Review: Sex and Punishment by Eric Berkowitz
Title: Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire
Author: Berkowitz, Eric
Length: 456 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Publisher / Year: Counterpoint Press / 2012
Source: From the publisher for review.
Why I Read It: It sounded interesting.
Date Read: 23/06/12
What is and isn’t acceptable and legal under the law, in terms of sexual activity, has fluctuated through the centuries. In this book Berkowitz aims to provide a historical view of how sex has been legally and culturally treated over the past thousands of years. Starting with the first recorded rules discovered, up until the late nineteenth century, he gives us details on various societies and cultures and the ways that sex and the law interacted.
The book contained a ton of facts and much new-to-me information, and was well-researched, given the large bibliography list. I would, however, have liked to see a larger notes section to see more of where various facts and figures came from. Well-written and engaging, the facts he shared and the stories he told kept me entertained and I felt I learned a lot. There was some repetition of facts and people, however, and so I feel the book could have been trimmed to make it slightly more on topic.
While I felt I learned much from the book, I had two main issues. My first is that the book deals almost exclusively with European and North American colonial law. After briefly mentioning other cultures in the introduction, the book then moves to early civilizations in Egypt, Greece, Rome, and of course biblical societies in Israel / Palestine. From there, only the European and British, and later American cultures are mentioned, ignoring the rest of the world completely. With a title expressing such a wide scope, the specific focus on this small area of the world was disappointing.
Second, as a female who has dealt with the legal and cultural issues surrounding rape, I would have liked to see more discussion of the impacts of the laws and what it meant for those involved. While Berkowitz mentions that women were treated as property, that early feminists fought to raise the legal age of consent, that there were legal battles with the aim of punishing those who forced sex on others, in many ways he seems flippant of these changes. When mentioning Roman Polanski in passing, for example, he says that his punishment and legal battles were caused by historical accident – years earlier the same action wouldn’t have been a crime. While this is true, that doesn’t make it OK, and I would have liked to see more of the moral and personal accountability on the changes to these laws and their effects on women, and on all others. Definitely more a straight history book than any kind of social commentary or discussion book.
In all, an interesting and informative read, if not quite what I was hoping for. Recommended for those who enjoy learning about history, the history of sex, and the history of laws.