- Irregular Connections: A History of Anthropology and Sexuality by Andrew Lyons and Harriet Lyons
Harriet and Andrew Lyons have written a thorough historical narrative of anthropology’s engagement with the study of sexuality. This volume is a valuable addition to the literature on anthropology as cultural critique, and anthropological intersections with the colonial project. Starting with writings from the eighteenth century, the Lyons trace representations in (pre-) anthropological literature of “primitive” sexuality amongst the peoples in the colonial zone or “periphery.” The book then moves through successive stages of western approaches to sexuality, linking anthropological discourses of “primitive sexuality” to contemporaneous western attitudes and debates concerning sexuality.
This book is not an analysis of the workings of the colonial apparatus, or a study of the diverse actors in the colonial drama (although mention is made of both). Rather, this work is a study of recurrent themes in the anthropological discourses of the sexual other. The authors argue that the often contradictory images of “primitive” within this literature (such as the supposedly sexually liberated Polynesians, or the “lascivious and bestial” African, pg. 20) can only be understood as reflections of social discourse and debate that were (are) occurring in the western metropole, evoking the work on anthropology as a critique of the western self, such as Marcus and Fischer (1986) as well as the critique of Orientalist discourse. Chapters cover the topics of recurrent themes of “primitive sexuality,” debate over the origins of marriage and evolutionary theory, representations of sexuality in the work of Bronislaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead, and contemporary directions in the study of sexuality, such as the current turn to “gay” anthropology.
One of the main themes that the Lyons explore is the relation between descriptions/theories of “primitive sexuality” of people on the colonial periphery and portrayals of urban poor, particularly prostitutes and working class women, in the Anglo/European centers (the literature reviewed is mainly American, British and Australian). The Lyons argue that these representations are produced within western philosophical quandaries over the origin of the human species, debates between polygenists and monogenists, and debates about sexual morality and class — “the sexuality of the primitive became a foil for debates that had their origin much closer to home” (50). Of particular interest is the discussion in Chapter Three of the debates over primitive marriage and emerging evolutionary theory. The Lyons trace the debates within evolutionary anthropology, such as work by McLennan, Bachofen, and Morgan, among others, over the origin of marriage, matriarchy and patriarchy. These early theories of marriage argued that primitive promiscuity has been evolutionarily overcome through the civilizing trends of patriarchal and patrilineal social institutions and marriage. Thus, in this discourse, marriage and patriarchal institutions are positioned as serving to liberate women and colonized peoples from the excesses of libertine promiscuity that supposedly characterizes non-western, or “primitive” people, which represent the antiquity of the human species. It is good to be reminded of these discourses that were a crucial element in the colonial project, and bear an uncomfortable similarity to current popular discourse over morality and marriage.
Links between portrayals of primitive sexuality, the colonial order, and disciplinary regimes aimed at urban poor in the metrapole have been argued with theoretical sophistication in other places, such as the work of Anne McClintock (1995) and Ann Stoler (1995), to name two prominent authors in the field. However, the Lyons usefully place these discourses in a longer narrative of anthropological writings.
A few concerns about the text should be noted. First, in the final section on contemporary directions in the study of sexuality, the genderless and singular use of the term “gay” is disconcerting, as it elides and obscures the particular issues of lesbian ethnographers and ethnography. No mention is made of “lesbian ethnographers” or “lesbian ethnography,” although subsumed within the discussion of “gay anthropology” are a few works of lesbian anthropology by Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia Wieringa (1999), and Kath Weston (1991), for example. The particular theoretical and ethnographic contributions that these studies of female same-sex sexuality have...