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Global Sex

By David Higgs

Global Sex by Dennis Altman, University of Chicago Press, 2001, paperback, $18.90 on Amazon.com

Dennis Altman is a significant intellectual figure in the evolution of studies of sexuality and the author of eight books on subjects like AIDS and homosexual liberation. His current book deals with contemporary sexualities on a global scale. In the coming decades this book will be located in the development of comparative Lesbian and Gay historiography.

At the start of the twenty-first century lgbtq studies are as much affected by globalization as capitalism and popular culture. This is perhaps not surprising as "pink" tourism is a flourishing intercontinental economic fact sustaining a lot of businesses.

Altman draws evidence from many places: the index yields a reference to Zaire, 2 to Denmark, 7 to the Philippines, 8 to Brazil, 11 to Australia, 13 to Japan but none on, say, Portugal. His observations are from all over the world but point to a strong Pacific Ocean perspective for the volume as well as gleanings from the Atlantic world.

In its range the book brings to mind other broad-based enquiries like Guy Hocquenghem's ^Le Gay Voyage~ (1980) or Stephen Murray's ^Homosexualities~ (2000), which are part of comparative thinking about sexualities across languages and cultures. Altman's account is sprightly and makes no pedantic claims to methodology or representativity. Many citations are from newspapers and magazines.

Many lgbtq writers, like Altman, refer to their personal relationships as part of their worldview. Private affections are doubled by public instances of gay lives (like Matthew Shepard or Mark Bingham) which provide fodder to writers who have never met them.

Recent events show the difficulty of generalizing about recent global trends, particularly on cultural and religious beliefs as they relate to sexualities and family. Genital mutilation of a young girl took place in St. Catharines, Ontario in the last year of the twentieth century as well as in Somalia, Sierra Leone, and Mali.

If satellite TV to the South Pacific and Africa has triggered outbreaks of anorexia and bulimia among women in those places, numerous reports attest to a global surge in the percentages of obese women and men in different populations. If it is now possible to watch movies on some cellular telephones, half of the world's population in 2000 had never made a telephone call.

The main argument is that a common, or perhaps more accurately an interconnected, sexual culture is emerging from the processes of globalization and the accessibility of visual pornography. In this book Altman is less concerned with the social existence of lesbians and gays than he is with the relationship between males and females in different societies.

The frontier between sexualities may be more porous now than thirty years ago because of accessible imagery with differing demands for sexual practices as in the increasing demands for oral and anal sex in the People's Republic of China. Altman is interesting on the subject of modern visual pornography which is often sold to purchasers who search through a complex system of age, ethnic and fetish specifications.

At the same time the largest distributors in this colossal business are keen to exclude from their catalogues any products of those who want to eroticize rape, or the abuse of infants and animals. They want to deflect any judicial threat to their profits. Much popular culture is affected by codes about appearance and the desirability of American-style products. Xuxa the Brazilian TV personality is blond and does not look like the parents of many of the children who idolize her. The Miss America corporation started the Miss World contest in 1951 and although there have been winners from all continents the prevailing imagery is that of Hollywood.

A grimmer theme in the book is that of the search for profit by multinational pharmaceutical companies and the overpricing of AIDS treatments. There is also consideration of changing demands on female and male sex workers in the age of AIDS.

Overall the book has much to offer for discussions about evolving familial and sexual mores, like the fact that the highest percentage of households headed by women is not in the affluent west but Botswana and Barbados. Altman ends with a question mark: are we in an age of global sexual politics? Here he points to the inequities and injustices of wealth distribution in the world as well as within particular societies.

The book jacket of this volume carries a woman's face with sensuous lipstick and her eye covered with the sales barcode. At first glance this appears carelessness in labeling but then one realizes this was a deliberate design so that we shall appreciate how looking at sexuality has become saleable: seeing as dollars.
This review by David Higgs, of the University of Toronto, originally appeared in the Newsletter of the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History, issue 16/1(Spring 2002), and is reprinted with the permission of the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History at www.usc.edu/isd/archives/clgh online.

Courtesy of International Gay and Lesbian Review, One Institute Press, Los Angeles

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