BOOK REVIEW – SEX CULTURES

REVIEW OF SEX CULTURES BY AMIN GHAZIANI. Cambridge: Polity press, 2017

REVIEW BY JAMES LAWRENCE SLATTERY, UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER, UK

Part of Polity Press’ ‘Cultural Sociology’ series, Sex Cultures is a recent book that sets out to give a clear and concise overview of the ways sexuality is forged through and interacts with historical and contemporary western (primarily North American) cultures. The central argument is repeatedly emphasised by the formulation that “sex + culture = sexuality”, a model which works to both distinguish and link the physical, bodily incarnations of sex with various cultural registers. With this formula Ghaziani is, at times, hesitant to overtly encourage the assumption that there is a biological “sex” that (possibly) exists before culture, though the deeper theoretical unpacking required to undermine this deep set assumption is limited by the book’s positioning as an introductory text to sexuality.

LGBT- and hetero-sexualities are examined across four chapters, with various sections including case studies with follow up questions and further “Questions to consider” at the end of each chapter. This format clearly indicates the book’s use for a classroom environment, and I would broadly characterise the book’s audience as being between final year high-school and first year university students or those exploring an initial interest in sexuality studies from a social-sciences perspective. At times the book is perhaps a bit too text-book in the sense that it is purposefully designed to be clear and accessible through using a rhetoric specific to an educational setting, potentially leaving out more philosophical or uncomfortable questions and assertions that could challenge the status-quo of identity, the framing of identity through language and the role of the educational institution itself as encouraging and/or discouraging modes of expression. Despite this, the questions asked are open-ended, designed to encourage readers to integrate discussions around sexuality into their daily lives by considering media representations and rhetorical devices, challenge conventional labelling, and question methods used in information gathering techniques and statistics.

‘Chapter 1:The City’ looks at the forming and subsequent gentrification of “gaybourhoods” across the USA and Europe. It tracks the changing contexts of increasing urbanisation, the production of the taxonomy of the “homosexual”, and changing attitudes toward LGBT people from the straight population. ‘Chapter 2: Politics and Protest’ begins by considering the implications of the rise in mainstream LGBT visibility and goes on to look at a history of protest from various political groups and, more generally, why and how cycles of protest might occur. Of course Stonewall is given particular attention, as well as later movements and groups including Queer Nation and ACT UP amongst others, before moving onto the (ongoing) battles surrounding marriage equality. Ghaziani is consistently conscious of noting intersections of gay liberation with other protest movements such as the New Left, anti-war and Black Power, as well as noting gay liberation’s conservative, patriarchal and whitewashed incarnations. Though intersectionality within already marginalised groups is not the central focus of the book, the inclusion of solidarities and tensions within mainstream and marginalised groups is relevant and necessary in further informing how sexuality varies and combines as a social entity across heterogeneous experiences and cultures. ‘Chapter 3: Heterosexualities’ considers the multiplicities of heterosexualities and the slippages and/or transgressions that frequent the heterosexual matrix by looking at the Victorian invention of the taxonomy of heterosexuality and subsequent forms of hegemony it has encouraged. This chapter also recaps important legislative history such as Bowers v. Hardwick, and modern cultures of “experimentation”, university fraternity hazing rituals and metrosexuality.The concluding chapter, ‘Studying Sexuality’, is primarily devoted to mapping how information gathering techniques and statistics phrase and count LGBT and heterosexual populations, highlighting the difficulties (perhaps even impossibilities) of pinning down sexualities into a set of criteria, stable identities or tick-boxes.

Ghaziani’s own opinion is notably absent from the book, suggesting the aim to  present a fair and balanced picture that includes multiple perspectives on both broad and specific issues. By outlining movements and events that have effected, constructed and formed modern sexual cultures, Ghaziani has produced an accessible, useful pathway for those wanting to start exploring historical and social movements concerning sexuality as well as providing a refresher for those more familiar with the topic. As someone who engages with sexuality studies primarily through theoretical discourse (other than lived experience), it was certainly useful to go “back to basics” and be reminded of historical timelines and important moments of legislation. Sex Cultures directs its tone to those beginning to develop an interest in sexuality studies that might potentially find the rhetoric of more theoretical works intimidating.

CONTRIBUTOR

James’s work currently considers whether queerness can still be framed as a tool of anti-capitalist resistance, looking at how LGBTQAI+ identity politics have been assimilated into the culture of neoliberalism, and asks how temporality functions in the production of subjectivity. They attempt to explore and unpack these ideas through looking at film, television and video art, both mainstream and avant-garde. From September 2019, James will be a PhD candidate in the School of Arts, Language and Cultures at the University of Manchester. Their research title is “Taking Back Desire: Visions and Queerness and Capitalism in Time”. This project is fully funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership and supervised by Dr David Alderson.

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