Myth & Sexuality

Author: Jamake Highwater
Published: 1990
Website: Amazon Page

Myth and Sexuality has an intriguing premise with unexceptional execution. The fundamental idea the book aims at conveying to its audience is that our conceptions of sexuality are not timeless or universal, and neither are they absolute or in any way objectively correct. Instead, they are a result of our culture, and other cultures have entirely different notions and mores of sex and sexuality.

Perhaps this was more controversial in 1990, but cultural relativism and the immense power of socialization seem to be broadly accepted within American culture. Regardless, it was still a powerful experience to be reminded with every chapter of the organizing myths which our culture has used to explain, mandate and control human sexuality. The chapter titles are deceptively short and simple: The Body as Sin, the Body as Lover, the Body as Machine…forcing the reader to recognize their own intuitions which are so in accord with each myth in turn and also to grapple with the understanding that these deep-seated intuitions are socially constructed.

Beyond that, however, the chapters were often laundry lists of religious and secular stories, myths and texts that exemplified the myth being explored in that section. Instead of being used as examples to illustrate broader points about the complexity of a society’s self conception and how sexuality furthers and hinders that goal, the nuggets of enlightening and insightful analysis must be searched for behind the mountains of data.

Furthermore, for a book which is exploring the incredibly relative nature of ideas surrounding sex and sexuality, it felt rather agenda-driven, beginning with the deploring of male-centric, patriarchal myths and the exultation in matricentric and female myths, and ending with anti-commodification, anti-capitalist sentiments disguised as questions. Admittedly, patriarchy has likely done much more harm to women than a female-centric society did or would have done to men, and there is much to criticize about the commodification of sexuality. Regardless, Jamake Highwater, for all of his supposed relativism and acceptance of myths of all types and kinds, is clearly coming from a 20th century sex-positivist perspective, with a heaping dose of primitivist, feminine, sexual spirituality, and that should have been acknowledged.

The strongest aspect of the book was the description of myths on their own terms, without the constant need to compare and contrast them. This allows the reader to be constantly surprised by the many overlapping myths which have come together in 20th-21st century Western culture, instead of setting them at odds with each other, creating new dichotomies, which the reader must then problematically choose between. Even the chapters entitled Body as Man and Body as Woman do not directly oppose each other, but demonstrate completely different attitudes towards bodies and nature, wrapped together in sexual politics.

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3 Comments to “Myth & Sexuality”

  1. “Perhaps this was more controversial in 1990, but cultural relativism and the immense power of socialization seem to be broadly accepted within American culture.”

    hmmm… perhaps within very particular subsets of american culture.

    Do you recommend this one, chana, or is it not worth it?

  2. This sounds like a rehashing of Foucault’s A History of Sexuality, though an interesting one.

  3. @Rachel: That’s a good point. I shouldn’t be so quick to assume, although I’m sure that the book’s readership is self-selected to largely those subsets. I would recommend the book if you’re curious about the myths themselves rather than the role of myth more broadly. The theoretical aspect is given mostly through examples, which is fine if that’s what your looking for. Let me know, and I can bring it to Chicago/D.C.

    @Emilio: It certainly draws a lot from Foucault, and mentions him at least once. It’s not so much a rehashing as a furthering through examples in Western culture, because of the lack of philosophical work.

    I appreciate the comments; keep them coming!

    – Chana

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