Global Sex
by Dennis Altman
University of Chicago Press, 2001
Cloth: 978-0-226-01606-1 | Paper: 978-0-226-01605-4 | Electronic: 978-0-226-01604-7
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226016047.001.0001


Global Sex is the first major work to take on the globalization of sexuality, examining the ways in which desire and pleasure—as well as ideas about gender, political power, and public health—are framed, shaped, or commodified by a global economy in which more and more cultures move into ever-closer contact.


Dennis Altman is a professor in the School of Politics, Sociology, and Anthropology at La Trobe University, Australia. He is the author of eight books, including AIDS in the Mind of America and Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation.


Preface: Sex and Politics

One: Introduction: Thinking about Sex and Politics

Two: The Many Faces of Globalization

Three: Sex and Political Economy

Four: The (Re)Discovery of Sex

Five: Imagining AIDS: And the New Surveillance

Six: The Globalization of Sexual Identities

Seven: The New Commercialization of Sex: From Forced Prostitution to Cybersex

Eight: Sexual Politics and International Relations

Nine: Squaring the Circle: The Battle for “Traditional” Morality

Ten: Conclusion: A Global Sexual Politics?





1. Introduction: Thinking about Sex and Politics

How--and why--do we connect two of the dominant preoccupations of current social science and popular debate, namely globalization and the preoccupation with sexuality? Or, more concretely, is the increasing globalization of the world--understood as both "the compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole"--affecting the ways in which sexuality is understood, experienced, and regulated?

It is the argument of this book that changes in our understandings of and attitudes to sexuality are both affected by and reflect the larger changes of globalization. Moreover, as with globalization itself, the changes are simultaneously leading to greater homogeneity and greater inequality. As all but insignificant pockets of the world's peoples are brought within the scope of global capitalism, a consumer culture is developing which cuts across borders and cultures, and is universalized through advertising, mass media, and the enormous flows of capital and people in the contemporary world. Increasingly sexuality becomes a terrain on which are fought out bitter disputes around the impact of global capital and ideas.

Gilbert Herdt has written of the long neglect of sexuality in the social sciences at large: "Until quite recently, the social sciences remained preoccupied with gender but had scarcely begun to conceptualize desire, notwithstanding the prodding of Foucault." His point remains valid, even if we need to recognize that often sex has relatively little to do with desire. It is of course true that in recent years certain sorts of studies of sexuality, often coded in the arcane language of literary and cultural theory, have become academically fashionable. It is also true that these studies are largely ignored in the burgeoning literature on globalization written by political scientists and economists. Equally those who do concern themselves with questions of sexuality and gender often ignore questions of material and institutional power. Alison Murray came closer to the truth when she warned that "[t]he academy has progressed from women's studies to gender to sexuality, getting closer to the cunt of the matter while continuing to marginalise class, race and alternative subject-voices," a view echoed in Nancy Fraser's concerns that contemporary "difference" feminism ignores political economy. A good example, as we shall see, is the paucity of material analyzing pornography and prostitution as industries rather than as problems of morality.

Sex is framed by social, cultural, political, and economic factors--and remains a powerful imperative resistant to all of these. Perhaps this explains the resistance to theories of social constructionism, which its critics see as attempts to tame something which survives all human attempts at control. The tension is summed up in a passage from a piece Michael Ignatieff wrote about the bathhouses of Budapest, a legacy of Turkish occupation: "The Kiraly isn't a gay bathhouse: the pleasure of the place consists precisely in its blurring of sexual boundaries, in its acceptance that gay and straight belong here together . . . I ask my masseur as he works his way up my calves, Is there more sex now than under Communism? He shrugs. The question seems ridiculous in this place. In the time zone of the bathhouses, regimes come and go, along with their styles in moral censure. Only the pleasures of the body endure."

But however seductive the phrase, "the pleasures of the body" cannot be separated from the world outside. People who are undernourished, sick, pregnant, old, or threatened by potential violence will experience their bodies very differently, and only when political and economic conditions allow can we engage in certain "pleasures." Indeed bodily pleasure is often shaped by political and economic conditions; a sex worker in a Calcutta brothel is unlikely to experience her body in ways similar to that of her customers (or indeed to that of a high-class "escort" in Manhattan). Beryl Langer has observed that "[w]hile the tortured body is as emblematic of global postmodernity as the playful lycra/leather-clad body, it receives much less attention from theoretical explorers of the‘postmodern condition.'" Yet torture often comes with sexual overtones, which is reified and trivialized in some pornography.

Sexuality is an area of human behavior, emotion, and understanding which is often thought of as "natural" and "private," even though it is simultaneously an arena of constant surveillance and control. What is understood as "natural" varies considerably across cultures and is policed by a large range of religious, medical, legal, and social institutions. Equally there are many ways of understanding the links between sex and politics, ranging from the regulation of contraception and abortion through to espionage, where sex has been central, or so at least novelists like to believe. (Though it was the head of the CIA, Allen Dulles, who once said: "So long as there is sex it is going to be used in espionage.") Societies regulate sex through religious and cultural prohibitions, ceremonies and rules; through legal, scientific, hygiene, and health policies; through government restrictions and encouragement; and through a whole range of practices which form part of everyday life, and constitute what Gayle Rubin termed the "sex/gender system."

Almost all "traditional" (by which I mean preindustrial) societies appear to be organized with strong homosocial components, so that men and women often exist in largely separate worlds, and marriage and heterosexual sex is highly regulated through ceremony and ritual, usually involving extended families. The best example of this sort of social organization is found in those tribal societies where men and women live separately, as in the famous "longhouses" of Borneo, and married couples spend only relatively short periods of time together. As societies "modernize," the sharp distinctions based on gender decline, and along with these changes comes the development of the nuclear family as the central unit of social organization and the development of ideologies of companionate marriage based on reciprocal love and respect. Until the 1970s more than half the marriages in South Korea were arranged through go-betweens; now "marriages for love, not family-arranged partnerships, have become the norm." As the expectations of marriage grow, so too do the probabilities that those who are disappointed will seek to end them, leading to rising divorce rates. These are of course ideal typologies, but they help make sense of the ways in which larger socioeconomic structures frame assumptions about sexuality and gender. They also explain the extraordinary rapidity of changes in the sex/gender system over the past century, as more and more people are forced to negotiate the transition between very different orders. It is not uncommon for middle-class urban dwellers to find themselves looking after relatives from the hinterland with whom they share very few common values.

Even so, the most "modern" society retains particular assumptions around sexuality and gender derived from earlier periods, and often enforced through religious and cultural ideologies. Think, for example, of the ways in which certain sports are constructed as essential tests of masculinity, and of the long battle of women to have their sporting prowess recognized as equally valid to that of men, as in the struggle to establish a professional women's tennis circuit. Team sports have played a central role in the creation of both individual and national styles of masculinity, whether it be English cricket or football in Uruguay, for whom victory in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics was a decisive moment in nation building.

Sports, too, are an arena where one sees a range of sexual restrictions and inhibitions; is it too fanciful to see an element of homoerotic sublimation in contact sports, especially football, matched by the strong taboos against footballers "coming out"? (Footballers who do come out gain considerable notoriety, as in the case of David Kopay in the United States; Ian Roberts in Australia; and, most tragically, Justin Fanashu in Britain, who committed suicide after being accused of sex with a minor.) In the case of women, team sports are often an arena for lesbian contacts to be established, and not only in western countries, as Kim Berman has noted of the Soweto Women's Soccer Club in South Africa.

As these examples suggest, sexuality and gender are inextricably interconnected, and often regulated through similar ideological and institutional means. I agree with Spike Petersen and Jacqui True when they write: "Whereas gender is not always the most salient or oppressive dimension at work in a particular context, we believe gender always shapes the expression of other dimensions (e.g., racist policies are also gendered); and insofar as gender identities are integral to our sense of self and personal security, it often profoundly shapes our commitments to particular lenses." This is one reason why transgender behavior or display outside permissible spaces--whether such spaces be the bedarche role in Native American societies or the Mardi Gras festivals in contemporary New Orleans or Sydney--are so unsettling.

Almost all societies establish very clearly gendered rules and expectations around sexuality, so that while most societies, for example, place a particular value on female virginity this is rarely the case for men. Indeed in some societies a girl who has been raped is treated as "dishonored" and hence unfit for marriage, even though she was powerless to preserve her virginity. Equally, in many societies a raped wife is regarded as fit only to be divorced or, in the worst of cases, to be killed. In a study drawing on seven countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia/Pacific, Gary Dowsett and Peter Aggleton comment that "[a]s the best marker of the double bind for young women, virginity is still held as important in two ways: as a guarantee of the value of a potential marriage partner, and as proof of the character and worthiness of each young woman in the eyes of her partner, family and community." Yet they point to the decline of virginity before marriage as a consequence of modernization, the demand to earn money, and the impact of youth culture, which "increasingly validates a ‘surrender to love.'"

It is an oversimplification to suggest that all cultures organize sexuality around the enhancement of male pleasure above female, but it is rare to find cultures where the reverse is true. Indeed many cultures and religions teach women that to enjoy sex is a sign of immodesty: one study quotes a Nigerian woman as saying "Hausa women usually do not show any sign of enjoyment during sex because their husbands will think they are wayward." Anthony Giddens has noted that the sexual "double standard" is central to almost all nonmodern societies, but it appears to persist well into modernity. Thus Gail Pheterson's framework of "the interplay between psychology and sociology, between notions of female honor and male nobility," used to analyze sex work, applies to most human societies, though it takes very different forms. The provision of male sexual pleasure is part of sexual regimes in societies marked by the imperative to produce--namely those in the early stages of industrialization--as much as in those dominated by the imperative to consume. Prostitution and pornography flourish in both, and are largely created as means of satisfying male "desire" through the services, in both the corporeal and fantasy realms, of women. The reverse of this is the very common practice of defining sexual desire as something "nice women" do not experience, and the construction of women as either madonnas or whores, no matter that the reality is almost always more complex. No equivalent divide appears to exist for men.

Certainly the growth of "consumer society" has tended to create at least the possibilities of recreational sex for women as well as for men, with the growth of male strippers catering to women-only audiences, the basis for the enormously popular film The Full Monty. But overall the imbalance remains, and is symbolized by the numbers of "swingers" clubs and bars which allow free admission to women in order to balance the numbers of men.

Both the political/economic order and dominant patterns of sexuality and gender reflect what R. W. Connell has termed "hegemonic masculinity," namely "the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women." Every society treats men and women differently, and in very few does this difference favor women. In practice, as Connell demonstrates, the nature of this masculinity may shift, and indeed certain women may well find ways of successfully benefiting from its structures while many men will be severely punished or disadvantaged for their failures to uphold the premises of hegemonic masculinity. The advantage of this conceptualization is that it allows for the structural inequalities suggested by terms like "patriarchy,"while also recognizing that these inequalities are created through human action, and impinge very differently on different individuals.

Religion is central to sexual regulation in almost all societies, although its impact has steadily declined in most western democracies over the past half century, with the major exception of the United States. Indeed it may well be that the primary social function of religion is to control sexuality and gender in the interests of hegemonic masculinity. Ironically those countries which rejected religion in the name of Communism tended to adopt their own version of sexual puritanism, which often matched those of the religions they assailed. Whether it be Catholicism, Hinduism, Islam, or Communism, religions tend to claim a particular right to regulate and restrict sexuality, a right which is often recognized by state authorities. As Marta Lamas wrote of Mexico: "All local and federal battles over sexuality have focussed on the same issue--whether to affirm or question traditional Catholic morality." Even though the Mexican revolution of 1917 established a secular state, the influence of the church remains very large, and is often exerted through religious organizations such as Opus Dei and the Legionnaires of Christ. Similar comments could be made about the tension between religious and secular forces in countries as different as Israel, Ireland, Turkey, and post-Communist Poland.

All too often sex is regulated through violence. "Violence is the quintessential, testosteronic expression of male entitlement," David Landes wrote in speaking about Islamic cultures, but his words are clearly applicable beyond them. There is evidence that domestic violence is widespread in most societies, and it is rare for police and legal systems to provide adequate resources to prevent it. As Silvana Paternostro wrote of Mexico: "An average of eighty two rapes are committed every day in Mexico City. Women's fears are even more justified, given the police officers themselves have been participants in sex crimes. In 1990, five policemen rampaged the city raping at least nineteen young women." It is tempting to ascribe such figures to the Latin cult of machismo, but these and other accounts from South America--in Argentina it is reported that 65% of women have been beaten by a man at least once, more than three-quarters of the time by their husband--are repeated in very different societies. Moves to outlaw wife beating in Papua New Guinea were rejected by the (overwhelmingly male) Parliament on the grounds they were contrary to "traditional family life." In the same way it is only recently, and in a limited number of countries, that rape within marriage has been recognized as an offense.

When men act out their sexual fears they are likely to be distorted into violence, and there is some evidence that sexual violence is a growing part of the current global disorder. Thus rape is used by men both in the name of preserving tradition and in making revolution. As Lillian Ng described the experience of a woman in China: "The red book of Mao held in front of my eyes was my anaesthetic, my moral support, my encouragement, while I burned with pain, scorched by cramps, the fire in the pit of my stomach that rose from the furnace that was my passage of yin." Meanwhile adulterers, prostitutes, homosexuals--or those suspected of being any of these--are routinely raped, stoned, tortured, and killed in countries with governments as different as Guatemala and Iran. Those who publicly flout the gender/ sexual order seem particularly vulnerable to violence, so that for sex workers and transsexuals the anticipation of violence is often, as Richard Parker wrote of Brazil, "an explosive potential that permeates daily life."

The triumph of liberal capitalism at the end of the Cold War has also meant new outbreaks of local conflicts and unrest, as conflicts increasingly become power and ethnic struggles within countries, with correspondingly huge civilian casualties. Under conditions of civil war sex becomes as much a realm of torture as of pleasure, as shown in widespread rape in Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, or Sierra Leone. Manuel Carballo of the International Centre for Migration and Health has estimated that 40,000 women were raped in the war in Bosnia "and we don't believe these figures are particularly unique or unusual." There were further reports of mass rape by Serb soldiers as part of the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo, with suggestions that one of the aims was to impregnate Albanian Muslim women. Rape, of course, can also be used against men, and indeed seems particularly prominent in the ethnic battles in former Yugoslavia. Linda Grant has suggested that the rapes in Bosnia were connected to the availability of pornography in post-Tito Yugoslavia, but without any firm evidence, which is unfortunately true of many of the claims made about pornography.

More convincing is Nikos Papastergiadis's claim that the use of rape in Bosnia was different from the accounts of rape in previous warfare, because it was a conscious part of the policy of "ethnic cleansing" and involved "a new extreme of brutality." Unfortunately his argument would probably hold in a number of other contemporary situations of ethnic and civil conflict. Even without war, rape may be increasing. Evidence from countries as dissimilar as Papua New Guinea and South Africa suggests that rape (often "pack rape") is becoming increasingly common as a response to the massive dislocations of contemporary life. Indeed it is widely believed that a woman is raped every five minutes in South Africa. As Graeme Simpson and Gerald Kraak argue, many young men who feel powerless and marginalized in a world of rapid change will turn to violence, and rape "becomes a way of symbolically reasserting their masculine identity."

Such phenomena are often described as being the "unintended consequences" of modernization, often with the implicit assumption that they will pass with growing affluence. This is probably the point to note my unease with terms such as "development" which imply some sort of linear progression toward a future possessed already in the rich world. I have tried to avoid speaking of "developed" and "underdeveloped" countries for this reason, and more often speak of "rich" and "poor." This does, however, group together countries with very different cultural backgrounds and political systems--Denmark and Saudi Arabia are both "rich" countries for example--and at times I have had to use the rather clumsy terms "western" and "nonwestern" where the emphasis is on culture rather than economics. I do so uncomfortably aware that the sort of oppositional definition here is both loaded and inaccurate: both contemporary Japan and traditional villages in Papua could be described as "nonwestern" but to lump them together is to deprive the term of any real meaning. In the same way concepts of "modernization" tend to imply a linear progression toward a single end point which is usually coterminous with American capitalism, so that terms such as "modern" and "traditional" need to be understood as ideologically loaded ideal types.

Increasingly the institutions and ideologies which link sex and politics are themselves being globalized, as concerns around gender, sexuality, and the body play a central role in the construction of international political, social, and economic regimes. It is the complexity of these interconnections that is the central theme of this book.