Summa Sexologica

Graham Willett, University of Melbourne

Jeffrey Weeks, The World We Have Won: The Remaking of Erotic and Intimate Life London and New York, Routledge, 2007 (288 pp). ISBN 9-78041542-201-7 (paperback) RRP $101.95.

Robert Reynolds, What Happened to Gay Life?, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2007 (224 pp). ISBN 9-78086840-852-1, 2007 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

It is hard to imagine that anyone anywhere in the West might seriously doubt that our erotic and intimate lives have been utterly transformed in the past half century, and transformed more thoroughly than in any comparable time period in our history. Who in 1945 imagined a female prime minister, same-sex marriage, public discussions of abortion and contraception? What is often disputed, though, is whether these changes have been for the better.

There are three ways in which it can be argued that they have not. One is a conservative viewpoint. The decay, or sometimes ‘undermining’ or ‘abandonment’, of traditional forms of relationships is, for these observers, unambiguously a bad thing. To their general sensibility, which prefers things not to change, conservatives bring something of an argument: the traditional family form, and the sex-roles that are embedded in it, constitute the foundation of society; any change represents a falling away from the ways things ought to be, and a threat to the entire social order. For the most part, these conservatives are religiously inclined and locate their family form in the will of their gods and their holy books. For this mindset, there is no diversity, much less improvement; only a fall from grace.

A world away in their motivating ideas, but remarkably close in the pessimism of their conclusions, are those various thinkers that tend to have their roots in the work of Michel Foucault and who are often lumped together as ‘postmodernists’. Here the changes that we have undergone—especially those which seem to indicate greater freedom and autonomy—are dismissed as superficial, concealing (except to the trained eye) the continuing dominance of Power. Self-regulation may have replaced regulation, but we are regulated nonetheless. And then there is the revolutionary left, which holds that capitalism requires the oppression of, among others, gay people and that any apparent improvement in the lives we live must be at best precarious and at worst illusory. Only the unresolved issues, or the latest outrages (the denial of same-sex marriage, for example) are real.

Jeffrey Weeks, in his magisterial The World We Have Won, helps us to find our way through, around, between these various rocks and hard places, drawing upon his long history of engagement with the changing realities of everyday sexual life in the West. His work as a historian, sociologist, social researcher, activist, critic and writer underpins here a kind of Summa Sexologica—a survey of erotic and intimate life as it has been lived, debated and understood over the past 50 years. The richness of Weeks’ own work can hardly be overstated—from his early histories of sexuality and the ideas surrounding it (Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (1977)) through his later social science research-based explorations into the everyday lives of people (Same Sex Intimacies: Families of Choice and other Life Experiments (2001)), he has accumulated an understanding of the literature and debates that animate this thriving area of social science—and an understanding of the lives that this science is working to illuminate. In this work, he brings his wealth of knowledge to the reader.

There is little need these days to justify an interest in sex.

There is little need these days to justify an interest in sex, though Weeks provides a neat summary for those who might still doubt its value. As a ‘unique matrix’ of the private and the public, the personal and the social, the natural and the human, it offers a privileged site for the understanding of the world and its transformation.

Weeks is a generous and sympathetic guide. It is clear who he agrees with and who he doesn’t but he is respectful of the reader’s right to know the content of ideas that he (Weeks) would certainly prefer we didn’t opt for. He is good, for example, on the moral backlash in the West in the 1980s and on the more recent rise of fundamentalisms around the world. He is generous, too, with his own life, sharing his history beginning with his childhood in the Rhondda Valley in Wales in a world that would be transformed as much as any other that he deals with. This generosity is no accident. Weeks puts human experience at the very centre of his understanding of the world we have won, and his respect for those who are making this world shines through. Against the pessimists and nay-sayers, he thinks that the world today is a better one than he was born in to; but he understands the ways in which it is sometimes not. And he understands why not everyone sees things the way he does.

His argument is, in summary, a simple one. The world has undergone deep and irreversible structural changes in the past 60 years; these have opened up new life choices for hundreds of millions of people; and these choices have been, variously, welcomed, opposed, rejected, adopted and adapted. Easy to say. In fact, of course, each of the elements of these transformations is extremely complex, subject to sharp debate and argument among scholars, opinion-makers, activists and those who are living them out. But Weeks has a handle on this: his bibliography runs to more than thirty pages; his text is littered with references; where the scholarly literature matters, it is discussed. It is only Weeks’s writing—clear, concise, jargon-free (except where he is quoting others less respectful of their readers)—that keeps this material accessible. This is a book that anyone interested in the transformation of intimate life in the West (and beyond, as he notes in his later chapters) can reach for with confidence. But actually, that is not, I think, its greatest importance.

For me, what makes this a wonderful book, is the way it puts human beings at the centre of the change process. It is clear that, for Weeks, people make the world. I don’t know whether he still calls himself a marxist. (As a younger man he was a member of the Gay Left collective, whose journal of the same name embodies the efforts of a group of British gay liberationists to understand the forces and processes of sexual oppression and to plot the paths to freedom.) But it is clear that the grumpy old German’s dictum that people make their own history, albeit not in circumstances of their own choosing, comes strikingly to life in this survey.

Weeks puts human beings at the centre of the change process.

For that reason, understanding the deep structural changes is fundamental to Weeks’s argument. But these are not, as is usually the case in marxism, driven by technology as such. They are not even driven by sexual technologies—like many historians, Weeks is wary of the idea that the contraceptive pill was instrumental in the emancipation of women. The deep structural changes are socio-cultural, summarised as liberalisation, secularisation and the emergence of sexual agency. They are explored through more refined notions such as democratisation and informalisation of personal relationships; the development of social and political reform movements which set out to consciously reshape the sexual structures of society; the shifting boundaries of public and private (not at all a one-way shift); the rise of ‘risk’, and in particular sexual risk.

This is the framework in which people have worked to remake their lives and their societies. Their efforts have been ‘messy, contradictory, haphazard’ (p. 57). There are achievements and defeats, work in progress and work not yet begun. Weeks sees, and helps us to see, that this past 60 years has been a process by which human beings are responding to the great shaping forces mentioned above, sometimes consciously, sometimes by trial and error and half-conscious adaptation. Early on in the Post-War period, he argues, the changes in our lives were less the product of some abstract desire for self-fulfillment than a response to circumstances. In the 1960s, we can see all sorts of signs of change, but they were less obvious to those living then and mostly not much came of them. But with the rise of the social movements (of women, gay people, young people) and the counter-mobilisation of conservatives, this unconsciousness waned. We now have no choice but to think about how we want to live and to try to bring that thought into being. The only option not available is not to change.

It might be thought that these processes of self-fashioning are the preserve of educated, cosmopolitan elites. But Weeks’ attention to the deep structures of change helps us to see why that is not—cannot be—true. Everybody is faced with the erosion of old ways of being; everybody has to respond to this reality. Some do it more consciously than others. Some have settled for a kind of live-and-let-live tolerance. Others have expended great energy and taken great risks to bring new visions to life. Most have been involved in processes of ‘working out’ new ways of being; not by reference to theory, but via life-experiments underpinned by ethics of care and reciprocity, facilitated by hidden solidarities, that result in ‘informal, local, contextualised’ (p. 178) arrangements. Drawing on research (in which he himself was often involved) Weeks demonstrates the ways people work as ‘energetic moral actors’, sometimes unconscious ones, to make their lives—and the lives of those around them—operate. Who around us counts as ‘kin’? Who raises the children? What are the needs of children and the duties of adults? All of these are sorted out in diverse, practical ways that reflect the particular histories and circumstances of individuals and their networks and communities. There is a new world being born and we are all its midwives.

Everybody is faced with the erosion of old ways of being.

This is not a process likely to end anytime soon. Or, perhaps, ever. There is so much that has not yet been resolved. For all the achievements of recent decades, we live still with the intransigence of gender difference and inequality and institutionalised heterosexuality, the fear of difference, the commercialisation of sex, disease, religious fundamentalism and culture wars. The project of sexual citizenship (same-sex marriage, for example, just now) may be coming to its endpoint (though Weeks does not seem to see it this way)—but gender equality seems to have run up against real barriers, and progress seems to have stalled, by some measures anyway.

This is a wonderful book, full of knowledge and insights. If there is a problem it is that it is too full. But that is a problem one can resolve by returning to it from time to time, as needed. One can also read it alongside other work that addresses some of its concerns (it is hard to think of anyone else who has been addressing all of its concerns).

Consider, for example, Robert Reynolds’ What Happened to Gay Life? In eight chapters, Reynolds draws on life history interviews with ten gay men who are now living, or have at some point lived, in Sydney. The oldest of these men came out in the early 1970s, into the world of Gay Liberation—a period that seems more and more extraordinary the more it recedes into the past. (In a world where the pragmatic convergence of political parties is the dominant mode, where ‘demanding the impossible’ or even thinking differently strikes most people as silly and pointless, the great utopian moment of the early 1970s seems almost, almost unimaginable.) Ken and Paul and James were revolutionaries and their calling in life was to make and unmake social conditions, not just for homosexuals, but for everyone. At the end of the book, Andrew, Dave and Damien—about the same age now as the others were in the 70s—have very different lives, expectations, ambitions … They wear their sexuality, as Reynolds nicely puts it, ‘lightly’. They assume that the world that the older generation fought for is normal and natural. In this they are right, of course—and wrong. It does seem normal now (and what a remarkable thing that is!); but that is the result of more than 40 years’ hard work. If I have a complaint about this book it is that, in it, the transformation of the world operates more at the structural level, and provides a backdrop to the lives of the gay men we meet; in fact, this transformation emerged out of the work they did, or didn’t do.

There are dozens of wonderful moments in this book, and Reynolds writes with empathy and sympathy; and with a graceful style. And what he is showing us, up close, is the kinds of transformation in our society’s emotional and intimate lives that Weeks is talking about at a higher level of generalisation.

Weeks speaks of the world we have won. It is a reference to an older work about the world we have lost (Laslett 1965). Reynolds speaks of what has happened to gay life. I think, though, that they both show us worlds that we have made. And in a world where most of the news is about how badly we have messed things up, these are works from which we might draw inspiration about worlds of which we might feel a little pride.


Laslett, P. 1965, The World We Have Lost, London, Methuen.

Weeks, J. 1977, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present, London, Quartet.

Weeks, J. Heaphy, B. & Donovan, D. 2001, Same Sex Intimacies: Families of Choice and Other Life Experiments, New York, Routledge.

Graham Willett is Senior Lecturer in Australian Studies at the University of Melbourne. He is author of Living Out Loud: A History of Gay and Lesbian Activism in Australia (2000) and is president of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

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