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by Edward Shorter
University of Toronto Press, 2005
Review by Tony O'Brien on Jan 29th 2006

Written in the Flesh

The focus of this book is the history of sexual desire, a broad subject, and one that is not easy to research given the almost ubiquitous nature of taboos around sexual behaviour and expression. Any history must therefore be constructed from a highly selective range of artifacts and records, especially for those eras and groups of people without the technology to record their experiences. Nevertheless, that is the aim: to record a history of human sexuality. This is an ambitious book. Sexuality is a fundamental aspect of human life, and so a history of sexuality can be seen as an attempt to understand something of the essence of human beings, not merely their fleeting institutions, ideas, or the social arrangements of a particular time and place. Professor Edward Shorter is well placed to undertake such a history, having previously published extensively on related topics such as female bodies, psychological illness and disease, and most recently on the history of psychiatry. Shorter sets some boundaries around the task, focusing exclusively on Western history, beginning at the time of the Greeks. Those decisions inevitably mean that the book has some limitations, especially given that it is becoming increasingly difficult to talk about 'Western society' without recognizing a wide range of 'non-Western' influences, both historically and in contemporary times. But limits have to be set.

The book begins by setting out a bold thesis: that 'sexual behaviour and sensual pleasure are the product of biologically driven desire rather than of fashion or social conditioning.' Not just bold, but provocative. It is the brain, Shorter states, that drives our sexual behaviour; there is something in the basic wiring of our nervous systems that is behind all that match-making, love-making, and lust. Shorter informs us that 'biological liberation of the brain' will emerge with 'overpowering clarity' as the central narrative in the history of sexuality. This would not be nearly such a provocative thesis if it were not given as a direct challenge to social constructionist arguments. With Written in the Flesh Shorter is attempting to capture the conceptual ground long claimed by social science. In this sense the book can be seen as one more challenge to the primacy given to social factors in explaining human behaviour by many commentators since the 1960s. Shorter is in good company when it comes to asserting a role for biology. Literary theory these days is drawing on evolutionary theory to develop a more complete view of literature, although this does not extend to the apparently deterministic model favoured by Shorter. There is even a term (biodenial), albeit that it carries a psychodynamic connotation, for those who disagree with the role posed for biology. With such an introduction the reader settles in for a history that will not only recount the intimate practices of generations of our forbears, it will lead us to a new appreciation of sexuality.

Following the introduction the book is divided into two chapters setting out a baseline of sexual desire, an exploration of hindrances and the ideas of the Romantics, followed by a description the 'great breakout'; the period in which biology triumphed over culture and led to the full expression of our innate potential as sexual beings, the modern era of 'total body sex'. A chapter on sadomasochism follows, and the book concludes with an epilogue that explores some implications of the story that has been told so far.

The book is well written and highly readable. There is evidence of extensive research, but Shorter does not allow the narrative to become bogged down in detail or in a relentless litany of facts. As a writer Shorter is well engaged with his subject, and he tells the story with pace, warmth and humor. Illustrations from various sources are enough to make the point, and the range of famous names called to give testimony is impressive. As you would expect in a book of this nature there are more than enough spicy anecdotes to engage the reader. You might think twice, though, about what you record in your diary. Also, Shorter does not pursue an overtly ideological agenda, something that can make reading of historical accounts tiresome. I did find the reminders of his biological theory a little intrusive, as if stating it enough times would make the point. There are several instances where Shorter cites as evidence, individuals' sense of the innate nature of desire. These include Lady Montagu, Virginia Woolf, and even John Locke. But a sense that something is so is just that, a perception. It might just seem that way. The discussion of 'hindrances' shows that Church and social sanctions had plenty of support from ordinary conditions of life such as crowded living situations, lack of privacy, infestations, and hygiene. Getting down in the Middle Ages really did mean getting dirty. Shorter does not stint in his use of the vernacular, a commendable aspect of the book given the use of both euphemism and obscenity to describe sexual practices. He criticizes those researchers who have been rather too coy in their surveys, omitting for example, to inquire as to mens' use of their nipples as an erogenous zone. Many readers will learn a new word or two, and some will be enlightened as to the erotic practices of their fellow citizens.

By describing gay and lesbian sexuality separately from that of heterosexuals Shorter is able to show both similarities and differences between the two groups. This is particularly informative in the latter part of the book when the politicization of lesbianism is discussed, as there is a clear break between the developing eroticization of the gay male body and the retreat into Puritanism amongst lesbians. There is also a remarkable parallel between heterosexuals and gays in limiting sexual activity to genital contact and kissing. Oral sex was rare for both groups until relatively recently.

So how successful is this attempt to redefine sexual desire? The book is certainly broad enough in scope, and brings to light the striking flowering of sexuality in the Greek and Roman civilizations, albeit with variation in the forms of sexual expression. The long period of sexual quiescence, lasting until the 18th century, is equally striking, and there is a strong case that restraints on sexual behaviour, especially for peasants, involved the repression of an immanent force that, like one of those watermelon seeds found in the great pyramids, needed only the right conditions for its growth and unrestrained expression.

The idea that sexual desire is biologically driven, in the way the Shorter proposes, is a theory that requires strong evidence and sound argument. Shorter's biological theory is sound enough given the ubiquity of sexual desire. Cross-cultural analysis would likely provide further argument that there is something innate in human beings' exploration of the sensual. But in his attempts to sideline social factors as crucial to the emergence of total body sex, and to our ideas of hetero and homosexuality the book is less successful. Indeed, some of the examples he cites, of how social factors, such as the Church, were effective for so long in shaping sexual desire, seem to fly in the face of an undiluted biological theory. Shorter all but concedes this point in his discussion of sadomasochism. He expresses surprise at the recent rise of consensual sadomasochism, something that comes 'out of the blue'. The summary of the history of sexual desire on page 199-200 refers to the actions of the church and communities, the decline of the small town, and social acceptance of hedonic behaviour. All of this would be entirely acceptable within a social constructionist theory, and only the concluding sentence, 'All respond now to the same deep neural drives' reminds us that we are reading a treatise on sexual desire as biological. Ultimately, Shorter's theory is just that, a theory. It certainly reminds us that culture must work with what biology provides, but it is a long way from establishing the primacy of biology.

The epilogue left me puzzled. At the end of such a comprehensive survey of sexual desire there is a need to step back and reflect on what it all means for Western society, and what has been gained in the rush towards total body sex. It is therefore appropriate that a more reflective section engages readers in some deliberation on the social an ethical consequences of our new sexuality. Shorter concludes that the valorization of sexual pleasure is at the expense of community, rather than reason. This involves a rather narrow reading of urbanization as driven by the desire for privacy, and that for the purposes of sexual exploration. This is a point made earlier in the book, but it is an interpretation that seems hard to justify. Earlier, Shorter emphasizes the constraints that limited privacy and personal space had on sexuality. But it seems too great a step to say that increasing attention to ourselves as erotic subjects has caused a reduction in social cohesion. Correlation is not causation and there are many factors that have contributed to our increasing individualism. One is tempted here to refer to the social construction of the individual, but Shorter has moved too far towards a biological explanation to allow such speculation. The discussion then moves, inexplicably, to the influence of television, which Shorter gives as another example of our growing hedonism. I have never thought of television as especially hedonistic. Individualistic, yes, and, given the state of much of the programming, not likely to become a force for the more communitarian approach to social life. I found the epilogue somewhat disappointing given the scholarship of the preceding sections.

There are some aspects of sexual desire that I would like to have seen covered, such as the emergence of the Internet as a vehicle for sexual expression and activity. There is also the internationalization of trade in sex workers, frequently under conditions of extreme danger and coercion, surely indicating something of a failure in the universal realization of sexual potential. There are plenty of people who gain sexual freedom only at the expense of others. And there are pathologies of sex, too, such as incest, rape, and sexual torture. If we owe the bounties of sexual liberation to the brain, it is to the brain we must look to explain these perversions. Our current legal systems prefer to rely on free will.

If this book had not been proposed as an argument for a biological theory of sexual desire, its wealth of information and analysis would stand alone as a hugely significant contribution to our understanding of sexuality. As it is, the book is a comprehensive summary of the emergence of modern sexual desire. The limitations arising from the partial documentation of past practices, and Shorter's tendency to rely overly much on the records of elite citizens is a small price to pay for such a detailed and wide-ranging exposition. There is a useful index at the back of the book, and throughout there are references and footnotes aplenty. If Written in the Flesh causes debate about its central thesis that is no bad thing. The book itself should serve as a central reference in pursuing that debate.


© 2006 Tony O'Brien


Tony O'Brien, M Phil, is a lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand:


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