Unintentional Erotica and Intentional Repression: Church, State and Sex

Article excerpt

Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire

Eric Berkowitz

(Counterpoint, 2012, 352 pp)

978-1582437965, $17.89


FROM THE ANCIENT SUMERIANS on to the Greeks and Romans all the way through to sodomy trials in Victorian England, Eric Berkowitz's Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire charts the emergence and often-surreal mutations of laws governing sexual activities and attitudes. The product of Berkowitz's extensive scholarship is a well-written, disturbing, frequently entertaining and almost impossibly informative tome that masterfully disrupts the popular notion that there has been continuity in sexual legislation across the ages. It also undermines the oft-heard pleas for sexual mores to return to some ill-defined age of unblemished propriety. Above all else, the author conveys that, while laws governing sex have always been fluid, the propensity to punish those who would claim autonomy over their own bodies has been a constant. And as for those halcyon days of sexual freedom: despite Berkowitz's expert scholarship he is unable to locate precisely where this bygone era might reside in the written record.

"All ancient civilizations," affirms the opening chapter, "were intent on controlling people's sex lives." Going back to nearly 2100 BC, one of the first capital punishment laws recorded anywhere pertains to adultery: "Ur-Nammu's Law No. 7 mandated that married women who seduced other men were to be killed; their lovers were to be let off scot-free." Incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, pederasty, bestiality--these acts have always existed among humans, according to Berkowitz, though the attitudes about these behaviors have been anything but stable, even in the same geo graphic location and era.

Ancient Greece is frequently held up as an example of liberal sexual attitudes, a paradise of reason overflowing with parity between men and women, men and men, women and women--but the historical record indicates otherwise. While men often kept company with young boys (generally as some part of tutelage that contained components of social mobility), associations between two grown men were not always viewed in as favorable of a light, specifically for those males in the receptive role. Unless, of course, they were in a Spartan military unit, in which case all aspects of homosexual relationships were lauded. Greek marriages were, by and large, open to adultery so long as discretion was practiced--given that you were not the woman in said pairing, in which case you could be stripped of your rights and beaten at will by your husband, with only the most slim chance of a divorce should this be proven.

Pagan Rome is often cast in a similar light as Greece when it comes to sexual attitudes--as an empire without physical restraint before the church rose to power and imposed a tyrannical attitude towards sex upon the whole of the Western world. The book debunks this characterization by citing an iteration of the cult of Bacchus that engaged in "decadent" sexual behavior with the sons and daughters of some of Rome's most prestigious citizens. Originating as a female cult that later accepted male initiates, the Bacchanal was eventually accused of corrupting young men. In response, the Roman government undertook a campaign beginning in 186 BC that "unleashed a massive wave of terror that lasted two years and claimed about seven thousand lives throughout Italy." Key senators claimed that sex-crazed antics such as those practiced by the cult would "crush the commonwealth."

When Constantine came to power and pagan attitudes shifted to Christian practices upon his conversion, a change in sexual mores began to occur--though the contrast was not always as severe as is commonly thought. Before the fall of Rome, homosexuality was tolerated, though thought to be shameful. As Christianity became the state religion, homosexuality was outlawed, but these laws were loosely enforced. …