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The Boundaries of Desire

A Century of Bad Laws, Good Sex and Changing Identities

By Eric Berkowitz
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The Boundaries of Desire by Eric Berkowitz

The Boundaries of Desire (2015) explores the checkered history of sexual relations and the law in the United States. These blinks show how women have struggled with sexual harassment and abuse, pointing out that a system run by men for men has simply perpetuated systemic injustice. What’s more, you’ll learn how US law historically has failed black people, homosexuals and children, too.

Key idea 1 of 8

Women in America have only recently earned freedom from the complete control of a husband.

The struggle for women’s liberation has been long, and replete with hardship. The bounds of marriage, not to mention rules over employment, have changed dramatically for women in recent generations.

Just a century ago, marriage could be a nightmare for a woman. At the time, marriage wasn’t necessarily a sacred bond between two loving people, but more often a legal contract that favored the man.

A marriage essentially gave a husband the legal protection to abuse his wife, if he so chose. Further, courts rarely took serious action when a married woman was beaten or raped by her husband.

In 1874 in North Carolina, for example, a man named Richard Oliver whipped his wife with switches because he didn’t like the bacon she had prepared for breakfast. As “punishment,” Oliver was fined $10.

Historically, in both the United States and the United Kingdom, it was considered a wife’s duty to provide sex for her husband whenever he wanted it. This “duty” was enshrined into law – essentially giving carte blanche for husbands to rape their wives – and was called the marital rape exemption.

This law was abolished in the United Kingdom in 1991, and was taken off the books in the United States in 1993.

It wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century when husbands started to lose the absolute power they had held over their wives.

Women finally earned the right to work, which gave them more financial freedom, as they didn’t have to depend solely on a husband for food or shelter. This freedom also meant that a woman could choose a partner based on mutual attraction, and not just financial security.

At the same time, women’s attitudes toward sex also evolved, especially with the development of birth control. New forms of birth control allowed women to delay pregnancy, and in doing so, they had more freedom to explore relationships and sexuality, while also having the time to further their careers.

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