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Boundaries of Desire: A Century of Good Sex, Bad Laws, and Changing Identities



Original Language: English | 462 pp. | August 2015

2 Seas Represents: Dutch, French, Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish.


Berkowitz, a lawyer with experience in intellectual property, First Amendment, and business litigation, presents an immersive, sometimes shocking history of changing sexual mores, and the laws pertaining to them, in the U.S. He covers topics including homosexuality, pedophilia, interracial couples, and sex trafficking, maintaining a pragmatic, non-judgmental tone. The result is an eye-opening history of sexual legislation. Readers will learn of historical givens that strike us as barbaric now (such as the onetime acceptance of marital rape, not fully outlawed in the U.S. until 1993) and of controversial ongoing practices (such as the lifelong registration of minors in sex-offender registries). Berkowitz makes legal history readable, not relying on the subject matter being salacious (which this book is not) but accessibly conveying sophisticated topics and complex events with the assurance of an expert. Moreover, he ties sexual legislation to disparate historical topics, including the eugenics movement, welfare policy, and even the outbreak of WWI. Readers will be sad to arrive at the end of this skillful piece of popular history.  –Publisher’s Weekly (Starred Review)

There may be no facet of human experience as riddled with accusation, judgment, and shame as sex. In lively, passionate prose, legal scholar Eric Berkowitz shows how irrational, unjust, and destructive even well-intentioned attempts to legislate lust can be. This controversial book is as mind-blowing as it is heart-opening.—Christopher Ryan, author of Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships

A gripping account of how the law has enforced the sexual subordination of women, children, minorities and GLBT people — and a thought-provoking appraisal of how new legal efforts to protect victims can backfire. In this fascinating read, Eric Berkowitz tells the human stories behind the law.—Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap

This very well written, crisp, and clear description and analysis of American sex law deserves a wide readership. The laws relating to homosexuality, gender change, sexual activity by minors, prostitution, abortion and contraception, proof of sexual coercion and abuse, punishment (including post-release restrictions), and religious objections to various sexual activities and preferences, are disputed, confused, and conflicting, frequently obsolete, and on the whole probably too severe. The book lays out these problems concisely, and should stimulate a more active search for solutions.—Richard A. Posner, Judge Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals; Senior Lecturer, University of Chicago Law School; Author, Sex and Reason and A Guide to American Sex Laws

This follow-up to lawyer Berkowitz’s “Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire” (2012) brings Western society’s continued attempt at regulating sexual mores to the present. Sex, as the author pertinently grasps in this comprehensive survey that moves forward from around the turn of the 19th century, “burns at the intersection of existence, identity and power,” and the way we regard it tells a great deal about our society. Berkowitz covers the enormous changes that have swept sex law in the categories of family and marriage; homosexuality; minors; definitions of obscenity; rape and sexual harassment; and interracial sexual relations and marriage. In each chapter, the author reveals the way that power has been gradually relinquished and fear vanquished. He explores the intractable (until a groundbreaking 1984 decision in New York) legal doctrine of what Berkowitz calls the “Rape-Your-Wife Privilege,” which entitled a husband to force himself on what was legally his property; the increasing availability of birth control, which has allowed women agency over their bodies, especially significant to the health of working and poor women; the breaking of long-held stereotypes about black females being the “root cause of black poverty”; the defeat of what now appears to us astounding prejudice against “feebleminded” women who got pregnant and homosexuals as criminal and deserving of sterilization and incarceration; and how the hysterical terror of the sex offender prompted draconian residence-restriction laws. Sagely, Berkowitz throws some much-needed light on the still-shadowy definition of obscenity (for example, in public performance), pornography (“sexting” by minors, Clarence Thomas’ record of porn-video rentals), and, especially, “the limits of consent” (what constitutes rape in the college setting and who should deal with it). The author cogently exposes what he believes is “panic mentality” in many cases of rape and child molestation. As laws and mores continue to change at a rapid pace, this engaging study offers helpful historical and legal explanations.—Kirkus (Starred Review)

The act of reproduction, and its variants, have been practiced in roughly the same ways since the beginning of time, but our ideas about the meaning and consequences of sex are in constant flux. At any given moment, some forms of sex have been encouraged while others have been punished without mercy. Jump forward or backward a century, switch a decade, cross a border, or traverse class lines and the harmless pleasures of one group become the gravest crimes in another.
Combining the same meticulous research and lively storytelling that brought Eric Berkowitz’s first book, Sex and Punishment, rave reviews worldwide, The Boundaries of Desire traces the fast-moving bloodsport of sex law over the past century, and challenges our most cherished notions about family, power, gender, and identity.
By focusing on the experiences of real people who played central roles in the formation of our sexual rights, Berkowitz adds a human element to what might otherwise be faceless legal battles—ultimately arguing that compassion for others is always preferable to sanctimonious condemnation, and that questions about morals and sexual laws are too complicated and volatile to resolve through simple solutions.
Starting when courts censored birth control information as pornography and let men rape their wives, and continuing through the “sexual revolution” and into the present day (when rape, gay rights, sex trafficking, and sex on the internet saturate the news), Berkowitz shows how the law has remained out of synch with the convulsive changes in sexual morality.
The Boundaries of Desire informs, amuses, and saddens – sometimes all at once.

Eric Berkowitz is a writer, lawyer and journalist. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Los Angeles Weekly, Associated Press, the Huffington Post, and many other publications.

Praise for Eric Berkowitz‘s previous title “SEX AND PUNISHMENT”:

I don’t think I’ve ever read such an entertaining historical work. It has the wisdom granted by perspective, without the condescension of someone who thinks we’re wiser than our ancestors. Whether you want to fuel your indignation, or simply furnish yourself with enough jaw-drop­ping data to galvanize a hundred party conversations, you really must shell out for this book. It’s worth every penny.—The Guardian

Enormously informative and entertaining.—The Boston Globe

Enlightening, astounding, broad-ranging and rich in detail, exciting and impressively relentless.—The Sunday London Times

Berkowitz’s book in the end is a rewarding wonderland of the forbidden, and of society’s attempts to keep it so, despite their inevitable failure. It is a mural sometimes done as miniature, sometimes as epic, but always with a craftsman’s hand—a sprawling story told with uncommon precision and purity of expression.—Tri-Quarterly Review