Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire
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Writer and lawyer Eric Berkowitz uses flesh-and-blood cases—much flesh and even more blood—to evoke the entire sweep of Western sex law, from the savage impalement of an ancient Mesopotamian adulteress to the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde in 1895 for “gross indecency.” The cast of Sex and Punishment is as varied as the forms taken by human desire itself: royal mistresses, gay charioteers, medieval transvestites, lonely goat-lovers, prostitutes of all stripes, London rent boys. Each of them had forbidden sex, and each was judged—and justice, as Berkowitz shows, rarely had much to do with it.
With the light touch of a natural storyteller, Berkowitz spins these tales and more, going behind closed doors to reveal the essential history of human desire.
would almost always prevail. Few judges would expect him to tolerate such a blow; infidelity in a wife was bad enough, but when it happened with a black man it became intolerable. When the Virginian Leonard Owen’s wife gave birth to a mulatto baby, he complained that the child was “such a horrid violation of the marriage bed” that “it must be obvious to any person” that he was entitled to a divorce. In the same manner, Joseph Gresham alleged that his wife’s infidelity was “aggravated by the fact
letters about her case and the dark fate of Indian child brides generally published and intensely discussed, but so were the opinions of Hindu nationalists, marriage-law reform advocates, and various members of the British ruling class. The controversy tied the bodies of Hindu girls to the stability of British rule in India. To Rukhmabai, the issue was inequality: Indian girls were being sacrificed to a system that robbed them of an education and personal freedom. Given that “there is not the
course of hundreds of demonstrations, publications, and even street battles, grew into a formidable voice for the repeal of the act. The fight was not easy. CDA proponents were every bit as driven as their nemeses. CDA supporters believed it was indecent for women to speak out about sex and state governance at all, much less try to influence legislation. Tempers rose. The deeply religious Butler was no feminist revolutionary (she had formally asked her husband’s permission before taking up the
chained, so that as the wood burned away they would be quickly strangled. The proposal was rejected. With the Black Death and subsequent plagues, Venice’s ruling class feared that homosexuality on the city’s trading ships would provoke God to destroy the fleets. The city’s antisodomy rules had traditionally been ignored on the high seas, making thousands of merchant vessels informal safe zones for male-male sex. “It is surprising,” said a high criminal tribunal, “that divine justice has not sunk
complained to the king that his father was squandering his inheritance on a male servant. James’s letter to his father explaining the charges focused on the money rather than morality. He accused Castlehaven of being ready to “sacrifice [their] ancient family to another,” and begged his father not to “strike out the difference between a servant and a son.” As Castlehaven later correctly pointed out, it was not illegal for him to give property to a servant, but that point was lost amid the storm