When 'Justice' Was Perverted

Article excerpt

Byline: Simon Griffith

Sex & Punishment By Eric Berkowitz Westbourne Press [pounds sterling]17.99 [pounds sterling]14 inc p&p Birds do, bees do it and, according to the song, even educated fleas do it. But should they be allowed to without a permit? After all, pretty well everything else under the sun is subject to tax, so why not sex? Sexual activity may not have to be accounted for on our tax returns (yet), but throughout history men and women have been forced to pay a fearful price for doing what to the birds and the bees comes naturally.

As Eric Berkowitz points out in this fascinating and gruesomely compelling study of human sexuality, the consequences for those whose proclivities fall outside the boundaries of convention have generally proved devastating.

Defining those boundaries, though, can be a tricky business. As Berkowitz observes, 'the harmless fun of one society becomes the gravest crime of another'.

I think we can all agree that incest is wrong, but in some societies, notably ancient Egypt, it was considered perfectly natural. Pharaohs routinely married their sisters and had sex with their own daughters. If their offspring were sometimes born with deformities it was a small price to pay for keeping the bloodline pure.

As an example closer to home, Berkowitz cites the case of the Oscar-winning Polish film director Roman Polanski, who fled the United States after being arrested for having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Berkowitz doesn't excuse Polanski's behaviour, but he does point out that he was unlucky with his timing.

Had he been born at any time up to the Victorian era he wouldn't have committed a crime at all. In 1878 Parliament raised the age of sexual consent from 12 to 13. A subsequent newspaper campaign led to it being changed to 16, where it remains, but British law is comparatively conservative: in France the age of consent is 15, in Germany it's 14 and in Spain it's still 13. One nation's pervert is another's honest upstanding citizen.

Berkowitz's aim is 'to tell the story of Western civilisation from the perspective of law and libido'. His journey begins more than 4,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia and ends at the dawn of the 20th Century, when notions of individual liberty were at last beginning to gain some traction, at least in the West.

Until the 18th Century Enlightenment, the idea that ordinary people might be allowed to behave as they wished without the sanction of state or religious authority was more or less alien.

This was especially true in the case of women. The uncomfortable truth is that for most of human history, men have treated women as, at best, second-class citizens and, at worst, mere commodities. …