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Sex and Punishment:

4,000 Years of Judging Desire

by Eric Berkowitz

This enlightening and hugely entertaining book tells the long and often astounding story of western sexuality and the endless attempts to repress it. It begins 4,000 years ago with the suspected Mesopotamian adulteress Nin-Dada, who was condemned to a slow and terrible death by being impaled intimately on a long pole. It ends in 1903 with the effeminate aristocrats Baron Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen and Count Albert Hamelin de Warren, sentenced to six months in prison and fined 50 francs for corrupting Parisian schoolboys with “orgiastic bacchanalias”. In between is a panoply of examples that go to prove one thing — just how dramatically what is seen as either sexually deviant or normal has changed throughout human history. “The harmless fun of one society,” observes Eric Berkowitz, “becomes the gravest crime of another.”

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Berkowitz is a journalist, and a lawyer representing gay asylum seekers and victims of domestic violence, and he begins his investigation in ancient Egypt, where it was not just the pharaohs who practised incest, but Egyptians at all levels of society. By the time of the Roman conquest in 30BC, as many as a third of all young Egyptian men were marrying their sisters. It took the Romans three centuries to stamp out the practice.

The Zoroastrian Persians were just as enthusiastic about keeping sex in the family, hoarding bodily fluids from an incestuous couple as unguents and advising that “pleasure, sweetness and joy are owing to a son that begets from a daughter of his own, who is also a brother of that same mother”. Scarcely less shockingly, the Babylonians required every woman to perform as a temple prostitute once in her life (or so said the Greek historian Herodotus — Berkowitz is sometimes too ready to take the written record at face value).

We might shudder at such practices, but where the ancients seem to have shared our feelings was in their hatred of infidelity — though their evidential standards were low, and their punishments harsh. If a woman living in the Assyrian royal palace saw another woman merely standing beside a man and did not report it, she was cast into a hot oven. The erring Mesopotamian wife Ishtar-Ummi had her pubic hair shaved, had a hole bored in her nose and was dragged around the city on the end of a rope before being enslaved in her husband’s house.

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As a good liberal, Berkowitz is decidedly hostile to Old Testament law, and argues that much of our sexual morality today was acquired from “a collection of contentious Hebrew tribes”. If the Jews had been less anxious to distinguish themselves from their licentious pagan neighbours, he suggests, we might be leading very different sexual lives today. The Bible recoiled in horror before menstruation, required men experiencing wet dreams to make penitential sacrifices of doves, and warned masturbators that they put the very existence of the state at risk. It also took the unprecedented step of calling male-male sex an abomination: previous Middle Eastern law codes, from which the Jews borrowed heavily, were silent on the subject. Modern sexual morality owes something to Roman attitudes, too, though few states today would be comfortable with the empire’s enthusiastic taxation of brothels, or the existence of a major festival, the Floralia, which was a combination of a spring celebration and “prostitution trade fair”.

At times, the sheer breadth of his subject threatens to swamp Berkowitz’s sense of shape and purpose, and he can sacrifice argument for example. But what examples they are. If you were a God-fearing man living between about 500AD and 1050AD, for instance, you were not supposed to have sex with your wife on Saturdays, Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays; in the periods of pregnancy, lactation and menstruation; for the first three days of marriage; during Lent, the weeks after Easter, the two months around Christmas; on holy days; in the daytime. Berkowitz drily observes that the population of Europe declined in this period.

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The closer it gets to our times, the more familiar the tale becomes. But there is still room for strangeness. Early modern English “bawdy courts” were obsessed with the question of bastardy (records show that as many as a fifth of English brides might be pregnant at their weddings), and made strenuous attempts to suppress it. Merely harbouring a fugitive pregnant woman was considered a crime, and midwives were encouraged to refuse assistance to all labouring unmarried women unless they named the child’s father. Mothers convicted of bastardy (and fathers, if they were known) were frequently stripped to the waist and “whipped through the streets”.

The 18th century appears, on the face of it, to have been the era most like our own. What feels shocking, however, is that the age of consent for English females at the time was 10, and courts required girls alleging rape to provide impossible standards of proof. The law did nothing, either, to prevent the routine abuse of female servants and, in particular, slaves. Yet, at the same time, for a black man to have sex with a white woman was considered the most monstrous of crimes, punishable by castration, burning alive or “decapitation followed by display of the severed head on a pole”.

Berkowitz breaks off his story 100 years ago because he believes, quite rightly, that “the noise of our most recent century would drown out the voices of our ancestors”. Yet so much of what he writes is acutely relevant to today. He traces the earliest origins of veil wearing, for instance, back to early Sumerian married women, whose veils were designed to distinguish them from sexually available prostitutes and slaves. That origin recasts the debate over Muslim headscarves rather. Or consider the 18th-century English belief that intercourse with a virgin could cure syphilis, a desperate notion that fuelled a “defloration mania”. The idea persists today in sub-Saharan Africa, along with the hideous myth that virgin rape can cure HIV/Aids. And, as President Obama’s espousal of gay marriage draws heated opposition, it is salutary to be reminded that a church marriage was not even considered necessary in England until 1563, and that, until the 13th century, same-sex unions known as “spiritual brotherhoods” were sanctified in Mediterranean churches.

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