Volume 10 Number 2 1997

The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies, Anthony Giddens, Polity Press, 1992, 204pp, 39.50 cloth, 11.95 paperback Erotic Welfare: Sexual Theory and Politics in the Age of Epidemic, Linda Singer, Routledge, 1993, 10.99 paperback

Anthony Giddens has written a book full of insight and hope for the present and future development of relationships between women and men in contemporary society. He writes of the possibilities offered by what he describes as "plastic sexuality", that is sexual expression freed from the needs of reproduction. This, he argues, is an essentially modern embodiment of a search for personal fulfilment and intimacy over and above the physical relationship of sex. He contends that this could and should lead to a "democracy in personal life" and, moreover, contribute to what he describes as a "reflexive view of self". He talks of the emergence of a pure relationship, which is part of a "generic restructuring of intimacy"(p.58). He examines the various social and ideological factors that have contributed and do contribute to these changes: among these he cites the emergence of toleration of homosexuality. The final chapter looks at "intimacy as democracy" in which he lists the characteristics of democracy which could/should be salient in pure relationships. These are essentially to do with the idea of personal autonomy - the capacity of individuals to be self-reflective and self-determining (p.l85). He outlines the limitations and obstacles, both ideological and structural, that hinder the achievement of these ideals, but says "the characteristic trend of development of modern societies is towards their realisation" (p.188).

Looking for a greater equality between the sexes, Giddens contends that there is a task of ethical reconstruction to be done. This relates not only to sexual identity, but to self identity, more broadly, and to moral concern of care for others (p.200). For many people, however, and certainly for feminists, this will be unsatisfying, although his description of a possible future is certainly appealing. The review of the inequality in the exercise of power between women and men, and indeed over children does not seem to measure up to what we currently experience in the public world. His review of the work of past writers, whom he says no one reads these days, namely Marcuse and Reich, points up the unsatisfactory nature of much of the writing from the so-called sexual liberation days of the 1960s - which feminist activists and scholars alike have shown to be oppressive of women. Now, with the twenty years or so of feminist exploration of the personal as political, in the realms of female experience of the private as well as the public worlds, Giddens is too bland about the changes in men's perceptions of the needs of women. Although he does problematise the concept of masculinity, he perhaps underestimates its power and its reinforcement in social structures. Certainly, this book, for all its hopefulness, even compassion, overlooks the backlash against liberation in matters sexual, which characterises much of contemporary life. This applies to all forms of liberal thought, from sexual orientation to abortion and its connection with a regression to fundamentalist ways of thinking and framing policy. In other words, Giddens' view of increasing sexual democracy and the fulfilment of emotional, psychic and even spiritual needs through intimacy appears to be a triumph of hope over experience. That may be too harsh - certainly anyone reading this book would be able to look at their own interpersonal skills in the light of more desirable ways of behaving. This exercise in itself would be a valuable one - calculated to make liberal sociologists of either sex stop and examine their own track records. Coupled with the dictum on the final page, that such a democratisation of intimacy is desirable and must be applicable to parents and children as well, this credo of Giddens is a powerful one. But, inspiring though it is, it does not sufficiently confront the manifestations of abuse of power between the sexes and between young and old which is the almost daily stuff of presentation in the media. Maybe the good news is that more people are experiencing this growth in intimacy and fulfilment, and that this is taking place quietly in human relations. But the public world currently seems more characterised by attitudes to people that are repressive and oppressive in matters of sexual behaviour and welfare.

This text is lucid and compelling reading: it is certainly accessible to a non-sociological readership, particularly as it is perfectly possible to omit some more theoretical chapters. It makes a very good starting point for discussion as well as being a first class example of non-jargonistic presentation of sociological thinking.

Lydia Singer died in l990 of cancer - the editor' s introduction to her book gives a deeply moving account of her battle with her last illness, arguing that although she herself was not a "confessional" feminist, in that she did not wish to write only from her own experience, the circumstances of her last few months show that she tried in private to live out what she had written for a public audience, through her battle to retain control over her own life and treatment. She was a philosopher, working as a feminist thinker in a very male oriented professional specialism, and, additionally, encountering another male-dominated profession, that of medicine.

Erotic Welfare is in two parts - the first being an examination of ways in which AIDS has influenced attitudes and policy in a number of matters of sexual and interpersonal behaviour, and the second a collection of writings on AIDS and other topics, including media analysis. This latter part contains, among other good things, a fascinating analysis of the film Fatal Attraction in which many of the insights that she has earlier explored are concentrated on this particular box-office success. The essay on `Bodies, Pleasure, Powers' could usefully be read first as it gives an outline of the ideas which are fully developed and explored in the substantive first part of the book.

Singer explores the concept of epidemic in relation to AlDS, developing the idea that concern about a modern `plague' overtook merely medical issues of epidemiological control. The resulting anxiety gave rise to a situation of panic. This has led to a range of justifications for social control and has significantly influenced thinking about both private sexual behaviour and public policy. She in no way minimises the seriousness of the epidemic - indeed she wonders whether people are really so committed to a life of personal sexual freedom that they are prepared to die for it. She recognises, with Giddens, the significance of sexual intimacy for the individual, but her book is devoted to the ways in which the concentration on the personal deflects from the need to look at the social. This is expressed thus:

This argument is key in her analysis of the impact of AIDS, confined first to those whom society already stigmatised, namely gay men. Because of that, resources and research were not allocated early enough. But she shows how the realisation that this "plague" has become an epidemic led to the advocacy of methods of safe sex which has originated from the gay community itself. She examines the emergence of such mechanisms, ironically encapsulating recommendations such as the use of condoms which female reformers had earlier advocated for the safety of women, but which then had been seen as likely to interfere with masculine pleasure (p.66/67). However, her main contention, argued throughout with numbers of different examples, is that the age of sexual panic and anxiety which has been fuelled by the AIDS experience is leading to an increasing regulation of women.. She shows how women are differentially affected according to race, age and class. All women are disadvantaged, however, because of their connection with biological reproduction. This relates to the social organization of `the family', which, she argues, is increasingly "being repackaged as a prophylactic device" (p.85). Innovatory developments in reproductive technology - ovulation prediction, donor insemination, in-vitro fertilisation technologies of sex selection - all these, Singer argues, increase men's control over reproduction without increasing their accountability. The corollary of this is greater control over women and the commodification of reproduction through marketing of reproduction to a generation who came of age during the sexual revolution and whose sexuality is formed by the hegemony of epidemic: "We are witnessing the proliferation of reproductive gadgets and yuppies' love gadgets" (p.87).

This is not an easy book to read; the language is difficult and the ideas complex. But it is most revealing and stimulating. Singer shows quite brilliantly the implications of the search for personal intimacy in sexual relationships and for the understanding of policies which have the effect of regulating just that area of life where people seek to be free from regulation. Despite the very different styles of these two books - the clarity of Giddens' prose and the difficulty of Singer's - there are some telling similarities. Whereas Giddens talks of democratisation in human relationships, Singer says that we must "relocate the sexual not outside but at the intersection of a multiplicity of discourses by which bodies, pleasures and powers are circulated and exchanged ... We must also remember that in saying yes to sex we are not saying no to power" (p.129). This entails continually being aware of the speciousness of defining human relationships as merely personal - once again the slogan "the personal is political" seems apt. This book certainly acts as a foil to Giddens' through its concentration on the hegemony of masculinist ideas, both in the sphere of the personal and in public policy. It is worth working at and it would be a most stimulating text to use for discussion.


Copyright The Author 1997

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