11 Strange, Horrific, or Just Plain Weird Ways Societies Have Policed Sex Throughout History
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6. Early courts treated rape like parking tickets.
The law has never been kind toward rape victims. To the extent that rape was forbidden, the penalties depended on the rank of the woman involved. Low-class girls were worth practically nothing, while females of rank were worth more. And even when rape was proven (never an easy feat), the woman was at risk. A French court fined a man after his victim proved that he took her virginity by force. After she left the courtroom, the judge told him to find her and retrieve the money by any means necessary. This time, she resisted so tenaciously that he returned to court empty-handed. The judge then called the woman back and ordered her to return the money. Had she fought for her virginity as hard as she did for the money, the judge said, the rape would not have happened.
Rape has also been treated as a mating ritual. The Bible orders that when a man "seizes" a virgin and "lies with her," then "she shall be his wife." And in Renaissance Venice, a rapist was given the choice of going to jail for six months, paying a fine or marrying his victim. The man chose marriage.
When rape resulted in pregnancies, courts usually concluded that the sex was consensual. The idea was that both people needed to experience pleasure to conceive a child, so a pregnancy showed that the woman enjoyed the encounter. This theory has not gone away. In 1995, North Carolina legislator Henry Aldridge, when arguing aiding pregnant rape victims, said: "The facts show that people who are raped... the juices don't flow... and they don't get pregnant."
Only recently has it become illegal for a man to rape his wife. As late as the 1950s, the right of a husband to force himself on his wife was enshrined in every state's laws. When a woman said "I do," she was deemed to have given lifetime consent to her husband's sexual demands.
7. The first pornography prosecutions were for images on Vatican walls.
Pornographic images and words have always been around, but authorities only tried to forbid them once the invention of the printing press made them widely available to the lower classes. The first known pornography prosecutions were pushed by the Vatican in 1564, after sixteen of its hardcore pictures were reproduced as engravings for mass circulation in 1564. The engraver was thrown in a dungeon. Church authorities thought they had destroyed all of the engravings, but soon more emerged, this time accompanied by filthy sonnets composed by the irrepressible Pietro Aretino. In short order, the collection, known as "Aretino's Postures," was reprinted everywhere in Europe. The more the book was forbidden, the better it sold and the more imitators it spawned. From that point on, pornography was ubiquitous and governments were unable to stop it.
Not that they didn't try. Arentino's collection was put on the Vatican's first list of forbidden books (along with works by Martin Luther, Johannes Kepler, and Niccolò Machiavelli), but that only increased its allure. Soon Italian phrasebooks for English tourists included entries teaching people how to ask the works of Aretino, and in 1675, two Oxford dons were caught using the university's presses to print copies the "Postures" to meet local demand.
Since there was little law on the subject, English courts did almost nothing to stop the porn trade until 1724, when judges ruled that a dirty book can be banned when it "tends to disturb the civil order of society." Notably, the pornographer in that case, Edmund Curll, had popular support. After he was put in the pillory, his followers took him to a local tavern to get drunk. Not long after Curll died, the most infamous book of pornography ever, "Fanny Hill," was published. The book would not escape censorship in America until 1966.