- Irregular Connections: A History of Anthropology and Sexuality
Irregular Connections: A History of Anthropology and Sexuality is a detailed, comprehensive survey of how sexuality has been investigated and represented within the discipline of anthropology. In this lengthy text Oxford-trained anthropologists Andrew P. Lyons and Harriet D. Lyons chart the study of sex by Westerners (individuals hailing mainly from North America and Great Britain) from 1860 to 1970. The book is informed by the authors' own twenty-plus years of anthropological research, primarily in Africa, and appears to be the ﬁrst publication in a new series, Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology, published by the University of Nebraska Press. Given that historical and theoretical reviews within the discipline have largely shunned the topic of sex, Irregular Connections is a welcome addition that will appeal not only to anthropologists but also to scholars interested in sex and sexuality across varied temporal and spatial locations.
The book's strength lies in its careful attention to important yet often overlooked theories and theorists and to the ways that anthropological representations of sex have been shaped by their proponents' social locations. For example, a good portion of the book focuses on colonial encounters and Victorian morality and how notions of "primitive sexuality" were raced, classed, and gendered. It can be both painful and disturbing to read the views and analyses of early observers who describe Africans as "savage," "bestial," "unsophisticated," "debauched," and "born slaves." Such dehumanizing representations of non-Western peoples may be hard to accept when viewed from the present moment, but they remain a powerful reminder of scholarly hubris and usefully beg the question, Are today's representations of sex and sexualities more liberating, and if so, for whom?
Overall, Irregular Connections is less critical or theoretical than one might anticipate given the complexity and sophistication of contemporary analyses of sex/ualities. One major argument weaves its way throughout the text: that the sexual practices, beliefs, and identities of cultural "primitives" and "others" have continually been "conscripted" by Western analysts to substantiate their own preexisting theories and ideologies about sex. The authors deﬁne [End Page 508] conscription as "the deployment of data about sexual discourses and practices among 'Others' within discourses of power, morality, pleasure, and therapy in the metropolitan cultures where anthropological texts have predominantly been read and produced" (18). Such conscription, they argue, may be positive (seeing others as part of a perfect and utopian sexuality), negative (for example, seeing them as oversexed), or ambiguous (seeing them as undersexed or uninterested in sex). It might serve to reinforce existing social hierarchies or to critique them. The remainder of the book examines these approaches as evidenced in particular historical moments and scholarly ﬁgures.
This reﬂexive look is refreshing, as it draws attention to the politics of representing sex, the cultural, historical, and moral forces shaping such representational practices, and how "exotic sexuality was . . . employed as a foil in arguments about sexuality at home" (15). The authors stress that they aim to situate these representations as "products of conﬂicts, dialogues, and social movements in Britain, the United States, and their dependencies" (17), although, by their own admission, they don't always succeed; attention to historical context sometimes takes a backseat to detailing the idiosyncrasies, sexual and otherwise, and personal alliances of individual scholars (like those of Sir Richard F. Burton).
Despite the authors' apparently heartfelt attempt at reﬂexivity, the nagging feeling remains that embedded in such an argument is the assumption that an objective view of sex and sexualities outside of the "conscription" of the analyst is still possible. The Lyonses point out that "few scholars have succeeded in asking or answering apparently simple questions such as 'What do the X people do in bed?' and 'Is homosexual behavior present in all human groups?' without revealing a social and political agenda" (12). In other words, the authors seem not entirely comfortable with their postmodern approach, and this ambivalence occasionally resurfaces in the...