It makes no difference whether youth is corrupted by a philosopher or a courtesan. - Glycera (a hetaera of the late 4th century BCE)
In my column of September 21st I mentioned that many call girls are now choosing to label themselves as “courtesans” whether they fit the definition or not, but in recent weeks I’ve encountered the exact opposite phenomenon: People (mostly men) trying to claim that courtesans in the classical world were not prostitutes. Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat with the help of Dictionary.com:
cour·te·san [kawr-tuh-zuhn, kohr-, kur-] –noun
a prostitute or paramour, esp. one associating with noblemen or men of wealth.
1540–50; < MF courtisane < It cortigiana, lit., woman of the court, deriv. of corte court
And since a number of the claims were made specifically about Phryne:
he·tae·ra [hi-teer-uh] –noun, plural -tae·rae [-teer-ee]
1. a highly cultured courtesan or concubine, esp. in ancient Greece.
2. any woman who uses her beauty and charm to obtain wealth or social position.
Origin: 1810–20; < Gk hetaíra (fem.) companion
You might also consult the Wikipedia article, which begins with the following sentence: “In ancient Greece, hetaerae (in Greek ἑταῖραι, hetairai) were courtesans, that is to say, sophisticated companions and prostitutes.”
Those deniers who try to claim that courtesans in general or hetaerae in particular were literally not prostitutes are clearly steeped in willful ignorance, because prior to a few weeks ago I have literally never heard anyone try to claim that courtesans (with the exceptions of the Japanese geisha) did not provide sex for pay. Indeed, the Renaissance Italian term cortigiana onesta, (literally “honest courtesan”) meant a courtesan who provided real companionship and intellectual stimulation in addition to sex. “Courtesan” immediately implied sex; it was only the modifier “honest” which added the GFE aspect. But I don’t think most of the deniers believe that courtesans literally were not prostitutes; rather, I suspect that they are lawheads engaged in a process of doublethink designed to protect their minds from having to deal with the fact that the EXACT SAME profession which was legal and respected in many preindustrial cultures is illegal and demonized in ours. Remember, to a lawhead laws actually define reality; if prostitution is criminalized it must be because prostitutes are actually criminals, and therefore unlike the sophisticated hetaerae. It’s sort of like claiming that the Jews in concentration camps could not possibly be descended from ancient Hebrews because the latter had a kingdom. To admit that educated, cultured prostitutes in ancient Greece were no different from educated, cultured prostitutes of today is to admit that the law is arbitrary, and that is anathema to a lawhead.
It may be instructive to examine the way in which one of these deniers tried vainly (and pompously) to promote his beliefs; this example comes from a science fiction board called Star Destroyer on which someone posted a link to my ever-popular column on Phryne. The response appears to be from a moderator who angrily attacked my column, claiming that it “mangle[s] so much of ancient society and customs that it just reeks of ignorance.” Considering the following paragraph from his reply, I think it’s fair to label that statement as a serious case of projection:
I mean, even making a huge deal of being a well-educated woman who provided companionship (no, this was not just sex - think of more than an even higher-regarded [sic] and less sexual version of a Geisha) to men of her choosing…and saying she was a prostitute is just missing the point entirely. In fact, the blogger seems to miss the entire point, being more interested in equating Solon with a pimpmonger [sic] etc. She is making connections where none are in her quest to equate herself with Phryne and establish a parallel between prostitution in ancient Greece and today.
This is such a farrago of denial that it’s difficult to conceive that the author believes a word of it himself. “A well-educated woman who provided companionship…to men of her choosing…and saying she was a prostitute is just missing the point entirely.” How’s that again? What he accuses me of is actually what the law does: Reducing something good and noble to something tawdry. Many modern call girls (including myself) are quite educated and most of us are just as selective about our clientele as the hetaerae were. “This was not just sex…” As regular readers of my column know, it’s not just sex with us, either, and very often there is no sex at all. This recent column by Charlotte Shane talks about exactly that; if the commenter was at all informed on this subject he would have known it as well, but I guess it’s easier just to deny without proof. The next phrase (“…less sexual version of a Geisha…”) is even weirder; since (as I explained in my column of October 21st) geisha were legally forbidden to sell sex outside the walled districts since the beginning of the 19th century, and modern geisha probably don’t do it at all, I’m at a bit of a loss to understand how this writer believes the hetaerae could be any “less sexual” without being entirely celibate.
The denial continues in the next sentence, in which he accuses me of “equating Solon with a pimpmonger” (I presume he wanted to write either “pimp” or “whoremonger” and got stuck in the middle). Nothing I said about Solon was speculation; it’s all in the historical record. But this writer seems to take issue with my refusal to give Solon’s misogynistic laws and persecution of independent whores a free pass on the strength of his historical reputation. The commenter’s apparent idolization of all things classical permeates his last and most telling sentence; please, pray tell, what nonexistent “connections” I invented, and how the same profession in two different societies could somehow not be parallel? The idea that I had to “establish” such a parallel by sophistry is ludicrous in the extreme. Selling sex is selling sex, selling female companionship is exactly that, and an ethical and educated prostitute in any culture or time does both. The author blusters and fumes and accuses me of deception…yet cites no sources to refute my statements and instead makes a series of highly emotional, totally irrational and demonstrably false statements in a spastic attempt to protect his own mind from the uncomfortable truth that there are whores of all classes from brothel-slave to courtesan in every culture in history, and the only difference between modern whores of any stratum and our ancient sisters of the same level is that modern law equates us all with streetwalkers, and in “Nordic Model” regimes with brothel-slaves.
I suspect that we will see “courtesan denial” become more and more common as “Nordic Model” and trafficking propaganda seep into the consciousness of lawheads over the next few years. Since the phenomenon appears to be in its infancy, this affords us a rare opportunity to track the dissemination of a spurious idea; I therefore ask that my readers keep an eye out for arguments (whether in primary articles or in replies to them) claiming that courtesans, hetaerae, oiran, temple prostitutes, etc were somehow fundamentally different from modern call girls, and please send me a link to such statements when you spot them.