When people read about law, said Erik Berkowitz, “it’s either sleazy or dry.” So the Bay Area lawyer and author obligingly provides the best of both worlds with Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire, a meticulous look into the evolution of sex law, including detailed case studies brimming with raunchy tidbits, plus legal analysis to show how far we’ve come.
Someone once posed the question to Berkowitz: What was the first law? Ensuing research pointed to those written in ancient Mesopotamia. “Fully a third had to do with marital relations, adultery, sexual relations, and I thought — what’s going on here?” From there on down the line, civilizations have enacted laws concerning incest, bestiality, sodomy, adultery, obscenity, and pornography. “A great deal of sex law is about belonging, and exclusion,” Berkowitz explained. “People set strict rules of conduct to define themselves and to create cohesion.”
His weighty book, which he will discuss on Wednesday, May 30, at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St., Berkeley), is filled with tales of women chopped to bits and fed to the dogs for committing adultery, and of men flogged or hanged for sodomy and merely fined for rape. Concluding with the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde, the book leaves unanswered perhaps the most interesting question for modern readers: How does historical enforcement and punishment relate to the world today? Think of recent cases like that of French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, accused of rape by a young African maid. In the US in the 1960s, when “most states didn’t recognize that a husband could rape his wife,” his arrest would’ve been unimaginable,” Berkowitz said. In that frame of mind, he explained, the politician would have been “simply taking what was his due, and I think we have a growing sense that the abuse of power along class lines for sexual ends is really slowly but surely no longer being tolerated.” The Clinton saga and the Eliot Spitzer scandal are prime examples. “We have a sense now that once one is exposed for a private sexual habit, they’re automatically disqualified for public service,” the lawyer noted. Fifty years ago, that certainly wasn’t the case for President John F. Kennedy.
Legal acceptance (or not) of same-sex relationships likewise has a long and storied history. Most civilizations didn’t make homosexuality a crime until the word “sodomy” became associated with forbidden sex acts, Berkowitz said. The good news? Tolerance has improved over the ages. “We have to remember that issues like gay marriage didn’t just emerge in the past five years,” he said.
Berkowitz, who noted he has adopted feminist beliefs after providing legal aid to women in domestic violence and rape cases, is generally upbeat about the relationship between law and sex in American society today: “We’re fortunate to live in this day and age where there are a lot of habits in law that have evolved in very positive directions.” 7 p.m., free. 510-525-7777 or BooksInc.net