Plato and Brothels


Peter Jones
The law on the oldest profession is to be liberalised. This is a tricky one, because the feeling that it poses an intolerable threat to that vital civic institution, the family, is very deep-rooted.

In his final dialogue Laws (c. 350 bc), the elderly Plato makes the point clearly enough when he expresses the hope - he admits it is pious - that shame and exclusion from honours may be enough to keep husbands out of brothels. His view is grounded in the assumption that the interests of the city come before personal rights, and that a city's health depends on secure families and men who are able to master their own desires - to both of which the brothel was a threat.

Plato, of course, knew this battle was lost before it began. In 594 bc the Greek poet and political reformer Solon had instituted, we are told, a legal, fixed-fee brothel in Athens. He did this, evidently, because he felt that the youth of Athens, driven by natural urges, was going off the rails. So Solon 'purchased and stationed women in various quarters, equipped and ready for all alike. They stand there naked, so you won't be deceived. One obol a time. No prudishness, no nonsense, no pulling away - you just get on with it.'

But that was not the whole story. Solon saw that a shady institution like a brothel needed a higher purpose to justify its existence. So the profits were spent on constructing a temple to the goddess of sex, Aphrodite Pandemos ('of all the people' - a good democratic title). This clearly captured the youth's imagination, not to mention its obols - all 18 million of them, apparently.

This sort of toleration was also evident in some Roman reactions. Cato the Elder (234-149 bc) once applauded a young aristocrat he saw leaving a brothel, on the grounds that the more easily his sexual desires were satisfied, the more time he would spend on serious matters. Even St Augustine (ad 354-430) admitted that if prostitutes were banned, society 'would be reduced to chaos through unsatisfied lust'.

We see in the ancient world the same combination of moralising, regulation, resigned tolerance and exploitation (though not of those who practised freely) that characterises the debate today. If the new legislation can remove the exploitation, that would be a start, since (as in the ancient world) there is no law against selling sexual favours for money. But one can expect the usual arguments between the usual competing ideologies, and the usual calls for state control. Nanny! Really!