Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018, 248 pp.
Reviewed by Margaret Morley
In Love, Sex, and Desire in Modern Egypt, L.L. Wynn makes important contributions to anthropological theories about gender, kinship, and the Middle East that are firmly grounded in ethnographic stories. Drawn from over a decade of research, Wynn theorizes about relationships and respectability through the love lives of myriad interlocutors: an educated upper-class couple and their friends, a Spanish belly dancer and her social group of wealthy Egyptian men and their rotating mistresses, and a young unmarried working-class woman having a series of affairs. Wynn elucidates love, sex, and desire in modern Egypt through three theories: mimesis, kinship, and gift.
Wynn updates these classic anthropological theories by focusing on agency and affect, arguing they are key to understanding relationships and the negotiations of social expectations. Love and desire help to explain both why people are willing to engage in transgressive behavior and why they submit to norms and relationships that are constraining and even occasionally abusive. Rather than subjecting the reader to a literature review chapter, Wynn alternates chapters of ethnographic stories with essays theorizing from the anecdotes, dialogically interweaving her insights with those of scholars ranging from Baudrillard, Deleuze, and Butler to Strathern, the Comaroffs, Levi-Strauss, Peristiany, and Pitt-Rivers. Remarkably, Wynn maintains a light touch, even when dealing with necessary technical jargon and dense critical theory, explaining in clear terms only the relevant aspects of theoretical literature as it deepens our understanding of the ethnographic material.
While none of the interlocutors we meet technically measure up to Egyptian norms of gender and sexual morality (few people can), all must negotiate these expectations. People engage mimetically with expected gender and social roles, motivated by desire or unequal power relations to try to perform as others expect them to. Respectability, largely tied to the successful performance of gender roles and sexual morality, is a simulacrum, Wynn argues, a copy without an original. However, this simulation also allows people to claim respectability in spite of their transgressive behavior, creatively subverting and negotiating norms.
For women, in particular, the simulacra of respectability depend more on talk than actual actions, thus generating enormous social pressure. Women who don’t behave in all the ways prescribed as respectable are often labeled “prostitutes”, usually implying promiscuity rather than an actual exchange of sex for money. Wynn argues that the stigma of accepting money for sex is not greater than that of having sex without an exchange of money since in the context of a marriage the groom is obligated to give money to his new bride and support her financially throughout their life together. Ongoing formal kinship transforms the material exchange into a gift with obligations of care, making the sexual relationship respectable.
Respectability is a major cultural concern in this ethnographic context, and thus compels Wynn’s revision of theories of honor and shame in Mediterranean societies. Egyptians talk little about honor, but they talk a lot about respectability, attributing it to and adjudicating it for both men and women, who seek it for their own sakes and not just the honor of their male kin. This, Wynn argues, makes Egyptian society only a partial fit to the classic honor-and-shame complex, which paints women as categorically shameful and honor as an exclusively male attribute. Here, Wynn points out how anthropological theories are simulacra, shaping what researchers expect to see as well as academic and popular representations of the Arab world. While such theoretical constructions are not ‘real,’ they are also very real and have important and far-reaching political ramifications.
This is an ambitious book, and Wynn delivers great theoretical insight, particularly in the body of the book. Read past the deceptively simple introductory sections to appreciate Wynn’s adept use of simulacra and critical intervention into the theoretical discourse of honor-and-shame, which are central contributions of this book, while gift theories turn out to be less developed. Addressing charges of Orientalism from early reviewers due to her focus on transgressive sexualities, Wynn asserts the value of studying unconventional ethnographic subjects, maintaining that the margins teach us just as much about the construction of cultural norms as the ostensible center, if not more.
Overall, Wynn argues for a more nuanced understanding of sexuality and gender in Egypt, attributing more agency and complexity to women. Refreshingly accessible, this book is suitable for teaching in undergraduate classes, and Wynn’s discussion of the challenges she faced as a woman doing field research in Egypt will spark valuable discussions for graduate students. Wynn makes important contributions to anthropological theories of gender and sexuality in the Arab world, as well as sharing rich ethnographic evidence, furthering the diversity of scholarly representations of Middle Eastern women.
Margaret Morley is a Ph.D. student and Associate Instructor in Anthropology at Indiana University and holds an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from SOAS. Her research focuses on transnational flows of media and migrants and the cultural politics of Egyptian entertainment and tourism through the lens of the belly dance industry in Egypt.