Dr Stuart Basten
Wieringa, Saskia and Horacio Sívori (eds) The Sexual History of the Global South Zed Books, London and New York. ISBN 0 781780 324029
The book is an outcome of the large-scale, international project which served to network and train researchers in ‘the global south’, with a special focus here on the ‘complex interplay between cultural genealogies and the politics of gender relations and sexual behaviour. The element concerned with sexual history in this ‘South-South Exchange Programme for Research on the History of Development’ linked these issues to wider processes of state formation and global transformations and the concomitant impact upon (the strengthening of) patriarchal relations, heteronormativity, and conservative control.
As the introduction points out, however, there is clearly a theoretical barrier to such a ‘Sexual History of the Global South’ in that, at least in a Foucauldian sense, sexuality is a ‘recent Western invention’ with roots in modernist discourse. Viewing the sexual history of the Global South through this same lens, therefore, could be problematic. However, Wieringa and Sivori’s excellent introductory chapter tackles this ‘head-on’ by proposing a new ‘road-map’ to a transnational approach to the study of sexuality. For them, the avoidance of a narrative which is neither reflective of hegemonic Western concerns, no ‘dispersed into unconnected fragments’ is to design an integrative, reflexive trajectory of micro-geographies of global sexualities. The book is designed to do just that – or at least to make tentative first steps into that direction.
A constant strand through the book is the ‘management’ of sexual (‘dangerous’) desires through expressions of bio-power directed either at sexual dissidents or as a disciplining process of society as a whole. While such bio-power finds expressions in public health, population control and – in extremis – eugenic movements, it is in the sphere of heteronormativity and the moral codification of sexuality that the majority of the authors stress its primary expression. Indeed, a number of chapters explore the liminal zone of extra-heterosexual behaviour in the context of stepping out of the familial sphere – the traditional setting of private pleasures.
There are some very broad, expansive survey chapters which paint general narrative and thematic discourses of given meta-themes. Huang Yingying’s chapter on ‘Sex and sexuality studies in post-1978 China is as good a survey to the subject as this reviewer has yet seen. Accessible in nature, yet rigourous in empirical and theoretical approach, the chapter should be required reading for students of sexuality studies in East Asia. Similarly, Iman Al-Ghafari’s chapter entitled ‘The ‘lesbian’ existence in Arab cultures: historical and sociological perspectives’ again represents a wonderfully rich, theoretically challenging attempt to navigate this ‘unwritten history.’ Hardik Brata Biswas’ chapter ‘The obscene modern and the pornographic family: adventures in Bangla pornography’ represented a magisterial sweep through a century-and-a-half of such literature and its role in shaping, and reaffirming the ‘heteronormative structures of family, marriage, and the consumption of women by men.’ Nitya Vasudevan’s “Public women’ and the ‘obscene’ body: an exploration of abolition debates in India’ was also impressive in its scope.
The majority of chapters, however, represent micro-level analyses of the navigation of sexualities in particular locations and often in the context of challenges heteronormative hegemony. The role played by sexuality (and deviance) in shaping both the colonial experience of government and the process of nation-building was a theme addressed in a number of chapters, particularly Abel Sierra Madero’s ‘Sexing the nation’s body during the Cuban republican era’; ‘Government and the control of venereal disease in colonial Tanzania, 1920-1960’ by Musa Sadock; and Basile Ndijo’s ‘Sexuality and nationalist ideologies in post-colonial Cameroon’. All three shone a new light on the often hidden) role of sexuality in the ‘Southern’ transition to modernity/statehood which is widely noted in Western literature, not least by George Mosse.
Other chapters in the book cover contemporary studies of male homosexuality in Kerralam (Kumaramkandath); female criminality in Brazil (Cordeiro) and premarital sexual ‘adventures’ in Zimbabwe (Masvawure) while the late twentieth-century male homosexuality in Mexico City (Teutle López) and gay and lesbian activism in 1980’s Argentina (Sempol) are also studied. Each of these studies were meticulously researched and fascinating in their own right. Furthermore, each attempted to engage with the broader theoretical ‘project’ of the editors with regard to the framing and development of a sexual history/histories of the global South.
Managing edited volumes is always a challenge given the heterogeneity of both themes covered and approaches taken. It appears the editors went for a (very broadly) chronological approach with no ‘Parts’, or ‘clustering’ of chapters. This means that sometimes the transitions between chapters can be a little ‘jarring’ with regard to the wide array of themes, approaches and geographical areas covered. Furthermore, at times it was felt that more cross-referencing between chapters could have been possible – especially given the collaborative-project nature of the book’s genesis.
In sum, the editors recognise that the creation of a ‘Sexual History of the Global South’ will, perhaps by necessity, be something of ‘plurality of discourses’ which are ‘arbitrarily selected for inclusion in this volume. However, this is certainly a noble and important volume which is more than the sum of its parts, and one which does, indeed, accurately reflect some of the ‘multiple, hybrid, alternative modernities’ which are being produced in the Global South.
Dr. Stuart Basten is currently ESRC Research Fellow in Demography and Social Policy at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford. His research examines the relationship between social policy and family dynamics in developing and middle-income countries with a special focus on Asia. He received his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2008. He has been a member of FWSA since 2009. Follow him on Twitter: @stuartbasten, and visit his project website: asiafamily.org