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With the renewed interest in sex labor in antiquity (McGinn 1998, 2004, Davidson 1999, Fa­r­aone and McClure 2006, Glaze­brook and Henry 2011), it is time to re-evaluate terminology—to reconsider the kind of sex labor we are looking at, and how we may begin to understand it. There have been studies on Greek sexual vocabulary (Henderson 1991, Kapparis 2011) and examinations of the importance of distinctions in the technical terms for sex labor (Kurke 1999, Cohen 2006), but these studies fail to examine lived realities behind terminology. Few similar studies have been attempted for Latin (Adams 1990). I use Plautus and Terence as test cases, but my conclusions have larger ramifications. I suggest that all translation of sex work in Latin literature is faulty for two reasons: (1) Latin does not adequately express the myriad historical situations of sex workers; (2) English terminology is too fluid and cannot express Roman situations, especially when they are illdefined in Latin to begin with. When we translate situations involving sex work, we obscure the realities of the workers, often whitewashing them in a way that dismisses the horror of the lived reality (for the same phenomenon with rape, see Packman 1993).

It is unsurprising, given Latin's difficulty in expressing distinctions in sex labor, that translators and scholars are mired in ineffectual approximations. There are few words, and different terms are often applied to the same sex worker; meretrix and scortum cannot denote high- and low-status women respectively, as has generally been accepted. Translation choices elevate or lower a sex worker according to the personal bent of the scholar. The result: sanitizing of sex work and the obscuring of historical labor.

Translation is political, particularly when women and sex are involved. It often reveals more about the translator (or scholar) and modern values than about antiquity. The choices in English should give us serious pause in re-evaluating our own ideologies and politics regarding sex labor. In scholarship and in translating for students, we use words like 'prostitute, courtesan, hussy, playmate, whore, mistress, and harlot' (all found in translations of Plaut. As.), but such terms are flawed renditions of meretrix, amica, and scortum (themselves broad terms that obscure many kinds of sex work). 'Prostitute' implies agency – but enslaved sex workers have none. 'Courtesan' evokes the court of France and implies high status, but meretrix is not reserved for high-status sex workers. 'Whore' and 'harlot' are deliberately negative terms that carry mor­al judgment not necessarily found in Latin. 'Mistress' is euphemistic Victorian vernacular for a partner who was not a wife. The catchall 'prostitute', even for enslaved women, further widens the gap between modern views and historical reality. The issue is particularly difficult when teaching undergraduates, who are quick to dismiss the plight of the ancient sex worker in light of modern prejudices against 'hookers' and 'hos'.

What is revealed is not a mere problem of terminology, but a crisis of understanding. The ramification is heavy: we cannot begin to understand ancient sex work if we cannot talk about it. English vocabulary used in translations of, and scholarship on, Roman comedy does not reflect the wide variety of sex workers on the Roman stage with real-life counterparts: cheaply bought sex slaves (the musician in Epid. insists she is not one), higher-status but unfree women performing forced sex labor for a leno (Pers., Pseud.), women purchased by men for sex labor (Epid., Merc.), women purchased and freed, but still expected to perform sex labor (Most.), women forced into prostitution by mothers (lenae, As., Cist.), free prostitutes who have their own houses (Bacch., Truc., Hec.), respectable women who slide into prostitution to survive (And.). Only by returning to, and acknowledging, historical realities can we begin to to understand sex work in the ancient world. We must create a terminology that expresses, not obscures, these realities.