Sex and Punishment

Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire by: Eric Berkowitz

I’m a little scared to do an Internet search for this one, so we’re going pictureless. This is a nonfiction book examining sex laws since Mesopotamia.  Except for the beginning, which touches on early laws in the Middle East, it focuses on Western law – think Greco-Roman, Western Europe, and American up until 1923.

It’s very engagingly written and easy to read.  There were two small factual errors that I caught, which makes me a little wary of the book, mostly because I didn’t know anything about the subject but the references looked pretty good, if lacking in primary resources for the historical things. Anyway, the subject is fascinating and pretty quirky. It does get fairly graphic in the punishments (legal) enactment department but that’s to be expected whenever you talk about medieval laws and apparently the Greeks and Romans were brutal as well.

It was mostly focused on the laws as written, the laws as enforced, and the punishments for breaking the laws.  The author did a great job, however, of explaining the social effects of the laws; he gives a lot of page space to the negative effects on women and gay or bisexual men.  Lesbians aren’t given as much attention but apparently they were mostly legally ignored, to the point where there were very few laws concerning same-sex female relationships.  There was one section exploring why – mainly the men in power just couldn’t conceive of women having sexual feelings outside of a man – in the latter half of the book.  He also spent some time talking about when the concept of sexuality came about and the population’s views on sex at the time. Very helpful.

Another thing I liked is that he was very good at pointing out legal allowances that were pretty much rape and the likelihood of that happening, such as how female servants were often raped by their employers with little to no recourse for protection or retaliation.  It could have been easy to omit or downplay the women or gay men in the book, so it’s nice that the book makes a point of talking about those who were most hurt by the laws.

I found the book fascinating and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the subject.  You’ll get all kinds of weird facts (like you could punish a man for sleeping with your wife in Ancient Greek by putting spikey fish in a place where no spiky fish should ever reside) and it gives a great historical perspective for the laws and attitudes the USA has today.  Berkowitz does an excellent job of setting the background for the laws and then connecting them across periods as necessary.

The writing was really excellent; succinct, informative, and it flows very well.  There are a couple of really weird transitions and the ending was nothing if not abrupt, but those were the only faults I found with the style. Overall, this book was fantastic.


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