LeVay, S. (2010). Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 264 pp.
Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why (2010) explores the psychobiology of sexual orientation. It examines and reflects upon a century worth of research about sexual desire, attraction, physiology and genetics. The book reads largely as a meta-analysis of the field, but LeVay maintains that in order to understand discussions about the “gay gene,” we need to look at how discourses about biology and sexuality have shaped our understanding of both human desire as well as the sciences that study those desires. LeVay is a notable neuroscientist whose research about gay and lesbian genetic variation has helped to develop theses about the evolutionary significance of homosexuality. The book is, at times, frustrating because it acknowledges the relative lack of replicable research to support claims about the biological nature of homosexuality (and largely absents bisexuality within its discussion of human sexuality). Thus, the book serves as a reminder that much of the research is still speculative and theoretical. Nevertheless, it provides an interesting look into contemporary developments in neuroscience, social science and psychology, all seeking to understand the exchanges that occur between the social values of sexuality and some of their biological underpinnings.
Anderson, E. (2012). The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 231 pp.
The Monogamy Gap (2012) is a sociological, academic text that explores the realities of monogamy, cheating among male-identified people, and cultures of sex and sexual intimacy. Anderson provides a broad range of approaches, across sociology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, neuropsychology and biology, which makes this study accessible not only for sexologists and sociologists of sexuality, but also scholars interested in theories of social desire, the psychology of sex, and cultural theories of sexuality and polyamory. His theory of dyadic dissonance (referring to the cognitive dissonance that occurs within monogamist cultures) is generally accessible beyond academic circles and provides a helpful foundation for budding research and personal development in non-monogamies and open relationships. I highly recommend this text for the lay reader interested in learning more about the realities of monogamy and the cultures of hegemony that oversee social scripts of human sexual desire and intimacy.
Perry, F. (2019). How to Have Feminist Sex: A Fairly Graphic Guide. London: Particular Books. 144 pp.
Flo Perry’s How to Have Feminist Sex (2019) is a graphic novel cum sex-ed book which explores the ins and outs of sexual health, intimacy and desire for an increasingly feminist sexual society. Funny and in your face, Perry navigates issues of consent, monogamy, relationships, period sex, body image(s) and biological traits, to name a few, in a succinct and timely narrative about how to have safe, fun and sexy fun. Perry’s book is a great companion text to other sex-ed books like Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s The Ethical Slut (1997), Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan’s Sex at Dawn (2010), and Eric Anderson’s The Monogamy Gap (2011). It is recommended for teens and adults, and is a good illustrative tool for parents, teachers or researchers exploring sexual health education, pleasure and intimacy, and human reproduction.
Following academic tradition, I’m posting a list of some of my favourite queer books read in 2019. Not all books were written in 2019. These books have – in some fashion – characters or themes across the LGBTQ+ spectrum(s).
- Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (2010)
- Meg John-Barker, Queer: A Graphic History (2016)
- Christopher Coe, Such Times (1994)
- Douglas Crimp & Adam Rolston, AIDS Demo Graphics (1991)
- Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (2003)
- Dion Kagan, Positive Images: Gay Men and HIV/AIDS in the Culture of ‘Post-Crisis’ (2018)
- Pajtim Statovci, My Cat Yugoslavia (2018)
- Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019)
- M.J. Wallace, Bi the Way (2017)
- David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (1991)
- Gregory Woods, Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World (2016)
For other books in my 2019 in-review, please visit my Goodreads reading challenge page.
Matzer, E., and Hughes, V. (2019). Nurses on the Inside: Stories of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in NYC. Cincinnati: Tree District Books. 242 pp.
Nurses on the Inside (2019) is a multi-testimonial account of the AIDS crisis in New York City, USA. Haunting and prosaic, the book provides anecdotes of nurse-patient interactions, with a penchant for clear, technical language that helps to make sense of 1980s and 90s medical discourse(s). Matzer and Hughes, two seasoned nurses in some of NYC’s most trafficked AIDS clinics, demonstrate an unusual sense of emotional clarity and empathy. They impart a nostalgic, but commemorative, focus on the lives of their patients, attending to the most characteristic and rich elements of their interactions with those who died from AIDS-related complications. More than a graphic narrative about the immense loss of AIDS crisis, the authors illuminate the importance and impact of individuals (including patients, doctors, and other nurses) as they careen in and out of their professional and social lifeworlds. Perhaps most interesting about this collection is the ways in which the authors recall their involvement in patient lives. For example, in the final chapters, the authors return to the empty spaces of hospital wards, calling upon the dead to remember the at-times excruciating, but generally provoking, experiences of human resilience and determination.
Nurses on the Inside is an excellent portal into the histories of HIV/AIDS in the United States, particularly because it remains attentive to the time(s) and place(s) of affective, medical, scientific, social and cultural advances, which we now understand as seminal moments during the AIDS crisis. Nurses, doctors, and students of history, sociology, and medicine, will find this book appealing. Additionally, scholars interested in the discursive layers of HIV/AIDS histories will find this book useful for understanding how AIDS crisis is narrated using memory, testimonies, and technical expertise.
Weil, B., & Ledin, C. (2019). PrEP at the After/Party: The “Post-AIDS” Politics of Frank Ocean’s “PrEP+”. Somatosphere. 4 Nov. [Online].
The medical anthropology journal Somatosphere has published a co-authored article about Frank Ocean’s recent “PrEP+ Party”. In this essay, Ben Weil and I examine Ocean’s attempt to revivify the HIV prevention-access circuit party using HIV prevention history. This piece considers how the biomedical technology HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is employed, first, to recall dance cultures from the 1980s and, second, to construct an “inclusive” social space through the prism of HIV/AIDS history. We suggest that the co-optation of PrEP to create a version of the prevention-access circuit party in the late 2010s evokes a particular image culture that is “not-about-AIDS”.
In an effort to signify cultural inclusivity, Ocean’s circuit party over-simplifies the medicalised histories of the circuit party and thus re-constructs technological determinism through anachronism. Different than creating positive (+) social networks for people living with HIV, and those communities deeply impacted by HIV transmission, Ocean’s circuit party reifies and absolves the “post-AIDS” pharmaceutical and medical realities that continue to bar access to HIV prevention both locally and globally. Thus, we draw attention to the ways in which PrEP shapes or ought to shape life beyond the clinical experience. We counter Ocean’s mis/context by turning to video artist Leo Herrera’s (2018) “post-AIDS” project, which constructs a differently politicised queer-led healthcare reform using the prevention-access circuit party. We argue that Herrera’s project provides a more compelling revisioning of the prevention-access party and employs a critically-applied approach which scholars might use to better understand sociocultural context/s in medical anthropology. In our view, the contexts of PrEP far exceed the walls and gaze of the clinic, where PrEP is often framed as residing, and must be understood to include (queer) social, sexual and cultural spaces, like the circuit party, which are implicated in and can help to shape the politics of PrEP and prevention access.
Stoner, A. (2019). The Journalist of Castro Street: The Life of Randy Shilts. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 266 pp.*
Andrew Stoner’s (2019) biography follows the life of American journalist Randy Shilts. Notorious for his critically-acclaimed, and also critically-lambasted, book And the Band Played On (1987), Shilts was also known for being one of the first openly gay journalists in the United States. Stoner’s text provides a wide-ranging history of Shilts’s life, including testimonies from his siblings, professional journalists, gay activists, scholars and historians. The first half of the book reads beautifully, with a narrative that recounts his childhood and early career.
When Stoner recounts Shilts’s journalism coverage of the AIDS crisis, things get messy. Stoner provides extensive reflections on Shilts’s AIDS-related writing and seeks to defend his journalistic integrity over the questionable image of the mainstream (hetero-centric) “AIDS scribe”. Alas Chapter 10 (“Strike Up the Band“) reads as if it’s been lifted directly from a PhD thesis in its attempt/s to follow previous academic scholarship. As such, it sometimes seems unreadable. Elsewhere, his descriptions of academics, activists and medical professionals (e.g. Dr. Richard McKay) vary so widely as to be introduced to the same thinker/s fifty different ways throughout a single chapter. The book could use some polishing in a second edition. Overall, the text provides some helpful insights into the life of the “AIDS scribe” and details important – often conflicting – responses to Shilts’s mythology of “Patient Zero”. Readers interested in journalism history, gay and lesbian history, and HIV/AIDS history will enjoy this book. It is a good companion text with Richard McKay’s (2017) recent book Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic.
*I was commissioned to review The Journalist of Castro Street for Media History in October 2019. Full review available here.
Winterson, J. (2011). Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? New York: Knopf. 230 pp.
Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography explores her chaotic upbringing as an adopted child raised by Pentecostal parents in northwest England. She follows a linear trajectory, smattered with historical context, disturbing memories of neglect and abuse, humorous anecdotes to cope and tie together the narrative under the banner of “I am not a lost cause,” indeed, that she is and always has been loved. There are mundane moments when the text flexes between psychoanalytic and philosophical musing, and others when Winterson’s anger toward her upbringing blows the box off respectability politics and writing family histories. The text is not queerly, per se, but provides a nice approach to integrating – that is, making intelligible – her desires for women through the retelling of her personal history/ies. Especially surprising is her excellent grasp of working class conditions and how this class consciousness, in the end, drives her understanding of self even when she is faced with her origins. Why Be Normal is a light, easy read, compelling for its attention to historical detail and natural-sounding prose.
Ledin, C. (2019). The Mundane Virus. The Polyphony. 11 Oct. [Online].
The online medical humanities journal, The Polyphony, has kindly published some of my research on viral bodies and sexual health education. The short blog post examines the embodiment of a sexually-transmitted virus, called “the bug,” in Charles Burns’s (2005) comic series Black Hole. I argue that Burns’s construction of the viral body is a seminal graphic representation of chronic HIV and thus a quintessential post-AIDS narrative. Hence, I begin to think about what lessons post-viral representations might provide for sexual health education today. I end with a reflection on the relationship between the viral body and, drawing upon Sara Ahmed, the affective body. In short, I suggest that Burns’s “mundane virus” provides scholars with an opportunity to examine the centrality of the affective body to the viral body. This work derives from the critical work which is central to my doctoral research at the University of Edinburgh. Further research on this topic will be explored in a forthcoming creative workshop as part of the Being Human Festival 2019.
Rigby, H., and Leibtag, S. (1994). HardWear: The Art of Prevention. Edmonton: Quon Editions. 176 pp.
Hugh Rigby and Susan Leibtag’s (1994) collection HardWear: The Art of Prevention presents a range of condom adverts, copy campaigns, and product packaging from the 1980s and 90s. It demonstrates rigorous tactical approaches for exposing sexual cultures to the necessity and usefulness of condoms. In addition to an excellent, short history of the condom in the introduction, the authors reflect on the purpose and centrality of condom use to sexual health histories. They then leave the various adverts and images to present their messages. Moving from issues of gay male substance use to the severity of AIDS illness among heterosexual couples, the collection compiles a variety of compelling materials for scholars and readers interested in the development prophylactic history and media representation. In short, HardWear is a simple and powerful collection of sexual history imagery. It is a very good companion for research and studies about HIV/AIDS and STIs.