Sexuality: A Very Short Introduction

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OUP Oxford, Apr 24, 2008 - Health & Fitness - 168 pages
What shapes our sexuality? Is it a product of our genes, or of society, culture, and politics? How have concepts of sexuality and sexual norms changed over time? How have feminist theories, religion, and HIV/AIDS affected our attitudes to sex? Focusing on the social, political, and psychological aspects of sexuality, this Very Short Introduction examines these questions and many more, exploring what shapes our sexuality, and how our attitudes to sex have in turn shaped the wider world. Revealing how our assumptions about what is 'normal' in sexuality have, in reality, varied widely across time and place, this book tackles the major topics and controversies that still confront us when issues of sex and sexuality are discussed: from sex education, HIVAIDS, and eugenics, to religious doctrine, gay rights, and feminism. ABOUT THE SERIES: The Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press contains hundreds of titles in almost every subject area. These pocket-sized books are the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly. Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, perspective, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make interesting and challenging topics highly readable.

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The fascination, some would argue the obsession, with sex and gender has come to be (together with race and class) one of the cornerstones of modern humanistic scholarship. The view of sexuality that has come to dominate the modern academic discourse is largely based on the idea of sexuality as a particular cultural construct, much like a religious ritual or a political system. In that regard the study of sexuality is reduced to the study of ideas about sexuality, mostly through the prism of literary and philosophical writings throughout the history. Of course, this line of inquiry is highly restricted: it places premium on societies and cultures that left behind a lot of textual evidence, which probably skews the impression about what sexual norms were like throughout history. This book plays wholeheartedly into that narrative about sexuality. It subscribes wholeheartedly into the whole view of history of sexuality as mostly care-free, except for that long backward interlude of oppressive Christian attitudes. This becomes particularly glaring when in attempt to prove its points it sacrifices historical continuity and jumps back and forth through writings of Augustine, Calvin, Luther and Origen without necessarily pointing out that they were separated by more than a thousand years.
Most of the philosophical outlook of this book can be traced to Michel Faoucolt and his "History of Sexuality." Having one particular ideological outlook feature so prominently hardly makes this into a book with a broad outlook or utility.
The book repeats and reemphasizes the supposed distinction between "sex" and "gender." This is really a distinction without difference. Nowadays it only has much currency in academic circles, and predominantly in humanities.
The biological basis of sexuality receives the worst treatment, its main points barely being mentioned in a single sentence. On the other hand the criticism of the biological model receives many subsequent paragraphs. This is patently absurd: sex is the biological process par excellence, and to neglect the biological basis of sex is like neglecting the physical basis of gravity. Yes, you can still talk a lot about how people have conceptualized it over the millennia, but this would not do justice to the subject.
Most of the book is focused on the politics of sexuality from the middle of the nineteenth century until the present. Some of the most arcane and idiosyncratic political theories are described and discussed, oftentimes in terms of academic jargon straight out of a graduate seminar in humanities. The book is as exciting to read as watching an old lady clip her toenails. I can't imagine that a book on the most fun topic imaginable can be as dry and boring. If you are into the whole postmodern-deconstruction-critiques-analysis stuff, this might be the book for you. Otherwise, save a few books and instead of buying this book and go out with a group of friends to a bar and trade stories. You'll certainly learn more about sex that way.
One good thing about this book is the quality of writing. Material for the most part is presented in a clear and readable way, at the high level that one has come to expect from similar books in the "very short introduction" series.


1 Before sexuality
2 The invention of sexuality
3 Virgins or whores? Feminist critiques of sexuality
4 The state in the bedroom
5 The future of sex
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About the author (2008)

Véronique Mottier is Fellow and Director of Studies in Social and Political Sciences at Jesus College, Cambridge and Professor of Sociology at the University of Lausanne. Her research interests include the politics of sexuality and gender, theories of the state, feminist political philosophy and discourse analysis, and she has published widely in these areas. Her previous books include Politics of Sexuality: Identity, Gender, Citizenship (2006, co-edited with Terrell Carver).

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