Eric Berkowitz’s Sex and Punishment | Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire is bursting with shocks that would even make Ripley’s toes curl. The author chronicles the wages of the sexually forbidden for as proscribed by cultures, governments, religions and the odd jealous mob who hates it when others are getting more than they are. This compendium is as explicit as the subject matter demands, but Berkowitz is not aiming at prurient interest, he is a serious sexual anthropologist ala Margaret Meade.
The real scandals are not about who is doing what to whoositz, but the bigger issue of who is punishing them and why. The offenders, at various times, were subject to a trove of horrors- stonings, castrations, burnings, chastity belts, foreskin seals, racks, stocks, torture, rape (used as a punishment) and the ever popular- public humiliation.
Some of Berkowitz’s stories are so far back that you question his source material, but he verifies as much as possible. The book chronicles sexual customs that were borne from pagan mores and cultures that are eventually adopted by organized religion.
The negative attitudes around homosexuality, for instance, was largely tolerated (if stigmatized officially) just so it was hidden. The down-low, indeed, has ancient roots. Take for example his revelation concerning some ancient Jewish codes- “sexual pleasure was never forbidden among Hebrews as long as it occurred while husbands and wives were producing more Hebrews”
One theme that resonates through the ages is that women have been subjugated to male dominance over their mind and bodies for millennia, bears repeating, especially vis-à-vis the fervent rise of anti-feminism that is sweeping the nation.
Religious persecution of sexually active people is, of course, a dominate theme, In 334 AD, for instance, with the masses mostly illiterate, Pope Augustin, made up the rules, while enjoying the pleasures of the flesh himself. Obviously, it was all about his eminence’s ego as much as his orgasm.
Forget the wrath of God, as mobs dragged people from their stone and straw huts and tried them in the streets for sexual improprieties. Later, soldiers and prelates scoured the land for satyrs and nymphomaniacs. Who doesn’t love stories of married bishops taking the night off from whoring to administer condemnations to anything but the missionary position between one man and one woman.
Even though Berkowitz hits on such topical themes as the gay marriage debate and the fact that some states are moving legislation that would bar the word ‘gay’ in public schools, the book may be ancient history, but it’s legacies are applied history.
The book ends, prematurely, with the trials of Oscar Wilde. I was looking for more recent examples of petty, moralistic cruelty. But, Berkowitz nonetheless writes a great chapter on Oscar and Bosie, with the Crown’s own relatives on the down-low (again!) the societal hypocrisies, the queens scrambling to France or beards and all of those canoodling rent boys playing it as it lays.