Richard Phillips, Diane Watt, David Shuttleton. De-Centering Sexualities: Politics and Representations beyond the Metropolis. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. ix + 301 pp. $53.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-415-19466-2.
Reviewed by Margaret Power (Department of Humanities, Illinois Institute of Technology)
Published on H-Gender-MidEast (July, 2002)
This fascinating study of sexuality beyond (and in relationship to) the metropolis evolved out of the 1997 Non-Metropolitan Sexualities Conference held at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. The book begins with an introductory essay that contextualizes many of the key issues and debates discussed in the following fifteen chapters.
The book has many strengths; a key one is that it offers an accessible and exciting discussion of (primarily lesbian and gay) sexuality beyond the metropolitan centers of England, Canada, and the United States. The chapters are interesting and provocative; they do an excellent job of combining sophisticated theoretical discussion, contextualizing their arguments, and providing sound empirical research. Although each chapter pursues a unique subject, they all focus on the relationship between geography and sexuality. This diversity in topic and unity in theme make the book a stimulating and satisfying read. In addition, many of the authors speak directly to each other and reference positions taken in other chapters, either to expand upon a point previously made or, in some cases, to disagree with it. This is a model which, I believe, could be profitably employed by other edited collections.
As part of Routledge's "Critical Geographies" series, this book clearly illustrates the often-ignored connections that exist between space, place, and sexuality. Each chapter provides the reader with a clear sense of location, both the physical surroundings in which their stories occur and the meanings people give to and extract from them. Thus, we learn not only what places looked like and how they affected people who lived in, fled from, or sought refuge in them, but also how people interpreted and used definitions of place to create or impose meaning on social relations in general. For example, in his discussion of the multiple meanings attributed to the rural in gay texts and life, David Shuttleton discusses the 1995 English film Beautiful Thing. In the film, two lower-class teenage boys live in block housing in a council estate. Their attraction blossoms, is acknowledged (by themselves and one of the boy's mothers), and is acted upon in the "thin-walled confines of a council-flat." The limitations these "artificial" surroundings impose on them, and by implication society's denial of their love for each other, are apparent when they are in a forest, a "natural" setting, where they can fully embrace their love for each other and joyfully embark upon a homosexual relationship (p. 126).
The editors point out that most studies of sexuality have focused on "sexualized metropolitan centres such as New York and Berlin ... or on differently sexualized, marginalized and colonized spaces including the Orient and Africa." By way of contrast, this book examines sexuality in the liminal or in-between spaces, places the editors argue are "of great significance, with respect to representations and politics of sexualities, for it is in such spaces that hegemonic sexualities may be least stable" (p. 1). This is significant, the editors claim, because it is precisely in the non-metropolitan areas, not the metropolitan ones as is commonly assumed, that "sexual politics can go further, and may critically transform not only sexuality rights, but more fundamentally, sexuality" (p. 2). The chapters do an outstanding job of establishing the importance of studying sexuality in non-metropolitan areas and reveal how doing so provides a more accurate understanding of the multiple forms of sexuality. However, I do not think that they convincingly demonstrate either the instability of sexuality in these areas or the greater degree of instability in non-metropolitan areas as compared to that in metropolitan spaces. In order to do so, they would have had to establish a more precise definition of stability and what "going further" means, as well as a means to accurately measure sexual stability in metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas.
One indication of the importance of their work is reflected in what I incorrectly assumed the book would be about when I first read its title. I thought it would examine sexuality beyond Europe and North America, sites that have produced a disproportionate amount of studies on their own sexuality. The fact that all the subjects of the essays deal with sexuality in Britain, Canada, or the United States, with the sole exception of Mexico, initially surprised me. However, as I read on, the book encouraged me to reexamine my own understanding of the center and to develop a more complicated understanding of the multiple positions that people in the center hold, with respect both to each other and to those outside it. Indeed, as Lynn Pearce argues in her chapter "Devolutionary Desires," it is essential that an understanding of British colonialism be "started at home," as opposed to being focused exclusively on its overseas expressions. In this way, scholars can better understand that the "centre-margin politics which enabled Britain to effect such changes throughout the world clearly does have (and continues to have) its origins within these islands" (p. 241).
At the same time, the collected studies by and large do not analyze the multiple positions that subjects hold in relation to the center and the "non-center." People who live outside their own national center are nevertheless at the center in relation to their country's colonies or former colonies. Even though an inhabitant of Wales, rural England, or the U.S. Midwest is distant from London, New York, or San Francisco, she or he still enjoys a hegemonic position in relation to India or Puerto Rico. It would be interesting to explore what impact this complex web of relationships has on the sexual identities and experiences of those who do not inhabit one center but are part of it nonetheless.
The range of topics pursued in the chapters is impressive. Chapter 1 by Alan Sinfield examines and challenges the egalitarian images of gay male sexuality promoted in the U.S. cities. He claims that this drive for equality both ignores what other people value in sexual relationships and the power differentials that exist within them. In chapter 2 Dennis Altman studies the dynamics of gay life in northern Australia, noting that Sydney is simultaneously their center and on the margins of gay life in relation to the United States. In chapter 3, Kate Chedgzoy explores the connections between religiosity, queerness, and the quest for love and transcendence through a discussion of her youth in Wales, Christian hymns, and the 1995 film Butterfly Kiss, which she argues is a lesbian love story that draws heavily on Christian symbolism. Barry Langford contests the dominant view of the suburbs currently reigning in cultural studies and defines them as complex and ambiguous spaces in chapter 4. He uses the 1990 novel The Buddha of Suburbia to illustrate his point. In the novel, the protagonist initially flees from the suburbs to the metropolis in pursuit of fulfillment of fantasies, only to later view the suburbs as a "model for the desiring subject more 'cosmopolitan' than the metropolis itself" (p. 79).
Shifting the focus away from the cities, the next four chapters examine sexuality in rural areas. David Bell suggests in chapter 5 that the rural has been eroticized in three different ways. Bell explores these three models, white trash erotics, bestiality, and naturism, to illustrate how notions of sexuality in the country--and the city--have been constructed. In chapter 6 Richard Phillips offers a fascinating study of the interplay between discourse and "reality" and how "metropolitan and non-metropolitan sexual geographies are constructed in relation to each other" (p. 103). He shows how social conservatives used newspaper reports to raise the age of sexual consent for heterosexual relations in the nineteenth century, and film to do the same for homosexual relations in the twentieth century. David Shuttleton argues against an essentialist interpretation of the relationship between gay sexuality and the pastoral in chapter 7. He does so by illustrating the multiple meanings of the rural as well as by pointing out that accepting such a vision ignores the class, gender, and ethnic hierarchies that exist and are extracted from it. In chapter 8 Anira Rowanchild explores the life of Anne Lister, a nineteenth-century English woman who consciously and semi-publicly identified herself as a woman who loved women. She combined a "marginal sexual identity with a central social position," and successfully pursued relationships with women of higher social standing in order to advance her own position (p. 149). Sue Willman, in chapter 9, discusses the challenges faced by lesbians in Mexico, the country that "shares, with Brazil, the highest rate of lesbian and gay murder in the world" (p. 170). Faced with an aggressively hostile Catholic Church, a women^Òs movement that until the 1990s rejected lesbians, the lack of literature on lesbians in Spanish, and a male-dominated gay movement, many lesbians responded to their multiple marginalizations by working autonomously. William J. Spurlin contests the coastal and metropolitan domination that San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles exert over queer studies by examining literary texts in the U.S. Midwest in chapter 10. He argues that "the specificity of queer midwestern location, as localized and as dispersed, may operate not only as a site of resistance to heteronormativity and homophobia, but as a mode of critique for (re)reading other queer identities and queer cultural practices and for broadening queer ways of looking at and understanding the world" (p. 185). In chapter 11 Angelia R. Wilson reflects on her own youth as a lesbian in rural Texas and the prevailing dichotomous vision of life in rural America for lesbians. She rejects the assessment that rural America is necessarily hostile to lesbians; equally, she questions the idyllic vision of women owning their own land and building women-only communities in isolation from their neighbors. In chapter 12 Gordon Brent Ingram uses stories of his encounters with gay men and a brief history of queer life in Pacific Canada to explore how "homoeroticized social space has been constrained, contorted and sometimes expanded" (pp. 217-218).
The next and final section, "Devolving Sexualities," looks at sexuality in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, nations that England colonized and forcibly incorporated into Britain. These three chapters "explore some of the ways in which devolutionary politics relate to, and impact upon, our romantic desires and sexual relations" (p. 241), as Lynne Pearce notes in chapter 13. They also offer the optimistic possibility of a more liberatory sexuality. Pearce^Òs key concern is what sexual and social hierarchies will look like as political power devolves; will the politics of nationalism encourage the sponsorship of the heteronormative family and the exclusion of new others (ethnic or otherwise)? She hopes that "the experience and identity of having been marginal [will] enable us to rethink the negative and destructive forces of 'othering' in favour of a more dialogic, though no less charged, dynamic of 'us' and 'other'" (p. 245). In chapter 14 Vincent Quinn looks at the particular difficulties experienced by gays and lesbians in Northern Ireland, specifically Derry/Londonderry, to highlight the extent to which regional differences influence the production of sexual identities. He attributes many of their difficulties to the predominant binary definitions of gender held by both the Catholic Church and the Nationalist and Unionist movements. In a society riven by sectarian violence, he suggests that gays and lesbians, who already inhabit a "psychic borderland ... are therefore ideally placed to produce new ways of thinking about nationality and sexuality" (p. 274). The concluding essay, chapter 15, is by the eminent Glaswegian poet Edwin Morgan. The chapter, which contains a sampling of his poetry and his discussion of it, along with his recounting of his life as a gay poet, is a joy to read, in large part because it conveys his deep love for Glasgow. Like the two previous chapters, he ends on a positive note and concludes that, due to its atmosphere of "tolerance despite its history of violence ... I feel confident for the city and its writers" (p. 291).
Although this book does not discuss the Middle East, it does offer important insights into the connections between the geographies of sexuality that are applicable to a wide variety of settings.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Margaret Power. Review of Phillips, Richard; Watt, Diane; Shuttleton, David, De-Centering Sexualities: Politics and Representations beyond the Metropolis.
H-Gender-MidEast, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2002 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.