What ancient women really thought about sex

So far were ancient women from flinching at the sight of erotica that some were even buried with it. In the period before Rome came to prominence, the highly skilled Etruscans dominated the Italian mainland and filled it with scenes of a romantic nature. Numerous works of art and pieces of tomb statuary depict men and women reclining together. An incense burner featuring men and women touching each other’s genitals was interred with an Etruscan woman in the 8th Century BC.

How prostitution was perceived

You only have to visit an ancient brothel, such as those of Pompeii, to see that sex was frequently on show. The walls of the dismal, cell-like rooms in which sex workers plied their trade are covered in graffiti, much of it written by male clients, who liked to comment on the performances of named women.  

Historical accounts and speeches abound with descriptions of the hardships endured by such workers. Against Neaera, a prosecution speech delivered by Athenian politician Apollodorus in the 4th Century BC, provides particularly startling insight into the precariousness of these women’s lives. Just occasionally, however, we hear from a woman in touch with this world – and her words surprise.

In the 3rd Century BC, a female poet named Nossis living in the toe of Italy wrote in praise of an artwork and the fact that it was funded by a sex worker. A glorious statue of Aphrodite, goddess of sex and love, sung Nossis, had been erected in a temple using money raised by Polyarchis.

Polyarchis was not an anomaly. An earlier hetaera (courtesan or high-status sex worker) called Doricha used the money she had acquired similarly to purchase something for public view, in her case impressive spits for cooking oxen to be displayed at Delphi.

It was not sex these women embraced but rather the rare chance it afforded them to be remembered after they died. The vast majority of the women they knew were destined for anonymity.   

Male writers’ insights

Male writers, for all their prejudices, can provide some of the most interesting insights into women and sex. In 411 BC, the comedian Aristophanes put on a play called Lysistrata, in which the women of Athens organise a sex strike in a bid to persuade their husbands to agree peace terms during the Peloponnesian War. This was a real conflict, waged between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies across three decades.

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