Disputed territory, W K Hastings

Sexuality Down Under: Social and Historical Perspectives
Allison Kirkman and Pat Moloney (eds)
Otago University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1877372102   

Books of essays presenting breadth without sacrificing depth are rare, and their editors must be prepared for bracing confrontations with would-be contributors to maintain a consistent standard of scholarship. When the book of essays is on a topic that attracts more than its share of comments impugning its legitimacy as a subject of scholarly inquiry, the editors must be doubly prepared for confrontation. That anyone would contemplate producing a book of essays on sexuality, let alone one of this quality, is remarkable.

Kirkman and Moloney have collected 12 essays on how sexuality has been constructed in New Zealand (the “down under” of the title being, I believe, a double entendre rather than a reference to Australasia) from a biological and medical perspective, from feminist perspectives, and from those of liberals and conservatives. Although the publisher is University of Otago Press, eight of the 12 contributors either teach at, or are recent graduates of, Victoria University of Wellington, the book a testament to the strength of that university’s commitment to interdisciplinary teaching and research.

The editors state somewhat apologetically in their introduction that the perspectives of heterosexual men, old people, and Maori are under-represented. However, footnotes occupy one-sixth of the book, and refer to a range of published and unpublished material (are New Zealanders a nation of packrats?) that can be mined to show the way forward in these and other areas. This raises my only quibble – the book would have been easier and more rewarding to read if the footnotes had been printed at the bottom of each page rather than at the end of the collection.

Openly discussing sexuality makes people squeamish. Privacy is integral to maintaining a sense of individuality. It is fair to say that most people consider their sexuality to be a private matter. As a private matter, however, sexuality is a vital element in how we define our individuality. It must consequently be, at least in theory, a legitimate subject of public discourse and scholarly inquiry. But any such inquiry will of necessity probe into the most private aspects of individual lives. Sexuality discourses are located as much within individuals as they are across social, political, legal and cultural divides. Research into how feminist, liberal, conservative, biomedical and other discourses construct sexuality necessarily involves discussion, and perhaps deconstruction, of individual lives, including the lives of those doing the research.

It is because social and historical research into sexuality strikes to the heart of individuality that Caroline Daley’s essay on “Puritans and Pleasure-Seekers” offers the collection’s most cautionary insight: what we notice about the past is very much determined by the present. So when, Daley asks, Jamie Belich writes in Paradise Reforged that New Zealand society became more open and liberal from the 1960s onwards, is he really writing of his own coming of age? When Belich argues that society was tightened “like a giant spanner” between the 1880s and 1930s by morals crusaders, doesn’t this also mean there was something open and liberal to crusade against?

These essays share the premise that separate streams of discourse always exist. To what extent they frame discussion of any particular event at any time depends on who does the framing. Jenny Harper’s essay on “Exhibiting Sexuality in Aotearoa New Zealand 1975-2000” argues that the context in which art is exhibited is central to how the public receives it. Why do some exhibitions with sexual content attract public controversy (the Virgin in a Condom shown in 1998, for example) yet others with equal or greater sexual content (such as 1994’s Art Now) don’t? Harper argues that the 1998 controversy was more the product of locating the art at Te Papa (religious New Zealanders feeling Te Papa’s “our place” brand no longer held true) than the result of any sudden societal swing to the right. Good management of the context in which sexuality is presented to the public is what matters.

Cameron Prichard’s “The Discourses of Homosexual Law Reform” makes this point as well when he contrasts how public health discourse about AIDS was used as an argument for homosexual law reform in New Zealand, but in the United States to restrict civil liberties. The theme continues in Jan Jordan’s careful analysis of how identical sexual facts can be characterised as “rape” by women but as “sex” by men, in her essay on “The Disputed Terrain Between Sex and Rape”.

Rob Cover’s essay on how sexuality is “coded” into advertising, and Tiina Varies’ on how Viagra advertisements have affected the construction of masculinity, emphasise my earlier point that discourses on sexuality may be located in the public arena, but affect how individuals are perceived and perceive themselves.

I suspect I was asked to review this book partly because some of the public discussion about art, pornography and representations of sexuality inevitably revolves around censorship. How censorship is publicly discussed depends on who frames the issue. One of the current framers, the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards (SPCS), a small but loud conservative lobby group, pops up repeatedly in this book. Although Daley, Harper, and Michael Hill in his essay on the Christchurch civic crèche case, refer to censorship debates, the chapter missing from this collection (probably out of deference to the living) is an examination of censorship.

The current public debate about censorship is largely framed by conservative discourse led by the SPCS, which advocates increased censorship of media representations of sexuality. Its press releases also refer to the “openly ‘gay’ chief censor” who is a “self-confessed gay”, a “practising homosexual”, a “self-proclaimed practising homosexual”, a “self-advertising practising homosexual” (emphasis added), an “openly homosexual man”, an “experienced homosexual man”, and a “homosexual member”. But so what? People with no particular knowledge or interest in another person’s sexuality could read these public references to mine as a relatively harmless obsession that says more about the writer than the one written about.

Those who read this essay collection, however, will realise that embedded in these references are assumptions characterising homosexuality as a sexuality warranting particular public concern. That the sexuality of heterosexual participants in censorship is never referred to in debates indicates that heterosexuality is essentially a private matter and of no public concern. Not only is the expression of male homosexuality “unnatural”, “indecent” and a sin equivalent to murder (Leviticus 20:13), the authors of these press releases believe there is a “very strong link between paedophilia and homosexual lifestyle”, that homosexuality is “inherently promiscuous”, that disease is the “due penalty” for homosexual activity, and that it is part of the homosexual agenda “to have sexually explicit and degrading films available as widely as possible”.

They claim also that homosexuality has driven me to “orchestrate” an “anal rape crisis”, and has caused me to “hoodwink politicians”, while simultaneously building a secret “homosexual network” that includes the Prime Minister. Although these press releases purport to be discussions of censorship issues, the language used reveals other concerns.

Dissection of the SPCS’s press releases underscores this book’s greatest attribute – both the essays’ methodology and the theses they test are rigorous and transparent enough to analyse current “real-life” discourse on sexuality. The essays’ quality confirms sexuality as a legitimate subject of academic study, and one capable of sustaining both theoretical and applied research. And considering the gorgeous Peter Peryer photograph on its face, it is a book that can indeed be judged by its cover.


W K (Bill) Hastings is Chief Censor. 


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Posted in Essays, Gender, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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