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Juicy Cases Could Do With Context
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.