Might men be incomplete versions of boys? That is the quietly insulting suggestion buried just beneath the surface of Germaine Greer’s new book, The Boy. Greer trawls through art history, classical mythology and some social history looking for evidence to back her thesis, which is that over the past two or three centuries, our culture “has become blind to boyhood as a contrast to manhood.” Greer’s focus is on representations of the male figure at an age when “he is old enough to be capable of sexual response but not yet old enough to shave.” Boys are beautiful, she declares, in her wonderfully illustrated tome – just look at these pictures! Many people’s first instinct may be that she is exploiting the dubious sanctuary of art to validate dangerous desires. But in the current climate, in which we have all but given up on the distinction between eroticism and pornography, Greer is trying to draw a distinction between delight and desire. There is a subtlety in the writing and an openness to complication one doesn’t always find in her work. The result is a book that strikes me as courageous. Since her argument hinges on the erotics of boyhood, Greer’s view of the nature of boy sexuality is fundamental: “Boy sex is irresponsible, spontaneous and principally self-pleasuring,” she writes. “Boyhood is a playground and the game is polymorphous perversity.” This is in contrast, presumably, to what Alice Munro has called men’s “decent narrowness of range,” which, in the sexual sphere, can so easily turn into an indecent narrowness of range – a tunnel-visioned, psychic imbalance tending towards abuse. Greer, by marrying boyhood sexuality to “the female gaze,” tries to suggest a whole new visual erotic: not predatory and obsessive, but sophisticated and intimate. In an appreciation of representations of boys in art, she believes, “there is a world of complex and civilised pleasure to be had.” Such is the polemic. Yet images can have a richness of connotation unavailable to verbal arguments, and perhaps the most subtle image in the book is a photograph by Sally Mann. It shows her son, Emmet, waist high in fast-moving water near their family home in Virginia. His splayed fingers hover at waist level, and where they touch the current they leave multiple trails in their wake (from this alone you sense a pull, an inexorable slipping away). Emmet, who, like his sisters, is preternaturally good-looking but barely pubescent, stares at the camera with dark, begrudging eyes. It could be a pose learned from billboards showing sullen male pinups, or alternatively a window on to what the boy is feeling as he waits for his mother to take the damned picture. The photograph, whose implications can only really be guessed at, is entitled: “The last time Emmet modelled nude.” It speaks eloquently, but in a way that only creates unease and complication, to an earlier chapter on servant boys in which Greer explains how for many centuries “the prettiness of a page was part of the general elegance of a gentleman’s equipage… Ladies would tumble their little pages on their beds, pinching, tickling and teasing them, while covering them with kisses, much as they did their lapdogs… We will never know how often pages were seduced or sexually harassed by their mistresses.” Boys, these instances suggest to me, don’t always want their sexuality to be married to the feminine gaze: they want to grow up, get away, do some gazing of their own. Greer reminds us that it is only since the 19th century that the ideal figure in figurative painting and sculpture has been assumed to be female. “In any artwork before the 19th century a boy is more likely to be naked than any other figure.” And not only naked, but very often languorous, flirtatious or sexually mischievous. What are we to make of all these boys displaying themselves in the guises of Cupid, Apollo or St Sebastian? Pressed on the question, I suspect that most people would mutter something about art history being rife with homosexuality, not to mention pederasty. But to assume that the ancient Greek sculptors created their ideal types of boy figures because of a culture of pederasty, writes Greer, “is as absurd as to assume that artists paint still lifes because they want to have sex with shellfish and dead game or because they are hungry.” Rather, she argues, “boy figures in ancient Greece” tell of “a universal joy and pride in their visibility.” The early part of her book contains an interesting discussion of the Belvedere Apollo’s fall from favour in the 19th century as critics, reflecting social prejudices about gender appropriateness, began to find it insufficiently masculine. The key, however, is that the Belvedere Apollo was never a depiction of a man, but of a boy. This opens out on to a larger point: that over several centuries there has been a patriarchal tendency to snuff out acknowledgment of boyhood altogether, “to avoid the phase of troubling misrule and extravagance out of which Apollonian brilliance may be said to rise.” The chapter concludes with a paragraph on David Beckham, who, “defying the braying of less secure men, speaks in a soft, high-pitched voice, wears diamonds in his ears, a skirt when he feels like it, topiarises his hair, poses for thousands of photographs, and is also rather good at playing soccer. Apollo lives.” Well, all right, if she must.