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Strange Sexual Practices of the Ancient Greeks

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A courtesan, or hetairai, at a symposium with a reveler. Sex workers like courtesans were important figures in ancient Greece. Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikipedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 2.5

The Ancient Greeks are known for their advancements in philosophy, politics, art, literature, and many more, but the ancient people also had a number of sexual practices that may be considered strange today.

The Greeks viewed sex and sexuality differently than most cultures do today. In Ancient Greece, there was no concept of “sexuality,” meaning that sexual orientations were not categorized into gay, straight, or bisexual.

Rather, people were defined by the role they played during sex, meaning the active or passive party, or the person who penetrated as compared the one who was being penetrated.

In Ancient Greek society, being the active partner was linked to masculinity, power, and social status while being the passive partner was connected to femininity, youth, and submissiveness.

This means that some ancient Greek men had sexual experiences with both men and women throughout their lives.

Sexuality as we know it didn’t exist in Ancient Greece

In fact, pederasty, meaning the act of older men engaging in sexual activity with younger men, was very common in Ancient Greece. The older man, usually in his thirties, was thought to take a younger boy, usually in his teens, “under his wing” and provide him with companionship and “education.”

This included sexual activity, but, as being a passive partner in sexual activity was looked down on in Ancient Greece, this did not include penetration.

Another important aspect of sexuality in ancient Greece was prostitution. In Greece, there were two versions of prostitutes, namely “hetairai,” or high class escorts and courtesans, and “pornai,” or lower class prostitutes and slaves who most often worked in brothels and on street corners. Both men and women worked as prostitutes in Ancient Greece.

Unlike in many countries today, prostitution was completely legal and even supported by the state in many city-states in Ancient Greece.

There were many state-run brothels in ancient Athens that were also taxed after the lawmaker Solon legalized prostitution. Services also had a set price across Athens and were regulated.

Prostitution was widespread across Ancient Greece but particularly in Athens, where men were married after the age of thirty. Women, on the other hand, were often married around the age of sixteen.

Strict laws regarding sex with free women outside of marriage, which could be punished by death, meant that young Athenian men’s choices for having sex were limited mainly to prostitutes.

Even after marriage, men visited both male and female prostitutes often. Marriage in Greek antiquity was often considered to be a financial, social, political, and familial decision.

Couples rarely married for love, and while they did have sex to produce children, married couples in Ancient Greece most often slept separately, and men carried on extramarital relationships. Women, on the other hand, could be punished severely for infidelity.

In ancient Greece, courtesans, or “hetairai,” were not simply escorts. They were seen as educated, interesting, and intelligent so that they could have engaging discussions with their clients.

A number of particularly alluring and intelligent “hetairai” became famous and garnered significant influence in ancient Greece, most notably Phryne.

Unlike most Athenian women, who rarely left their homes and had very little voice in society, courtesans like Phryne were granted much more freedom.

From The Deipnosophists by Athenaeus, we also know that Phryne was the wealthiest self-made woman in all Athens at the time.

“Hetairai” like Phryne even attended symposia, or ancient Greek drinking parties, to provide not just sex but to also perform music and even engage in debates and discussions with the participants.

Scholars believe that masturbation was considered normal and healthy in ancient Greece for both men and women. Considering the strict laws regarding sex outside of marriage in Ancient Greece, self-pleasure was believed to be an alternative to sexual intercourse for much of the population.

Depictions of men, women, and creatures, such as satyrs masturbating, can be found in countless Greek art works, and the act is mentioned in many works of ancient Greek comedy.

The act was also linked to lower classes and slaves in both art and drama, signaling that while accepted, it was not considered sophisticated.

While considered a normal and natural act, pleasuring oneself was also believed to be a private activity and doing so in public was a great scandal. This is why the famous cynical philosopher, Diogenes, caused such a stir when he famously masturbated in public.

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