"Sex & Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire" by Eric Berkowitz is that truly rare animal: a scholarly work that is fun to read. In fact, a book of legal history has no right to be this entertaining. Perhaps the fact that it is so enjoyable has to do with the subject matter - Sex - and while there are plenty of opportunities to get attention through prurience, Berkowitz thankfully prefers to showcase the inherent absurdity of sex law, which is based on what is ultimately a misbegotten notion, that personal choices in sexuality jeopardizes society as a whole.
Since the dawn of time, or least recorded civilization, society has attempted to restrict sexual practices. Attempt is the key word, because Berkowitz points out that at every turn, the astonishing amount of corruption, hypocrisy and non-compliance accompanying every new sex law - not to mention the tragedies of the victims of this blatant injustice. In addition, he shows how arbitrary sex laws tend to be. What outrages law makers in one society - same sex relations, the age of consent for instance, even incest and bestiality - are treated indifferently by another.
Beginning in the ancient world, the combination of the ancient Hebrews, who Berkowitz credits not just with inventing bans against incest, homosexuality, and sex with menstruating women, but creating the concept of sin: "...the moral strictures of the ancient Jews, held together with the molasses of shame and the terror of God's punishment, have been more influential on Western sexual attitudes than any other collection of ideas."
Of course Hellenic culture of the ancient world eventually became intermingled with Hebrew thought, creating Christianity and Western Civilization. While Greek culture may on the surface seem more permissiveness than the Torah, they had their own immeasurable contribution to sex laws, or as Berkowitz credits the "...Greek Obsession: Litigation... the Greeks loved nothing more than a good sex trial."
This book may be about law, but it reads like a ripping good - and yes sometimes bawdy - yarn as Berkowitz applies his sardonic 21st century perspective to analyze ancient Rome, the Middle Ages up through the 19th century, ending with a splendid look at Flaubert's obscenity trial for Madame Bovary, Anthony Comstock's crusades against vice and obscene material in United States and Oscar Wilde's imprisonment for the love that dare not speak its name. In spite of society becoming more enlightened - advances in science, public education expansion, ending of serfdom and slavery and the growth of a working and middle class - it is stunning how sex laws gained momentum in the 19th century. No matter how ineffective to their stated purpose, and how often tragedy resulted from the hypocrisy required to enforce penalties, new zealots gained public support for new laws and sadly, as more and more repressive laws were enacted, the only thing they spawned were more new victims, and more lawbreakers.
Throughout the breadth (he's not kidding when he says 4,000 years) of this immensely readable narrative, Berkowitz echoes 20th century incidents, including lingering miscegenation laws, Bill Clinton's lying about sex under oath and the advent of same sex marriage, but he wisely stops short of looking at the gnarly sex laws that, as he puts it, "roiled" the last century up to the present day. Now that he has set the stage, the reader is left wanting more. "Sex & Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire" makes you desire the sequel. Berkowtiz comprehensively tells us how we got here: where we are in terms of regulating the private - sex - in the public sphere - the legal system; let's hope next time he tells us more about the here and now so we can end at least some of the mistakes that have plagued humanity for so many millennia. An important book and great read. [...]