in the 1980s by newly ascendent religious conservatives and some elements of the feminist Left, both of which approached the issue based on emotion rather than sound social science.xiii Having no votes, teenagers were the ones who lost their rights to sexual citizenship, supposedly in the name of their own protection, even if the forces of repression lost the battles to ban adult sleaze.

European states took a different approach. At the same time that US states were raising ages of consent and extending the reach and severity of laws on statutory rape, most of Europe avoided the false premise that adolescents cannot “consent,” but instead focused on ages below which the law would provide special protections against exploitation, with authorities becoming involved only if a young person complained. Non-judgmental sex education and routine provision of contraception to girls after menarche have worked far better in giving EU countries lower rates of teen pregnancy and STI infection than the US approach of criminalizing teenage sexual behavior. Indeed, lower ages of consent and liberal attitudes in European countries do not correlate with earlier first intercourse,xiv but they do correlate with lower rates of youth suicide.xv Cultures that trust the young with more capacity for independence and judgment tend to see healthier behaviors from them.

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IV. A Leftist Sexual Agenda

To demand of hormone-surging adolescents years of sexual discipline, deferral, and self-denial is an anthropological abnormality: most human societies either practice early marriage of females or allow some license for adolescent experimentation either with each other or with more experienced young adults.xvi As a developmental strategy, sexual repression matches the demands of a late capitalist economy for an obedient workforce whose persistence has been tested by years of post-secondary certification, supported in the US not as a universal right, but often through infantilizing submission to the continuing dominance of the patriarchal family even over adult children. What began as a legal effort to suppress teenage pregnancy in an era when safe and reliable biomedical technologies for doing so did not yet exist has metamorphosed into state repression of even non-procreative experimentation and intimacy, anathematized in countless federally-funded studies as undesirable “risk behaviors.” The banishment of risk is driven by an assumed teleology of ultimate fulfillment only in a “serious” monogamous relationship, which is itself deferred to a time dictated by the rewards of conformity to the capitalist economy. Parental and state anxiety to protect the young from all risk conditions them to accept surveillance, control, and denial of the most basic form of bodily autonomy.

However, as Freud observed in Civilization and Its Discontents, this extended repression and deferral comes at tremendous psychic cost. A “liberatory” sexual ethics de-coupled from economic constraints, as envisioned by Marcuse in Eros and Civilization (1955), seemed briefly capable of realization in assorted youth, feminist, gay, and counter-cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s, only to be quashed by multiple forces of regression in subsequent decades.

The modern Left can recuperate this earlier revolutionary energy only by abandoning its allegiance to exhausted and fundamentally reactionary victimological tropes surrounding sexuality and returning to bold advocacy of basic principles of personal autonomy. The rights of all young persons who are biologically mature enough to feel sexual desire should be acknowledged: these should include the rights to consensual association with partners of their choice, to free and confidential access to contraception, abortion, and pre-exposure prophylaxis, to comprehensive sex education including the full range of orientations and gender creativity as well as training in how to ask for and assert consent, and to a general recognition that the primary goal of sexuality should be shared pleasure and loving community, not reproduction to perpetuate stale paradigms of consumerist family life amid perpetual economic growth.

At the same time, a just polity also needs to acknowledge limits to sexual freedom when it conflicts with a legitimate community interest in preserving the freedoms of others. All citizens should be free from sexual violence or exploitation by those in positions of professional or political control. However, progressives should embrace systems of restorative justice in such cases, rather than continuing to feed the maw of the carceral state based on the myth that sexual offenders are incorrigible deviants who must be permanently exiled from society.xvii

Similarly, reproductive freedom need not include the right to create so many children that the carrying capacity of the physical environment and the social welfare state become overburdened. Maintaining quality of life should take precedence over the quantity of life. The Left may need to reconsider policies that award more tax or welfare benefits to families with more children, or those that encourage mass immigration from high-fertility, low-consumption economies into low-fertility, high-consumption economies. Environmental threats are global and must be addressed through aggressive programs of family planning, LGBTQ rights, and sustainable development worldwide, rather than allowing authoritarian regimes in failed states to maintain order by exporting their unemployed to feed the demand for cheap, non-unionized labor in first-world countries that are already struggling with excessive population density and fraying structures of social support.





iv D. Herbenick, M. Rosenberg, et al., “Changes in Penile-Vaginal Intercourse Frequency and Sexual Repertoire from 2009 to 2018: Findings from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 51.3 (2022) 1419-33.

v For depression and anxiety, see J. M. Twenge, “The Age of Anxiety? Birth Cohort Change in Anxiety and Neuroticism, 1952-1993.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79.6 (2000) 1007-21; C. R. Newsom, R. P. Archer, et al., “Changes in Adolescent Response Patterns on the MMPI/MMPI-A Across Four Decades.” Journal of Personality Assessment 81 (2003): 74–84; A. H. Weinberger, M. Gbedemah, et al., “Trends in Depression Prevalence in the USA from 2005 to 2015: Widening Disparities in Vulnerable Groups.” Psychological Medicine 48.8 (2018) 1308-15. For suicide, see the CDC document “QuickStats: Suicide Rates for Teens Aged 15–19 Years, by Sex — United States, 1975–2015.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 66 (2017) 816.

vi S. Tang, et al., “The Relationship Between Screen Time and Mental Health in Young People: A Systematic Review of Longitudinal Studies.” Clinical Psychology Review 86 (2021) 102021.

vii J. M. Twenge, L. Zhang, and C. Im, “It’s Beyond My Control: A Cross- Temporal Meta-Analysis of Increasing Externality in Locus of Control, 1960–2002,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 8 (2004) 308–19.

viii See the discussion of L. Kipnis, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (New York 2017) 69-72.

ix IKEA, The Play Report 2015, pp. 13-15. It bears noting that the countries that score lowest in parental “over-protectiveness” are those with relatively liberal sexual cultures, such as Sweden and The Netherlands.

x For this estimate, see B. Strauss, Fathers and Sons in Athens (Princeton 1993) 67-68.

xi M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure (New York, 1985) 204-25.

xii For the legislative history, see C. Cocca, Jailbait: The Politics of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States (Albany 2004).

xiii A series of recent studies based on broad population samples have shown no significant difference in later psycho-sexual adjustment between individuals whose sexual debut was as an adult with an adult, an adolescent with another adolescent, or an adolescent with an adult: see B. Rind, “First Postpubertal Male Same-Sex Experience in the National Health and Social Life Survey: Current Functioning in Relation to Age at Time of Experience and Partner Age.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 47.6 (2018) 1755-68; B. Rind, “First Sexual Intercourse in the Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships: Current Functioning in Relation to Age at Time of Experience and Partner Age.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 50.1 (2021) 289-310; B. Rind, “Reactions to Minor-Older and Minor-Peer Sex as a Function of Personal and Situational Variables in a Finnish Nationally Representative Student Sample.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 51.2 (2022) 961-85. It has long been established that subjective perception of consent is the dominant factor in determining whether a pre-adult experience was retrospectively remembered as positive or negative; see D. Finkelhor, Sexually Victimized Children (New York 1979) 97-108.

xiv R. Parker, K. Stallings, & J. V. Lazarus, “Sexuality Education in Europe: An Overview of Current Policies.” Sex Education 9 (2009) 229-31.

xv For a comparison of the suicide rates of males aged 15-24 in various European countries, see A. Schmidtke, U. Bille-Brahe, et al., “Suicide in Europe: Rates, Trends, and Sociodemographic Characteristics of Suicide Attempters from 1989-1992. Results of the WHO/EURO Multicentre Study on Parasuicide.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 93.5 (1996) 327-38. The countries with by far the lowest rates of youth suicide were those with the lowest ages of consent: Italy (14), The Netherlands (12 at the time), Denmark (15), Germany & Austria (14), and Spain (12 at the time).

xvi J. Whiting, Culture and Human Development (Cambridge 2006) 282-305.

xvii The US Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 92.3% of sex offenders committed no other sex offense within nine years of their release:

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