Friday, November 03, 2006

Review: Sex Wars

[Lisa Duggan and Nan D. Hunter. Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture, 10th Anniversary Edition. New York: Routledge, 2006.]

I don't often write about sexuality on this site. It is certainly something I am quite aware of as a component of my personal journey, and I have long had at least some appreciation for how powerful but misunderstood a role it plays in broader politics and in social movement functioning. But, good little post-Presbyterian that I am, I tend to default towards silence on the subject. Even as I have regularly posted book reviews here, a disproportionate number of books that have ended up in my personal "read but not reviewed" category have been related to this topic. But not this one.

I got this book from my partner as a sort of belated birthday present. She saw one of the authors, Lisa Duggan, speak on the politics of marriage while we were living in Los Angeles, and absolutely adored her. She subsequently got one of Duggan's other books from the UCLA library, and I read, liked, and reviewed it. So I was happy to receive this one.

Duggan is a feminist and a historian of queer communities and movements. Nan Hunter is a feminist and a legal scholar who concentrates on queer issues. This book is a collection of essays by one or the other or both of them (occasionally with another co-author) written over the course of about twenty years. It is a reworking of a book first published ten years ago; the current edition has been updated to include newer essays and a current chronology of the role of sexuality in U.S. politics since 1966.

The essays cover a number of fairly distinct areas. The oldest material originally functioned as interventions in the struggles around pornography and censorship among U.S. feminists in the 1980s, on the anti-censorship side. I have tended to engage warily with material from the intra-feminist wars on sexual topics because people I know personally hold very strongly conflicting opinions on these issues, because the debates have been so vicious at times, and because material from all sides is very able to push my buttons pretty powerfully, both in good ways as important political challenges and bad ways as triggers for unhealthy personal "stuff", all of which is a lot of emotional work. I braced myself in this instance, plunged in, and was kind of disappointed. The material was quite specifically produced to oppose the municipal ordinances co-sponsored in several cities by right-wing groups and a subset of radical feminists in the early and mid '80s, but it does not engage as fully as I had hoped with the related issues that go beyond those very specific attempts at regulation.

Perhaps the least directly interesting-to-me material is the essays, mostly by Hunter, dealing with the evolution of the legal treatment of queer people and relationships in the United States. It's important stuff, but I read quite a bit of related material with a Canadian focus about two years ago so it wasn't a completely new area for me, and I didn't find this briefer treatment of laws in a jurisdiction I do not inhabit to be terribly exciting.

There were some interesting essays by Duggan on queer history -- not so much actual works of history themselves, but essays on the doing of queer history. I quite liked those but wished for more depth.

The essays I enjoyed the most were those, mostly by Duggan, which were interventions into political debates within and about queer movements. I remain a little disappointed by her apparent lack of passion around her proposals for a new agenda related to marriage -- or perhaps what is lacking is not passion but rhetorical fluorish -- but I have to admit she is much more practical about it than anything I might have written before I read her stuff. I think my favourite piece in the book was her essay on the intersection of class and queer politics using the murder of Brandon Teena (widely known because of the film Boys Don't Cry starring Hilary Swank) as its focus. She has written elsewhere in more depth about the inherent interconnectedness of class politics and the so-called "culture wars" in the U.S. -- I think that analysis is very important and I hope she returns to the subject in future writing.

I think I'm faintly disappointed by this book overall, but I don't think it really deserves that. I think I went in hoping to be blown away, and a collection of material written over such a length of time and on related but different topics just won't do that. It is an important resources and I'm glad to have read it. And glad to have reviewed it.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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