Sexual Inequalities and Social Justice

Niels Teunis and Gilbert Herdt (Eds.)
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007

Reviewed by Stephanie R. Medley-Rath
Doctoral Student, Department of Sociology at Georgia State University

Niels Teunis and Gilbert Herdt have edited a diverse set of readings regarding sexual inequality in order to further the goal of sexual justice. Not only are the topics covered somewhat diverse, but the readings are also about diverse peoples. Importantly, this book focuses on “the axes of social inequality” (xi). In other words, the authors focus on how sexual inequality intersects with other forms of inequality, such as those based on race and ethnicity, age, gender, ability, and sexual identity. The editors define sexual inequality as “a form of structural violence rooted in sexual objectification by the oppressor and the concomitant sexual subjectivity of the dominated” (3). Sexual Inequalities and Social Justice is divided into three parts: sexual coercion and sexual stigma, seeking sexual pleasure, and sexual inequality and sociality, with each part containing a brief introduction from Teunis and Herdt. After reading this book, the reader comes away with a deeper understanding of the injustice caused by the exclusion of sexual rights as human rights.

In part one, “Sexual Coercion and Sexual Stigma,” the authors discuss how sexual coercion can contribute to sexual stigma. In separate chapters, Sonya Grant Arreola and Rafael M. Díaz both focus on Latino gay men and HIV. Arreola explains how childhood sexual abuse in combination with cultural norms that restrict talk about sex contributes to risky adult sexual behavior which can lead to HIV. Díaz discusses the social costs of knowing one’s HIV status. In contrast, Jessica Fields conducted a participant observation in middle-school sexuality classrooms in order to understand how abstinence-only and abstinence-plus sexuality education works to prevent the vulnerability of girls by limiting the knowledge boys would learn in such classes. Lastly, Chunghee Sarah Soh discusses how the sexual enslavement of Korean women as comfort women had implications for their reproductive health in that many of the women remained unmarried due to their perceived shame of having been a comfort woman. In addition, women who did marry had higher than expected rates of childlessness. Many of these women traced their infertility to their enslavement as comfort women. While on the surface each chapter seems very distinct from the others, taken together these readings further our understanding of just how sexual coercion works in different ways to contribute to stigmatization related to sexuality.

In contrast to sexual coercion, part two is about “Seeking Sexual Pleasure,” an action which is also often stigmatized. First, Héctor Carrillo takes the reader to Mexico to explain how the elimination of inequality is necessary to prevent the spread of HIV. However, at the same time, he demonstrates how inequality (at least the illusion of inequality) is sometimes necessary to maintain sexual pleasure. In other words, public health workers have to take into consideration how inequality works in affects both the spread of and prevention of HIV. Next, Christopher Carrington explains how seeking sexual pleasure is stigmatized by onlookers in his discussion of the risks, functions, and significance of Circuit culture (large-scale dance parties) among gay men. Then, Gloria González-López focuses on the heterosexualities of Mexican women who are seeking sexual pleasure in the context of maintaining their religious devotion to the Catholic Church. Importantly, many of the women González-López interviewed emphasized how the Church is for the spirit while sex is separate and not under the Church’s domain. The last reading, by Russell P. Shuttleworth, brings to the reader’s attention the sexual marginalization of disabled people in which disabled people are treated as either asexual or as not sexually desirable, which both have implications in their ability to successfully seek sexual pleasure.

Part three, “Sexual Inequality and Sociality,” discusses the exclusion and invisibility of older and adolescent gay, lesbian, and bisexuals from and in gay, lesbian, and bisexual organizations. Brian de Vries and Patrick Hoctel examine the role of friends as family among older gays and lesbians. Gilbert Herdt, Stephen T. Russell, Jeffrey Sweat, and Michelle Marzullo chart the development of gay-straight alliances in American high schools. They focus on the ethnicities, genders, and sexual identities of members of one particular gay-straight alliance group in California and discuss the implications of joining such groups for people depending on their ethnicity, gender, or sexual identity.

At the risk of creating a book of disconnected readings, Teunis and Herdt have edited a volume of diverse readings, which taken together, create a cohesive whole. This book presents the voices of many marginalized and oppressed people and shows how the lack of sexual rights as human rights contributes to further marginalization and oppression. This collection of readings is also interdisciplinary as the book includes work by and for anthropologists, gerontologists, psychologists, and sociologists with an eye towards public health policy. This book or parts of this book would be useful in courses on sexuality, gender, race, life course, inequality, or public health in any of the previously mentioned disciplines.

Stephanie R. Medley-Rath is also a sociology instructor at the University of West Georgia, and her main research interests are in gender, sex, culture, and family.

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