Friday, January 3, 2014
Dennis Altman's "Global Sex" from a Sociological Perspective
This essay was originally written in October 2006 as a college essay.
According to Global Sex author Dennis Altman, there have been arguments that globalization is not a new phenomenon; that it began, some say, as long ago as the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Throughout history, as travel and communication became easier, the world became more connected and ideas spread more quickly. The difference is that these days, Altman quotes David Held as saying, “What is new about the modern global system is the chronic intensification of patterns of interconnectedness mediated by such phenomena as the modern communications industry and new information technology… through… technological, organizational, administrative and legal [dimensions of interconnectedness].” Faster modes of transportation such as trains and airplanes, and faster modes of communication such as the telegraph, the telephone, and the Internet, replaced and built on each other, allowing globalization to occur quickly.
Globalization is rapidly becoming a reality and we are seeing the Americanization of the rest of the world. Altman mentions that people, art, and fashions often do not become popular until they are associated with something American, and that American films and the English language are widespread and popular. Globalization does not mean the eradication of local cultures because, Altman argues, other popular cultures besides the American culture flourish, such as African music, Mexican soap operas, Indian films, and “television in most countries is dominated by locally produced shows….” Cultures often retain their identities and customs even though they are influenced, or even taken over, by other cultures. Altman claims that “almost all of us remain linked to particular places, even if we may also feel part of communities which are not primarily defined by a shared space.”
The three main socioeconomic factors that create the contexts in which sexual acts and identities occur, according to Dennis Altman, are the economic, the cultural, and the political.
Altman exemplifies the effects of economy on sex by noting that as cultures trade with each other and there is more contact between the two peoples, they see the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. This can be seen in the case of the spread of syphilis from North America to Europe after Columbus’s contact with North America. Altman also mentions prostitution “Japan established brothels through east Asia to accommodate the expansion of Japanese business….” This shows how the development of the international economy and the expansion of trade have affected sexuality and affected people’s personal lives.
According to Altman, “Sexual mores and values have constantly changed as societies have come in contact with outside influences….” He mentions an opinion, held by a person in Japan, that introducing the birth control pill into that country would “undermine Japanese social stability.” Altman notes that Ronald Ingelhart has observed that many countries have shifted toward “a more permissive view on abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and extramarital sex.” As outside influences permeate a local culture, that culture gets exposed to alternative attitudes on sexual behavior.
Political issues relating to sex such as the legalization of gay marriage, the women’s rights movement, the gay rights movement, and the push for anti-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation are discussed in government around the world, in places such as Namibia, South Africa, Fiji, and Mexico. Altman mentions the case in which “the Namibian high court… ruled that a homosexual relationship should enjoy legal equality.” He also connects the political regimes and relative wealth of Singapore and the Philippines to the size of their gay cultures.
According to Dennis Altman, “growing affluence allows – and forces – new ways of organizing ‘private’ life… as sexuality is increasingly commodified.” He supports this claim with the example of how sexuality was affected by the expansion of Europe and Japan through imperialism. For example, syphilis spread after Columbus’s contact with North America. Also, Japan established brothels in the areas of east Asia that it conquered “to accommodate the expansion of Japanese business.” Altman also argues that the conquerors and the conquered began to affect each other in ways other than economically, but also in terms of sexuality. He gives the example of Josephine Baker, Carmen Miranda, Alicia Parla, and reggae music, which contributed to the stereotype relating African-Americans and Hispanics to sex, which affected sexuality among white Americans by creating in them an association between the exotic and the erotic. Also, he says that colonizing states contribute to the affluence of the conquered peoples, which sometimes causes the conquered peoples’ traditional family structures to break down.
Altman says “images of different sexualities are rapidly diffused across the world, often to be confronted by religious and nationalist movements.” In this age in which most cultures embrace modernity, there are a few that openly reject it – namely the Lubavitchers, the Amish, and the Taliban – who still have patriarchal attitudes toward women and children. Because the definition of modernity is constantly changing, the change in sexual attitudes can be seen in most cultures to be progressing still. For example, in Japan, a sort of sexual revolution has been taking place for several decades, and more women are questioning their roles as housewives and considering full-time jobs, are more likely “to reject arranged marriages, initiate divorces, and pursue cases of sexual harassment and rape.”
Altman says that “state regulation plays a crucial role in determining the possible forms of sexual expression.” He gives the example of reproductive laws in China and Ireland. China’s one-child policy, in one case, resulted in a woman who was pregnant for the second time to be deported and forced to have an abortion. That law also causes high rates of infanticide in China. Ireland’s strict laws on abortion cause Irish women to go to Britain in order to have reproductive freedom. In countries fortunate enough to have governments that allow people to vote so that the laws reflect popular values, problems like this are becoming less common. Countries such as the United States, Namibia, South Africa, Fiji, and Mexico have pushed for laws against discrimination by sexual orientation, and gay marriage is becoming legal in more countries.
In chapter 4 of Global Sex, Altman says “the growing internationalization of trade in both sex and drugs has played a major role in the diffusion of HIV….” He goes on to say that it has been argued that “patterns of use of illicit drugs are becoming globalized and ‘standardized,’ leading to the rapid spread of HIV in countries in both Southeast Asia and South America where the U.S.-led ‘war on drugs’ has meant injecting practices have partly replaced traditional opium smoking.”
Awareness of HIV/AIDS is also an effect of globalization, as evidenced by the popularity of American films about people with AIDS, and the use of the red ribbon and the AIDS quilt as symbols of awareness. Altman references the “considerable amount of literary and theatrical response to the [AIDS] epidemic” in Latin America as evidence of the awareness of the disease’s link to globalization. He notes that condom use has also spread throughout the world.
Though, through contact between cultures, globalization has facilitated the spread of diseases such as AIDS and syphilis (as mentioned in the chapter on socioeconomic factors of sex), globalization also facilitates communication between cultures, allowing information on HIV/AIDS and awareness of the disease to spread as well.
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