Sex & Punishment, By Eric Berkowitz

The high cost of loving oneself, or one's horse, and other sex crimes

The invasive prurience of sex rules at US universities (such as Gettysburg College, where, if you're sleeping with a fellow student, you have to wake him or her up and ask permission before fondling), is nothing new according to Eric Berkowitz, a San Francisco lawyer and journalist.

In the ancient Middle East, he notes, "sex was evidently more micromanaged than even now." Deuteronomy asserts that if a wife seizes the testicles of a man struggling with her husband, "you shall cut off her hand". Since this is similar to a law in Assyria (where women only lost a finger), Berkowitz suggests there was "a regional testicle fixation".

Subtitled 4,000 Years of Judging Desire, this entertaining, angry and deeply fascinating study shows how legislators over the centuries have carefully calibrated punishments for erratic sexual behaviour. In medieval Europe, "a lonely monk who took a cow as his lover would be punished twice as severely as a lay owner of the beast".

A man who used "mechanical help" for masturbation was punished by 40 days of penance but it was a year for a woman who used a dildo (three years if she shared it with a chum). A Scot who was spotted copulating with his horse in 1654 was strangled then burned at the stake. So was the mare.

It is no great source of national pride that the British occupy a disproportionate number of pages. Our Obscenity Laws date from the drunken japes of Sir Charles Sedley MP, who, according to a contemporary account from 1663, "excrementised in the street…and with eloquence preached blasphemy". Given a hefty fine, Sir Charles observed that he was "the first man that paid for shitting".

Gratifyingly, a British jury took just 53 minutes to boot out the case of two young men charged in 1871 "with the intent to commit a felony" because they happened to be wearing "a cherry-coloured evening dress" and "a dark green satin dress". A savagely punitive sentence two decades later continues to reverberate. As Berkowitz notes, "The suddenness and depth of Wilde's fall from grace is still a stunning thing."