HISTSEX BOOK REVIEW
Nicholas Bamforth, ed. Sex Rights: The Oxford
Amnesty Lectures 2002.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 306 pp. Index. £14.99
(paper), ISBN 0-19-280561-4.
Reviewed for H-Histsex
by John Lauritsen, Independent Scholar.
Gender, Sexuality, and Human
This book was engendered by the Oxford Amnesty Lectures of 2002,
which addressed the issue of gender and sexuality in relation to the
concepts and laws of human rights. In addition to five of the 2002
lectures, the book was expanded with two specially commissioned
Amnesty International is cited repeatedly, though it is not
explained whether the Oxford lectures are affiliated with, or merely in
sympathy with that organization. From the time of its founding in 1961,
and for its first three decades, Amnesty International (AI) devoted its
resources to fighting on behalf of prisoners of conscience and
political prisoners who had been denied fair trials; it also opposed
torture, extrajudicial executions, and the death penalty. Then,
beginning in the 1990s, it began to expand (or dilute) its mandate to
include other victims of injustice or discrimination. From 2001 to
2004, AI issued three major reports: the first, Crimes of Hate,
Conspiracy of Silence: Torture and Ill-treatment Based on Sexual
Identity (2001), “concerned lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transsexuals
and transgendered individuals (referred to hereafter as ‘sexual
minorities’ or ‘LGBT people’)” (p. 2) and the second and third, the
position of women.
In his introduction, Nicholas Bamforth does a fine job of
providing historical background to the 2002 lectures and of analyzing
the theoretical issues involved. In my opinion, there is more substance
to his introduction than to the talks themselves — and the same can be
said of the introductions, written by others, to the individual talks.
In general, it is apparent that the lectures were informed by feminist
theory, which holds that women and “LGBT people” are persecuted “on
account of their deviation from socially approved gender norms” (p.
13). This, of course, is not the only way of looking at it. I and other
gay scholars have argued that a specific taboo, contained in the
Holiness Code of
Leviticus, together with the sex-negativism of all
three Abrahamic religions, is responsible for the persecution of gay
The major talk was given by Judith Butler: “On Being Beside
Oneself”. Though less opaque than many of her works, it still seems
unfocused and irrelevant to any real fight against injustice. In the
manner of postmodern feminism, which she almost invented, she divagates
from “What makes for a grievable life?” (p. 48), through a bit of
Foucauldian musing over “who and what is considered real and true” (p.
61), to the question, “What makes a life liveable?” (p. 77).
Malcolm Bowie's introduction to Butler's talk — written in good,
direct English — is actually superior to it. He summarizes her leading
conception admirably: “For Butler, ‘gender’ is a social construct
rather than a biological datum; it is performed rather than prescribed;
it is labile, multifarious, and now troubling, now exhilarating in its
transformative capacity.” Bowie is much too kind to Butler when
he characterizes her talk as “deeply moving” (p. 44) and a “call to
action” (p. 47). It is neither.
The second talk is by Susan Moller Okin: “Women's Human Rights in
the Late Twentieth Century: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back”. Though
some of her points are debatable, at least she provides a good overview
in comprehensible English. Perhaps her most important point is that
traditions should not be invoked to justify the mistreatment of women.
In her words: “Claims based on culture or religion often do, but, I
argue, should not, trump women's equality with men.” (p. 92).
In his introduction to Okin's talk, David Miller makes a number of
criticisms, the most important being “a tendency to run together the
question of women's human rights with the question of gender
inequality. We need to ask when inequalities become so damaging to women's
interests that their human rights are put in question.”
Rajeswari Sunder Rajan's talk, “Women's Human Rights in the Third
World”, does not lend itself to summary. She unflinchingly describes
the “problem of conflicting rights” (p. 134), in contexts of
conflicting religions and cultural traditions. There are no easy
Alan Sinfield's talk — “Rape and Rights: Measure for Measure and
the Limits of Cultural Imperialism” — is a good example of postmodern
“literary studies”. He shows how Shakespeare softened an ugly rape
legend, through good-bad doublings and other devices, to produce a
happy and morally palatable ending. The talk is interesting, but
dubiously relevant to fighting against injustice.
Rose George is a freelance journalist, whose writings have
appeared in The
Guardian, and other liberal publications.
Her talk, “Share a Spliff, Share a Girl — Same Difference: The
Unpleasant Reality of Gang Rape”, is a prime specimen of the feminist
genre, the “atrocity story”. Here she focuses on gang rape among
immigrants in Paris, though she has also written articles on gang rape
in England.  Here one
should retain both skepticism and a sense of perspective, as many of
the early feminist rape claims and stories have been found to be
exaggerated and even fabricated. Gang rape, when it occurs, is
appalling and reprehensible, but so are all forms of violence,
including cases where males are gang raped, mothers torture their
children, elders inflict circumcision or other forms of genital
mutilation on infants and minors, whether male or female,  or
wives batter their husbands. At any rate, it is not clear what AI
should be expected to do to prevent, punish, or ameliorate the harm of
Robert Wintemute's talk, “From ‘Sex Rights’ to ‘Love Rights’:
Partnership Rights as Human Rights”, argues in great detail that “the
partnership rights of same-sex couples are human rights.” (p. 224). It
is a long way from the original mandate of AI to assert, as Wintemute
does, “the human right to be free from discrimination.” Wintemute's
talk includes a lot of information, good arguments, bad arguments, and
a certain amount of cant. It will not do simply to toss out such terms
as “changing sex” or “gender reassignment” without defining and
analyzing them. Can a man really be changed into a
woman? Can gender
really be reassigned,
as though this were a mere clerical operation?
Should it be illegal for employers or ordinary citizens to discriminate
against men who have had themselves castrated, and who believe that
this has transformed them into women? — or who believe that they are
Napoleon or Jesus Christ? With regard to same-sex partnership rights, a
growing number of gay men and lesbians are opposed to “gay marriage”
for a variety of reasons, not least of which is a concern for the
rights of individuals who are, and choose to remain, single.
Marina Warner's talk — “Who's Sorry Now? Personal Stories, Public
Apologies” — is fascinating, if rather distantly relevant to the
philosophy and practice of AI. It contains one marvellous observation,
“Apology is a new political enthusiasm”, which it does indeed seem to
be. She traverses Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound, Mozart's Marriage of
Figaro, and recent statements by the Pope and politicians.
While AI has moved away from or beyond its original mandate, it
notably failed to act or speak out on the falsely accused and convicted
victims of the day-care center hysteria of the 1980s. It is clear in
retrospect, and was clear at the time to any rational person, that the
stories of satanic child abuse, of dragons flying through the air, of
underground tunnels, etc., were sick fantasies with no basis in
reality. AI should have, but did not, come to the defense of the many
men and women whose lives were destroyed by this hysteria. It is an
understatement to say that they were denied fair trials, and therefore
well within the original mandate of AI. Since the current practice of
AI is informed by feminism, it is well to remember that the victims of
this witch hunt were victims of feminist and Freudian theories
(“recovered memories”, “believe the children”, etc.), victims of
feminist therapists, and victims of rich feminists, who donated large
amounts of money to feed the frenzy. 
It is good to have a record of the lectures, but questionable
whether the quality of the talks was such as to warrant an entire book.
Physically, the book is hardly cheap at £14.99, yet in
presentation it is closer to a mass-market paperback than a quality or
trade paperback. It is printed on cheap paper, resembling newsprint,
rather than on good book paper.
1. John Lauritsen, A Freethinker's Primer
Male Love (Provincetown: Pagan Press, 1998).
2. Rose George, “‘They don't see it as rape.
They just see it as pleasure for them.’ Why Britain's gang rapes aren't
talked about”, at http://www.rosegeorge.com.
3. While Amnesty International has come out
strongly against female genital mutilation, it has resolutely refused
to utter a word about the much larger problem of male genital
mutilation (circumcision). It seems to have occurred to nobody involved
in this exercise that “sex rights” might include the right to a
complete set of genitals. See, among many analyses, Sirkuu Hellsten,
“Rationalising circumcision: From Tradition to Fashion, from Public
Health to Individual Freedom — Critical Notes on the Cultural
Persistence of Genital Mutilation”, Journal of Medical
4. For excellent accounts of the day-care
hysteria see Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker, Satan's Silence:
Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt,
Basic Books, 1995), and the essays by Frederick Crews in the New York
Review of Books, now collected in his Follies of the Wise:
Essays (Emeryville, CA: Avalon, 2006). For the moving story of
first falsely accused victim of the day-care hysteria, a man who spent
more than half his life in prison, see http://freebaran.org
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