cover image Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire

Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire

Eric Berkowitz. Counterpoint, $26 (446p) ISBN 978-1-58243-796-5

Berkowitz, a lawyer-journalist, begins his historical tour of “sex and punishment” with the 4,000-year-old murder of a priest in Mesopotamia—his wife, suspected of adultery, was executed for the homicide. The book ends with Oscar Wilde’s well-chronicled pillorying for his homosexuality. In between is a bewildering array of ideas about what sexual behavior was unacceptable and strange, and the brutal punishments handed down for it. Berkowitz builds his history around various legal systems, ancient to modern, religious to secular, but he seems to delight in graphic descriptions of the various punishments visited upon adulterers, sodomites, and others who transgressed against the sexual mores of their time and place. In Mesopotamia a disloyal wife was impaled on a pole “and left to suffer a slow and very public death.” The medieval Church burned homosexuals at the stake. Berkowitz also highlights the long history of prostitution and the hypocrisy surrounding it; for example, a 1566 papal edict exiling prostitutes from Rome was rescinded when it was learned that 25,000 people planned to leave the city. Berkowitz writes straightforwardly and has done credible research, but lacking enough sociological and cultural context, the material becomes repetitive. Photos. (Apr.)