Book Review: Sex and Pleasure in Western Culture

2007. “Book Review: Sex and Pleasure in Western Culture”. Archives of Sexual Behavior 36(3): 471 – 472.

This is my self-archive version of this article. It is available online to those with access to the SpringerLink service, and be in print with the release of the July issue.

BOOK REVIEW: Sex and Pleasure in Western Culture

By Gail Hawkes, Polity Press, Cambridge, England, 2004, 207 pp., £50.00 (hardback); £15.99 (paperback).

The regulation and management of sexual desire is one of only a few well-documented cultural universals. In every society that has been studied, there exists some form of restriction as to whom one can or cannot view as potential sexual partners, whether this takes the form of incest taboos that forbid sexual relationships with family members, marriage rules that prevent access to other people’s partners, legal frameworks that restrict one to one’s own racial, class, or other grouping, or informal aesthetic restrictions that do the same. These restrictions are often thought of in terms of minimizing conflict between individuals, controlling reproduction, and promoting the formation of alliances between groups or group segments, but Hawkes’ volume suggests that these restrictions also need to be understood in the wider context of control over the social order. In this perspective, discourses on the sexual body express anxieties over the control—and potential loss of control—of the body politic, and suggest as well the channels through which social control will be asserted.

This volume explores the ramifications of this thesis in the development of Western society, beginning with the Greece of Plato and Socrates and moving through early Christianity and the establishment of the Church, through the rise of modernity in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, through the Victorian era, and up to the present. Along the way, Hawkes tracks concerns over sex and sexuality as embedded in philosophical, religious, medical, legal, and, finally, popular discourses, revealing both the mutability of attitudes towards desire and pleasure and the endurance of the underlying need to establish social order through the instrument of the sexual body. Although her argument rests on discourse analysis and thus is subject to some of the shortcomings of that mode of analysis, the depth of Hawkes’ timeline makes this book an important resource for situating attitudes towards sex in their proper historical and political perspective.

Hawkes’ primary concern is the relation between the control of sexual pleasure and the maintenance of the social order. Although this connection could theoretically take several different forms, Hawkes notes that, in Western culture, the relationship has been profoundly shaped by concerns about sex, sin, and the body held by early Gnostic Christians and carried forward with Christianity’s ascension to state power. By way of comparison, she offers classical Greece, with its stress on ”balance” as the key to a healthy mind and body. For Plato and his fellow citizens, sexual pleasure, particularly as taken in the aesthetic enjoyment of the male form, was one element among many essential to human accomplishment and even survival, provided that enjoyment be taken in moderation. Too little sexual pleasure could prove harmful to the body and mind, while too much signified something worse, a loss of control over and eventual enslavement to the need for pleasure.

For the early Christians, balance was considered neither healthy nor desirable—sex was not merely a temptation to sin, but sin in and of itself. Guided by a belief in sex as the source of original sin, and thus in celibacy as a means to became untenable, the social reproduction of the state being dependent on the sexual reproduction of its subjects. Augustine tempered but did not wholly repudiate the earlier view, establishing sex within the bonds of marriage as a duty to God and to Church, to be enjoyed not as a source of pleasure but as the fulfillment of an obligation. To discourage the ”wrong” kind of sex, Augustine and his successors advocated a sexuality explicitly intended to minimize sexual pleasure.

By the dawn of the modern era, Augustine’s compromise was fully ensconced in Western understandings of sexuality—so much so, in fact, that when alternative views of sex and pleasure began to emerge in the courtly literature of the late Middle Ages and the medical discourse of the Renaissance, they took for granted marriage as the only acceptable site for sexual pleasure. Adulterous, homosexual, and onanistic pleasures were defined as deviant and unhealthy, the transfer of pleasure into domains in which pleasure had no (acceptable) place. These unauthorized pleasures were placed under regimes of surveillance that intensified steadily until the 20th century when, with the advent and acceptance of scientific approaches to the study of sex, authorities like Freud, Stopes, and Kinsey recast pleasure of any sort as a natural, healthy, and necessary function of the human body. The new scientific literature was taken up by both activists and the general populace, and within a few decades, legal and medical regimes began crumbling—clearing the way for new sets of sexual controls to slide into place with the commodification of sex, pleasure, and desire through the medium of advertisement, fashion, and popular entertainment.

Although this volume is convincingly and engagingly written as a whole, Hawkes is at her best when she focuses on ”the Sexual Century,” the last hundred years with its apparent explosion of pleasures rapidly channeled into bland consumerism. However, the work is not without its problems. The first, more minor issue is that Hawkes’ dependence on literature either written in or translated to English greatly limits the scope of her work. By the middle of the text, she has essentially forsaken ”Western culture” as a whole for one small English-speaking corner of it. Later chapters expand the scope to include the USA and redemption and ultimate salvation, sex even between husband and wife was deeply problematic for the early Christians—given the imminence of the Second Coming, it was unnecessary for the continuation of the Christian community. With the elevation of Christianity to a state religion following the conversion of Constantine, and the realization that the Second Coming might be further away than was originally thought, the early Christian view of sex Australia, but we are left to our own devices to determine how representative the trends described here are of Western culture overall.

Second, and more importantly, Hawkes’ use of fairly straight-forward discourse analysis limits her to the attitudes and understandings set down by the relatively small number of literate elites, and raises the question of how the concerns and understandings of those who wrote and consumed these documents relates to the sexual practices of the non-elites allegedly controlled. While her argument that concerns about the social order found their outlet in concerns about sex and pleasure is well-formed, the fact that the same concerns emerge repeatedly over the course of over two millennia suggests that the documents she presents functioned as little more than elite hand-wringing over a sexual and social order continuously slipping out of their control. With a couple of exceptions—the particularly harsh public confessions of the early Church, a handful of laws passed in the Middle Ages and the early Modern period—Hawkes avoids detailing the mechanism by which concerns about social order translated into actual social control. On a related note, the reliance on written documents means our only insight into the sexual attitudes of ”the people” is through the imaginings of literate—and anxious—elites.

These issues should not detract overmuch from Hawkes’ overall accomplishment; rather, they suggest areas for further improvement and research to test the framework she has erected. Primarily a work of literary analysis, the book suggests avenues for exploration using the tools of historical, anthropological, and sociological investigation. It also opens up the possibility of cross-cultural examination to explore how different social orders might produce drastically different notions of sex and pleasure. Hawkes herself recognizes the necessarily limited scope of her work, which, after all, reviews nearly three millennia of sexual history in just under 200 pages. Within these restraints of length and disciplinary orientation, this volume largely succeeds as a general overview of changing ideas about sex over a vast time span, illuminating an important connection between these notions and the social order of which they are a part.

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