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Handbook New Sexuality StudiesReview - Handbook New Sexuality Studies
by Steven Seidman, Nancy Fischer, and Chet Meeks (Editor)
Routledge, 2007
Review by John Z. Sadler, M.D.
Jan 22nd 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 4)

In the process of doing my library research for my current book project, I have learned a lot of things that I wasn't taught in medical school or in my psychiatry residency training.  One generally-agreed upon historical finding is that the notion of "sexuality" and related concepts like "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" are relatively new, having appeared only late in the 19th century.  At least in the West, prior to that time one's sexual activities didn't figure into a sense of identity -- cultural, personal, or otherwise.  Sex was procreative, and sexual behaviors outside of that end were marginalized into moral failings, crimes, temptations, and deviances.  Cultural regulation of sexual behavior had a moral-religious basis.  In this era, a person who had same-sex anal intercourse was a pederast or sodomite, and this was in most 19th-century Western views a crime and a moral failing.  Common-sense psychology, particularly lay belief governed by prevailing Christian norms, saw everyone as potentially a sinner, everyone was susceptible to sins of the flesh, and so anyone could, in principle, fall to sundry temptations, sexual activities included. 

A variety of social changes contributed to the birth of "sexuality" as a component of personhood and identity. Secularization, urbanization, and the rise of empirical science, among other factors contributed to a feminizing of men into white-collar jobs, and a masculinizing of women through employment opportunities, child care, suffrage, and the like. In the history of psychiatry, European clinicians like Richard von Krafft-Ebing redefined sexual deviance as illness rather than as a moral failing, and began to describe "sexualities" as we know them today, sexual practices tightly embedded in a larger personal and cultural lifestyle, complete with their own places to congregate, personal styles of dress and comportment, and (sub-) cultural rules and mores.  The concepts of "homosexual" and "heterosexual" were born out of a need to describe these broader cultural meanings associated with "sex".  The birth of the science of "sexology" over the same period mirrored many of the changes in attitude and assumption; sexology under Havelock Ellis was still largely focused on sex-as-reproduction as the governing norm; by the time of Masters and Johnson in the 1960s and 1970s, we, the culture, read about "The Pleasure Bond."  The founder of SIECUS, Mary Calderone, summarized the contemporary notion of sexuality very concretely: "Sexuality means everything that you are, that you were born with, that you experienced, that you thought about, that happened to you, that relates to your being a sexual person."  (Irvine 2002  p. 31)

This "handbook" edited by Seidman, Fischer, and Meeks either reflects, or perhaps even promotes, an even broader sexual diversity, and continues the loosening of sex/gender-related norms of the past century.  All three editors are from the discipline of sociology (Seidman at SUNY-Albany, Fischer from Augsburg College, Meeks from Georgia State) and it is clear that the book emerges from the qualitative, rather than quantitative, strand of sociology.  Statistics and data sets are quite rare, the book content combines very brief and highly focused literature reviews, interviews with mostly prominent scholars in the field of sexuality studies, and what I would characterize as collections of testimonials by persons of various sexualities having been interviewed "in the field".  The thematic emphasis is on sexual diversity and not mainstream convention, so I would imagine the Christian Right will be appalled, if ever this book catches their attention.  Those seeking a level playing field for sexual diversity will be pleased.

The guiding theme in the book is that sexuality is "socially constructed" or learned, rather than being a biological.  To this end the book presents 65 short chapters and 489 pages describing the blooming diversity of sexual practices, belief systems, ideologies, and subcultures in the West today.  It appears to be written as a textbook, the chapters are generally easy reads, the citations sample the literature, but the price ($190 at Amazon) is prohibitive for most students I know. 

I have a mixed assessment for this book.  As a introductory resource for the full diversity of sexuality today, it has appeal because of the nitty-gritty descriptions and the broad scope.  The topics range from the sexually pedestrian (orgasm, sexual intercourse) to the ethnocultural ("Coming out in Italy," "Transgendering", "Sex and young Japanese heterosexual men") to the commercial ("Sexual Tourism" ,"Sex Workers", "The American Porn Industry") to the regulatory ("The Marriage Contract", "Law and regulation of the obscene", "medical therapeutic regulation of sexuality").  Many of the chapters are eye-openers, (though no pictures are included), and I found discussions here that I have never seen in the psychiatric and clinical psychological literature.  However, two general problems diminished the value of the book for me: (1) the anecdotal, nonsystematic, and often superficial nature of the literature reviews and (2) the confounding of concepts and key terms, making evaluation of claims very difficult.  For example, the repetition of the "social construction of sexuality" approached mantra status, yet this is banal in that the sexuality concept is defined in terms of social meanings.  So the dismissal of sexual biology is the consequence of a tautology, and therefore quite unilluminating.  The smorgasbord approach to sexual lifestyles was enlightening insofar as illustrating the diversity of sexualities, but one cannot determine how representative the discussions are for any "group".  There is little in the way of generalizable knowledge to be gleaned, other than for general concepts like "sexuality" which introduced this review (and was familiar to the reviewer already).  Those interested in a more rigorous approach to the histories of sexualities, see Garton 2004, Nye 1999, Porter and Hall 1995,  or Weeks 2003.   For those interested in the empirical sociology of sexualities, you'll have to look elsewhere. 

References

Garton, S.  2004.  Histories of sexuality: Antiquity to sexual revolution.  New York: Routledge.

Irvine, J.  2002.  Talk about sex: The battles for sex education in the United States.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nye, R.A. (ed.)  1999.  Sexuality.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Porter, R and Hall, L.  1995.  The facts of life: The creation of sexual knowledge in Britain, 1650-1950.  New Haven: Yale University Press. 

© 2008 John Z. Sadler

John Z. Sadler, M.D. is the Daniel W. Foster, M.D. Professor of Medical Ethics, and Professor of Psychiatry and Clinical Sciences at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, and Professor of Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas.   His most recent book is Values and Psychiatric Diagnosis (Oxford University Press) and has recently finished a new book with philosopher Jennifer Radden, Ph.D., provisionally titled The Virtuous Psychiatrist: Character Ethics in Clinical Practice.

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