PRINT April 1994

Aphrodite of the Future

In the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia there is a conical black stone some five feet tall. It was excavated from the Bronze Age shrine of Aphrodite at Palaepaphos, on the south coast of the island, and is generally thought to have been the central cult idol of a vast temple complex that thrived for approximately 1,500 years beginning ca. 1200 B.C. This roughly egg-shaped boulder was one of the most sacred objects in antiquity. Pilgrims came from all around the Mediterranean world to the annual festival of the goddess, where, in exchange for payment, they were given a lump of salt and a phallus—“the phallus clearly being a symbol of Aphrodite as a fertility deity, the salt most probably referring to the birth of the goddess from the sea.”1

Aphrodite is the richest and most complex embodiment of active sexual desire in Western mythological thought. She is uniquely rich in epithets—Aphrodite the Side-Glancer, the Lover of Smiles, the Lover of the Penis, Aphrodite of the Little Ears, the Beautiful Buttocks, the Bridal Chamber, the Orgasm, and so on. She is Aphrodite the Giver of Joy and Aphrodite the Whore; Aphrodite of the Flowers and Aphrodite the Golden. She loves children and she loves men. She is not warlike but acts in the siege of Troy, characteristically defending her son, Aeneas. In war as in life, she often makes mistakes. As anthropologist Paul Friedrich notes, “She is never raped or, in Homer, assaulted by a male . . . but she herself does sometimes ’seize up’ handsome young men. Thus Aphrodite is both loved and loving, both active and passive . . . she represents an image of relative sexual equality and an active female role.”2

Throughout antiquity, Aphrodite was the primary cultural representative of sexual love, regardless of object choice. As Geoffrey Grigson has pointed out, she was the goddess of love between men and of love between women, as well as of love between women and men.3 As a sexually active mother, she also represented the love of parents and children. Although Christianity was able to incorporate many aspects of the gods and goddesses of antiquity into its theology, Aphrodite remained deeply threatening and dangerous to it; she has no equivalent in the cosmology of Christian thought. Yet she survives as herself throughout the culture of the Middle Ages, a heretical force that could not achieve positive signification within Christian worship.

Aphrodite represents above all the libidinal authority of femininity, which should not be mechanically associated with the biological female. Rather, we should locate her as the principal European cultural embodiment of gender, understood as a system of complementary values concerning sexual desire and decorum. At Palaepaphos, Aphrodite was represented by both egg and phallus. The originator of all the "arts of love,” she speaks of masculine voluptuousness as well as of feminine strength, of male weakness and vulnerability as well as of female confidence and power—animus and anima uniquely combined. She narrates the psychic reality of sexuality and gender, being able to embody both the violence and the pleasure of gender relations in the lives of women and men alike. This level of psychic reality cannot be reduced to fluctuating levels of estrogen and testosterone. Aphrodite has immense potency in a world that represents masculinity in ever greater opposition to the feminine.

In his celebrated paper on femininity, Freud argued, “When you meet a human being the first distinction you make is ’male’ or ’female’? And you are accustomed to make the distinction with unhesitating certainty.”4 Yet the significance of this distinction is hardly the same for us all. A heterosexual man seeing a woman sitting opposite him in a cafe, for example, may feel both his gender and his sexuality unconsciously confirmed. Indeed, such stabilization of gendered and sexual identities is closely implicated in all acts of seeing, and of representing. Yet it is important not to reduce either gender or sexuality simply to monolithic dualistic oppositions: male/female, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual. On the contrary, gender and sexuality studies must proceed from a respect for the central strands of ambivalence, ambiguity, conflict, and mobility that are so characteristic of gender and sexuality as most of us experience them in practical life.

One need only consider the vast diversity of ways in which individual men and women experience their femininity and masculinity over time, and in differing circumstances. Our strengths and weaknesses are generally evenly distributed, and we should not think of the Great Lover who is terrified of his bank manager, or of the muscle man who is petrified by mice, as in any way anomalies. Rather, the drives of desire and repulsion are likely to be confused and contradictory at times for all of us, often in unpredictable and unexpected ways. Both looking and representing are risky, and therefore are often heavily defended. What happens, for example, if the woman in that café is revealed to be a startlingly beautiful man? The central question here concerns our reaction, our capacity to shift identifications of both similarity and difference. How might such mobility be encouraged?

Angela Carter points out that the story of the emperor’s new clothes would have a very different meaning “were the hero an Empress; the spectators would have thought she had done it on purpose, that now she was displaying her real, female authority.” In our culture, she continues, “The icon of the naked woman as the source of nourishment and sexuality is balanced by the icon of the naked man in physical torment.”5 Indeed, perhaps the greatest challenge to our culture is to find ways of representing a male body that is also a body of joy and satisfaction, available for women or for other men.

This project seems to me to bear on the work of many contemporary artists—work that troubles or otherwise makes us aware of the projective forces of gender and sexuality. Matthew Barney’s work, for example, has frequently been described (by male critics) as “risky.” In one of his video pieces Barney abseiled across the ceiling of a large white-box gallery, wearing an outfit that combined recognizable elements of mountaineering gear with conventional sportswear—shoulder pads and so on. Besides this fantastical network of hooks and harnesses, he was naked. Critics who saw this activity as risky were likely referring to the precariousness of Barney’s progress across the ceiling, but the greater risk was surely for them, obliged to stare at Barney’s youthful, athletic, remarkably beautiful body. The work operated on a knife-edge terrain between the homosexual and the respectable, between homosocial camaraderie and the connoisseurship of sport. It was art about how we are identified by what we look at, and by how we respond. Much of Robert Gober’s work might be discussed in similar ways.

Earlier this year, the results were published of the largest survey ever conducted into sexual behavior in Britain.6 The survey was originally to have been conducted some years ago under the aegis of the government-funded Economic and Social Research Council—until a personal intervention by Mrs. Thatcher, on the grounds that it would be “intrusive.” The survey was eventually funded by a private foundation, and its statistics are informative. Much attention has focused on the finding that only 1.4 per cent of men, and 0.5 per cent of women, had had sex with a member of the same sex in the year of the study. The figures have been criticized, and there are reasons to believe that they do in fact somewhat underestimate the prevalence of homosexuality in the United Kingdom. A by-product of the criticism, however, is what it reveals about many people’s dogmatic tendency to exaggerate the numbers of “out” lesbians and gay men in modern Britain. (Similar debates have taken place in the United States.) Such exaggeration is especially unhelpful to the extent that it encourages the belief in phantom armies that do not in fact exist, not, at least, on the scale fantasized by many gay political leaders. Gay men are not one in ten, or even one in twenty. Nor is identity necessarily the same as behavior.

Much the most interesting aspect of the survey, however, was its detailed picture of heterosexuality. In the previous five years, two thirds of the heterosexual men and three quarters of the heterosexual women polled had only had one sexual partner or none at all. In a summary of their findings, the survey’s authors report that “over a lifetime, more than 20 per cent of the men and over 40 per cent of the women report only one sexual partner. In all, nearly 75 per cent of men and more than 90 per cent of women have had fewer than ten partners in their lives. But 7.5 per cent and 1.1 per cent respectively had had more than 20.”7 This hardly reflects a society in which tremendous levels of sexual self-confidence can be expected of most people. (Strikingly similar findings emerge from a large-scale survey conducted in France.8)

In effect, we are witnessing a slow but steady change in sexual behavior and attitudes throughout the West, change that cannot take place without resistance. The stereotypical oversimplifications of modern gender roles have little to say to those of us struggling to find and sustain personal happiness with our sexual partner, or partners. These issues affect us all, and are likely to have profound implications for the organization of gender and of sexuality in the coming century and far beyond.

As things stand, our culture still lacks any improvement on Aphrodite as an image of sexual love that is truly embracive of the polarities of masculinity and femininity as they are experienced. The question remains: to what extent is our culture currently able to articulate the shifting ways in which, as women and as men, we can enlarge rather than diminish our sense of ourselves, and of who we might become, in relation to the gender (or genders) of our sexual and other partners? Where is our Aphrodite for the 21st century?9

Simon Watney is director of the Red Hot AIDS Charitable Trust.



1. Franz Georg Maier and Vassos Karageorghis, Paphos: History and Archaeology, Nicosia: A. G. Leventis Foundation, 1984, p. 84. See also Stella M. Lubsen-Admiraal and Joost Crouwel, Cyprus & Aphrodite, Amsterdam: SDU uïtgeverij, 1989.

2. Paul Friedrich, The Meaning of Aphrodite, Chicago: at the University Press, 1978, pp. 140–41.

3. See Geoffrey Grigson, The Goddess of Love: The Birth, Triumph, Death and Return of Aphrodite, London: Constable, 1976.

4. Sigmund Freud, “Femininity,” New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1977, p. 146.

5. Angela Carter, “A Well-Hung Hang-Up,” Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings, London: Virago, 1982, p. 104.

6. Kaye Wellings et al., Sexual Behaviour in Britain: The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, London: Penguin, 1994.

7. Peter Wilby, “Sex & The British: The Survey They Tried to Stop,” The Independent on Sunday Review, 16 January 1994, p. 7.

8. ACSF Investigators,“AIDS and Sexual Behaviour in France,” Nature vol. 360, 3 December 1992, pp. 407–9.

9. For one suggestion, see D. W. Winnicott, “The Relationship of a Mother to Her Baby in the Beginning,” The Family and Individual Development, London: Tavistock/Routledge, 1989, pp. 15–20.