Most people unfortunately remain blisfully unaware of the nature of sexuality in the ancient world, or of any sexual climate outside their own. Frankly, sex curriculum just isn't going to factor into World History classes dominated by Bible Belt political agendas. But because of this, most people have never encountered any form of sexuality other than their own. The danger of this is that their sexuality is the human default, and that sexual ways and mores have simply existed that way since the invention of the wheel.
Sexuality in ancient Athens is a very good example of the sort of sexual behavior modern society might find surprising. To begin with, the social structure of Athens was entirely designed to meet the sexual wants and desires of the adult male Athenian citizen. While this might not sound too different from the male-tilted cultures of modern post-industrial nations, what needs to be realized is that everyone was held responsible when the sexual whims struck these men. Women, boys, foreigners, and non-citizens in general were all considered lesser beings that could be used for the adult male's sexual pleasure.The concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality were non-existent, the only concern was your strata in the social hierarchy. To the Greeks, sex was something you did to someone.
Adult males were expected to enter an arranged marriage in their mid-20s, during or in the absence of they could still seek sexual gratification from their inferiors. Arranged marriages were often loveless, their only reason for existence so that the man could propagate legitimate offspring.
Homosexuality in ancient Democratic Athens
Homosexual relationships in Athens were usually both non-consensual, and between men and boys of varying ages. For quite a while, the subject was rigorously avoided, due to a particular belief that because homosexuality is "bad" and that the Greeks are a paragon to our society, they could never have done it. However, the evidence was there, works of art, painted vases, and even various poems and texts had many allusions and depictions of Greek men and boys engaging in sexual acts.
As for the relationships themselves, relationships occured between a powerful, dominant man, and a powerless boy. Since casual contact between Athenian men and women was virtually impossible, romance was displaced to the boys themselves. As Pindar stated: "I melt when I see the fresh young limbs of boys." The relationships were short-lived; when the boy grew up, the two became equals and could no longer pursue a relationship by social standards.
Women and sex in Democratic Athens
Women in ancient Athens are notorious for having no power. They couldn't participate in politics, war, the Olympic games, or in the justice system. The ideal for a woman in ancient Greece was to remain unnoticed, to stay a small phantom in her husband's house, and not put her honor at risk by journeying about. A woman would enter an arranged marriage at the age of 14 to a much older man. Of course.... these rules only applied to wives....
Courtesans, or high-class prostitutes, were women sought after for sexual pleasure by men. While they were the lowest paid of prostitues, they garnered the most respect and provided intellectual stimulation torwards their male partners. Relationships between men and courtesans lasted for a long time. Demosthenes, the famous Greek orator, was said to bring his courtesan to important meetings of state. Concubines, an order slightly lower then the courtesans, could be sought after for an alternate form of marriage as well as sexual pleasure. They were exempt from the prostitution tax. Dancers and flute players, an artistic form of prostitute, would offer music, sex, and wine at symposiums for men.
Ancient Greek sexuality is nothing like ours, and isn't supposed to be. Sexual norms are fluid, changing with time and space, and across every different culture. Some people study a country by its wars. I think we should study a country by what goes on inside its bedrooms.