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Sex & Punishment: 4000 Years of Judging Sexual Desire
By Eric Berkowitz The Westbourne Press, 368pp, $34.95 Distributed in Australia by Inbooks
IHAD never properly appreciated the thrust of militant feminism until I read Eric Berkowitz’s Sex & Punishment. I now understand the rage, percolated as it has been by thousands of years of disgraceful male suppression and slavery of the female of the species. No man of intelligence could possibly read this book and not feel a degree of shame. It’s like suddenly noticing your marriage certificate was certified by the Ku Klux Klan.
Berkowitz, a San Francisco-based writer and lawyer, wades through history’s ridiculous attempts to ‘‘ set boundaries on how people take their sexual pleasure’’, a story in which ‘‘ the harmless fun of one society becomes the gravest crime of another’’.
It is good that Berkowitz has a legal eye: silks view the law as a game, a kind of sick joke it is their job to make good. Berkowitz sees the history of sex law through such a lens, and the droll delivery of his discoveries floats a book that would otherwise be too dreadful to bear. For what is in here, and in the history of humanity, consecrated by laws devised presumably by the greatest minds we had, is bewilderingly awful.
As Berkowitz points out, early man seemed spooked by the power of his sexual urges and not a little threatened by the women who made him feel that way, whom he regarded with ‘‘ the same awe and terror [he] felt toward the natural world’’, with which he was ‘‘ at perennial war’’.
The birthplace of all life was, of course, the female womb, the base camp of all man’s jealous woes, and once he made the connection between intercourse and childbirth (about 9000BC), it was time to take possession of a situation that was perilously out of control.
Naturally, then, the first sex laws had to do with marriage, that ancient institution many today believe should be sacrosanct against the designs of ruffians such as gays and lesbians who love each other. It may interest such people to read up on the pedigree of matrimonial law, which, since the dawn of recorded history, has been little more than an instrument of masculine greed and terrorism.
‘‘ Virtually nothing consumed ancient lawmakers more than female infidelity,’’ Berkowitz writes, and ancient man dealt with a wife’s libido ruthlessly. One of the earliest capital punishment laws on record is Sumerian king Ur-Nammu’s Law No 7 of circa 2100BC, which declared that ‘‘ married women who seduced other men were to be killed’’, while their lovers were let off with nary a warning.
Ancient Egyptians took infidelity equally seriously, provided the wife was committing it. Men were allowed the occasional sideways glance, while a straying missus could look forward to being burned alive, cut to pieces and fed to animals or, if she was lucky, to having her nose cut off by her loving husband.
Assyrian men of the BC era were basically court-sponsored rapists and wife bashers, the law allowing husbands to ‘‘ beat, whip and mutilate their wives for misbehaving’’ (denial of sex, for example). The husband’s licence in this department extended to ‘‘ anything short of killing them’’.
Errant wives were routinely downgraded from the status of wife to slave, but not before having their noses ‘‘ bored through with an arrow and being led around the city in disgrace’’. The wife’s right to file for divorce was generously allowed, but the process came with a caveat worth considering: if the wife