Hellenistic Cultures and Their Attitudes Towards Sex

Rebecca Ott

In today's society, women are liberated and sexuality is equally valued by each sex. This was not the case in ancient Greece. As young children, girls and boys were segregated. The boys were free to live a normal life and the girls were prisoners in their own home. This way of life did not stop at adulthood. Women always lived in the shadow of a man, whether a father, brother, or husband. On the other hand, men frequently practiced adultery and purchased sexual gratification through prostitution. In this particular society, the laws were loosely put together to ensure that there were no punishments for men who chose sexual promiscuity. Yet, women were bound to their husband by law. Moreover, it is obvious that females and slaves were viewed as natural and biological inferiors of the male citizen. Marriage was therefore an unequal relationship, since justice is giving each one his due. And unequals receive unequal treatment. Basically although Greece's social organization emphasized marital strength and courage, it was also highly unlikely to foster high aspirations in women or male admiration of their particular virtues. This attitude toward sex was nourished at childhood to develop into the identical views of their ancestors. And inevitably, this attitude lead to the traditional behavior towards sex.

Greeks girls were segregated from boys and brought up at home in ignorance of the world outside of them. Girls married very young, at perhaps fourteen, usually to a man twenty years or more her senior. A girl exchanged confinement in her father's house for confinement in her husband's house. When he was invited out, his children might be invited with him, but not his wife; and when he had friends in, she did not join in the company. Shopping seems to have been a man's job and slaves could be sent on other errands outside the house. Upholders pronounced the front door the be the boundaries of a good woman's territory.

Next, the situation of an adolescent boy growing up in such a society. Every obstacle is put in the way of his speaking to the girl next door; it may not be easy for him to even get a glimpse of her. Festivals, sacrifices, and funerals for which women and girls did not come out in public, provided the occasion for seeing and being seen. They could hardly afford more than that, for there were too many people about, but from such an occasion an intrigue could be set on foot, with a female slave of respectable age as the indispensable go- between.

In a society which practices segregation of the sexes, it is likely that boys and girls should devote a good deal of time and ingenuity to defeating society and many slaves may have cooperated with enthusiasm. Greek laws were not lenient towards adultery, "adultery" denoted not only the seduction of another man's wife but also the seduction of his widowed mother, unmarried daughter, sister, niece, or any other women whose legal guardian he was. The adulterer could be prosecuted by the offended father, husband, of guardian; alternatively, if caught in the act, he could be killed, maltreated, or imprisoned by force until he purchased his freedom by paying heavy compensation. A certain tendency to regard women as irresponsible and ever ready to yield to sexual temptation relieved the husband of an unfaithful wife from a sense of shame of inadequacy and made him willing to seek the cooperation from his friends in apprehending an adulterer, just as he would seek their cooperation to defend himself against fraud etc. The adulterer was open to reproach in the same way, and to the same extent, as any other violator of the laws protecting the individual citizen against arbitrary treatment by other citizens. To seduce a woman if citizen status was more capable than to rape her, not only because rape was presumed to be unpremeditated but because seduction involved the capture of her affection and loyalty; it was the degree of the offense against the man to whom she belonged, not her own feelings, which mattered.

It naturally follows from the state of the law and from the attitudes and the values implied by segregation that an adolescent boy who showed an exception enthusiasm for the opposite sex could be regarded as a potential adulterer and his propensity discouraged just as one would discourage theft, while an adolescent boy who blushed at the mere idea of proximity to a woman was praised as "right-minded".

Greek Society was a slave-owning society, and a female slave was not in a position to refuse the sexual demands of her owner or of anyone else to whom he granted the temporary use of her. Large cities, notably Athens, also had a big population of resident aliens, and theses included women who made a living as prostitutes, on short term relations with a succession of clients who endeavored to establish the long term relations with wealthy and agreeable men. Both aliens and citizens could own brothels and stock them with slave-prostitutes. Slave-girls and alien-girls who took part in men's parties as dancers or musicians could also be mauled and importuned in a manner which might cost man his life if attempted it with a woman of citizen status.

Obviously, it was easy to purchase sexual satisfaction, and the richer the man the better the provision he could make for himself. But, money spent on sex was money not spent other things, and there seems to have been substantial agreement on what proper and improper items of expenditure. It is regarded as virtuous to impoverish oneself by gifts and loansin misfortune (for their father's funeral, and the like), by ransoming Athenian citizens taken prisoner in war, and by paying out more than the required minimum in the performance of public duties (for example, the upkeep of warship). This kind of expenditure was boasted about and treated as a claim on the gratitude of the community. On the other hand, to "devour an inheritance" by expenditure on one's own consumption was treated as disgraceful. Hence, gluttony, drunkenness, and purchased sexual relations, were classified together as "shameful pleasures". When a young man fell in love, he might well fall in love with a slave since his chances of falling in love with a girl of citizen status were so restricted, and to secure the object of his love he would need to purchase of ransom her.

Also another reason for the discouragement and the disapproval of the sexual enthusiasm in the adolescent; it was seen as presenting a threat that the family's wealth would be dissipated from the community. The idea that one has the right to spend one's own money as one wishes is not Greek, and would have seemed absurd to a Greek. He had only the rights which the law of his city explicitly have him; no right was alienable, and no claim was superior to the city's.

In regards to homosexual relations in Greek Society, it is suprising to learn that if a man had at any time in his life prostituted himself to another man for money he was debarred from exercising his political rights. If he was an alien, he had no political rights to exercise, and was in no way penalized for living as a male prostitute so long as he paid the prostitution tax levied upon males and females alike. It was therefore not the physical act that incurred penalty, but the incorporation of the act in a certain deliberately chosen role which could only be fully defined with reference to the nationality and status of the participants.

This illustrates an attitude that the fundamental to Greek society. They tended to believe that one's moral character in formed in the main by the circumstances in which one lives: the wealthy man is tempted to arrogance and oppression, the poor man to robbery and fraud, the slave to cowardice and greed. A citizen compelled by great and sudden economic misfortune to do work of a kind normally done by slaves was shamed because his assumption of a role which so closely resembled a slave's role altered his relationship to his fellow citizens. Since prostitutes were usually slaves or aliens, to play the role of a prostitute was, as it were, to remove oneself from the citizen body, and the formal exclusion f a male prostitute from the rights of citizen was a penalty for disloyalty to the community in his choice of role.

Prostitution is not easily defined-submission in gratitude for gifts, services, or help is not so different in kind from submission in return for an agreed fee nor was it easily proved in a Greek city unless people were willing (usually they were not) to come forward to testify that they had helped to cause a citizen's son to incur the penalty of disenfranchisement. A boy involved in a homosexual relationship absolutely untainted by considerations could still be called a prostitute by his family's enemies, just as the term can be recklessly applied today by unfriendly neighbors or indignant parents to a girl who sleeps with her lover. He could also be called effeminate; not always rightly, since athletic success seems to have been a powerful stimulus to his potential lovers, but it is possible that the positively feminine characteristics in appearance, movements and manner of boys and youths played a larger part in the ordinary run of homosexual activity than the idealization and romantisization of the subject.

In conclusion, individuals are ridiculed for effeminacy, for participation in homosexual activity, or for both together. Although, there is one obvious factor which is that there are different sexual attitudes in different classes. The on going segregation of women of citizen status was possible only in households which owned enough slaves and could not afford to confine it women to a leisure enlivened only by the exercise of domestic crafts such as weaving and spinning. This degree of segregation was simply not possible in poorer families; the women who sold bread and vegetables in the market - Athenian women, not resident aliens - were not segregated, and there must have been plenty of women in the countryside who took a hand in work on the land and drove animals to the market. The subject of the segregation and the obstacles to love affairs between citizens' sons and citizens' daughters lose their validity as one goes down the social scale. Where there are love-affairs, both boys and girls can have decided views on whom they wish to marry.


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March 25, 1996

prepared for Intro. to the New Testament
by Rebecca Ott ottr@albsun3.alb.edu