Sexual crime and punishment

BOOKS | Eric Berkowitz

It took 25 years, but I have returned — to a city that feels like home even after a decades-long absence; a city that warms my spirit even as its fog freezes my bones; a place where I can be the public interest lawyer I want to be; and where a local publisher is publishing my book.

The epic journey of the human spirit, which forms the basis for every good story since Homer’s Odyssey, involves a person leaving home, undertaking a long journey, then returning with the benefit of experience. Odysseus did it. Forrest Gump did it. And, in my own small way, I did it too. I left San Francisco in 1985 an unhappy young attorney who felt that deep inside he was really a writer, and came back a writer who happily gives legal services to the poor — and just had a book published.
My new book, Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire, published May 8 by Counterpoint Press, was researched in Los Angeles and written in Paris. But the book’s true roots, like so much else important in my life, are here in San Francisco.

After studying history at UC Santa Cruz — some of us actually did study there, even in the 1970s — I knew two things: I needed a career and I wanted to live in San Francisco. I enrolled at USF Law School in 1981, when the Haight still had cheap apartments and the Fillmore was a neighborhood in decline. True, there was a foreign cinema and a terrific bookstore, but that part of the neighborhood was way out of reach for a student.

One day, I hoped, I would find success, my girlfriend Jennifer would marry me and we would live in Pacific Heights surrounded by everything in the Sharper Image catalog. I did well in law school and got a job at a small commercial law firm near Union Square.

But just when I thought my life was set, everything fell apart. Within a few months, Jennifer left me, I realized I disliked being a lawyer and my salary was barely covering my expenses. A well-paid legal opportunity then arose in Los Angeles. It couldn’t make me happy representing bad guys, but it would pay some bills and give me space to heal my broken heart. I moved south.

Jump cut to 2004: After a 20-year career as an L.A. litigation attorney and many years of happy marriage with Jennifer, I got up the nerve to leave my law firm and enroll in the graduate journalism program at USC. There, I remade myself into a writer. I was a curiosity to my 22-year-old classmates, but I applied myself with a vengeance. Upon graduating I got a good position at a legal newspaper. But a freelance piece I had written for the L.A. Times Magazine on corruption among California’s private judges infuriated my bosses and the writing was soon on the newsroom wall: The job would not last.

In 2007, my family and I moved to Paris for what we thought would be a one-year sabbatical. My book project had started with a question a friend posed: What was the first law? As I started researching, I learned that the earliest lawmakers were preoccupied with sex. Everywhere I looked, there were rules on sexual relations with pigs and oxen, prostitutes and family members.

Extraordinary flesh-and-blood cases jumped out of every dusty volume begging to be told. My book would bring them to life — all the way up to Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment for “gross indecency” in 1895. This would not be a book for lawyers or academics; they have enough to read. It would speak to the general reader and follow royal mistresses, gay charioteers, medieval transvestites, priests, prostitutes and London rent boys. Through these fascinating and often tragic lives, readers would gain insights both into history and many of today’s hot-button political issues.

Our one-year stay in Paris stretched into three years. I wrote, rewrote and wrote some more. The nearby Luxembourg Gardens gave me a place to dream.

In May 2010, our eldest daughter graduated her lycee. My book wasn’t quite finished, but it was time to return to the United States. But where would we go? I loathed Los Angeles and did not want to repeat my earlier mistake by going back there to live. And after experiencing the pedestrian-friendly city of Paris, there was also no way we could return to a life built around the traffic patterns of Wilshire Boulevard.

San Francisco exerted its pull. We decided to sell our Los Angeles house and restart ourselves in the city we had always loved.

We arrived back in California on the day our house sold and immediately headed up Highway 5 to look for a place in San Francisco. After a manic few weeks of house hunting, we nabbed a grand Victorian on Pine Street, just a couple of blocks from Fillmore. It had been a rooming house during World War II and then a hippie commune in the 1960s. It has since been lovingly restored by a succession of owners. I finished the book here and began to work for a number of legal aid organizations, the most fulfilling legal work I have ever done.

Last month, my book was published. It’s available at Browser Books, the neighborhood shop that seemed so out of reach way back when.

For an interactive timeline on sexual laws, visit