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This book traces the ways in which society has judged and controlled sexual behaviour, beginning over four thousand years ago in ancient Egypt and closing with Oscar Wilde's trial in 1895. As the author himself states in his opening, to attempt to investigate the twentieth and twenty-first centuries would have required another book.

It's a fascinating book, looking at changing attitudes and responses towards all manner of sexual behaviour - masturbation, necrophilia, adultery, abortion, prostitution, sadomasochism, homosexuality. You name it, someone somewhere has done it, and someone else has tried to forbid it. It looks at ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, before moving to focus primarily on Western attitudes and legal attempts to control sexual behaviour.

Some parts were incredibly eye-opening to say the least (the punishments in Ancient Egypt involving rape by donkeys, to say the least), and other parts made me laugh out loud: a Catholic priest's advice on resisting 'spontaneous orgasms' - pretty much lie down, think of God and hope it goes away!

My one criticism is that it focuses too much on just a small handful of countries. Once we've most past ancient history there is no more focus on Egypt, Persia or the Middle East, and the attitudes towards sex there are just as interesting. It focuses very heavily on Britain, America, France and Germany, pretty much to the exclusion of every other country on earth. I can understand that a book focusing on sex worldwide would be massive in scope and size, but even so, some more mentions of the last two thousand years in Egypt or Iraq or Russia or Africa would have been nice.
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on 6 August 2013
I purchased this book after reading a positive review and was not disappointed! It follows attempts by authority - both world states and religions - to regulate the sexual activities of humankind. Some of the facts are bizarre in the extreme; in ancient Egypt certain sexual activities were punished by the miscreant being raped by a donkey. In all societies it was the female that received the severest punishments with often the male being let off with a caution or less. One thing that struck me in particular was that the current attitudes of certain societies and religions toward women, including to a lesser extent our own, has barely changed over thousands of years - that women are the property of men and so under their control. Hypocrisy is another thread that has continued over the millenia. An excellent book that is well written, in places humorous and very informative. It's a pity that it does not extend to attitudes in the 20th and the current century.
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on 14 July 2012
The "punishment" refers to legal penalties, not BDSM role-playing. This is a book about the way societies have legislated sex between about the Greeks and the nineteenth-centuary. Eric Berkowitz is a San Francisco-based lawyer and so it's full of gamey legal cases. However, occasionally it tilts...

"It was in the eighteenth century that life for many in the West began to resemble life as we know it today: urban, mobile, sexually liberal...If a time traveller were to enter [an eighteenth century] tavern and strike up a conversation, he would find common ground for chatter. If he were interested in finding sex, it would be likely to be available in the alehouse's back rooms, or close by."

So the eighteenth century was just like now, except for the bit where sex isn't available in alehouses anymore and there was no soccer.

There are plenty of well-told cases here, though it's worth remembering that lawyers see the exceptions, not the rules. People did some weird stuff with animals in the past, but it was punished not because it was common and undesirable, but because it was rare and disgusting. The Past seen through legal cases is a much more exciting place than seen through a list of grocery bills. Berkowitz concentrates on Western sexual morality, and specifically the sexual morality that comes from Middle Eastern religions. These are notoriously patriarchal, repressive, extreme and unrepresentative of the way that the rest of the world - from Greece to India and China - treats and treated sex.

Which brings us to the problem with so many American books about social and sexual issues, which must already know what the problem is: Men, Patriarchy, and all that jazz. Berkowitz knows he has to go along with that or he won't be published, but look carefully at the stories he tells and you'll see he gives you room to develop your own views. Reading the stories, I felt it was clear that the legislation of sexuality has to do with religious imperialism, inheritance, tribal identification and an attempt to manage down the social damage from female hypergamy as well as male polygamy. You may read something different, and that's the point.

What I didn't get from his story was the extent to which Christian and secular Puritanism co-existed with what must have been the rumbustious sex life of ordinary folks, and indeed the way that Puritanism depends on a robust promiscuity in the real world to have any traction at all. (Which is why contemporary Puritans focus on pornography, since most people are too tired to have actual sex anymore!) How often in history has sexual morality been a smoke-screen, behind which the latest Puritans got on with the serious business of getting into power, raising taxes and settling scores? After reading this book, I have a sense that's what was really going on, but I couldn't find the passage where Berkowitz says it.

I had no idea that pornographic pamphleteers were paid off by the French aristocracy, nor the extent to which the upper classes in most European countries were recreationally homosexual - but you can find the details in this book. Berkowitz stops short of drawing the conclusion that nineteenth-century Puritanism was perhaps an attack by the rising middle classes on the aristocracy. Which makes me wonder if sexual legislation isn't primarily a way of carrying on whatever class or tribal conflicts are going on at the time. Berkowitz, as a case lawyer, doesn't indulge in such speculation, but he does make it easy to do.

And that's what makes this well worth reading.
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on 6 June 2012
I bought this off the back of a review in the Guardian, and I'm so pleased that I did, from early civilisation through to the 20th Century Eric Berkowitz's amazingly researched book takes an entertaining and educating look at the way that sexuality has been policed by church and state.Berkowitz writes in a witty and engaging style that makes the information accessible (and quotable to friends!)Some of the punishments decscribed are jaw droppingly awful, but serve to highlight the double standards of the time and the demonisation of- predominantly female- sexuality,throughout the ages. Fascinating stuff- highly recommended.
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on 8 March 2015
Well written book.
Just shows that there is nothing New under the sun.
The author covers different times and countries and the same story men blaming women for sex from witchcraft to rape to temptress to prostitute. The woman is the scapegoat for societies ills. Would recommend.
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on 17 December 2012
After reading this I will never be tempted to wish myself in Ancient Rome, or Egypt, or Babylonia etc etc again. The facts that have been brought to light from the murkiness of long lost civilisations are a salutary reminder, if one were needed, of how significant are the freedoms we so take for granted and throw into sharp relief the areas of the world where those freedoms continue to be denied or are actively threatened.
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on 14 August 2016
Somewhat depressing as a history of cruelty, especially to women and gay men, but also an easy, entertaining and well-researched book. It makes you think most religious people need to get to the nearest psychiatrist fast!
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on 21 February 2015
A fascinating look at sex and the various attempts to control our behaviour through legislation it over the last 4,000 years - believe me, you won't be able to put this one down. This book is a real eye-opener - thought-provoking, appalling and totally fascinating all at once. This is a really enjoyable read and Eric Berkowitz manages to educate and entertain in equal measure. Highly recommended.
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on 19 February 2014
I found this book to be highly entertaining. It demonstrated the sickness of the religious mind particularly with regards to how they thought up the punishments for normal (and some not so normal) behaviour. It illustrated that the various holy books were not written by whatever "god" but by men for men!!
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on 16 January 2015
Really interesting insight to past intricacies of legal and religious codes. Structure in some chapters is poor and jumps about millenia and theme before finally getting back to the purpose of the chapter. However overall great read and fascinating insight.
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