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The Anthropology of SexReview - The Anthropology of Sex
by Hastings Donnan
Berg, 2010
Review by Gustav Jahoda, Ph.D.
Jun 21st 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 25)

There was a time when scientific accounts of sexual behavior could only be published in Latin -- today no holds are barred. In the 19th century anthropologists obtained their data from missionaries and explorers. It was only during the second decade of the 20th century that they began to collect it themselves by living with the peoples studied. They saw their task as that of  providing an account of a whole culture (US) or social system (UK), and that included sexual customs . That traditional anthropology aimed at objective description, and over time the focus narrowed to specific topics;  one of them being sex.

Post-modern anthropologists hold objectivity to be an unattainable ideal, claiming that such descriptions are bound to be interpretations, and thereby quasi-fictions. Feminism has also been an important influence on both schools of recent anthropology, correcting the male bias of past writings. The authors of the present work are a balanced (male and female) team who have taken on the daunting task of compressing the huge anthropological literature that has a bearing on  sex into a relatively slender volume.

They draw their material from all over the world, and from the past to the present. They organized it into a number of major themes: parts of the body that have erotic significance and related symbolism, e.g. of head and pubic hair; dancing and sex, which is reminiscent of a French writer's aphorism: 'to dance is to spell the word "desire" vertically'; then there is the economics of sex -- prostitution and other kinds of commercial sex, as well as the novel phenomenon of sex tourism. In this section an important point is made, namely that the distinction between commercial and non-commercial sex is by no means as clear-cut as tends to be assumed.. For instance, I have seen in West Africa that girls often have a boy they love, and a more well-heeled 'friend' who provides them with luxuries. They certainly cannot be regarded as prostitutes.

One of the few references to important anthropological theories is to be found in the discussion of national borders as zones of concentration of commercial sex.

Here, as in other chapters, all kinds of intriguing bits of information are conveyed;; for instance, in the past US immigration classified women into wives, prostitutes, and lesbians on the basis of ethnic  stereotypes, keeping out the last two.. Another topic concerns the risks entailed by sexual relations across ethnic, religious, or other boundaries. The most notorious example is lynching in the southern United States,   but the issue was common during the colonial period and is now re-emerging with increasing geographical mobility. The authors also quote a protestant Northern Irishman who 'went numb' on discovering that he had had sex with a Catholic girl.

The topic of sex crimes covers rape, gang rape, child abuse, sexual torture, and extreme pornography.  Curiously some, mainly post-modern, anthropologists have compared classic ethnographic films to pornography! The final chapters trace the dramatic effects of globalization on 'the cultural categories of sex' in a variety of contexts.  One of these is on the debate about what is usually called 'genital mutilation' and which they call, rightly in my view, 'genital surgery'. In their conclusion they write:

Scholars who adopt the language of either universalism or cultural relativism, without considering how the social, economic, and political frameworks of sexual violence, for example, are reproduced by them, are in danger of imposing and naturalizing particular kinds of sexual difference and oppression through the very discourses that are intended to liberate them.

This is a kind of post-modernist/feminist rhetoric, fortunately rare in the body of the work, that needs a lot more explication than they provide. Generally, it also has to be said that many of the statements made are conjectural rather than factual (they may of course be correct).  For example, is it really the case that  . . . the taboo surrounding large breasts has . . . been lifted through pornography . . .' / Or again, is it true that Chinese gay men coupling with Europeans were usually below them,  but went on top once Britain left the former colony ? These are small niggles, but the reader should be warned not to take everything as God's truth.

          Altogether this is a splendid bricolage from which one can learn a lot and there is an extensive list of references, showing how much recent work has been done on the subject. The book will be useful for students, and general readers might also find it interesting; but if they expect titillation, they will be disappointed.

 

© 2011 Gustav Jahoda

 

 Gustav Jahoda, Ph.D. is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. His main fields of interest are cross-cultural and social psychology, especially the development of social cognition. He is the author of A History of Social Psychology (Cambridge University Press).


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