The ancient Greeks played an integral role in forming modern society. We have a lot to thank the Greeks for, from systems of government to aspects of the justice system and even plumbing. Not all practices stood the test of time, though, as sex in ancient Greece was a far cry from modern romance.
Ancient Greece's views on sex were far less conservative than contemporary society's. Doing the dirty with both men and women was the norm in Athens, and men often took on proteges who doubled as passive sexual partners. Sex in ancient times played an important role in culture and societal hierarchy - but the same does not apply to kissing. Men expected women to become homemakers and bear sons, despite the fact ancient Greeks frequently died while giving birth.
Many think of ancient Greece as a sexual free-for-all, and in some ways, it was. There were, however, social structures and unspoken rules concerning the practice.
Sexuality Was Less Rigid In Ancient Greece - At Least For Men
Stigmas surrounding sexual identity didn't exist in ancient Greek culture, at least for men. Sex between men was not only acceptable but encouraged. There was no word for homosexuality, either; the practice was part of the broader concept of love, or "aphrodisia," uninfluenced by gender or sex.
This is not to say it was a golden age for same-sex relationships. Historians believe ancient Athenian men regarded penetration and dominance as a status symbol. If a man acted as the passive partner (pathikos), or if a fully grown man permitted penetration from another grown man, he often endured ridicule. The ancient Athenians had a derogatory name for these men: kinaidos.
Since society didn't consider women second-class citizens - they weren't citizens at all - there is little beyond the writing of Sappho to tell modern researchers about women who courted and had relationships with other women.
Self-Pleasure Wasn't Taboo, But It Was A Lower Form Of Sex
Today, most hardly speak about self-pleasure in polite company. In ancient Greece, with sex being so matter-of-fact, it's reasonable self-pleasure, too, would appear less taboo. Though it had fewer restrictions than in modern times, speaking publicly about self-love usually aimed to mock the subject, as in Aristophanes's play where the public deemed it as an inferior sexual act.
Forms of self-love took prominence in art, but they often depicted lesser non-citizens, such as women, partaking in the act. These illustrations often showed self-pleasure during or after a sexually charged event, such as a symposium. Frequently, it was the female sex workers pleasuring themselves, not the men.
Self-love was also associated with slaves; it was a symbol of their lowly status. Sex had widespread acceptance in Greek society, but to pleasure oneself without another person involved was embarrassing by Greek standards.
Sex Was A Treatment For All Manner Of Illnesses
Doing the dirty wasn't only a recreational pastime for the ancient Greeks - they believed the act had medical benefits and prescribed it as a treatment for many illnesses. A little roll in the hay could cure everything from depression to weak eyesight, which is particularly remarkable, given modern myths about self-pleasure causing blindness.
Famed Greek physician Hippocrates - the namesake of the Hippocratic Oath, still used by doctors - claimed sex could help with snake bites or scorpion stings, and even cure dysentery. These claims proved largely false, but sex does have some surprising health benefits. Maybe the Greeks, who prized physical fitness, were onto something.
Ancient Greece Tolerated And Encouraged Sex With Underage Boys - For A Time
Ancient Greece's relaxed views of sexuality included some practices society now deems reprehensible. Pederasty, or when an older man took on a younger male student as a protege and sexual partner, is easily the most distressing.
The act reflected attitudes about domination and submission in Greek culture, as sex was more about satisfying the dominant partner than the submissive one.
Plato's Symposium suggests the love between two men - specifically the love between an older man and a younger one - is the purest form of love, as it has roots in the desire to share knowledge and worldviews; sexual desire served as a bonus, not the driver of the relationship.
Greece did not always welcome these attitudes; by around 450 BCE, laws discouraged sex work (though the laws mostly applied to men - they affected a person's ability to run for office, which was not possible for women), though men did continue to live together despite these laws.