Attitudes and aptitudes

Gender Studies - Sexuality and Society - Sex and Gender
September 5, 2003

These three books on gender and sexuality exemplify very different approaches to textbook writing: Gargi Bhattacharyya addresses the reader as an engaged intellectual equal; John Archer and Barbara Lloyd present a critical analysis of the debates on the subject, allowing readers to make up their own minds; and Anne Cranny-Francis et al overwhelm the reader with oversimplified theoretical background and patronising cultural references assumed to be familiar.

Sexuality and Society is a sometimes infuriating but nevertheless challenging book that forces readers to think through preconceptions about sexuality, particularly the relationship between sex and social forces. Bhattacharyya draws on theories of what she terms "turbo-capitalism" and sexuality to explain the West's current obsession with sex. She maintains a balanced approach to queer studies, homosexuality and heterosexuality, representing each perspective in equally defamiliarised ways. She surveys the "invention" of heterosexuality and homosexuality convincingly and, despite the fact that this issue has been discussed endlessly, succeeds in making it fresh and insightful.

The sense of sex being and constituting a space apart - the private sphere - is convincingly argued. Bhattacharyya's analysis of the exotic - that the sexual charge in sex with "others" results from postcolonial power relations - is convincingly documented since she shows that the exotic sexual encounter is specific to particular colonised groups. However, despite showing the impact of social forces on sex, she still represents sex as magical, resisting the pressures of society, "a space where dreams can be negotiated if not fully realised".

This accounts for the strange vacillation in the book between a utopian and an apocalyptic tone: sex is going to solve all our problems but, ultimately, the West is in terminal decline and we are all doomed under global capitalism. There is also a constant tension in the book between wishing to generalise about sex as a pan-human activity while being aware of its contextual specificity. There is an attempt to draw on the Kama Sutra and revise the standard western misinterpretation, so that it is seen as a complex text integrating sexual and spiritual advice. This was the least successful element of the book. However, as a text aimed at undergraduates on women's studies and critical theory courses, it might make lecturers review their current orthodoxies on sexuality and the relationship with market forces and globalisation.

Superficially, Gender Studies has all the hallmarks of a textbook: it has explanatory boxes in the text and exercises at the end of the chapters, and the writing is accessible. However, the boxed material is often a repetition of previous paragraphs or is even more stylistically complex. The exercises after the chapters are too unrewarding to inspire the reader to do them. The style is overly familiar and insufficiently academic.

In terms of structure, the book is divided into ways of talking, thinking, reading, seeing, being and so on, with no clear theoretical distinction made between them. However, the main difficulty is that the book reviews the whole of post-structuralist/postmodernist theory in film theory, linguistics, psychoanalysis and so on, to approach the topic of gender. This results in each theorist being discussed in the briefest of terms and thus complex theoretical issues are oversimplified. Undergraduates would find this extremely challenging unless they were fairly well versed in the theories discussed (and would then not find the discussion useful at all). The book attempts a global analysis of the way gender is constituted and discussed in a range of fields, but it ends up being a thin analysis at both a theoretical and an analytical level.

The second edition of Sex and Gender is an example of the way psychological research in this area has progressed, and it is a classic textbook. It provides the reader with complex debates without oversimplifying. It has been updated to take on board the advances made in evolutionary psychology and social-role theory, and even though the evolutionary material is sometimes quite laughable theoretically, the discussion is informative, allowing the reader to engage with it critically. Although evolutionary psychology is obviously the authors' favoured position, they at least allow that this has flaws and enable the reader to think through the difficulties of a framework that asserts that the prehistoric hunting and foraging activities of males and females have a great influence on current industrial societies.

Archer and Lloyd give as evidence of evolutionary sex differences the widely reported difference between men's and women's spatial aptitudes: men are better at orientation in space (and tracking animals) and women at locating scattered objects (finding plants). However, whether this is due to prehistoric task specialisation is debatable. Even more far-fetched is the suggestion that this spatial ability of males would have enabled them to have "a reproductive advantage as it would enable them to control large territories", something males in current society do not presumably still claim.

Each of the sections deals with a particular aspect of gender and sex difference: work, childhood, aggression, mental health, stereotypes, the domestic sphere and sexuality. They do so in a systematic and informative way. The sections on why there are two human sexes, whether there are differences in sexual activity and aggression in males and females, are genuinely revelatory. Sex and Gender will be of great use to psychology undergraduates and all those concerned with gender issues. It confronts an array of research that argues from a particular perspective, and enables readers thoroughly to challenge their own preconceptions.

Sara Mills is professor of cultural studies, Sheffield Hallam University.

Gender Studies: Terms and Debates

Author - Anne Cranny-Francis, Wendy Waring, Pam Stavropoulos and Joan Kirkby
ISBN - 0333 77611 9 and 77612 7
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Price - £49.50 and £16.99
Pages - 6

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