50 Great Myths of Human Sexuality
Pepper Schwartz and Martha Kempner
West Sussex, UK: Wiley Press, 2015, 313 pp.
Reviewed by Natali Valdez
Laverne Cox is a talented, intelligent, transgender activist and actress. Her activism brings awareness to the disproportionate violence that affects the transgender community. However, when Cox is interviewed, people repeatedly ask her about her sexuality and very personal questions about her body. These questions, about anatomy and attraction, stem in part from a lack of comprehensive sexual and gender education. The United States does not have a standard program for sexual education in public schools. As the common saying denotes, people fear what they do not understand. Consequently, educational and political climates founded solely on heteronormativity produce dangerous environments for transgender communities. 50 Great Myths of Human Sexuality, by Pepper Schwartz and Martha Kempner is a book that aims to address the gap in gender and sexual education in the United States.
The authors’ wrote the book in order to correct misinformation. They aim to interrupt the misconceptions and fears around sex that have persisted in the United States. Their analysis contextualizes how certain myths develop. For instance, the authors explore legal, political, and historical information that highlights the ways in which morality and legality are often conflated. The imposition of particular moral values onto the U.S. legal system contributes to the criminalization of particular sexual behaviors. The analytical approach emphasizes that sexuality and gender change over time and are different in different places.
The book focuses on common or popular myths and myths that are deemed dangerous for individuals’ health and wellbeing. The structure and format of the book are informative and accessible. Each chapter contains a theme followed by particular myths that are associated with each theme. To show readers that the myths about sexuality are not based in science, the authors reference specific scientific studies and extended literature reviews. The myths of sexuality include a wide range of topics, including “smelly vaginas,” female/male circumcision, and penis size. Some myths focus on health and well-being, which are often misconstrued with beauty standards. For instance, the authors argue that the application of strong chemicals to “clean” and prevent vaginal odors is a social construction of the beauty myth. In fact, vaginas have their own internal self-cleaning process. Moreover, douching practices can increase the risk of infections (Schwartz and Kempner 2015).
The authors also address conceptual issues related to the legal consequences of attaching moral claims to the unstable categories of gender and sexuality. To expose the instability of gender and sexuality, the authors challenge the platonic ideals of male and female bodies. In addition, the book clearly defines concepts like gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. The authors also reflect on notions of heterosexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality by noting that gender and sexuality cannot fall into one of two or three possible categories. Rather, sex and gender are fluid and different in different places. One weakness related to the topics of identity, attraction, and expression, is that they lacked substantial engagement with queer theory. While describing and illustrating the complexities and misinformation related to human sexuality, the authors missed an opportunity to expand on how queer theory helps us move away from binary structures imposed on sex and gender.
Overall, the book addresses a significant gap in the literature. As researchers, educators and activists, the authors’ target audience are students and teachers. The book’s themes and materials are appropriate for undergraduate students in introductory courses related to gender and sexuality, and to medical anthropology classes. The content and structure are versatile. In class, students and teachers can relate sexual myths to larger concepts at micro and macro scales. Overall, this book can be a useful tool to begin conversations on sexuality and gender.
Natali Valdez is a doctoral candidate in the department of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine and will complete her PhD in June 2016. Her research lies at the intersection of medical anthropology and feminist science studies. Natali’s research follows the scientists who design and implement prenatal interventions, and documents the experiences of the pregnant participants. Epigenetic science claims that children born to women who are obese during pregnancy have a higher chance of chronic disease. To prevent a future epidemic scientists are testing dietary interventions on obese pregnant women in randomized clinical trials. Her dissertation titled “Weighing the Future: an ethnography of epigenetics and prenatal interventions” explores the unintended consequences of testing prenatal interventions within an epigenetic paradigm.