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The summer 2013 issue (Vol. 48 No. 1 #389 p. 34) of the Fifth Estate contains a fascinating review of Eric Berkowitz’s book entitled Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire (click here to read the full article by Rod Dubey). Quoted below are some particularly noteworthy excerpts describing monstrous laws and customs that reflected and reinforced state and church power, their hypocrisy, and the treatment of slaves and women as less than human.

Hebrew law changed everything. […] Sex could now be sin and a source of guilt. Sexual transgressions were viewed as a crime against the community and punishment was administered by the church. […] In Hebrew law, for the first time, the body itself became regulated. […] By the Middle-Ages the body itself was under attack from Christianity. Flesh was an evil that inhibited the attainment of a spiritual life. Married sex was a necessary evil to increase the tribe and this was its only justification. Whatever interfered with pregnancy, such as masturbation and coitus interruptus, was condemned. […]

Throughout this history we see how sex laws were used to reinforce state and church power. […] What constitutes a sex crime always reflected local beliefs and the needs of authority. In spite of the general restrictions against adultery in Sparta, for instance, it was often overlooked because it was a warrior society where soldiers weren’t at home and the state needed a constant source of recruits. […] The differential treatment of the powerful when they transgressed rules occurred in every culture. In one instance, in thirteenth century England, many rapists were priests and they tried to get their cases heard in church courts because they would be treated leniently. In continental Frankish areas, of the same time period, the fine for rape depended on who the victim was. Raping a servant became an affordable option for a few; something in the order of a speeding ticket.

The hypocrisy of those who made the rules was another perennial. During the rigid Middle-Ages, to cite only one instance among many, prostitution was often allowed as a safety valve. This led to both municipalities and the Catholic Church owning brothels across Europe, and in some cases it was nuns servicing the customers.

The most prominent historical constant, without a doubt, was the lack of legal protection for women. Men controlled women’s bodies as part of their ownership of them. Rape was frequently seen, not as a sex crime, but as a property crime against a husband or father. An Assyrian father whose virgin daughter was raped might get, in return, three times her dowry value from the rapist (who would be forced to marry the girl and restore the father’s honor–her feelings of no consequence) and gain possession of the rapist’s wife, as his slave, to rape whenever he chose. In fifteenth century Venice, courts viewed rape as a form of seduction. As late as nineteenth century America, a slave was property to be treated however her ‘master’ saw fit. Since the children of female slaves were also deemed to be slaves, rape became an instrument of economic growth. […]

Sexual relations, in slave holding America, between a black slave and a white woman, were inevitably seen as rape because of the view that a respectable white woman could not possibly feel sexually attracted to a black man. The treatment of slaves as less than human typified the racist attitudes that always followed sex laws. In the Middle-Ages, Jews were viewed as being in league with Satan and animals. In 1222 a deacon who married a Jew was executed on a charge of bestiality.

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