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 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.