A Comparative Analysis of The Attitudes Toward Prostitution in Greek and Roman Antiquity, Medieval Europe, and 19th Century America


            In order for us to understand the attitudes toward prostitution in any place or during any period, it is essential for us to understand the attitudes toward women and toward sexuality on the whole, of that particular day and age. We must consider the religion, politics, and social order of the culture, as well, for all of these things intricately weave themselves into the fabric of each society’s view of prostitution. The attitudes toward prostitution have changed dramatically from place to place, time period to time period. It should also be noted that it has primarily been a particular class of men who have written about the attitudes toward prostitution throughout history, and they undoubtedly stressed their own perspectives and attitudes. We may know little of what the masses, and particularly women, in more ancient history have actually felt about the existence of prostitution.

            Ancient Greece was a man’s world, patriarchal and hierarchal, and a wife’s place was confined to the home. The education of the Greek girl prepared her for a domestic life, to become “an important but discreet part of her husband’s household.” (p. 46. Henriques) Although married to her husband, the Greek woman remained subject to the authority of her father, or some other male in her family of origin. She had few, if any property rights. Her most important function as a wife was to bear children, and she was praised in her role as mother. Marriages in this time period were not for love or passion, rather a way to create a family, transfer property, and consolidate social status as a citizen, much like the upper classes experienced marriage throughout European history. Gratification of sexual passions or feelings of tenderness and intimacy for the man were found outside of the Greek marriage. Woman, to the Greek man, was either mother or lover, not both.

            Prostitution was considered a natural way of life and was for the most part widely accepted in Greece. There was even a hierarchy among prostitutes that correlated with the hierarchy of this patriarchal society. Perhaps, needless to say, the double standard did apply in ancient Greece. A husband could be respectable and have a concubine or see a prostitute, but a wife, who was essentially the property of her husband, could not, and a woman who became a prostitute lost her status as a proper woman. Adultery, however, was considered to be a very severe crime in ancient Greece, so much so that a husband was permitted to kill his wife’s lover if caught in the act. In order to aid society in abiding by the fornication laws, the Athenian lawmaker, Solon, made provisions for prostitution by setting up cheap brothels known as Dicteria, which were staffed by female slaves called dicteriades, who had been purchased by the state on behalf of the citizens it served. These brothels were regulated and taxed.  This was meant to be a social service. Most refer to these prostitutes as “the lowest of the low,” however, Harry Benjamin in his 1964 book Prostitution and Morality mentions a class of prostitutes, whom he simply calls concubines, and whom he considers to be below the dicteriades. These “prostitutes” were slaves and women who had no social standing whatsoever, and were “merely objects to be used according to the whim of their owners.” (p. 41. Benjamin)

            “The Athenian accepted the streetwalker as a necessary and natural part of street life.” (p. 57. Henriques) Streetwalkers, also referred to as she-wolves, were considered to be free dicteriade, and consequently a step above the brothel dicteriades. They were much like their counterparts in modern London, who walk the streets looking for work at night. The auletrides were a step above the streetwalkers on the social ladder. They were usually foreigners, who were musicians, namely flute and cithara players, dancers and acrobats, who encouraged amorous advances during the course of their act, often by singing phallic songs or strip teasing. The demand for their services was said to be tremendous. The most famous category of prostitutes, in the Greek world, however, was that of the hetairae.  Greek writers were particularly fascinated with this level of prostitute, who was at the top of the social ladder of prostitution, the aristocrat of prostitution, so to speak. Hetairae were sought after by prominent Greek men to provide them with sexual pleasure, as well as entertainment, companionship, and intellectual stimulation. The hetairae were involved in politics, the arts and other important areas of Greek life where Greek wives were not allowed. They were considered among the best educated of Greek women and enjoyed a position in society unequaled by any other of their sex, enjoying considerable “unofficial social status.”

            The concept of sex as bad, if not evil, did however, start to emerge, toward the end of the Greek era, rising up out of Greek mythology and into Greek philosophical thought. The same people who invented pornography were also responsible for creating a new fear related to sex. Attitudes about sex, women, and prostitution began to change, still probably more among scholars than the masses. The Epicureans of the 4th Century BC, although a small minority, were actually hostile toward sex. The Stoics of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries BC did not condemn sex but believed it was better confined to marriage and only in moderation, and that prostitution should be regulated and controlled. These ideas were later amplified by Roman writers, spread in the Roman period, were incorporated into Christianity, and ultimately became the dominant values of Western Culture.

The role of the earlier Roman woman was, like her Greek counterpart, primarily one of wife and of mother, however, she did have more involvement in political and commercial affairs. She could not leave the house without asking for her husband’s permission and she could not go without a companion, but she was able to visit the theatre, the temples, and the courts of law. Although she had more rights and privileges than did the Greek wife, she still remained in the power of her husband, father, or some other male relative. The double standard of sexual morals applied greatly to the early Roman wife, who could be sentenced to death if she committed adultery, which for a man was considered a minor offense.  The status of the Roman woman did improve slightly, however, as the small peasant state was converted into a mammoth empire.  She could now inherit property that was left to her when her father died.

Just as Roman history varied greatly from beginning to end, so did the attitudes toward women and prostitution. It can be said, however, that over all, the Romans were more ambivalent about prostitution than the Greeks and assumed a more moralistic attitude toward it. Moralists Cicero and Cato, believed that prostitution was a necessary institution designed to protect and preserve marriage, but that it should be used in moderation. Female chastity was to be preserved at all costs, and prostitution was a way to keep male sex drives under control. It existed in many forms as with the Greeks, but it was not nearly as romanticized. The Romans were much more practical about prostitution, and considered it a necessary trade of great demand, “but the women who practiced it were prostitutes, and not priestesses of love or cultural leaders.” (p. 45. The History of Prostitution)

It is hypothesized that because the Roman woman was not sheltered from the world as her Greek counterpart had been, the Roman prostitute was not often pursued for conversation or intellectual stimulation, as were the hetaerae of ancient Greece. She was primarily pursued for sex, which implied lower status for her, and perhaps greater feelings of guilt for the Roman man who pursued her. Even the Roman courtesans, mistresses, and concubines remained in the background and did not reach the level of political or intellectual influence of their Greek sisters. It is also possible that the more involved role of the Roman woman in society, caused prostitution to be looked down upon. Prostitution was tolerated, but it was not at all respected or admired as it had been in the Greek period.

“Roman prostitutes were divided into two main categories—the registered and the unregistered.” (p. 120. Henriques) The registered were known as meretrices, and they were expected to pay taxes. A woman who was not registered was called a prostibulae, and though supposedly was at risk of being thrown out of the city, was not condemned to the permanent infamy of those who were registered. She could eventually leave her profession, marry and settle down, and become a respectable matron. There were numerous divisions, as well as subdivisions amongst the prostibulae. Sanger goes into describing some of the types in his 1897 book History of Prostitution:

“Such were the Delicatae, corresponding to the kept-women, or French lorettes, whose charms enabled them to exact large sums from their visitors; the Famosae, who belonged to respectable families, and took to evil courses through lust or avarice; the Doris, who were remarkable for their beauty of form, and disdained the use of clothing; the Lupae, or she-wolves, who haunted the groves and commons, and were distinguished by a particular cry in imitation of a wolf; the AElicariae, or bakers’ girls who sold small cakes for sacrificeto Venus and Priapus, in the form of the male and female organs of generation; the Bustuariae, whose home was the burial ground and who occasionally officiated as mourners at funerals; the Copae, servant girls at inns and taverns, who were invariably prostitutes; the Noctiluae, or night-walkers; the Blitidae, a very low class of women, who derived the name from blitium, a cheap and unwholesome beverage drunk in the lowest holes; the Diabolares,  wretched outcasts whose price was two  oboli (say two cents); the Forariae, country girls who lurked about country roads; the Gallinae, who were thieves as well as prostitutes; the Quadrantariae, seemingly the lowest class of all, whose fee was less than any copper coin now current.” (p. 68-69. Sanger.)


Many Romans believed prostitutes to be sex-mad women who would do anything for their own pleasure. Lower class prostitutes were perceived as vicious and insatiable women who took perverse delight in corrupting children and others. This portrayal probably served to keep them blinded to the real abuses prostitutes suffered. Most prostitutes in ancient Rome worked out of brothels, which ranged from the most wretched to lavish, and were open from early afternoon until morning. During some periods, they were stocked with almost all slaves, primarily from Syria or Egypt, and at others, even the high-born Roman woman could be found offering themselves to all comers. There were also probably as many male homosexual prostitutes as there were female heterosexual prostitutes, and there was apparently no particular stigma attached to partaking of their favors. Brothels often had both men and women working in them. “Child prostitution, and the sexual exploitation of child slaves, was also commonplace…Even suckling babes were introduced into the brothels, where they were used for fellatio and other practices, and the Emperor Domitian was highly praised by some when he prohibited the prostitution of infants.” (p. 49. Benjamin.)

The attitudes toward women, sex, and prostitution in Medieval Europe, were most influenced by Christianity, which became the official religion of State. Many of the attitudes that Christianity adopted, as I mentioned earlier, had their roots in Greek mythology. All that was of spirit or mind was eternal and therefore sacred, where all that was of the flesh, was mortal and therefore profane. To succumb to weaknesses of the flesh, i.e. sexual desires, would distract one from higher pursuits, and keep one from gaining immortality. Sex for pleasure was considered a sin—to some, even within a marriage. Woman, therefore, became temptress. A woman’s chastity and morality became essential to her status as a respectable woman, for she was suspect as one who could potentially lead man into a life of sin and misery. This being the backdrop in the Middle Ages, did not bode well for the medieval prostitute.

In the early Middle Ages, Western Europe consisted primarily of various Germanic Nations that were often very cruel in their punishments of prostitutes. Various secular leaders made prostitution a public crime, considering it a crime against the mores of society. Some prostitutes would get their hair cut off, and others, would be flogged. Even men who allowed their female relatives to prostitute themselves could be flogged.

In Medieval Europe, the prostitute had much less social status than her Greek or Roman sisters.  She was forbidden to inherit property and she could not accuse others of a crime. No matter how hungry or desperate her situation, no woman was justified in turning to prostitution to earn a living. However, it was also believed that she could be reformed, and that through penance and changing her ways she could actually be redeemed, and either marry or become a nun. Refuges for prostitutes were established throughout the Middle Ages to assist prostitutes in leaving their sinful ways behind, recognizing that chances of reform were slim. Pope Innocent II went as far as to praise men who took prostitutes for wives, and considered these men’s own sins redeemed.

However, no matter how sinful, prostitution could not be entirely disallowed, for without it the world would be filled with far worse crimes, such as sodomy. Many attempts were made to outlaw prostitution, but this proved futile, and they were turned into attempts to regulate it. Gradually, the states accepted the necessity to regulate and they began to rationalize that they should be remunerated for their efforts and finally, brothels became a source of revenue.  Bathhouses, supported by the municipal authorities as places for the poor to bathe more frequently, became a favorite center for prostitution in the medieval period. By the end of the medieval period, prostitution was once again accepted, and even romanticized to some extent, with help from the courtesan who had made her reappearance.

Several factors influenced the attitudes toward prostitution and sex in general, in 19th Century America. One was the influx of men, as well as prostitutes immigrating to America in large quantities. Another was the scientific study of prostitution, and another related one was the new medical view of human sexuality. The most important influence, however, was the changing role of women in society, and their assertion of their rights as women.

America in the 19th Century was largely about industrialization, urbanization, and dislocation. There were a lot more men immigrating to the United States than women, initially, and many of the first female immigrants were prostitutes, probably because they were the only women who could support themselves. The view of prostitution at this stage was that it was inevitable and even necessary in order to preserve the integrity of the “proper” woman,” however celibacy was still seen as the ideal, and prostitution was publicly opposed, even so brothels sprang up everywhere. The Gold Rush, in particular, gave impetus to prostitution. The last half of the 19th Century to the early part of the 20th was said to be the Golden Age of the Brothel in America. “ Even small towns had their red-light districts and individual whorehouses, and the city fathers and other leading citizens were s often to be found at these social canters as were the local ne’er-do-wells.” (p. 76. Benjamin) In particular, New Orleans was known for its whorehouses, and from time to time attempts were made to regulate and tax it. Other cities, namely New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, also tried to regulate prostitution, but all were unsuccessful, primarily because of newly organized women’s groups.

While prostitution and essentially all non-procreative sex had been considered sinful in Medieval Europe, in 19th Century America, they were being looked at as diseases. Science and medicine were now taking the reigns, where religion had once held power. Many believed that a man lowered his life force with every drop of semen, exposing his system to disease and premature death, so it was important for a man not to waste his semen on non-procreative sex. Prostitutes were now thought of as pathological and some even believed they were latent homosexuals who had unconscious hostility toward men. Instead of “saving” prostitutes, society now needed to “cure” them. It was the growing public health movement of the 19th Century that encouraged medical interest in prostitution, mainly because of the long association of prostitution with venereal diseases. “If science could cure venereal disease, it might also cure prostitution, and alert people to the dangers of excessive sex.” (p. 222. Bullough, Vern and Bonnie) Also, breakthroughs in the field of contraception greatly changed the situation of women in the 19th Century. A woman could now, more-or-less, be in control of when she got pregnant. However, it took a good deal of effort to disseminate this information to the masses, as it had been classed as pornographic, and therefore illegal. Finally, with the help of the National Birth Control League, the laws were changed, but not until the early 20th Century.

For much of the 19th Century, women were trying to break free from the notion that women were delicate creatures. Many strong women were standing up and speaking out. Initially, the interest that feminism had in prostitution was really one of preserving the family, although many women did become concerned with the prostitute herself. Many of these early feminists saw women as victims of male society, and felt that prostitution was the result of the exclusion of women in public affairs. Jane Addams was one voice among many who spoke out for better economic opportunities, education, and recreation for women, and less liquor in society. Indeed these voices represented the growing change in the status and aggressiveness of women in 19th Century America, and most certainly affected the views that society held in regards to prostitution.




Benjamin, Harry and Masters, R.E.L. Prostitution and Morality. New York: The Julian Press, Inc. 1964. pp483.


Bullough, Vern. The History of Prostitution. New York:  University Books, Inc. 1964. pp304


Bullough, Vern and Bonnie. Prostitution: An Illustrated Social History. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1978. pp 295.


Henriques, Fernando. Prostitution and Society: A Survey. New York: The Citadel Press. 1962. pp 438.


Sanger, W.W. History of Prostitution. New York: The Medical Publishing Company. 1897 Eugenics Publishing Company. 1937. pp 708