Eric Berkowitz, Sex and Punishment

sexandpunishment-e1336492562879For obvious reasons, Eric Berkowitz’s Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire has been getting a lot of attention on the Internets. For example, see, if you haven’t already, a very popular post called “When a Medieval Knight Could Marry Another Medieval Knight”, which starts like this:

“Eric Berkowitz’s new book Sex And Punishment, out today from Counterpoint, is a fascinating survey of how legal systems over the millenia have attempted to regulate and police sex. In this excerpt, a discussion of the once-wide acceptance of same-sex unions between men in Europe of the Middle Ages.

Despite the risks, devotional relationships between men were common in Europe at the time, at least among the literate, and many of these affairs must have included sex at some point. Knights, aristocrats, and especially clerics left expansive evidence of their intense passions for male lovers, relationships that often ended in side-by-side burials.”

My sense is that we have to file this in our too-good-to-be-true box. Using Amazon’s Look Inside, I checked Berkowitz’s bibliography, and it’s mostly stuff from the mid 90s and earlier (Bullough, Boswell) and anglophone scholarship or translations (a problem if a book covers 4,000 years of human history!). Most seriously, it omits Alan Bray’s The Friend, which I wouldn’t have thought to check without a heads up from Katrina Gulliver during a fun twitter conversation (which included an important reminder from the omnipresent Tim Carmody).

Not like I need to tell you this, but I’ve no claims to be an expert in the history of sexuality and marriage. I don’t feel as if someone’s stolen fire from my hearth. I might direct readers who find Berkowitz’s book intriguing to read (instead, or additionally) work by Karma Lochrie and Anna Klosowska. Others, I expect, will be recommended in the comments below. Nor do I mind that Berkowitz is an amateur. I’ve heard Dinshaw’s work on amateurs, and love it. My problem’s not even with the arrogance of his not engaging with the recent scholarship. If I have a problem, it’s that a book like Berkowitz’s kind of embarrasses my political side. I want strong, good arguments in favor of understanding human sexuality and marriage as historical practices, always subject to change. Berkowitz–again, from what I’ve seen so far–doesn’t do this well enough.
Even so, Berkowitz’s book has a positive value, in that it’s another reminder that sex, emotion, and marriage have a history, and that it’s not a binary history (regardless of Romney’s great-grandfather-ignoring claims about the history of marriage ending 3000 years ago). The history’s not supersessionary, not a before-and-after binary, but rather multiple and always changing. Like anything we can call historical, it’s a contestatory process. Like anything we can call historical, marriage, emotion, and sex are always being invented, in our times as in others.* To claim otherwise is to be ahistorical, to be an idealist. And, as readers of J. Gil Harris (and many others) know, to claim that our “now” is singular is to be just as much of an idealist.

My call, then, is that we should go out and legislate, and practice, and think together, and see what we can come up with. Just don’t try to look outside of your practices–to History with a capital G for God–to guarantee that you’re doing the right thing. What I’m calling for is humility, whether your name is Berkowitz, or Romney, or Steel. Let’s have fun together and see what happens.

* Case in point: I recently learned that ancient Mesopotamian law codes don’t worry much, if at all, about samesex sexuality (p. 71), perhaps because they belonged
to a polytheistic cosmology, unanxious about mixtures.

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