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Regulating Sex collects
fourteen essays on the subject of how states regulate their citizens' sexual
conduct. It brings together academics from various disciplines (predominantly
sociology, but also criminology, law, genderstudies and American studies) and
nationalities, providing for a diversity of perspectives on the subject.
Despite this diversity of
viewpoints and research methods, there is a common theme which runs throughout
the book. Central to this theme is the observation that liberal states
presuppose sexuality: they deem it a 'natural' thing and therefore relegate it
to the presocial or private domain. Liberalism considers sex as neither a
political subject, nor a public activity. The main line of argument in Regulating
Sex, however,is that states consider sex as natural only when it is
practiced in private, within the context of a heterosexual monogamous
relationship between adults. It is observed that sexual expressions
transgressing these implicit norms are controlled, suppressed or even
criminalized. The various essays prove this normativity to be socially
constructed through a complex interplay between family, social, criminal and
other laws, on the one hand, and public discourses, institutions and social
actors, on the other. Moreover, statistic data on the effects of the laws
mentioned, are shown to display gendered, heterosexist and racialized outcomes.
Contrary to liberalism's implicit
sexual normativity then, the essays in Regulating Sex embody the notion
that sex is political and take it up as an important subject of public
debate, thereby challenging the traditional private/public divide. Building on
feminist and queer theory, they show the false neutrality of different
regulations of sexuality. The combination of
these varied subjects into one volume does not only provide for a very
strong argument for sexual freedom, but also offers new perspectives on debates
as varied as same-sex partnership and parenthood, transgender rights, human
trafficking, sex work, sex tourism, adolescent sexuality and child abuse.
Part One combines chapters by Mary
Bernstein, William Rountree, Paisley Currah and Shannon Minter on regulations
concerning same-sex intimacy and transgender identity. These authors point to
the fact that liberal freedom and equality are not available for those who do
not conform to the binary gender system and explore the different political,
legal and social strategies that can be adopted for achieving more justice in
The ambivalent attitude of states
concerning sexual commerce is questioned in Part Two. Wendy Chapkis, Laura Ma
Agustín, Julia O'Connell Davidson, Jacqueline Sánchez Taylor and
co-editor Elizabeth Bernstein leave aside the question of the political
significance of prostitution and of whether and how it should be discouraged.
Instead they focus on the ways market forces and material inequalities on both
local and global levels influence the social meanings attached to the trading
of sex for material goods. These authors make clear that regulations in these
areas are just as often about controlling borders (of a wealthy nation, of a
city's scarce public space or of the nuclear family) as it is about sex.
The policing of borders plays an
even more important role in Part Three, in which Kjersti Ericsson, Kerwin Kaye,
Penelope Saunders and co-editor Laurie Schaffner explore the ways in which
states constitute the sexual boundaries of childhood. Without an exception,
they find that the numerous
contemporary studies in childhood sociology and anthropology as well as most
children's rights advocates have largely ignored childhood sexuality.
Children's exposure to sexuality is still considered a danger to society, but
an important shift has occurred in opinions about children who have had sexual contacts (whether or not these were
wanted, unwanted or given in return for 'favors'). While such children were
previously considered 'wild', abnormal, dangerous or even criminal, they have
now gained the status of 'victims' in the public debate. Even though this is a
change for the better, the authors argue that this novel status attaches too
much moral worth to the notion of childhood innocence, a notion, moreover,
which is highly gendered.
The fourth and final part of Regulating
Sex deals with possible methods of addressing sex as the complex
social-political issue that it is and makes suggestions for the future. In this
part, Gert Hekma, Steven Seidman, Janet R. Jakobsen and Elizabeth Lapovsky
Kennedy search for meaningful strategies to attain sexual justice and freedom
beyond the limitations of liberal conceptions of tolerance and privacy. A
healthy amount of resistance against assimilation into the liberal paradigm and
a combination of legislative campaigning, litigation and cultural movements are
proposed as essential ingredients for achieving theultimate goal of
This collection of political essays on sex,is as interesting as it
is remarkable. It shows how the regulation of sex is much more diverse, much
stronger and much more heteronormative and gendered than most citizens suspect.
It also shows how sex can have more diverse and meaningful outlets than most states
endorse, for more diverse groups of people. And finally, it points out several
ways in which citizens can combine forces to further the struggle for more
sexual freedom and justice.
Despite this last remark, Regulating
Sex, as predicted in the editors' introduction, is rather a book which
raises "probing questions about regulations of intimate life" than
one which formulates concrete models of political action. It is a book which
puts forward a great number of interesting questions concerning what turns out
to be one and the same problem, but which does not provide for coördinated
answers or solutions. This is, of course, inherent to its framework. Had the
editors chosen for a more integrative approach, instead of this mosaďc of
free-standing articles, perhaps the main arguments would have come across more
clearly. It might even have been possible to point more firmly in the direction
of potentially successfull strategies of social change, since a number of the
essays do overlap in their general recommendations.
However, even if this mosaic
structure could be called a flaw, it is at the same time the book's main
strength, because where conclusions converge and suggestions for further
strategies overlap between essays written independently by authors with such
diverse viewpoints and research methods, this only makes for a stronger argument. Moreover, the editors'
introduction does a great job at compensating for the fragmentary composition
by explaining the unity of the work and stressing the most important points of
Regulating Sex is therefore
much more than the sum of its components and a refreshing must-read for
scholars in the field.
© 2006 Aagie Ieven
Ieven received a Bachelor's Degree in Medical Science and a Master's Degree
in Philosophy from the University of Leuven, Belgium. She is currently working
there as a teaching assistant in the field of legal and political philosophy
and is in the process of obtaining a PhD.