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  • Anthropology and Sexual Morality: A Theoretical Investigation
  • Harriet Lyons
Anthropology and Sexual Morality: A Theoretical Investigation. By Carles Salazar. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006. Pp. 208. $70.00 (cloth); $22.50 (paper).

According to its author, this book is not really about sexuality, though it does provide some interesting information about historical trends in Ireland concerning marriage, fertility, and attitudes toward sexual behavior and the attempts of social scientists to explain them. The central subject of the book is the nature of anthropological understanding, with a discussion of Irish sexuality employed as an illustrative example. There is also a brief comparative discussion of some of Gilbert Herdt's conclusions about Sambia sexuality. The central argument of the book is that economic, political, or psychodynamic factors do not satisfactorily explain sexuality but that sexuality must be considered as a set of cultural meanings. The role of the anthropologist is to make those meanings intelligible across cultural boundaries. None of this argument is really new to anthropologists, though the book does offer some interesting critiques of the ways in which anthropologists have deployed hermeneutic studies as well as some provocative remarks about anthropologists' assumptions about culture in general and sexuality both in Ireland and among the Sambia of New Guinea in particular. [End Page 429]

Salazar's overall argument is based upon the premise that anthropologists have traditionally concerned themselves with explaining behaviors and attitudes that they or others regarded as irrational, either explicitly or implicitly, since the reasons for "rational" attitudes and behaviors would be obvious and would not require relegation to the loosely defined domain of "culture" in order to be rendered intelligible. Indeed, he gives the impression that "culture" could almost be defined as the residue of human thought and activity that remains after the biologists, economists, psychologists, political scientists, and sociologists have skimmed off their layers of explanation. Even historians seem to get their pickings before anthropologists, in Salazar's ordering of things, since he suggests that historians document "objective" happenings, while anthropologists deal with the ways in which the subjects of history construct changing interpretations of their own pasts. Moreover, he insists that "culture" is only visible from the outside; from within it is simply lived experience, albeit experience with meanings. The anthropologist's role is to understand those meanings and communicate them to other scholars.

How does all of this relate to sex in Ireland? Anthropologists have long been fascinated by an apparently sex-negative culture in Ireland, particularly in rural areas. John Messenger and Nancy Scheper-Hughes, among other sociologists, demographers, and historians, have commented upon the low marriage rates, low incidence of births out of wedlock, lack of available information concerning sex and reproduction, and negative attitudes toward sex for the sake of pleasure that are said to have characterized Irish society from the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth century. Explanations for Irish sexuality have ranged from the political and economic to the psychoanalytic. Scholars have claimed, for example, that farmers needed to restrict marriage because they could not profitably subdivide their farms after the potato famine, that Irish mothers employed child-rearing methods that produced extreme examples of Freudian repression, and that the Catholic Church took advantage of demographic necessity to enforce its own power over the populace by strict enforcement of church teachings on sexual morality and birth control. Salazar finds the economic and demographic explanations for Irish sexuality interesting but insufficient, insofar as one can imagine other arrangements that would have preserved farms intact. He points out that low fertility in marriage and high fertility out of wedlock, the opposite of what actually occurred, would have restricted pressure on inheritance while providing a supply of cheap labor. Moreover, he notes that many Irish-born people dealt with the lack of heritable land and restrictions on marriage by emigrating and that among these emigrant populations fertility rates inside and outside of wedlock changed in ways that indicated that both premarital sex and birth control became more common while people maintained their [End Page 430] allegiance to the Catholic Church. Further, he notes that the entire set of behaviors changed rapidly in Ireland after the 1960s in ways that seemed...


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pp. 429-432
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