A new book traces a century of legislative prudery

Jacob Brogan in Slate:

150805_BOOKS_BoundariesIllo.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2When the proprietor of a Florida-based pornographic website was put on trial in 2008, he was accused of violating community standards. To prove that the operator had done nothing of the kind, his lawyer exhibited Google search data for the region, showing that residents were more likely to go online looking for “sex” than for “apple pie.” Pornography, this lawyer implied,was central to community standards, whether or not the community members were willing to admit it. In the process, he suggested that the pleasures we deny ourselves—like those that we would refuse to others—can reveal a great deal about the forces that move us. Maybe that’s why the easiest way to tell a story about sex is to tell a story about repression.

This, at any rate, is the premise of author and attorney Eric Berkowitz’s new book, The Boundaries of Desire. Over the course of seven chapters, Berkowitz sets out to explore the last century of sex law, focusing most of all on the ways that our civilization restrains the needs of some while punishing the passions of others. Attentive to changing norms but rarely content with present pieties, he surveys attitudes toward prostitution, homosexuality, pornography, and more. Throughout, he treats desire as a force that has “always carried outsize significance” because it “burns at the intersection of existence, identity, and power.”

Indeed, sex is the most personal of passions, but it is also the one in which the personal becomes interpersonal. Intercourse, as philosophers of sex have known for years, is never far from discourse, and pillow talk may be just as important as everything that precedes it. Speaking about sex by narrating the many attempts to silence it is therefore an almost deliberately paradoxical project.

More here.