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Regulating SexReview - Regulating Sex
The Politics of Intimacy and Identity
by Elizabeth Bernstein and Laurie Schaffner (Editors)
Routledge, 2004
Review by Aagje Ieven, M.A.
Jan 29th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 4)

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 this respect.

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 sexual justice.

 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 convergence.

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



Aagje 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.


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