11 Strange, Horrific, or Just Plain Weird Ways Societies Have Policed Sex Throughout History
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While the human needs for food, water and shelter can easily be met, the craving for sex is never fully satisfied. Even St. Augustine, who saw the sex urge as divine punishment for Adam and Eve's original sin and regarded the genitalia as satanic monsters, knew that he was helpless in the face of desire. "Grant me chastity," he begged God, "but not yet." In many ways, the history of civilization is a chronicle of our attempts to domesticate the chaotic urge for sexual fulfillment.
Since the beginning of recorded history, lawmakers have tried to set limits on how people take their sexual pleasures, and they have doled out a range of controls and punishments to enforce them -- from the slow impalement of unfaithful wives in Mesopotamia to the sterilization of masturbators in the United States. Anyone, no matter how highly placed, who engages in sexual conduct that is out of sync with prevailing attitudes risks being demonized and steamrolled by the legal system. Indeed, the intense pleasure we experience seeing powerful people brought down by their libidos is itself a fetish, one that demands a constant stream of scandals to be gratified.
Given that sex and power politics often intersect, the history of sex law illuminates many of today's hot-button issues. For example, as gay marriage lurches though the courts and statehouses, it's helpful to know that loving and committed unions between men were sanctioned by Christian and secular law alike many centuries ago.
The cast of my new book Sex and Punishment [Counterpoint, $26.00] includes kings, royal mistresses, priests, gay charioteers, medieval transvestites, lonely goat-lovers, prostitutes, and London rent boys. Each of them had forbidden sex, each was judged, and justice rarely had much to do with it. The book tells the human story, from the bedroom and backroom to the courtroom, and ultimately to the soul itself.
1. In sex law, context is everything.
The sex drive's "raging frenzy," to use Plato's phrase, has always defied control. However, that's not to say that every civilization has not tried. At any point in history, some forms of sex were condoned while others were punished mercilessly. Jump back or forward a century or two, or cross a border, and the harmless pleasure of one society becomes the gravest crime in another.
Take a 1956 case from Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), where a terrified woman awoke to find her husband kissing her breast. A local tribunal of elders accused the husband of sorcery and took measures to protect the wife from him. The tribunal was not concerned with morality as such. Rather, sex was seen as a force moving heaven and earth, and sequestering the wife shielded everyone from divine retribution. British colonial officials thought such concerns were ridiculous and threw the case out.
The wife's complaint fell outside the 1950s Western model of a sex claim. But had the couple been students at any number of present-day U.S. colleges, her claim would have been enthusiastically received. Gettysburg College's 2006 student handbook, for example, stated that a man wishing to "initiate" sex with a sleeping woman must wake her up, make sure her judgment is clear, and then ask (for example), "May I kiss your breast?" Not doing so brought the risk of expulsion and arrest.
Nineteenth century Southern courts held that any sexual encounter between a white woman and a black man had to be forcible because no white woman "would consent to his lustful embraces."At the same time, white men were permitted to rape black females because such women had neither rights to their bodies nor the ability to testify in court against whites.