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What can a modern reader make of a book calling itself Continuum Complete International Encyclopedia of Sexuality? In the past, it could have been a Baedeker’s—a Guide Michelin—to the sexual hotspots of the world, or a swinger’s and sophisticate’s tourguide to the super-sexy clubs of the international sex scene. It might well have contained addresses and ratings of brothels in far-flung places. Or perhaps it was a seriocomic autobiographical tale of a young person turned loose on the world of sex.
There was also a time that an International Encyclopedia of Sexuality would have recounted “the curious erotic customs” of people native to Borneo, Upper Nepal, and the tributaries of the Amazon, with a chapter (once obligatory in such works) about footbinding among the Chinese, crammed between strange stories about marriage rites among Polish villagers, African pastoralists, or Paraguayan landholders. And the illustrations—old-style black-and-white photographs—would have shown a peasant wedding in the Tyrol, a bride in Hindustan, the groom’s party in Southern Russia, or anywhere else older times believed dwelt “primitive” or “simple” people.
Each of these has been a genre in sexual writing, as are dry-as-dust treatises of solemn university professors awash in jargon, incomprehensible tables of statistics, and deadly dull theorizing. Any and all could fill a book called Continuum Complete International Encyclopedia of Sexuality.
One value of the book you now hold is to reveal how much Western sexological writing has changed over two or so centuries. The essays here were each written by a person or persons native to the land and culture described or familiar with it through years of life and study there. Each of the authors is trained in one or another academic discipline, from cultural anthropology to medical sexology. The language is international scientific English, stylistically straightforward and uncomplicated. And thanks to the Editors’ foresight, the chapters all follow a common outline, covering similar topics in similar orders—which ought to facilitate comparisons among cultures. After a brief introduction, each chapter deals with a single society, discussing religious and ethnic sexual values, gender roles and the sociology of men and women, relationships between sexuality and love, sex education formal and informal, autoeroticism, heterosexuality and marriage and the family, homoeroticism, gender conflicts, and “unconventional” sexual behavior—including rape, prostitution, pornography, and erotica—followed by material on contraception, abortion, and population planning, and ending with a discussion of sexually transmitted diseases and sex counseling/therapy. It is quite a palate of topics.
And you will notice that it is a serious list of topics. Perhaps nothing else so well illustrates how Western and Westernized writing on sexuality has refocused over two centuries. Today, we “moderns”—which means only that we Westernized intellectuals proudly call ourselves modern and, by implication, think others primitive—disdain older modes of sexological writing and publication. For many years, a primary form of “sexological” writing was the illustrated book—please, to be sold only to medical professionals!—with titles like Femina Libido Sexualis, and containing a mish-mash (to our modern eyes) of “medico-scientific” material on female anatomy, circumcision practices, phallic worship, all ostensibly published for “the advancement of knowledge,” but actually printed as erotica and hidden from the censor’s vigil by their Latinisms and their faux-science. But the mainstay of such works—definitions, discussions, and depictions of “female sexual beauty”—is absent in modern sexological writing, and is equally absent from this International Encyclopedia of Sexuality. Gone are the black-and-white photographs of nude women, steel engravings of Arab weddings, and suggestively titled but oh-so-innocent tales of life in the Turkish seraglio.
Today, sexuality has become the focus of intense concern, often outright anxiety. Topics that we today consider “sexologically appropriate” border more and more closely on psychological, medical, and social pathology. We are concerned with the criminality of sexual acts, their morality, their capacity to index—if not to stir up—social destruction and vehement conflict. Furious debates over pornography and deep concern about child sexual abuse illustrate how much, for us, sexuality no longer focuses on sexual beauty, be it male or female, but on sexual ugliness, disease, and crime.
To a large extent—though it varies by author—this focus on sexological pathology and problems is shared by all the chapters in the International Encyclopedia. No wonder, either we live in a world of sexual change and rearrangement, where politics, more than nudity, seems the proper companion of the goddess of love, Aphrodite herself. For us, sexuality represents the body in flux: not a Heraclitean flow of all things growing and waning, but embodied future shock and upheaval. Books celebrating “sexual beauty” or regaling the reader with “odd and curious marriage customs” of foreign people could be written only in days that themselves had firm and clear sexual guidelines—a sexual culture—to shape readers’ behavior and assure them that they were culturally normal by the standards of their own Western societies. But—rota fortuna—things change.
There is a story told—apocryphally, I am afraid—of an Indian tourguide at the temples of Khajuraho, famed for what Westerners perceive as highly erotic sculptures. A woman ethnologist, primarily interested in these sculpted images of the most variegated forms of copulation imaginable, continued to ask to be shown those portions of the temple grounds. The guide steadfastly refused, saying only, “But they aren’t interesting, miss.”
The point is not the tourguide’s recalcitrance. Instead, let us wonder where he obtained the phrase he used to defend his efforts at censorship: “They aren’t interesting.” Partly, to be sure, he expressed a personal emotion, but we can readily imagine British tourists in the days of the Indian Raj expressing dismay and anxiety by saying precisely the same—“These statues are not interesting.” In those days—that is, for many years indeed—sexuality was not interesting to the normal Westerner outside the bedroom and those all-male soirees with which folklore bedecks the 1890s and similar eras of “sexual excess.”
So Continuum Complete International Encyclopedia of Sexuality reveals a fascinating aspect of how our own—Western or Westernized—visions of sexuality have shifted. Today, we find sexuality much more openly important, even if public and media attention often focuses on its less-pleasant sides, e.g., exploitation of women in pornography. Unlike our recent ancestors, we find sexuality interesting to extents that would have deeply shocked and troubled both the British visitors to Khajuraho and its Indian tourguide.
Over the intervening century, sexuality has slipped loose from its originally tight moorings in Western and Westernized societies. Today, it touches all aspects of life: certainly, it seems to touch everything in the media! One can plausibly argue that these are not deep social or psychological changes, but merely that previously dominating masks and disguises have fallen away to reveal what probably was always there—widespread interest in sexuality among many people indeed.
In this newly unmasked interest, we all need good, solid information—not rumor, hearsay, travelers’ tales, and secret books celebrating female pulchritude across the globe—but good data, compiled with serious intent and presented with serious purpose. Such intentions and purposes Continuum Complete International Encyclopedia of Sexuality achieves. I do not perceive its seriousness of outline or topic as antisexual so much as I see it as antifrivolous. We do not trivialize sexuality nowadays and we live in an era of “serious works about sex.”
We cannot escape the solemnification of sexuality, not because solemnity is foisted upon us by prudes, but because we understand that sexuality is dangerous as well as pleasurable. Yet we also carry within ourselves a desire to worry about sexuality—an echo from older days when sexuality was taboo for polite discussion and a matter only of whispered gossip, something to worry about. In our modern world, sexuality is legitimated partly by surrounding it by a veil of worried concern, e.g., about pornography, child sexual abuse, sexual Satanism, and the like. Knowledge has been bought at the price of thinking that sexuality ought to be studied and worked at. Whatever instincts exist (modern sexological scholarship denies them), they do not operate easily or comfortably today. If sexuality no longer wears the obscuring masks of the past—the opaque black garb that once clothed the body—then instead it wears translucent gauze, not erotic so much as disinfectant. In modern sexology, sexuality inhabits the forums of research, and Continuum Complete International Encyclopedia of Sexuality is quite modern.
Its importance—considerable, I think—exhibits another change in sexological discourse, to use a revealing and portentous word made popular by academic sexologists. In older days, only one officially sanctioned form of discourse existed about sex: the language and meanings of moralists, churchmen typically, that upheld certain visions of how we should write about sex. Though he had predecessors, Kinsey changed all that permanently, in effect substituting technicalisms for a dying moralism in sexual language. A curious consequence is that sexology no longer speaks to the masses about matters they understand and know. As modern life fractalizes, sexology has sprouted many officially sanctioned discourses, such as postmodernist criticism, feminism, conservative rhetoric, biomedicalese, all antipopulist, all above the heads of the man and woman in the street (or bedroom). Indeed, it sometimes takes an expert to understand that the topic is sex. Nonetheless, adherents of these different discourses spend much time examining each other’s prose with the officiousness of churchmen hunting out sinful thoughts. Sex remains a charged, powerful topic, and its significance will not diminish soon. Its powers radiate outwards from an embodied center to touch arenas of disagreement, like politics, that nonetheless remain more comfortable than open sexuality, at least for many people.
And so this International Encyclopedia raises a curious question: Will there come a time when sexuality can display itself nude? Or is nude sexuality still “not interesting”? Judging from public worry over Madonna’s Sex, with her deliberate evocation of nudity, we still share a great deal with the Indian tourguide. However, the authors of the chapters in this book are closer kin to the woman ethnologist who wished to examine those statues. For her and her modern scholarly descendants, sexuality is interesting, even if still garmented in sociological, psychological, and biomedical gauze. Whereas we Westernized intellects still feel that Aphrodite must be partly covered, nonetheless many layers of wrapping and disguise have been removed. To the prude, it is all to the bad (even if “not interesting”). To the scholar, it is an important step towards understanding sexuality itself. To the modern reader, Continuum Complete International Encyclopedia of Sexuality will be more interesting than a Baedeker to the world’s sex clubs or an autobiography of a reprobate or even a lusciously colored edition of the once banned Thousand and One Nights: It provides a thoroughly scholarly examination of what is still not fully exposed even in an enlightened modern world—or, judging from the temples at Khajuraho itself, the partly enlightened and partly interested modern world.