Nissinen treats 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10 under the same heading. The texts read: “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes (malakos), sodomites (arsenokoitēs), thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10 NRSV). “This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites (arsenokoitēs), slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching” (1 Tim 1:9-10 NRSV).
The genre of these passages, vice/virtue lists, derives from Hellenistic Judaism, which, in turn, adopted the genre from Greco-Roman literature. It is a common genre in the NT. Nissinen lists Rom 1:29-31; Gal 5:19-23; Col 3:18-4:1; Eph 5:21-6:9; and 2 Tim 3:1-5 as further examples. Notably, “All vice lists appear as summaries, rarely referring to the actual context of the vices or the real people to whom the text is directed…. It is hard to know whether Paul in his list in 1 Corinthians wants to underscore any particular point, although he doubtlessly concurs with the items in it” (113). Indeed, the vice list functions here as a rhetorical climax to Paul’s appeal for the Corinthians to stop taking each other to court. “Nothing else in 1 Corinthians can be interpreted in terms of homoerotic conduct” (114).
arsenokoitēs is made up of two elements arsen (man, male) + koitē (bed). The word is rare, and Nissinen suggests an etymology based on Lev 18:22 and 20:13 in the Septuagint, where these elements appear close together. Nonetheless, etymology rarely determines the meaning of a word where it is used in different contexts. Nissinen cites a couple of studies which argue that arsenokoitēs does not always have a homoerotic meaning. This is especially the case where the ambiguity of the word allows it to have either a subjective or objective meaning. Yes, someone who lies with men, but also a man who lies with whatever might be the case in context. Nissinen suggests an English example, nymphomania, which I would contrast with Beatlemania. The one is subjective–it refers to the mania of the nymph, namely “excessive” female sexual desire, whereas the other is objective–it refers to mania for the Beatles. Indeed, the term could simply be a general one for exploitative sex.
malakos means soft, and it can have the transferred sense of being morally weak or effeminate. In that case it could refer to “the passive partner in a pederastic relationship” (117). But, Nissinen continues, it can often designate the effeminacy of men without having any erotic connotations at all. In one example, a male musician is called malakos because he dresses up in female clothes at the request of women in the audience.
Nissinen thus concludes with the argument that the words are too vague for us to determine definitively what they refer to. To do so, in my opinion, would be analogous to arguing that a right interpretation of “baptism on behalf of the dead” in 1 Cor 15:29 is necessary for Christian practice. The reality, however, is that not everything that seems clear-cut in Scripture really is. That is why the Westminster Confession reads, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”
Nissinen provides some final words that point a more constructive way forward: “Regardless of the kind of sexuality meant in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, in their current contexts they are examples of the exploitation of persons. This is the hermeneutical horizon for understanding the individual components of the lists of vices. What Paul primarily opposes is the wrong that people do to others” (118).
In chapter six, Nissinen proceeds to address NT passages dealing with homoeroticism. He identifies three: Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9; and 1 Tim 1:10.
Nissinen opens in contending that “Paul himself was flesh and blood, an educated male of Hellenistic Jewish origin whose worldview and moral standards, even after his conversion to Jesus Christ, had much to do with his cultural environment. Paul was a man of considerable self-awareness, whose letters were meant to be authoritative, indeed; nevertheless, when writing his letter to the Romans, he was scarcely aware that he was participating in the making of Holy Scripture. His words in Romans 1:26-27 concerning female and male same-sex interaction, however, continue to affect the lives of lesbian and gay persons at the turn of the third millennium C.E.” (103).
It is worth quoting the passage at length: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (Rom 1:18-27).
Nissinen notes that this is Paul’s characterisation of Gentile sin, which informs his rhetorical strategy. He is drawing attention to the sins of the Gentiles only to reveal to the Jews in his audience that they, too, are guilty of the same things (2:1; 3:9). That is, he butters them up in seeming to agree with their condemnations of Gentiles, only to show that they too are in need of grace in Christ.
Nissinen goes on to argue that Paul takes up the language of his contemporaries here. A key formulation is “against nature” (paraphysin; NRSV “unnatural”). This is different to the biological sense of the term in modern times and is more related to convention. “For Seneca, for example, hot baths, potted plants, banquets after sunset, and a man’s passive sexual role were all ‘against nature,’ contra naturam” (105). Paul himself asks elsewhere, “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” (1 Cor 11:14-15). God goes against nature in grafting the Gentiles into the chosen people (Rom 11:24).
Another significant feature of Paul’s language is that of “changing,” which in Jewish texts of the time carried sexual connotations. The Testament of Naphtali, for example, reads, “so that you do not become like Sodom, which departed from [lit., ‘changed’] the order of nature” (quoted p.106). Nissinen suggests that Paul deliberately draws on Jewish rejection of homoeroticism in order to parallel the exchanging of worship of God for the worship of creatures (i.e. idols). Paul may very well have condemned homoerotic relations himself, but here they function in his argument to appeal to Jewish perceptions of Gentile idolatry.
Nissinen also connects Paul’s theology of sexuality here to that of gender roles. Paul is not interested primarily in biology and the implications this might have for differing gender roles. He is interested in upholding (at least to some extent) the gender roles established by the Jewish and Greco-Roman conventions of his time. “According to 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, strict gender differentiation, based on the hierarchical ladder, God-Christ-man-woman, and manifested in different hair styles, is a matter of shame and honor before God and thus becomes a theological issue” (107). Paul’s theology clearly reflects the gendered assumptions of his day. If these are not accepted today, then why do churches still accept the gendered logic of his condemnation of homoeroticism?
The influence of Paul’s time and place on his theology becomes especially clear when considering that he presents homoeroticism as being a deliberate rebellion against God, rather than the exercise of someone’s inborn sexual orientation. This is also clear in the parallel Paul makes between homoerotic acts and idol worship. Nissinen speculates that Paul may have been exposed to abusive pederastic relationships between men and slaves, and homoeroticism playing a religious role in pagan cults, though Paul does not go into detail so these cannot be confirmed.
Nissinen’s conclusion is worth quoting at length: “The first chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans, then, address the theology of justification by faith, not homoeroticism. Paul does not list individual sins that would rouse God’s wrath. The deeds he mentions are not provocations of the wrath of God but manifestations, symptoms, and results of the one root sin, exchanging God for idols, which inevitably leads to ‘unnatural’ practices. It is of no help if people amend the wicked habits that rule their lives, since even a ‘natural’ way of life … does not bring salvation; only faith in Christ can remedy the situation…. Presumably nothing would have made Paul approve homoerotic behavior…. But condemning ‘homosexuality’ is not Paul’s main concern. His words about same-sex conduct in Romans 1:26-27 are one example he chose from his tradition to illustrate how badly the world needs grace, and, at the same time, to set a trap for anyone who would read his words with feelings of moral superiority or religious bigotry” (112).
In the following chapter, Nissinen turns to attitudes towards homoeroticism in ancient Judaism. He begins with the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. Here, the moral depravity of the Gentiles comes into focus, and homoeroticism is given as an example: “The majority of other men defile themselves in their relationships, thereby committing a serious offense, and lands and whole cities take pride in it: they not only procure the males, they also defile mothers and their daughters” (Letter of Aristeas 152, quoted on p.89). But Nissinen locates the main underlying logic for sexual immorality in Jewish thought of this period to be that of its association with idolatry. He cites Wisdom of Solomon 13-15 here, though finds no explicit reference to homoeroticism.
With later figures like Josephus and Philo, Nissinen finds the first explicit connection made between the story of Sodom in Gen 19 and homoeroticism. He observes, “These learned men, who were profoundly influenced by Hellenistic philosophy, used the familiar term physis (‘nature’), defining homoerotic behavior as against nature (para physin)” (93). Josephus even compares the actions of the Sodomites to pederasty. Interestingly, Josephus does not talk about Judges 19. Nissinen reflects, “Josephus seems unwilling to admit that his own people would ever have engaged in homoerotic relations. Instead, he actually boasts about the Jews’ homophobia and their death penalty for homosexual relationships” (94). But Nissinen does not ask whether this death penalty (following Lev 20:13) was enforced or just suited Josephus’ argument.
Philo’s characterisation of the Sodomites is also worth quoting at length: “Not only in their mad lust for women did they violate the marriages of their neighbours, but also men mounted males without respect for the sex nature which the active partner shares with the passive; and so when they tried to beget children they were discovered to be incapable of any but a sterile seed…. Then, as little by little they accustomed those who were by nature men to submit to play the part of women, they saddled them with the formidable curse of a female disease” (On Abraham, 135-36, quoted pp.94-95). Not only does Philo think that homoeroticism means less time for hetero baby-making, but, Nissinen writes, he believes that these encounters “actually cause sterility, destroy the semen, and cause lethal ‘women’s’ illnesses, that is, probably, venereal diseases” (95). Philo’s position thus depends on a pre- and here anti-scientific understanding of fertility. Nonetheless, while Josephus’ and Philo’s polemics were informed by established attitudes in pagan philosophy, it was also informed by their readings of distinctly Jewish sources and traditions.
Nissinen proceeds to the Rabbinic literature, where homoeroticism is addressed in the same context of incest, adultery, and bestiality, and is considered to be universally condemned following God’s commandments to Noah, thus applying to all people. Notably, “Fully in line with Roman morality, the rabbis consider the passive sexual role a woman’s role, humiliating for a male, especially if penetration took place (y. Qiddushin 1:7:61a). Being penetrated by another male was sacrificing one’s maleness, and with it the authority and power attached to the male role in society” (99). Yet the references to homoeroticism are scant when compared to those concerning heteroerotic relations. Moreover, female-female homoeroticism is barely considered. Nissinen points to one example where different Rabbinic schools disagree on whether a woman who has “rubbed” another woman can go on to marry a priest (a reflection on the law that forbids prostitutes marrying priests).
In his next chapter, Nissinen turns to homoeroticism in classical antiquity. This will provide important background context for the ways that homoeroticism is approached in the NT.
Nissinen begins with Greek pederasty, from paiderastia, love for boys, which was a form of homoeroticism that took place between adult men and boys. The majority of sources concerning the practice are from Athens. Importantly, “What follows is largely drawn from sources that reflect philosophical, idealistic, and elite attitudes and may not be in complete accordance with common customs and opinions” (57). According to Nissinen, pederasty functioned as a form of intiation for boys into adulthood. The man would school the boy in the ways of adulthood. In return, the boy would provide him with sexual gratification. Typically, after a pederastic relationship, men would go on to marry women. “Pederasty thus meant a homoerotic relationship in which the partners were not, at least in principle, homosexuals in the modern sense of the word. It would be more appropriate to speak of institutionalized bisexual role behaviour, in which the partners expressed their sexuality from quite a different basis and in ways different from modern concepts of homosexuality” (60). But pederasty also played a role in stopping a gap that was left open by the gendered norms of the time. In principle, the man’s sphere was in the world of business outside the home and the woman’s sphere within the home. Women were seen to be weaker, physically, but also in terms of being prone to flights of emotion and more likely to engage in adultery! “The Greeks regarded it impossible for a man to have a deep, all-encompassing love relationship with a woman. This was possible only between two men, and such was the aim of pederastic relations” (64).
In pederastic relationships, the man was the active partner and the boy the passive. But it was not only anal sex that transpired. As in the Ancient Near East, Nissinen again finds attitudes in the ancient world that viewed anal sex as degrading for the passive partner. Especially honourable boys satisfied their partners with an opportunity for intercrural sex, where the active partner rubbed his penis against the boys thighs. Additionally, the boy did not need to bend over as in anal sex, another symbol of its degradative nature. It was rather the man who bent over. For Nissinen, the underlying logic that connects anal sex with shame is again to be found in the boy taking on the role of a woman.
Later Roman sources also document Roman attitudes towards pederasty. Nissinen finds pederasty to be less common and less celebrated here. A key difference also appears. Whereas Athenian pederasty was typically between free men and boys, Roman pederasty took place between slave boys and their masters. The Greek vision of pederasty as an initiation into adult life is contrasted with a Roman approach that is more explicitly erotic. Indeed, sex between free men could incur the death penalty, as anal sex meant the degradation of the passive partner. The passive partner was thus also punished here in losing certain social privileges.
There are also some sources on female homoeroticism at this time, though relatively less than those dealing with male homoeroticism. The most famous are those of the poet Sappho. Later sources claim she ran something like a school for young women on the island of Lesbos with an “erotic atmosphere” (74). This atmosphere is evidenced especially in her poetry. Strikingly, “The distinction between active and passive, dominant and submissive roles, which was so essential in pederasty, cannot be found in Sappho’s texts. Sappho’s love relationships are mutual; both partners behave in a similar manner: wooing, bribing, repelling, and lusting” (76). Condemnations of female homoeroticism tend to focus on women taking up the role of men in sex. Nissinen quotes Seneca referring to some women who “even rival men in their lusts … although born to be passive” (77). Others such as Lucian depict female homoeroticism negatively as women take on masculine features.
Finally, Nissinen directs his attention to criticisms of homoeroticism in ancient Greece and Rome. These provide important context for the Pauline and deutero-Pauline material in the NT. Criticism was not so much concerned with homosexuality vs. heterosexuality but with the nature of gender. “The issue [homoeroticism] nevertheless was the object of intense moral preoccupation, because it involved some of the strongest values of classical antiquity: virility [i.e., masculine virtue], self-control, and the appropriate use of pleasure. Because masculinity was not a birthright but rather an achieved state of paramount moral significance, there was always the danger of losing it” (79). Criticism was thus particularly interested in men who took a passive role in sex. Other critics used language of homoerotic relations being “against nature” (physis), language Paul would go on to appropriate in Rom 1. All of this comes together in a quote from Daphnaeus in Plutarch’s Dialogue on Love: “But [for a male] to consort with males (whether without consent, in which case it involves violence and brigandage; or if with consent, there is still weakness and effeminacy on the part of those who, contrary to nature [physis], allow themselves in Plato’s words ‘to be covered and mounted like cattle)–this is a completely ill-favored favor, indecent, an unlovely affront to Aphrodite” (quoted 84).
Nissinen addresses three other OT texts that relate to homoeroticism in the OT: Judges 19; Gen 9:20-27; and 1 Sam 18-20; 2 Sam 1:26.
Judges 19 presents a similar story to that of Genesis 19 (Sodom), and Nissinen suspects the texts may be related, perhaps Judges 19 being later, but he doesn’t go into detail here. Interestingly, we don’t have evidence of ancient readers noticing these correspondences until much later. Nissinen notes, though, “The following common features are striking: (1) The city is unfriendly toward visitors. (2) The guests are prepared to spend a night in the streets, but there is one friendly man in the city who shows them hospitality. (3) The friendly host is not a native of the town. (4) The house comes to be surrounded by aggressive men from the city. (5) The men demand that the guest or guests come out, because they want to have sex (yādaɔ [“know”]) with him or them. (6) The host is horrified by this demand: “Please, dear men, do not commit such an evil deed!” (7) Virgin daughters are offered as a substitute. (8) The hostility of the people of the city and the hospitality of the man are juxtaposed. [9?] Both stories are preceded by an experience of special hospitality (Abraham in Gen. 18:1-5; the father of the Levite’s wife in Judg. 19:3-10)” (50).
A key difference though is that there is an actual rape in Judges 19, where the virgin offered is raped by the men outside. Nissinen wryly notes, “Perhaps not surprisingly, no later interpreter of the story, ancient or modern, has condemned heterosexual behavior because of this text, although it is structurally equivalent to the story of Sodom, which has been used to condemn homosexuality.” Indeed, the English word “sodomy,” conventionally connoting a negative judgement on male-male anal sex, derives from Gen 19. I would point out that no English word such as “gibeahy,” Judges 19 being set in Gibeah, has arisen to condemn male-female sex on the basis of the rape of the woman in the text.
Nissinen proceeds to address the story of Ham and Noah in Gen 9:20-27: “Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.'” For modern readers, this story can be confusing. What is the connection between Ham seeing his dad naked and the following curse? But in the holiness code, to see someone naked is to have sex with them (Lev 20:17-19). By now a familiar theme, Nissinen reads 9:24, “When Noah awoke … and knew what his youngest son had done to him,” to indicate that Ham is the active, assaulting partner. “Apparently Ham aspired to dominance among post-flood humanity and attempted to show his superiority by disgracing his father sexually” (53).
Finally, Nissinen turns his attention to the story of David and Jonathan, a story which, in contrast, is often used in support of homoeroticism today. Two passages are particularly suggestive for modern readers. “When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt” (1 Sam 18:1-4). “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful,passing the love of women” (2 Sam 1:25). But Nissinen wonders “whether a modern reader is more prone than an ancient to find a homoerotic aspect in the story. The editors of the Deuteronomistic history, in spite of the negative attitudes toward homoerotic contact expressed in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, found nothing to be censored in the story of the relationship between the two men” (56). David and Jonathan’s relationship is to be understood homosocially, that is, in that they shared a close same-sex relationship with emotional and physical aspects, though not necessarily erotic ones. Nissinen compares it with male friendships in Islamic and non-Western Christian countries, where such expressions are often mistaken by Westerners as homosexual. Nonetheless, importantly, Nissinen also notes that the friendship of David and Jonathan is likely a lot closer to the loving and consensual relationships of modern-day homosexual men than those implied in other texts in the OT, where homoeroticism is negatively depicted.
Having addressed the prohibitions in Leviticus, Nissinen proceeds to the destruction of Sodom in Gen 19:1-11: “The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground.He said, ‘Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.’ They said, ‘No; we will spend the night in the square.’ But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.’ Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.’ But they replied, ‘Stand back!’ And they said, ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.’ Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.”
Nissinen summarises, “This narrative is reminiscent of a genre also known elsewhere, with the theme of the virtue of hospitality. A deity in human appearance arrives in a hostile city, where some friendly citizen gives him lodging. Later on, the guest thanks his host by rescuing him from the devastation of the city” (45). Nissinen finds support for this thesis in Ezekiel’s assessment of Sodom. “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (16:49). Later texts, too, seem uninterested in a relationship between the text and homoeroticism. “He [God] did not spare the neighbors of Lot,whom he loathed on account of their arrogance” (Sirach 16:8). “Others had refused to receive strangers when they came to them, but these made slaves of guests who were their benefactors. And not only so—but, while punishment of some sort will come upon the former for having received strangers with hostility, the latter, having first received them with festal celebrations, afterward afflicted with terrible sufferings those who had already shared the same rights.They were stricken also with loss of sight—just as were those at the door of the righteous man—when, surrounded by yawning darkness, all of them tried to find the way through their own doors” (Wisdom of Solomon 19:14-17).
This trajectory continues through Jesus’ sayings, where he contrasts the hospitality of those of his day with that of Sodom. “But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say,‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town” (Luke 10:10-12). Nonetheless, with Philo and Josephus, interest begins to develop in the relevance that these texts might hold for homoeroticism. (Nissinen does not address Jude 7, which is unfortunate, though I’m not sure if this text has the account of Gen 19 in mind). Nissinen concludes, “The attempted homosexual rape is not the main theme in the story. The Sodomites’ behavior is characterized by excessive arrogance, xenophobia, and contempt of hospitality. The transgression of Sodom is particularly grave because it offends God’s emissaries and thus God. Abraham’s (18:1-5) and Lot’s (19:1-3) exemplary hospitality are the opposite of the outrageous behavior of the Sodomites” (48).
Nonetheless, there remains some important relationship to homoeroticism, if it can even be said to fall under that category. That is the issue of gang rape. “It is not a matter of exercising one’s homosexual orientation or looking for erotic pleasure but simply of protecting or threatening one’s masculinity” (48). So the rape of Horus by Seth, addressed in Nissinen’s first chapter. He also points to phallic and rapist imagery among the Greeks, used to threaten their foes, and gang rape today, which has to do with power rather than erotic attraction.
In conclusion, “There is no need to assume that Lot’s guests would have been handsome young men for whom the Sodomite men felt erotic attraction. The men were motivated not to satisfy their sexual lust but to show their supremacy and power over the guests–and ultimately over Lot himself, a resident alien to whom a lesson was to be taught about the place of a foreigner in the city of Sodom. Lot’s daughters, therefore, were not a satisfactory substitute” (49).
In this third post, I address Nissinen’s comments on OT biblical texts dealing with homoeroticism. I will just focus on Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 in this post, but in the same chapter Nissinen will also address Genesis 19:1-11; Judges 19; Genesis 9:20-27; 1 Sam 18-20; and 2 Sam 1:26. Because of the paucity of such texts, Nissinen notes that we have a very incomplete picture of ancient Israelite attitudes to homoeroticism (I would add, as we would have on any topic, as the Bible reflects the beliefs of particular groups or individuals in particular times and particular places).
Nissinen begins with the prohibitions against male-male sex in Lev 18:22 and 20:13. These belong to the Holiness Code (chs. 17-26), “the historical background of the present form of which is the post-exilic Jewish community” (37; I cannot comment on this as I am unfamiliar with the scholarship). An interesting difference between the two texts is that the first seems to condemn one partner, whereas the latter condemns both:
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (18:22)
“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them” (20:13).
Nissinen proceeds to address “temple prostitution,” a concept with a long history in biblical studies that has come under increasing scrutiny. Because the Holiness Code is couched throughout in language rallying Israel to live a life distinct from that of its neighbours (in a post-exilic context reflecting Jewish concerns related to the development of their identity), this suggests a cultic context for the two prohibitions. Nissinen suggests a connection between the the male-male sex prohibited here and the practices of the devotees of Ishtar, addressed in the previous chapter. He is aware, however, that his reconstruction is speculative and moves on to explore other possibilities. “Even if sexual offenses in the present context are linked with foreign cult customs, the commands themselves may be older and may have originated separately from the cultic context” (41).
Another possibility for the underlying logic of the laws might be found in what Nissinen calls “ancient sociosexual taboos” (41). What was at stake here was “the entire gendered structure of the community, in which each and everyone was expected to conform to his or her gender role and social class” (42). Interestingly, “Other ancient Near Eastern sources display sexual ethics, taboos, and gender roles basically similar to those in the Hebrew Bible” (42). But the text still reflects Israel’s attempt to distinguish itself from its neighbours. Nissinen links this with other gender-concerned prohibitions such as that against cross-dressing (Deut 22:5) and that excluding eunuchs from the assembly (Deut 23:2; but see Isa 56:3-5). These may have been related, as Nissinen suggests in his earlier comments on the third gender role of devotees to Ishtar. He concludes, “It can thus be plausibly maintained that regulations about same-sex acts and other gender-related commandments involved the linking of an ancient taboo with society’s strategy to survive. The specific way of regulating sexual relationships in pursuing these life-determining goals was the result of an interpretation of gender as a fundamental factor of social structure and control. This, finally, leads us to the issue of gender roles and their transgression as a basis for understanding Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13″ (43, emph. original).
Here, again, it is notable that there is no mention of female-female sex in the OT. One possibility is that the male writers did not even consider this, the world of women being such a distant one for them. But Nissinen returns to the thesis he advanced in the previous chapter. Women, being unable to take an active role in sex, did not threaten the gendered order. Their masculinity was not compromised in taking a passive role because they had none to begin with. That the transgression of gender roles is in focus here, according to Nissinen, can be seen in the prohibition itself, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman.” Moreover, the verb šākab, here, “lie,” when used to refer to sex, only has a woman as the grammatical subject twice, and these are exceptional situations. In Gen 19:32-25, where Lot’s daughters get him drunk so that they can rape him, and in 2 Sam 13:11, in Amnon’s words to Tamar, “Come, lie with me, my sister.”
The texts are written as a polemic against non-Israelite practices.
They are no concerned with the biological aspects of sex and gender here so much as they are directed to maintaining Israelite identity through gendered roles.
In this regard, male-male sex is transgressive because, in the passive role, the masculinity of one sexual partner is compromised.
In this second post I address the first chapter of Nissinen’s book, that on homoeroticism in ancient Mesopotamia. The opening paragraph is worth quoting in full: “Ancient Near Eastern sources document same-sex erotic interaction meagerly and ambiguously. The available material comes mostly from Mesopotamia. With regard to other significant cultures of that area, those of Egypt and Ugarit, for instance, we are left almost entirely in the dark” (19).
Of note here, nonetheless, is the myth of Horus and Seth, where Seth anally rapes Horus to demonstrate his dominance over him and prevent him from becoming king. When Horus gets hold of Seth’s semen, he ensures it gets into Seth’s food so that Seth eats it and the tables are turned. As Nissinen will go on to argue, our sources suggest that anal sex between two males is depicted here and elsewhere in the Ancient Near East as an act of dominance, as masculinity is associated with the active role in sex and femininity with the passive role.
The first text that appears particularly relevant is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Because of Gilgamesh’s rampant sex life, exhausting the inhabitants of the earth, these call upon the god Aruru “to create him a suitable partner on whom he could spend his energy” (20). Enter Enkidu, a hairy, muscular giant, who eventually becomes friends with Gilgamesh. Nissinen finds three homoerotic hints in the story. First, Gilgamesh is said to love Enkidu like a wife. Second, he is said to cover Enkidu’s body “like that of a bride.” And third, Gilgamesh declines the proposal of Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, perhaps because of his love for Enkidu. But this erotic aspect is downplayed as both characters move from their highly sexualised pasts to a present in which their love for each other is emphasised. “This exemplifies less a homoerotic than a homosocial type of bonding, which is often strong in societies in which men’s and women’s worlds are segregated” (24).
The second text is found in the Middle Assyrian Laws A.18, where laws on male-male sex appear alongside those forbidding adultery. “If a man has sex with his comrade (tappāɔu) and they prove the charges against him and find him guilty, they shall have sex with him and they shall turn him into a eunuch” (25). There are a number of observations Nissinen makes here. First, this act is apparently not deemed as bad as adultery with another man’s wife, which could carry the penalty of death. Second, sex with those of lower social status is not addressed. It is the tappāɔu that is addressed here, someone of equal social status. Nissinen interprets this as follows. “Penetrating a tappāɔu was tantamount to rape and deliberate disgrace, because the penetrating partner effects a change in the other partner’s role from active (male) to passive (female)” (26). Support for this is found in curses for breaking certain treaties, in which it is wished that the men would be raped and become prostitutes. So, here too, the penetrating partner is subject to the law of talion, “an eye for an eye,” by being raped himself. In being raped, he is made a woman, in the same way he made his partner a woman in penetrating him. Nissinen finds yet further support in an ancient guide for interpreting omens. If a man dreams of penetrating another man, it is a sign that he will become a leader. “To become subjected to (anal) intercourse by another man involves shame and suppression; to do the same to another brings superiority and power” (28).
Next, Nissinen turns to devotees of Ishtar, who may have been something like a third gender in ancient Mesopotamia, being born with either physically masculine or intersex characteristics. But they took on feminine roles in society. Moreover, they also lived a somewhat marginalised existence on society’s outskirts. Drawing on further textual evidence, Nissinen suggests, “It is possible that an assinnu occasionally served as the passive partner in a sexual contact with a man…. To have this kind of sexual contact was not an expression of sexual orientation of either of the partners, nor had it anything to do with insuring fertility. It meant a connection to the goddess…. Sexual contact with a person whose whole life was devoted to the goddess was tantamount to union with the goddess herself” (33). And while it is difficult to ascertain what connection these devotees have with our modern concept of homosexuality, Nissinen speculates that some homosexual men may have become devotees as a way of seeking to express their sexual desires.
Finally, of note is Nissinen’s comments on ancient attitudes to female-female sex, a phenomenon that rarely appears in the source material (relative to material regarding male-male sex). “Because only the passive role was attributed to females, their mutual eroticism did not presuppose the change from an active to a passive role, and the ‘honor’ of males–which in terms of morality was the main concern–was not threatened. Lesbian practices, therefore, if there were such [!?], may have been of little or no concern for patriarchal Mesopotamian society” (36).
I was recently lent Marti Nissinen’s Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective, trans. by Kirsi Stjerna (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998). The book is twenty years old this year so I’m not sure how up to date it is, but it seemed like topical work and one that is worth writing about. This first post addresses the framework that Nissinen opens with in his introduction.
After a brief comment on the need for such a book, Nissinen orientates his readers to the problem of bridging the gap between two worlds, ancient and modern, in biblical interpretation. It cannot now be denied that “homosexuality” exists today, that is, being “primarily or exclusively … oriented sexually toward persons of the same sex” (5). And yet, while this surely existed in practice in the ancient world,the concept of homosexuality as we know it today did not. Today, questions relating to homosexuality are treated from scientific (biological), psychological, and sociological points of view. This leads to the contexts of gender, body, and society in which homosexuality exists.
Unlike sexuality (perhaps sexual orientation is meant here?), gender identity was of particular importance in ancient times. With this, Nissinen designates the social expression of sexual difference. Gender identity today can be generalised into four areas: sexual orientation (e.g., homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, etc.); gender identification (masculine, feminine, third gender, transgender, transsexual, intersex, etc.); gender roles (how gender identification is actualised in the roles people play in society, so masculinity is associated with toughness, for example, or femininity with the domestic sphere); and sexual practice (“both public and private eroticism, and, broadly conceived, also autoeroticism [e.g., masturbation] and sex fantasies” ). Following this, Nissinen outlines “general expectations” for gender identity in society. Gender identification and sexual orientation are thought to correspond, so that being masculine is associate with orientation to the feminine; and gender roles and sexual practice are thought to correspond, so that performance of the masculine gender is associated with masculine sexual practice, for example.
Whereas modern, Western society tends to emphasise the horizontal line, however, finding gender roles and sexual practice to arise out of pre-determined psychological and biological factors, namely sexual orientation and gender identification (though these are also not strictly biological but social as well), “in many modern and ancient non-Western cultures the vertical axial is emphasized. For instance, justification for homoeroticism depends on whether same-sex contacts have an established place in society and whether the participants assume an appropriate role. ‘Naturalness’ means in this view first of all conformity with the dominant culture, in which case gender identification and the gender of sexual partners are related to roles rather than to biology” (14). Of course, it is not as if bodies (the biological aspect) did not inform these roles at all. It is only to say that the roles rather than bodies were the primarily determinative factor. This will become clear in the following chapters where Nissinen provides concrete examples.
Finally, Nissinen differentiates between homosexual, homoerotic, and homosocial relations. He will use the first in the general sense to designate that which is between or related to the same sex (rather than in the modern sense designating sexual orientation). Homoerotic will refer to mutual, erotic, sexual encounters between persons of the same sex, and it is not assumed that these people are homosexual in the modern sense, that is, being primarily/exclusively sexually attracted to the same sex. Homosocial refers to important social relations between members of the same sex, these not necessarily being erotic.
Having written my previous post without having taken the time to read what others might have already written on the subject, I have decided now to provide a quick “literature review” here, in retrospect, of what others have said on gender and sexuality in Skyrim–though one that is in no way exhaustive. In some places I have felt the need to provide critical comment. Sorted alphabetically by author/alias:
The Dichotomy of Civilisation and Nature in Skyrim
In Skyrim the game world is segmented into cities and the areas between them, creating a more or less rigid division with civilization/urbanity marked as distinct from nature/wilderness. The non-urban is portrayed as a threatening space that must be overcome by the heroic player-character, and by doing so the player is able to dominate this virtual environment, represented by game elements like “clearing” dungeons and the ability to “fast travel.”
This is not unrelated to concerns of gender and other features:
As ecofeminist thinkers like Val Plumwood have stressed, the binary division between civilization and nature is part of the conceptual structure justifying race- and gender-based oppression: those aligned with nature and wilderness are different and inferior, and so can be denied full rights and subsequently colonized (p. 43). The environment depicted in Skyrim is a virtual one, but the paradigm that it both reflects and reinforces is one with dire consequences for all things deemed “natural.”
Duncan treats this in greater detail in the essay and I recommend reading the whole thing. He is another significant quote:
Certain places “discovered” by the player are things like forts, ruins, barrows, tombs, and caves, which function as interiors within the exterior. These exterior-interiors are some of the most dangerous sites in the game where powerful enemies like the blind and disfigured Falmer and the zombie-like draugr present a feared inverse order that is irrational and subhuman. Marking those outside patriarchal Western norms as subhuman or as “closer to the animal and the body” is a tool for the subjugation of these groups through “racism, colonialism and sexism” (Plumwood p. 4). These beings and their social order are monstrous, dangerous, and threatening to ordered society, justifying its invasion, appropriation, and destruction.
The “Misogynistic Nightmare” That is Skyrim’s Modding Community
Amy Josuweit, “Has Skyrim’s Modding Community Become a Misogynistic Nightmare?” at The Mary Sue, begins with the premise that modding is known for its oddities. “What you might not be expecting, however, is the troubled current state of modding culture. The modding scene is getting frighteningly misogynistic, and it only takes a cursory glance at the Nexus to see it,” the Nexus having been “the center for Skyrim modding for some years now.” Whereas in the past the Nexus has filtered out mods containing adult content–mods that have been made available elsewhere online–Josuweit notes that recently (post was written 20 November 2017) adult content has been slipping in unmoderated. “Adult content is all well and good…. The problem here is that this content notably focuses on adult themes with a misogynistic lean–women followers with comically sized butts and breasts, followers that are either dressed in almost nothing or are nude,” etc. Some of the mods are up-front about this, but others slip sexually explicit, misogynist material into otherwise neutral mods, “like this otherwise innocuous hair replacement mod that uses a model of a sexualized young girl.” In this world, most mods focus on adjusting female characters and bodies in the game while hardly attending to their male counterparts at all. Followers, a major aspect of Skyrim, become “glorified blow-up dolls.” The significance of this is not lost on Josuweit. “Suddenly, the implications of those sexed-up teenage followers are pretty clear.” Finally, Josuweit draws attention to the fact that this sudden influx is pushing mods of higher quality out so that the Nexus is looking a lot different to what it used to be.
It cannot be denied that a lot of these mods fit into preconceived notions of beauty and masculinity, and sometimes exacerbate these notions to an uncomfortable degree. There are mods that alter the female walk animation to make it more attractive, as well as a vast quantity of skimpy armor mods (up to 400 at nexusmods.com) and mods that modify the female body shape.
On the other hand, mods such as “Practical Female Armors” head in the opposite direction:
As the authors note of vanilla Skyrim, “Like many other RPG games, Skyrim features two separate armor designs for each piece that can be equipped in game: one for male models and one for female. Consistently the female versions show more skin, are less practical, and exaggerate and emphasize female bodies.” And this extends to character animations. They point to the “Simple Female Running Animation” mod, writing, “The default run features a conspicuous hip swaying which is off putting to many players, and further makes a suggestion that the female avatar is a sexual figure to be watched.” The mod offers a more realistic substitute. The authors also highlight the common complaint that the race and gender of the player’s character barely affect gameplay at all. They suggest that a mod addressing this “could be an extremely valuable dimension for a player to connect with their avatars in a new and meaningful way,” though they also notes the potentially huge nature of such a task. Moving on, the authors proceed to comment on two “prostitution” mods popular on the Nexus and LoversLabs:
Both allow male and female characters to talk to any random humanoid character in the game, remove their clothing, and engage in sexual activity with them with no hesitation or resistance. These mods imply that sex does not require the permission of a sexual partner to engage in, promoting the pervasiveness of misogyny and rape.
Clothing and Gender Roles
Eniko, “Bethesda’s Obsession with Heteronormativity,” at Kitsune Games, examines Skyrim in the context of other Bethseda games, discovering an odd tendency for the same clothing items to appear differently depending on the gender of the character wearing them. “I felt like the game designer was standing behind me in spirit, clucking his or her tongue and going ‘oh no dear, you don’t want to wear that, you want to wear a skirt, because girls wear skirts!'” Basically, the problem with this is that it upholds stereotypes about gender roles and the ways that different genders (here cis men and women) should present themselves. The author relates this to her own experience of being disliked for her assertiveness and being butch, which seemed to many around her as a transgression of her role as a young woman.
Daedric Princes and Gender
Evolution Kills in a forum post at The Thinking Atheist, highlights something that I haven’t been able to verify yet but would be interested in hearing from others on: “My use of gender neutral pronouns [for Daedra] is purposeful, because Daedra are genderless. While some may prefer a male avatar (Mehrunes Dagon, Molag Bal) or a female avatar (Azura, Nocturnal), others are more than happy to be either as needed or desired (Boethia, Mephala), while others eschew a humanoid avatar entirely (Peryite, Hermaeus Mora).” The significance of this comment is in relation to Nocturnal’s “suggestive” clothing: “Given the Daedra’s penchant for toying with mortal affairs for their own enjoyment, if Nocturnal is choosing to manifest as a suggestively clad woman, it is for its own benefit. Nocturnal is operating from a position of power, and it sets the terms of the player’s limited interaction with it.” I’m not completely convinced though because although this is a possible interpretation, it does not take into account game design that is clearly sexist in other areas. Evolution Kills’s comments on certain women in Skyrim, namely Jarl Elisif, Karliah, Aela, Serena, and Haelga are also noteworthy.
My character (a dude) could propose marriage and get hitched to a dude without any discussion of its strangeness, without having to jump through extra hoops, without getting treated any differently by anything at all.
This is the correct way to approach queer inclusivity: by treating it as normal (because, for us, it is- as normal as your heterosexuality is to you); by not treating it like something outlandish, freakish, bizarre; by not calling attention to it.
Beck is sceptical of the possibility that this was a market-driven decision on Bethseda’s part. I’m not so convinced that it’s that easy to make such judgements. Virtually everything is market-driven and both inclusivity (in the current climate) and controversy can be profitable. You will also note that Beck does not address the heteronormativity of the wider world of Skyrim. This might be addressed in the 44 comments on the post though, which I haven’t read.
If you venture to the next village after the siege, you’ll meet Camilla Valerius in Riverwood, a beautiful woman stifled under her brother’s control and pitted between two sleazy men with nothing better to do than vie for her affections like she’s a limited edition Amiibo. I’m still disappointed there wasn’t an option to toss both men into the river.
Jillian proceeds to comment on the Flame Atronach, “Really? Flaming breasts were an absolute gameplay necessity? The frost atronach should have had ice balls, then.”
Jillian also notes that Skyrim constructs a dichotomy between virginal, desirable women who can be controlled, such as the Flame Atronach, and the “whore,” the undesirable and uncontrollable woman: “In direct contrast, the hagravens represent the aging, decrepit form of the typical witch stereotype. You can’t control them in-game because they control themselves — after having sold their humanity in order to possess such power.” Finally, Jillian highlights the lack of supportive friendships between female characters, in contrast to those of male characters in the game: “Ulfric has the ever-faithful Galmar and Balgruuf has the admittedly short-sighted Hrongar. General Tullius, at least, has Legate to balance him, but no other woman in sight.” One of the comments in the relation to Jillian’s piece is also of note, from Empress M: “Just wanted to point out, in support of this, that there are two pages worth of named female characters and four pages of males. So basically Skyrim has double the number of important males in it…which is insanely ridiculous.”
Skyrim and Life as a Transgender Woman
K. Danielle, “Gender is Like Skyrim,” at Dude, I’m a Chick, employs Skyrim as a metaphor for life as a transgender woman. Unlike World of Warcraft, players in Skyrim are not bound to a particular class (mage, warrior, rogue) or faction. “Let’s say you make an Imperial woman named Fera. That’s it. You’re done. So, what are you? Are you a rogue, warrior, or mage? Are you aligned with the bandits or knights or thieves? You don’t know yet, because you will figure all of that out while playing the game.” Moreover, throughout the game if you get bored of going in a particular direction, like using the sword and shield, you can switch to magic and even be skilled in both, etc. “You’re not playing a class; you’re playing YOUR character.” If you haven’t picked up on what K. Danielle is getting at yet, she spells it out for you:
In our society, we sort of look at gender the same way. Men are expected to have dominant nature, muscular strength, hairy bodies, penises, the ability to impregnate, paternal attitude, and are generally independent. Women are expected to have submissive nature, curvy bodies, soft skin, vaginas, the ability to get pregnant, maternal attitude, and are generally dependent. In a game like WoW, a Priest would be made fun of and have a very hard time playing the role of a Warrior, and vice versa. Similarly, a man would be made fun of and have a very hard time playing the role of a woman, and vice versa. The traditional RPG class system has a lot in common with our society’s standard gender roles, doesn’t it?
Whereas “society wants you to decide” on a particular gender, or WoW on a particular class, the example from Skyrim demonstrates that this is not always as clear-cut:
You don’t fit in the system. You are so complex and strange, that the world’s classification system does not apply to you. Your character in Skyrim could never exist in a game like WoW. Furthermore, you’re making a bold argument that the classes in WoW are somewhat disappointing because you’re constantly feeling the urge to wear armor or weapons that you simply aren’t allowed to. How many men want to cook, but don’t out of fear of being made fun of? How many women want to lift weights so they can be muscular, but don’t because their friends will think they look ugly in a dress with big muscle arms. How many people will be forcibly categorized as male/female when they’d rather not be either? I don’t look at things that way.
Nor does this simply apply to trans people, K. Danielle concludes. Everyone needs to realise that they cannot be slotted into simple categories.
LGBT Characters in the Elder Scrolls Series
ladynerevar, “LGBTQ in the Elder Scrolls,” at The Provisional House, has provided a brief overview of LGBT characters in and aspects of different games in the Elder Scrolls series. Concerning Skyrim, only the player and their potential partners through marriage, alongside Bjorrnolf and Hrodulf in the Dragonborn DLC are noted. Significantly, it seems that since the release of Elder Scrolls Online, the series has given a lot more attention to this, with ladynerevar listing 22 possible examples. A less comprehensive, similar post, though with more detail in areas, is offered by Jack Maher at RAINBO.
Gamer Poop and Subverting the Heteronormative Norm
Lawrence May and Fraser McKissak, “Queering Stories and Selves: Gamer Poop and Subversive Narrative Emergence,” Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media 9 (2017) — discuss mans1ay3r’s YouTube channel, GamerPoop. Even before modding and other forms of adjusting games, games already have a “latent potential” (3) for queer representation. For example, in the context of Skyrim, “the emphasis on the bodies and musculature of hypermasculine warriors might invite comparisons to the homoerotic interpretations of Conan the Barbarian or Fabio’s game art for Iron Swords II” (4). Regardless of the developers’ intentions, material from the game can be queered by players for their own sakes. But perhaps the authors are too generous in their definition of queering, writing, “The very act of modding a game can be understood as a queer practice. It is a queering of the game text because it involves radically rewriting, or queering, the intended meanings of the video game” (5). I wonder if there is some cognitive dissonance as to how this relates to explicit queerphobia, misogyny, and racism in the modding community. So it is that “the mods available for games such as Skyrim and Fallout 3 would hardly be considered overtly ‘queer’ in nature, as they predominantly focus on heterosexual fantasies involving female character models and ways to improve the graphical features of environments to make them more realistic” (6). Nonetheless, “Even though the content of the mods might be ‘straight’, the practice itself is consistent with the way we can understand ‘queering’ as an act of deconstruction” (6). This kind of argumentation does make me wonder. How quickly does it become indistinguishable from the following?:
Moving on, the authors proceed to apply this concept of queering to mans1ay3r’s videos. The YouTuber goes beyond the latent tendencies in the games: “The Gamer Poop videos are, ultimately, very deliberately constructed, involving various degrees of effort by mans1ay3r in terms of planning, scripting, customising and applying game mods, video editing, audio-manipulation, and voice-over work” (7). Thus,
The queer reconstructions of Gamer Poop’s videos game content are queered in ways that would be impossible within the fixity of the gameworld as played by gamers. Mans1ay3r engages with queer affordances within the game engine, rather than the game’s narrative or ludic potentials. The user therefore exposes the heterosexual assumptions that govern these gameworlds. Latent queer content exists in the games, but mans1ay3r must stop playing them to engage with it…. The videos of Gamer Poop take their queer engagement one step further by queering the infrastructures of the gameworld itself (7).
In contrast to Skyrim’s “desexualised” nature–no sex takes place in the world and sex is rarely talked about (while mostly agreeing, I would point the authors to such as Haelga and the Lover’s Comfort)–mans1ay3r’s videos present quite the opposite: “The sexual content in mans1ay3r’s videos—particularly in their continual references to pussies, cocks and sexual acts—sex an otherwise desexualised world, so that heterosexual assumptions of the sexed body can be more readily queered” (8). But the authors appear to be wholly positive about mans1ay3r’s “queering” of Skyrim. A little further we read:
In the emergent narratives of Gamer Poop, heteronormative gameworlds are subverted into queer lifeworlds where queer performances and identities can exist openly and sporadically to such an extent that to be seen as straight, or to watch the videos as straight, is to become the outsider (11).
This may be true and a fair point to an extent. But, I wonder, what is the nature of this queernormativity and an almost heterophobia? I don’t think that mans1ay3r’s “playfulness,” a term the authors use throughout, should be so readily implied as a celebration of queer sexualities. As the authors later acknowledge, “At times the Gamer Poop channel’s humour is counter-productive and veers towards mockery. But what mans1ay3r does show is the emergent potential for queer storytelling and identification: plausible, logical and seemingly sustainable alternate versions of these video games’ worlds can be created, and they can be queer” (14). And further, “This is not to say that
mans1ay3r is attuned to the political nature of queer theory, or that their channel’s queer content is progressive (for the most part it is definitely not). Even if the objective is simply to elicit audience laughter at the videos’ representational absurdities, a rejection of heterosexual norms and heterosexual narratives is evident” (15). I don’t find this line of argument wholly convincing. Surely it is queer people who themselves know how to tell their own stories? Consider the Rocky Horror Picture Show as a good example of why not to go in this direction.
Race and Gender in Skyrim vs. Realism
Matt F., “Race and Gender in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” offers some comments on race and gender in Skyrim. On race, he notes how Skyrim attempts to tackle this issue, but does not extend racial limitations to the player (apart from differences in beginning skill-sets): “It does however, fail to make the player character subject to the trials and tribulations of other races. For example, a Khajiit player character is allowed to go freely in and out of the cities, whilst the computer controlled Khajiit must stay outside of the city.” Notably, “Gender in Skyrim is handled much worse than race is. Gender in Skyrim has no effect on the player character aside from looks” (this is mostly true, but see, for example, the Allure perk, among other minor things). Matt then suggests that Skyrim might be improved by having NPCs interact differently with the player according to their chosen race. Thus, “The game could be modified in way that makes Khajiit unable to enter cities without first performing tasks in order to gain the trust of the cities,” among other suggestions. In regard to gender, Matt makes the interesting proposal: “Clothing and armor would have to be available in both male and female sets, allowing female players to dress as males and vice versa.” As with race, he suggests that different NPCs interact with the character in different ways on the basis of their gender. Matt concludes by arguing that Skyrim’s attempt at racial and gender equality undermines its realism.
Skyrim and the Dollhouse
SarahBeck, “Exploring Gender Roles in the Virtual Dollhouse of Skyrim,” at Women in Game Studies, offers a look at gender in Skyrim by way of the field of dollhouse analysis. “Dollhouses have been historically used as interpretive play spaces where the user can explore social constructs. The goal of this essay is to merge the analysis of dollhouses, originating from the 16th century concept of miniatures and deconstruct gendered social norms in virtual spaces.” To be honest, I didn’t really follow the significance of the connection, but SarahBeck does make some other interesting points. She notes the traditionally masculine domain of property ownership, something available to the player through the Hearthfire DLC. “For example, until the early 1900s women were not allowed to own property independently, and the right was first granted to married women exclusively.” The player thus takes up the role that is traditionally masculine, which can also be seen in their income far exceeding that of their spouse’s. Moreover, traditionally feminine tasks are those “the player can engage in or opt-out of, such as cooking and child rearing.” SarahBeck also attends to Skyrim’s “market economy” where “the prices of the homes and land are arbitrarily decided by the Jarl of the hold.” Significantly, a class system accompanies this:
A good example of these ideologies can be seen in Elisif the Fair, Nord Jarl of Solitude. She is the widow of High King Torygg and thus has a claim to the throne of Skyrim…. This depicts acquiring the position of Nord Jarl not because of her skills, but marriage. Also, it is relevant to point out the gender disparity in politics in the world of Skyrim. Of the nine starting Jarls of Skyrim only two are female and neither Elisif the Fair, who is defined by her beauty, and Laila Law-Giver, known for her ignorance surrounding the thieves guild, are representing women being competent at holding power.
All of this leads SarahBeck to the evaluation that:
These observations show that although Skyrim allows you to play as any gender that the writing and development of the game is still rooted in a heteronormative and sexist ideal of the home, family and property. Especially when compared to other societal structures such as North American indigenous knowledge paradigms where the community cumulatively owns land. This highlights the Eurocentric themes of the games and exposes the subtle bias towards patriarchal and colonialist beliefs.
And further: “By rewarding players with free stat bonuses, gold, and food for marrying Skyrim is also concluding that these things are deserved rewards teaching the player that in marriage one’s spouse is supposed to serve them and offer them free labour.”
Gender Representation in Marketing and Gameplay
Sophie Prell, “Studying sexism with Skyrim — Fus Ro Va! Gina!” at Destructoid, combines a narrative of her gameplay from her character’s perspective with comments on sexist tendencies in Skyrim. She introduces her analysis with a comment from Tom Bissell in his review of Skyrim, a comment that no doubt evoked some pushback: “If you have no idea what the Elder Scrolls franchise is, you are probably either (a) an adult woman, or (b) the sort of person who once beat up the sort of person who likes the Elder Scrolls franchise.” Prell replies, “It’s an attitude equivalent to a ‘No Girls Allowed’ club, and if I can let you into my life as a child for a moment, I confess I never really had a fondness for those, either.” Other problems with Skyrim’s playership also quickly emerge: “The most popular Skyrim mod on Curse right now is for nude females. By a 5 to 1 margin it beats out the better performance mod, meaning the subculture you and I belong to would rather see tits than see a game run better.” Prell proceeds to the game itself. Like countless others before it, it lacks adequate female representation. This extends to the marketing of the game. “Whenever a game is released that features the ability to customize a character’s gender, the prominent presence associated with its ad campaign is almost universally the male one.” This was no less true for Skyrim. Prell continues on to the gameplay. In both the Thieves Guild and Companions questlines, important women like Karliah and Aela ultimately end up standing aside:
Merrillia [Prell’s character] saves the day, assisted by a strong female, who at the last minute is bafflingly shoved aside to make way for a male or Merrillia herself to take power. I understand player empowerment, but there comes a point where a sense of progress is impeded by the game handing heaps of praise and awe onto my character without reasonable justification. It forces characters whom I once viewed favorably, such as Aela and Karliah, to act out of character; they must suddenly be disempowered so that I may take their place. The easiest way to do that, of course, is to fall back to gender stereotypes, i.e. sexism.
Nor can this be explained away with reference to Skyrim’s fictional world: “I would wager the same thing happened with Skyrim that happens with most fiction writing: they didn’t even consider strong, respectable female roles as a possibility in the first place. I wouldn’t blame them. They’d be traversing largely unexplored territory.” Prell ends with a call for gamers to engage developers and ask for better representation in gaming.
Stephanie Weaver, “Skyrim & the Unequal Application of Bigotry Pt. 1,” at Speculative Rhetoric, begins by noting that the player’s gender does not affect their gameplay. One problem with though is that the player’s gender is set, so that their pronouns are consistent throughout the game and whatever clothing or armour they pick up automatically adjusts to suit their gender. “In short, Skyrim doesn’t permit any genderbending or nongendered characters. And while the playable character may marry men or women regardless of gender, they seem to be the only queer character in the entire country, since all other couples you run into are cisgendered and heterosexual.” Weaver proceeds to address the “misogyny [which] is widespread in Skyrim.”:
One of the most disturbing quests is recovering a necromancer’s journals from Yngvild Barrow. The barrow is filled with ghostly women, and reading the journals reveals that Altermeri necromancer Arondil, after being shunned by the attractive young women of Dawnstar, retreated to the barrow to continue his experiments. After reanimating a number of female corpses to obey his orders, Arondil found their company agreeable, with heavy overtones that the relationships became sexual, and when a live women was captured by his reanimated slaves, he tried a different kind of experiment to create these spectral beings that, when touch, produce “a sensation unlike any other, as if her essence were invigorating [his] very soul, connecting with [him] on a level no woman of flesh and blood could do” (Arondil’s Journal #4).
Weaver highlights a similar storyline in the quest Blood on the Ice. She goes on to provide some critical comment on the quest Caught Red Handed, in which the player is tasked with hunting down tokens that a woman, Haelga, gives to her different lovers and subsequently confronting her. “That’s right, people, it’s Slut Shaming: The Quest.” Weaver observes that one of the lovers, Bolli, accuses Haelga of having slipped something into his drink. Weaver comments on the disappointing lack of options to engage this accusation:
1. If Haelga did in fact slip something in Bolli’s drink, that should have been treated as more serious. There should have been an option to investigate the claim and a stricter punishment than just embarrassing her.
2. If Haelga did not in fact slip something in Bolli’s drink, that claim should not have been made by Bolli or he should have been chastised or punished for the claim. The way this plays out just further reinforces a damaging narrative that people lie about being raped and therefore we should not take rape claims (especially rape claims made by men about women) seriously.
Interestingly, Weaver comments on the issue of religious freedom. If Haelga’s exploits are part of her religion, as she and others in the questline claim, then the player’s acts against her and the hushed nature of them suggest that this is not merely a case of slut-shaming but of religious persecution as well. Finally, Weaver admits that she is in two minds on how to go about remedying this: “If, for instance, misogyny were equally applied, players would be punished for choosing a female character, and that’s not a good thing. On the other hand, this kind of unequal application may allow male players of women characters to further ignore the misogyny around them because it doesn’t affect them.” I am not up with the newest RPG games but I think these types of questions will become increasingly relevant as we see developers continue to grapple with the needs of their audiences. (Note also that this post is labelled part 1, posted on 29 July, 2017. Weaver intended to do a second post but as of yet it has not appeared).
Inside the Sex Modding Community
Steven Messner, “Inside the Skyrim sex modding community where almost no taboo is off limits,” at PC Gamer, provides a look at the “Skyrim sex modding community.” Skyrim’s potential for modding allows for a much vaster player experience. This is especially the case with mods dealing with sexual content, where the community “hasn’t left many stones unturned.” Messner begins with Ashal, the owner of LoversLab, which provides many modders with the tools and materials for adding sexually explicit content to the game:
LoversLab and its roughly 1.5 million members are responsible for thousands of mods that meticulously cover every aspect of sexuality. It’s such a massive community that even on a Monday morning there are over 1,700 active users. The mod Schlongs of Skyrim, to take one example, provides an exhaustive suite of options for tailoring every aspect of a character’s penis to make it look justright. And then there are mods like Devious Devices, an incredibly in-depth series of BDSM mods that give players every bondage or domination tool they could dream of.
This quote from Kimy, who works for Devious Devices, is also worth repeating:
I don’t want to see sex scenes for the sake of seeing sex. I want them embedded in a meaningful story or setting. A lot of [LoversLab] mods actually provide just that, which to me is their main benefit over [porn]. My specific focus—bondage—isn’t even necessarily pornographic in nature. Bondage play can involve or result in sex, but doesn’t have to.
Messner proceeds to comment on some of the other content available, such as mods that allow players to engage in necrophilia, bestiality, or rape. “Other[ mods] simulate sexual assault to a troubling degree, including victims exhibiting emotional trauma by crying after their assault is over.” Indeed, on the modding site, “the only thing that is strictly off limits is anything involving children.” This leads Messner beyond the world of gaming into that of sex therapy and psychology, finding that there is no scientific basis for a correlation between rape fantasy and committing rape or sexual assault in reality (this article, for example). Even in regard to perpetrators, other factors play a much larger role. “Violent media serves a very small part” (quoting Dr. David Ley). Messner does not address the notion of rape culture, however, which many of these mods surely perpetuate.
Misogyny in the Modding Community and its YouTube Coverage
thefeministgamer99, “Sexism in modding and MxR Mods,” at The Feminist Gamer, writes about sexism in the modding community, using videos by the YouTuber, MxR Mods, as an example (“This is not to incite any hatred against MxR Mods personally, he is just one of many male gamers who does this kind of crap and I am sorry for singling him out”). She begins by noting that the thumbnails on his videos display scantily-clad women from various mods. She then proceeds to a mod that the YouTuber covers in which players receive a lair from a Daedric Lord in which you torture women in different ways:
I found this video particularly disturbing for the casual response to this kind of level of violence against women. In the comments in fact, no one had any problem with this mod being called “kinky”. If these were men, we know that this would not be dubbed “kinky” and would instead be “gruesome”. The fact that no one appears to find this mod disturbing and in fact, this mod has been endorsed hugely, is alarming to say the least.
The YouTuber expresses dissatisfaction in a joking manner over a mod in which the player needs to constantly give a female companion gold in order to win her affection, stating, “Why the fuck do I want a gold digger as a follower? I guess it is kind of immersive because girls kind of are gold diggers.” thefeministgamer99 proceeds to note that the YouTuber is likely young and that this kind of misogyny has a structural aspect. But, she continues, this does not mean that we shouldn’t be critical. One of her main concerns is that modders and YouTubers might be unaware of women in their audience, perpetuating sexist tropes, which turns people like her away from potentially interesting content.
Skyrim’s Subtle Nods to the Patriarchy
Tinyorc, “imagining gender equality: the case of Skyrim,” at massive hassle, questions the oft-expressed sentiment that Skyrim “does not discriminate based on gender.” She responds, “Despite the fact that there are ostensibly strong women everywhere in Skyrim, I’ve always had a nagging sense that this world still doesn’t really belong to them.” Tinyorc proceeds to give numerous examples, such as:
Riverwood is intended to be the first town the player visits. In Riverwood, you can help resolve a love triangle in which two men are trying to win a woman’s affections by deceiving her. Men competing with each other for a woman’s hand with no actual input from the woman in question is part of patriarchy. As you move on to the city of Whiterun, you will encounter Carlotta Valentina, who is being harassed by the bard Mikael. Mikael, it transpires, is the author of A Gentleman’s Guide to Whiterun, which is essentially a pick-up artist’s guide to the women of Whiterun, rating them by attractiveness and discussing risks and considerations for getting them into bed. Mikael views women as objects to be evaluated and acquired – how did he develop such a misogynistic perspective in a purportedly egalitarian society?
Examples such as these lead Tinyorc to conclude, “Skyrim is a colossal imaginative undertaking, but when it comes to gender equality, it falls at the first hurdle: it fails to imagine a world where the power relations between men and women are fundamentally different to what we know and accept in the real world.” The same is true of Skyrim’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, which, as Tinyorc notes, finds no corresponding examples in the wider world of Skyrim. Finally, she comments on the potential for high fantasy gaming to actually challenge patriarchy. I especially like the way she puts this: “Forget dragons and wizards and ancient artefacts of indescribable power; a world built on gender equality from the bottom up? Now that would be something truly fantastic.”
And Others in Short
baratron at Live Journal registers a brief complaint about LGBT representation in Skyrim. “The only overt same-sex couple are both dead,” she writes of Hrodulf and Bjornolfr. Eunseob Lee and others at Prezi provide a short, interactive presentation on gender equality in Skyrim, highlighting those aspects which they believe demonstrate its egalitarian nature. Jeff Venancio at Geeks New England writes of being male and playing as female characters, using the example of Skyrim. John Walker at Rock Paper Shotgun wrote in 2011 of the then forthcoming Skyrim and same-sex marriage, contrasting it BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic. LA RYTER at F-BOM comments on the ups and downs of gender representation in Skyrim. Meghan Burrows at Women & Cyberdrama is wholly positive about Skyrim’s features that concern gender and sexuality, though her placing of it in the context of Gamergate and the events surrounding Anita Sarkeesian may be of interest to some readers. piercestream at Play the Gay Away briefly comments on Skyrim’s LGBT representation and then demonstrates some of the homophobic coverage that this occasioned, following the hashtag #skyrimjobs. POWERXCIV in a forum post as GameFAQs makes a plea for better gay representation in the Elder Scrolls series. Sam Dercon at Sex, etc. offers a teenager’s perspective, praising Skyrim because it “break[s] barriers not only in the graphics and game play departments but also in its representation of sexuality, specifically gender roles and sexual orientation.”