The Problem with Pornoi: Male Prostitution and the Law in Classical Athens

Posted: 14 May 2010

See all articles by Aerynn Dighton

Aerynn Dighton

University of California, Davis

Date Written: May 13, 2010


According to Athenian law, citizens who could be proven to have been prostitutes were barred from public activity, such as speaking in the Assembly or proposing litigation (Andocides, Mysteries 100-101; Demosthenes, Androtion 21-32; Aeschines, Timarchus 21). This punishment, called atimia, was a dishonorable banishment from politics which effectively disenfranchised these men. This paper analyzes accusations of prostitution within the genre of forensic oratory in order to determine the precise nature of the shame attached to male prostitution that rendered it incompatible with active public life. I argue that this shame arises chiefly from the desire for profit shown by the prostitute, and not, as most historians argue, from passive sexual positions.

While submission to lust is a crucial factor, it is not submission to the sexual lust of another man, but instead submission to one’s own lust for material wealth. The mercenary greed exhibited by prostitutes was believed to translate into the political realm, making a man susceptible to bribery and corruption. Importantly, other crimes which were also punished with atimia are highly economic in nature: accepting bribes, owing money to the state, or squandering one’s patrimony (Andoc., Myst. 73-75; Aes., Tim. 30; Rainer 1986). Furthermore, each speaker emphasizes the amount of money earned by the accused, be it “not much silver” (Andoc., Myst. 100) or three hundred drachmae (Lysias, Simon 22-24). While the deeds performed are sometimes described as “shameful” (Andoc., Myst. 100), the speakers do not describe these deeds in detail but instead focus on their opponent’s greed and the extravagant uses to which the profits were applied (Dem., Andr. 60-65, 75; Aes., Tim. 42, 75). In all three of the speeches in which the speaker directly accuses his opponent of prostitution, he also insinuates a charge of bribery; this suggests that the main reason for the legislation against male prostitution was the close connection which Athenians made between taking money for a sexual act and accepting a bribe for a political act.

Previous historians have usually looked at the evidence for male prostitution in studies of Greek homosexuality, resulting in a focus on sexual acts. Since the publication of Kenneth Dover’s landmark book, Greek Homosexuality (1978), research on male prostitution has worked largely within the paradigm of Dover’s active-passive binary. Michel Foucault refined this concept into a penetrator-penetrated phallocentric binary (1984), which continues to dominate scholarship (Winkler 1990; Keuls 1992; Halperin 2003). Consequently, the current scholarly debates focus on sexual position as the critical factor rendering prostitution dishonorable: anal (Hindley 1991; D. Cohen 2003) or oral (Halperin 1990) intercourse. Edward Cohen works outside the paradigm, focusing on the economic aspects of prostitution (2006), yet he underestimates the highly political nature of the surviving evidence. Recognizing that accusations of male prostitution in Athenian law were more concerned with material lust than sexual positions can help separate the legal aspects of male prostitution from the history of Greek homosexuality and move scholarship beyond the active-passive binary that dominates research on gender and sexuality in ancient Greece.

Works Cited

Cohen, David. “Law, Society and Homosexuality in Classical Athens.” In Sex and Difference in Ancient Greece and Rome, edited by Mark Golden and Peter Toohey, 151-166. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003. Cohen, Edward E. “Free and Unfree Sexual Work: An Economic Analysis of Athenian Prostitution.” In Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World, edited by Christopher A. Faraone and Laura K. McClure, 95-124. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006. Dover, Kenneth. Greek Homosexuality. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989. Foucault, Michel. The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality Vol. 2. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Originally published as L’Usage des plaisirs, Paris: Gallimard, 1984. Halperin, David. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: and Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge, 1990. Hindley, Clifford. “Debate: Law, Society and Homosexuality in Classical Athens.” Past and Present 133 (Nov. 1991), 167-183. Keuls, Eva C. The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Rainer, Johannes Michael. “Zum Problem der Atimie als Verlust der bürgerlichen Rechte insbesondere bei männlichen homosexuallen Prostitutierten.” Revue international des droits de l’antiquite 33 (1986), 89-114. Winkler, John J. The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Suggested Citation

Dighton, Aerynn, The Problem with Pornoi: Male Prostitution and the Law in Classical Athens (May 13, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Aerynn Dighton (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis ( email )

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