Brain Pickings

Sex and Punishment: A 4,000-Year History of Judging Desire

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How we went from medieval male marriages to executions to marriage equality.

It’s a momentous year for LGBT rights, with Barack Obama’s recent historic endorsement of marriage equality reminding us how far we’ve come since the days of legally punishing sexual orientation — for a grim flashback, we need look no further than computing pioneer Alan Turing, whose centennial we’ll be celebrating next month and who committed suicide shortly after being criminally prosecuted for his homosexuality. Whether bigotry can ever be wholly uprooted from insecure hearts and narrow minds remains to be seen, but we’ve certainly come a long way. How, exactly, did we get here?

In Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire, writer and lawyer Eric Berkowitz explores the millennia-long quest to regulate and mandate one of the strongest drivers of human behavior, and the tragic deformities that result from the dictatorship of external authority over the most intimate of inner realities. Tracing how we went from the male bonding ceremonies commonly performed in medieval Mediterranean churches to the lesbian executions in 18th-century Germany, along the entire spectrum of cultural attitudes towards mistresses, goat-lovers, prostitutes, medieval transvestites, adulterers, and other sexual-norm nonconformists, Berkowitz brings an eye-opening lens to one of the most mercilessly judged yet universal aspects of being human.

In the period up to roughly the thirteenth century, male bonding ceremonies were performed in churches all over the Mediterranean. These unions were sanctified by priests with many of the same prayers and rituals used to join men and women in marriage. The ceremonies stressed love and personal commitment over procreation, but surely not everyone was fooled. Couples who joined themselves in such rituals most likely had sex as much (or as little) as their heterosexual counterparts. In any event, the close association of male-marriage ceremonies with forbidden sex eventually became too much to overlook as even more severe sodomy laws were put into place.

Particularly interesting is a discussion of same-sex female relationships, which most scriptures — even those most vehemently condemning of male-male sex — have historically ignored, not because those were considered acceptable but because they appeared too unfathomable to be considered at all:

Can two women love each other sexually? Eighteenth-century morals said no, at least where the females involved were respectable. Among the better classes, lesbian relations were impossible to imagine. Good women could love and embrace each other, sleep together, and write each other passionate letters; all that was noble. But loving and making love were entirely different matters. Unless they were gratifying their husbands, women of ‘character’ were imagined as sexually numb creatures. British judges allowed that females of ‘Eastern’ or ‘Hindoo’ nations might act differently, but not the women of the ‘civilized’ world.

Boing Boing has an excerpt. Sex and Punishment is fascinating in its entirety.

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