Crim­i­nal sex laws an

Sex & Pu­n­ish­ment: 4000 Years of Judg­ing Sex­ual De­sire

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jack Marx

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

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