DESIRE AND PUNISHMENT

The Boundaries of Desire: Bad Laws, Good Sex, and Changing Identities

Eric Berkowitz
Counterpoint, 2015
ISBN 978-1-61902-529-5

Nudity Barely on Display

Nude Out of Reach

Eric Berkowitz has followed his 2012 Sex and Punishment, an entertaining history of sex laws over the past 4000 years, with this more relevant and disturbing account of sex laws over just the past 100, laws that have influenced our social standards and that sometimes support and sometimes challenge our right to govern our own sensuality.

Interviewed on Public Radio last August, the human rights lawyer set the stage by pointing out that, as religion lost its authority over our lives, we turned to the social sciences for moral guidance, and the initial result was that “what were sins became mental illnesses.” Prostitutes were feeble-minded and a “one-way flow of venereal disease toward men;” and homosexuals were “naturally inclined toward crimes against children, toward political disloyalty, toward all kinds of anti-social things.” These imperfect beings had to be eliminated one way or another.

The fights for justice for just these two categories of sexual behavior give us incredible insight into our own bizarre portion of social history. We appear to be hopelessly ambivalent about sex.

Modesty at the beach circa 1945

Modesty at the beach circa 1945

Many familiar scandals of our era are present in this book: miscegenation, adultery, obscenity, sexual harassment, sex trafficking, child porn, “sexting,” and campus rape. So are controversies, such as the fairness of sex offender registries. Berkowitz frequently represents domestic abuse victims in court, and so he devotes much space to marital sex in its relationship to the evolving legal definitions of rape. It is this subject that drives home the reality that any answers from the social sciences will never be final ones and therefore the law as we attempt to establish it will never be complete.

Mom and Dad 1937

Mom and Dad 1937

The author’s engaging prose helps the reader get through the fact-packed account with sustained interest, but absorbing it all takes weeks. It is tempting, therefore, to relegate this type of nonfiction to the reference shelf. Yet the cumulative effect is to make one think deeply about one’s own experience of what underlies and surrounds those facts. My initial reaction was to feel let down; it seems that any residual romantic notions my pre-pill generation might have of physical intimacy have been trampled by its preponderance of economic uses. “Having sex” instead of “making love” says it all.

Grandpa and Grandma as I Knew Them

Grandpa and Grandma as I Knew Them

I was reminded of Lisa See’s memorable reference in her historical novel Snow Flower to what women in her Chinese family called “bed business.” Sex was used to influence their men; it was all about gaining financial security and status. I was shocked when I read it and yet I recognized that motive as acceptable in my mother’s generation, up until the time most women could be financially independent. In many places in our world and nation that time never comes.

That is perhaps the lasting message here, that money is the motive behind almost all sexual activity. One exception of course is the natural urge that might be construed as pure joy or pure selfishness, the “sex drive” that we worry about. We would like to keep our adolescents safe from it, and in mentally diminished people it has to be controlled. Another exceptional motive is the kind of loneliness that can be satisfied temporarily by physical closeness.

BadgeBut The Boundaries of Desire is not really about sex. It is about our desire to control sex. And it a book we do not want to shelve at all. It should be placed handily for reflection and discussion, and certainly for attempting to understand the varied “normal” responses to that fundamental urge, including fear. It might also remind us that trying to regulate bodily functions within a court of law is apt to be just a p—–g contest.

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This review was originally  written for www.bookpleasures.com and posted September 15, 2015.

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