Why Prostitution Should be Legal As in Ancient Greece

A battle has been raging for 20 years between the Swedish model, which penalizes prostitution, and the Dutch model, which seeks to make sex work safe through regulation. If history has anything to teach us in this modern debate it's that prohibitionist models will always be ineffective.

Should prostitution be legalized, legitimized and accepted as a valid employment option for adult individuals who choose to take this path, on their own free will and without any form of compulsion?

Some believe that it should. For others this is an anathema; prostitution should be eradicated and in the process everyone involved should be penalized harshly. It is not often the case that Christian Fundamentalists are in complete agreement with radical feminists, but the views of both groups are fully aligned in this case: prostitution is the scourge of the earth.

Liberal thinkers are divided between those who believe that prostitution needs to be eradicated and those who believe that the state should not interfere in whatever people do in their bedrooms. Observing celebrities with liberal views like Lena Dunham, Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet turn their fire against Amnesty International underlines how divisive the whole issue can be.

But nothing highlights the disagreement better than the opposing laws of two countries well-known for progressive social policies.

The Swedish and the Dutch models

In 1998 Sweden passed a law criminalizing the purchase of sexual services while, at least in theory, prostitution itself was not criminal. Two years later the Netherlands moved in the extreme opposite direction and fully legalized prostitution.

The advocates of the Swedish model are claiming that by penalizing the customers who have the power in the relationship, they are battling prostitution by reducing the demand. A series of highly controversial and largely unreliable studies sponsored by the Swedish government seem to indicate that there was a reduction in street prostitution.

But none of these studies takes into account the impact which the Internet is having upon the sex markets, the seismic changes in the ways humans interact and communicate with each other in the third millennium, or the cloak of invisibility over activities pushed underground after criminalization. These studies, then, are far from scientifically sound. Instead, they tell the believers of the Swedish model exactly what they wish to hear, while playing with semantics to disguise the re-criminalization of prostitution in Sweden.

The advocates of the Dutch model, on the other hand, are convinced that trafficking, underage prostitution, exploitation of undocumented immigrants in the sex markets, violence and abuse against sex workers can be better tackled if the whole think comes out in the open, under the scrutiny of the law, and with free and unhindered access to legal resources and supporting agencies. After much consideration, Amnesty International sided with the Dutch model in 2016, with the full backing of sex workers around the world.

In all this controversy one thing became clear: the ongoing debate has still to learn some lessons from history, and this is where a study of prostitution in the ancient Greek world offers some very useful and critically important lessons.

Banning Prostitution: The Christian Influence

It is easy to answer the question why ancient Greece of all other places and points in time is important in the debate. This was the last time in the history of Western civilization when the formation of moral attitudes was a process still free of the influence of Christianity or other monotheistic religions.

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Moreover, many of the views which have dominated Western thought in the past 2000 years can be traced back to the days when ancient Greek thought finally merged with biblical Christianity to produce the intellectual foundations of European civilization as we know it.

The Christian view of prostitution is outright hostile, drawing its origins from Jewish law and tradition, which favored monogamy and viewed sexual unions primarily as the means of childbirth. Early Christian theologians eagerly accepted this tradition and incorporated it into the structures of the new religion. In turn, Christian ideology has heavily influenced the legal systems of the Western World.

It is abundantly clear that prostitution is illegal in the 49 out of 50 American states not because of concerns for the lives of sex workers, but because of moral concerns which spring out of Christian traditions and convictions. Religion is the reason why prostitution has remained illegal in most of the world, and this is why looking back into the ancient Greek world, which was unaffected by this ideology, may contain some important history lessons for us.

Prostitution as Career OpportunitY

There was not a single corner in the whole of the ancient Greek world, in fact in the whole of ancient Europe and the near East, where prostitution was illegal, with the exception of ancient Israel.

The fact that it was almost universally legal, regulated, taxed, and in the later Roman empire also zoned, can offer us some interesting insights. The clients of some of the famous trophy women and men of the ancient world were proud to be associated with these trophy women, and some of them, like Lais, Phryne, or the Epicurean philosopher hetaera Leontion, became iconic figures that had a mesmerizing effect on modern artists.

“High class prostitutes, the iconic Greek heaterae, were the only women who could and did break the glass ceiling.”

At a time when a woman’s primary purpose was to get married and have children within the strict confines and conventions of the traditional heterosexual family model, the high class prostitutes, the iconic Greek heaterae, were the only women who could and did break the glass ceiling, transgressed boundaries beyond the reach of the ordinary woman, challenged stereotypes and conventions and became iconoclasts with an influence that extended far beyond their lifetime.

The Greek hetaera as an iconic symbol was forged in the freedoms which the Democratic Constitution guaranteed for every free person. Under democracy, citizens were proud to stay out of their neighbor’s private affairs. Doing the opposite would have amounted to doing the same as authoritarian regimes such as Sparta did, which kept a close watch upon the daily conduct of her citizens in public and in private life. 

Those freedoms were lost in an increasingly authoritarian late antiquity and a series of deranged emperors like Caligula and Nero, or coldly calculating autocrats like Constantine, sapped the Roman world of its last drop of free thought. People in the times of Athenaeus, Lucian and Alciphron (after the second century) would look back into the days of the Athenian democracy with envy and nostalgia for those free, happier times, and were idealizing the classical hetaera as an iconic symbol of femininity.

Money is The Driving Force behind vendible Sex

One question which the ancient Greek model poses is whether similar forces were at work then as they are now. A recent study led by M. S. Khan in Pakistan reached the conclusion that “the identified driving forces behind women resorting to sell sex were poverty, materialism, and the desire to move up in society.”

It appears that hope for a better life and material affluence is, and has always been, the primary motivator of persons who decide to start providing sexual services for money. It is exactly this hope that fuels the market forces which have sustained prostitution since the beginning of the historical record.

The common business of Prostitution

The ancient world accepted these market forces, and simply tried to regulate them.

In classical Athens, while the legality of prostitution was never questioned, there were regulations fixing the ceiling price which one needed to pay in order to call out a prostitute entertainer for a party (payment for sexual services was extra), ordering the selection by lot of the entertainer for each party when demand was high, and taxing the earnings of prostitution at the rate of 2%.

“Sex workers and their legal representatives had free and unfettered access to the court system of the First Democracy, without fear.”

The state was not only trying to profit from such regulations but also to prevent civil violence and angry quarrels over prostitute-entertainers that were in high demand.

There are several court cases attested where procurers or freelance prostitutes took a former client to court with accusations of violent behavior. There were also a couple of cases where the serious charge of deliberate wounding was pressed after a protracted quarrel over prostitutes (this could result in permanent exile).

It is impossible to know how many such cases ever reached the courts of Athens, and what percentage of the actual violent assaults against sex workers or against rivals they represented. But what is important to know is that the state took active steps to address these issues and to prevent violent incidents, and that sex workers and their legal representatives had free and unfettered access to the court system of the First Democracy, without fear.

It is equally important to note that clients of prostitutes who happened to be involved in a troublesome experience for one reason or another would also appear in court and speak of their experiences in an open manner without fear of prejudice from their fellow citizens who were sitting in the jury.

Sometimes older litigants reminisced about their experiences with famous beauties of the sex markets in their younger days and invited members of the jury to recall their own experiences with these women as a means of identification between speaker and the jury. Litigants were hoping to gain by establishing such bonds of shared memories and pleasant recollections with the jurors.

A Change in Attitudes

From the first century of the Christian era influences from eastern religions and cultures, most notably but not exclusively Judaism, started changing attitudes.

Until then no moral stigma had been attached to prostitution. It was certainly a bad habit because it was costly and could cause financial ruin to a family. When prostitution is criticized in sources before the first century of the Christian era, it is always because of the threat to the family fortune.

Only after the first century prostitution was gradually viewed as a moral stain on a person’s character. With the unstoppable progress towards Christianization, prostitution became the epitome and sum total of all human vices. 

“With the unstoppable progress towards Christianization, prostitution became the epitome and sum total of all human vices.”

But why?

Early Christian theologians were having a hard time trying to convince men to accept monogamy as the Church increasingly moved towards a more rigid family model inspired by the Roman tradition of the paterfamilias as the unchallengeable authority in the household, with the materfamilias dutifully minding her motherly duties and giving up all else. 

Prostitution was viewed as a grave threat to this structure, as the work of the devil, while those who engaged in it were seen as deserving eternal torture in the fires of hell.

Armed with such powerful deterrents, the Church has been trying to eradicate the mortal sin of prostitution from the face of the earth for 1700 years. But it hasn’t succeeded. Prostitution always continued to exist underground, and much of the time it wasn’t even hidden that well.

Members of the clergy who threatened the believers with the eternal fires of hell for sexual encounters with prostitutes and politicians who made laws imposing severe penalties on prostitutes and clients alike where often themselves some of the most devoted clients of prostitutes.

The Problems of Prohibition

For the past 1700 years criminalization and the threat of the eternal fires of hell have only succeeded in vastly increasing the number of crimes surrounding prostitution in the Western world.

As activities with prostitutes have been not only illegal in most of the Western world but also very damaging for a person’s reputation if they come to light, a huge amount of criminal activity has been set up to make the sale of sex feasible.

Organized underground networks operate beyond the reach of the law. They hire illegal aliens with no identity, no family ties, no legal protection, and no recourse to the law for fear of being detained and deported. They engage in human trafficking and modern-day slavery at unprecedented levels. There’s violence, drugs and even child prostitution.

“The law of supply and demand, combined with criminalization and stigmatization, creates an explosive mix of crime and social evils.”

Such networks are not only well-organized. They also have sufficient financial muscle to bribe corrupt law enforcement officers and keep business going. The law of supply and demand, combined with criminalization and stigmatization, creates an explosive mix of crime and social evils.

None of this is attested in the experience of the ancient world, simply because none of it was necessary.

With sex work being legal everywhere there was no need for underground operations, fear of the law or a whole string of concomitant violent and non-violent crime. When violence in a brothel got out of hand, a difficult client refused to pay, or a deceitful pimp was attempting extortion, the law and the courts of classical Athens could be accessed without fear, while a series of relevant legal provisions allowed the courts to deal effectively with such situations.

a legal prostitution model comes with many advantages

The ancient world was no utopian paradise. Slavery was a standard provider of labor, and especially the lower end of the prostitutional markets was largely served by slave labor, with all the ensuing problems.

In those markets we will easily recognize many of the modern plagues of venal sex. Child prostitution and alien sex-workers moving around, voluntarily or involuntarily in search of better markets, were ubiquitous fixtures and violence and abuse were never totally absent from the picture.

But even with such major shortcomings the ancient Greek model has firm advantages over prohibitionist or abolitionist models that prevailed in later centuries.

  • It allowed unhindered access to the law by sex-workers and clients without fear of incrimination, and this certainly was a big deal in keeping the entire market within lawful standards.
  • As a result, concomitant crime was absent: no one needed to set up underground syndicates, hook sex-workers to drugs for easier control, bribe corrupt officials, or clandestinely operate inhumane trafficking networks, because none of this was necessary.
  • All one needed to do was to set up an operation, open, legal and legitimate in a place where potential clients frequented like the market place or the harbor, and get going.
  • Free persons did not need to be compelled to take up prostitution; they were motivated by a hope for better living standards.
  • Politicians, artists, philosophers, land-owners and professionals were not disgraced for paid love; on the contrary they competed for the favors of capricious mistresses, and an entire fun literature arose out of such affairs.
  • The sex-workers themselves, male or female, could practice their trade without fear, and to a large extent without moral stigma.
  • The sex markets of the ancient were inclusive with male, female and transgender sex-workers to satisfy all tastes.
  • Prominent female prostitutes, the famous hetaerae of the ancient world, accepted who they were, and many of them became iconoclasts and pioneers for women’s place in society, they pushed hard boundaries and gained for themselves privileges which would be unthinkable for the ordinary woman. Many were wealthy in their own right and totally independent of male control, some chose to study philosophy, others became poets or art collectors, models for famous artists and a few had their statues and sanctuaries set up among heroes and great kings.
  • Ancient city states profited from the taxation of the earnings of prostitution without any moral qualms.
  • At the same time, they did not need to spend vast sums of money in the enforcement of prohibitions, or the crime that routinely and unfailingly follows such prohibitions.
  • The cities did not need to devote large resources trying to stop men (and occasionally women) from paying for sexual services.
  • They did not need to spend even more money maintaining prisons for persons who hired prostitutes.
  • Prostitution was profitable business for the Greek city states, and for some, like Corinth, it brought in legendary affluence. Wealthy clients from the entire Mediterranean, men of all races and nationalities, converged upon the fabulous upper end establishments of the city putting large sums of money into the economy of the city. Legal, open prostitution equaled concrete and substantial benefits.

The list could go on for much longer, but perhaps it is not necessary to enlist everything: the message is very clear.

The historical experience of ancient Greece and what followed in later centuries suggest that prohibitionist models will always be ineffective, unenforceable and arguably cruel, while they back the belief of Amnesty International that so long as sex-services are exchanged between consenting adults, it is best for such exchanges to be legal, open, taxable and subject to regulation.

Complement this story with Polly Lohmann’s article on What the Graffiti of Ancient Pompeii Teach us About our Modern Selves and Manuel Knoll on What Plato Would Have Said About Trump and Brexit.

[Title image by Nicolas-André Monsiau (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons]

Konstantinos Kapparis

Konstantinos Kapparis is a Classics Professor and Director of the Center for Greek Studies at the University of Florida. He is the author of 5 books and more than 30 articles on the Attic Orators, Gender Studies, Athenian Law, and the social history of the Ancient World. His view of history is based in the conviction that modern laws and cultural perceptions on gender and sexuality are heavily influenced by historical factors, the origins of which go back to the Graeco-Roman world.

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