Ephebophilia (from ephebe – the Greek word for adolescent) is the sexual desire of adults for adolescent boys. Ephebophilia has been recognised as a
legitimate, morally and socially acceptable and non-threatening sexual preference in many societies - societies which also recognised the sexual desire of adolescent boys for adults. These sexual relationships were most often honoured when there was an educational role - where the adult man was responsible training the youth in the ways of the world, including warfare and weaponry.
Ephebophilia is distinct from and should not be confused with paedophilia - the
sexual desire of adults for pre-pubescent children. For a discussion of ephebophilia on Wikipedia, click here
Ancient Greece and Mediaeval Japan
The two societies best-known to us today where ephebophile relationships were recognised and promoted, were ancient Greece and mediaeval Japan. While such affairs may have taken place among ordinary people in both societies, the ideal ephebophile partnership involved the society's elite - the ruling class in Athens, the warriors in Sparta and the samurai of Kyoto and elsewhere in Japan.
These cultures were not unique and history and anthropology soon reveal many other examples of ephebophilia as a social ideal or norm. Mediaeval Arab poetry is full of praise of the
An ephebe kisses a man. Tondo from an Attic kylix, 5th century BCE. pic details
physical attractions of the adolescent boy. Soldiers in some African societies pre-colonisation had “boy-brides”. Various South Pacific tribes had homosexual rituals associated with maturing youths.
Boys yes, men no
In contrast to modern Western culture, these inter-generational relationships were accepted often accepted in societies which disapproved of what we would call gay male relationships - sexual partnerships between men of equal age and status. Such partnerships were universally condemned until recently, the only exceptions being in societies where two men could live together openly if one adopted a feminine or transgender persona - such as several cultures in pre-Columbian North America.
Attitudes are very different in the globalised, Christian-influenced twenty-first century world that most of us now inhabit. The awareness that a small number of children are horrifically abused by adults has led to a widespread hysteria that taints all expression of sexuality involving any individual under the age of fifteen or sixteen. The result is that consensual acts involving sexually mature individuals - such as between a fourteen year old youth and an adult man - are widely considered as immoral, destructive and criminal as the abuse of a three-year-old child. To conflate such very different activities is absurd, but prejudices, once instilled, are hard to dislodge.
For a short period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Western Europe, it seemed as if both ephebophile and gay male relationships might gradually become acceptable. Thanks to the work of such activists as Edward Carpenter in the UK and Magnus Hirschfeld in Germany, the idea that two men (or women) of equal age and status should be allowed to form a permanent sexual and emotional bond – a relationship that previous generations had considered highly immoral - took root in public debate. Meanwhile, several writers, as recently as the 1970s, with J Z Eglinton's scholarly Greek Love, promoted the ancient Greek ideal of love between an adult man and teenage boy as morally acceptable.
For several decades, words such as invert, Greek love, Uranian, Urning applied indiscriminately or uncertainly to one or both kinds of relationships. At the same time, the two ideals (adult-adult and adult-youth) overlapped along class lines. Many men of higher social standing, such as British writer E M Forster, were attracted to men of their own age, but only if they were of a lower social class, which signified a similar distance of status between the two partners as between an older and younger man. Oscar Wilde, meanwhile was attracted to Alfred Douglas as an individual of the same status but of a much younger age than himself, although his later preference was for youths of lower status.
Men yes, boys no
As the twentieth century progressed, attitudes towards male-male sexuality changed within a much broader changing social framework, including greater equality for women, greater respect for children, and diminishing respect for differences of class and wealth. Sexual relationships between men became more acceptable while relationships between men and youths were increasingly rejected. By the 1980s, the two ideals had separated to such an extent that gay organisations explicitly condemned the existence and work of such organisations as the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA).
Traces of ephebophilia remain in some aspects of modern male homosexuality. Many gay relationships involve a significant age difference between the partners, while others involve significant differences of wealth, power and social status. The two often combine in relationships between an older partner from a wealthy country and a younger partner from the developing world.
Ephebophilia in modern literature
In the distant future, ephebophilia may become respectable in the global world culture. In the meantime, literature involving adolescent boys - in relationships with each other or with older men, continues to be a popular subject for many gay writers and readers, in recent publications and in the literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Here follows a short list of titles of ephebophile interest; most are novels. Use the search box in the left column to see if Arbery Books has any of these titles currently in stock.
The best known literary, historical, psychological and sociological study of and apologia for
ephebophilia is J Z Eglinton's Greek Love.
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