Because the nature of male-male and male-female relationships in Ancient Greece differ greatly from our own, it is important to delve deeper into the discussions of love in The Symposium. First, the term “homosexual” is not appropriate in discussing the nature of the suggestion made by Phaedrus and the others that male-male love is preferable to male-female love. Homosexuality, as we understand it, is the product of a post-Freudian, industrialized world, where sexuality has been interpreted as a structural and constitutive feature of personality. The word suggests not just a sexual practice, but also the notion that one’s sexual preference in some way defines one’s character.
In Ancient Greece, most men would marry women and produce children with them, but many would have male lovers as well, with whom there was often a closer emotional bond. But just as “homosexual” is an inappropriate category, so is “bisexual,” as it suggests a middle ground between homosexuality and heterosexuality. All we can rightly say is that most men in Ancient Greece would engage in sexual relationships with both men and women, and that some had a stronger preference for men and some had a stronger preference for women. There is some evidence to suggest that male-male relationships were more prevalent and more valued in the intellectual circles that Plato writes of than among the people of Athens at large.
Typically, a male-male relationship would exist between an older man (called the "lover") and a younger man (called the "loved one" or "boyfriend"). The older man takes the initiative in the relationship and is usually the dominant partner in sexual intercourse. The younger man, usually in the age between puberty and that of growing a beard, would gain in return the help, favor, and mentorship of the older man. The lover is often married to a woman at the time, and life-long partnerships, such as the one that exists between Agathon and Pausanias, are rare.
While many men preferred women, both as sexual partners and as wives, male-male relationships were idealized for several reasons. The activities the Greeks believed most powerfully displayed virtue and glory—including athletics, philosophy, warfare, rhetoric—were exclusively the realm of men at the time, so two men could share in this virtue and glory in a way that a man and a woman could not. Women in ancient Greece were obviously equally capable of rational development as women today, but they were not, for the most part, provided with the opportunities to prove this. The male and female spheres in Ancient Greece were very rigidly separated, so there was not much common ground for romanticized courtship between men and women. Marriage was often a social necessity in order to ensure reproduction, while male-male love was considered purer because it was less practical.