In the famous formulation of art historian John Berger: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” (Ways of Seeing [London, 1972] 47). Such was certainly the case for Praxiteles’ statue of Aphrodite at Knidos, arguably the most famous sculpture in antiquity. Ancient authors describe the various erotic responses of her male viewers, overcome with lust for the sculpted image of the naked female body. But the textual sources are silent on the responses of her female devotees, who were likely her primary intended viewers. As the goddess of love, Aphrodite was venerated by proper women in search of her assistance in the marital realm; but she was also the special protectress of sexual laborers, both hetairai and pornai. A specific connection between the Knidian Aphrodite and hetairai is suggested by the conventional identification of Praxiteles’ mistress, Phryne, as the model for the statue. How might a woman whose body was her livelihood have viewed such an image?
In a “feminist” reinterpretation of the Knidian Aphrodite published in the 1990’s, Nanette Salomon argued that the pudica gesture connoted shame, as a reflection of the cultural construction of female sexuality in antiquity. While it is possible that sexual laborers would have viewed such an image in terms of their own sexual shame, recent scholars have suggested more positive readings. Natalie Kampen proposed a homoerotic response for female viewers, while Kirsten Seaman identified the Knidia as “an authoritative sexual being, a woman in control of both her own sexuality and the men under her sway” (“Retrieving the Original Aphrodite of Knidos,” RendLinc 15  567).
The power of Aphrodite, and of the Knidia, are uncontested in the ancient literary sources. Men under the control of the goddess are powerless. For a female viewer, whose body mirrored that of the Knidia, such a perspective would have been empowering – perhaps especially for hetairai, since the model for the statue was purportedly a courtesan as well. While the nudity of the statue is essential for such a reading, various elements of her dress would also have been significant to a female viewer. The goddess herself removes her garment, underscoring her control over visual access to her body, and therefore control over her own sexuality. At the same time, her sexuality is not completely outside the strictures of society. Her long hair, generally considered a sexual symbol, is carefully coiffed into a chignon, a style shared by both proper wives and hetairai in the fourth century. The hydria at her feet alludes to bathing, represented in vase-painting as a practice of both hetairai and brides. Finally, she wears jewelry, a marker of feminine beauty – even seduction, as in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite – and a common dedication in sanctuaries to the goddess. The Knidian Aphrodite therefore serves as a model for feminine agency: by engaging in such dress practices, the female viewer is promised the protection of the goddess, and therefore sexual power. For the hetaira, the messages of personal agency and sexual power would have been especially potent, as they assured her own livelihood.