Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire
(Counterpoint, 2012, 352 pp)
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. By 533 AD, all homosexual acts were labeled an "offense against God" and Emperor Justinian was regularly "executing homosexuals, especially those in the clergy." However, as the Roman Empire crumbled and the church expanded, state and religious law began to part ways and such atrocious punishments as "death by castration"--though they are normally attributed to ecclesiastical authorities--actually fell outside religious jurisdiction and were enacted by municipalities.
This divergence between the spiritual and secular enforcement of morals is most interestingly catalogued in Berkowitz's analysis of church penitentials-books that served as "the church's field guides for ranking good and bad sexual behavior" among other uses. If the church's views on sexuality can be said to have issued from St. Paul and St. Augustine, then the codification of what constitutes "good" and "bad" sexual behavior must surely issue from the apogee of church power, the Middle Ages. The author points out that penitentials were not a product of the church hierarchy, but instead were compiled locally and "varied from parish to parish." The result was a labyrinth of rules about sexual behaviors and their corresponding penances that were, by the author's account, some of the most pell-mell collections of unintentional erotica and intentional repression ever created. Covering a galaxy's worth of "lusts" and "indiscretions," some penitentials asserted that % man who had sex with a pig knew that he was being less offensive to God than he would be if he was having anal sex with his wife." One thing these penitentials did not do, however, was prescribe torture or death as a punishment. By and large, until the onset of the Inquisition the church's focus was on penance, and while penance would take different forms (even for the same offense) from the laity to the clergy, the church was not in the business of torturing or killing homosexuals, adulterers, pederasts and bestialists. Secular authorities took responsibility--if they could be bothered--for worldly punishments.
The church was both the preeminent international organization in Europe and an exceedingly wealthy institution with a pronounced concern for what did and did not constitute moral behavior. Somewhere around the year 1200 it began very gradually to address sexual offenses, specifically prostitution, with something more than penance. However, even this shift was not as rigid in its parameters as compared to the modern hierarchy's standards of morality. "The church's involvement in prostitution was never hidden," Berkowitz states flatly. Bishops provided exclusive municipal franchises to aristocratic families for brothels. The local abbess for Avignon was responsible for revenue collection at the city brothel. In Perpignan, the Dominicans collected alms for the upkeep of the order's bordello. The author also makes it clear that conduct in nunneries was much more colorful than the majority of representations presented in textbooks or cinematic treatments of the subject--the situation often had to become bawdy in the extreme for the church to finally step in and shut it down.
The Inquisition; the Reformation; the Salem witch trials; male civil unions in late Medieval France; the rise of pornography; the Marquis de Sade; the sexual proclivities of pirates, aristocrats, bootblacks and kings; 19th century sex trafficking--Berkowitz's scope is impressive and rarely off target. While the reader may quibble a bit about which topics he chooses to spend more time with, a wide overview with only a few major points for in-depth analysis allows the book to illustrate his implicit thesis: that the overwhelming majority of sexual legislation was created, and to this day persists, as an extension of property law. Through numerous examples, Sex and Punishment exposes the foundation of fear upon which such restrictive thinking rests. Namely, that should the understanding of who owns what be undone--should "logic" be fundamentally undermined by that "most primal of urges"--then, surely, society would collapse and humanity would degenerate into a feral shambles of equity.
It is this last observation that makes it clear to the reviewer why Berkowitz chose to stop at the end of the 19th century. Sex and Punishment rounds out with the rise of the Comstock Laws in the US--which prohibited sending "obscene materials," as well as contraceptives, through the mail--and also the Oscar Wilde trial and the "Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon" scandal. In the third of this trio the reader is confronted with a bizarre tale of journalism and child prostitution along with an underlying message: the legal framework for sexual morality in the "modern" world is a hangover from the late Victorian era. These three cases lay bare the striking similarity with which both eras approach sexual morality in the statehouse, religious institutions and the newsroom. If sexual legislation is implicitly an issue of property, then many of our lawmakers, church leaders and journalists are still grappling with the very Victorian notion that some people need to have their sexual agency denied in order to safeguard the common good of society. Their reasoning is that, while women and LGBT individuals together make up over 50 percent of both the Catholic church and the state, the sexual autonomy of this majority is a threat to their own safety. Those who value freedom in their most intimate acts have long been opposed by civil and religious authorities, and if neither side can point to an age of complete license or perfect propriety, there has been enough fluidity throughout the years to indicate room for change.
BENNETT ELLIOTT is a freelance writer living in Washington, DC.…