News: The globalisation of sex

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Subject: News: The globalisation of sex
From: by way of Melanie Orhant (Jeffrey_Ballinger/FS/ )
Date: Thu Jul 22 1999 - 14:26:55 EDT

The Age [Australia]
July 15, 1999

The globalisation of sex


WHEN sexual liberation movements argued in the 1960s that the personal was
political, there was little recognition that this might be other than a
progressive position. Thirty years later sex remains central to much
political discourse, but increasingly it is used by reactionary forces to
mobilise against social and cultural change. From the American New Right to
fundamentalists in countries as diverse as Israel, India and Iran, sexuality
has become the arena around which human rights are disputed in the name of
traditional morality.

Changes in our understandings of and attitudes to sexuality are both affected
by and reflect the larger changes of globalisation. Moreover, as with
globalisation itself, the changes are simultaneously leading to greater
homogeneity and greater inequality. As all but insignificant pockets of the
world's peoples are brought within the scope of global capitalism, a consumer
culture is developing which cuts across borders and cultures, and is
universalised through advertising, mass media and the enormous flows of
capital and people in the contemporary world.

At the same time, access to this culture is enormously differentiated, and
not only in the poor world. To drive from the glitzy malls of north
Johannesburg to the decaying city centre, where squatters have taken over
once-grand buildings, is to be reminded of the contrast between the decaying
inner-city slums of Chicago and its prosperous suburban enclaves.

At a time when there is greater wealth than ever in human history, there is
also growing dislocation as old ways of life collapse and millions of people
live on the margins of huge metropolitan centres, separated from the wealthy
by ever more sophisticated and expensive security forces. Amid such
dislocation the world is becoming turbulent in ways which are far different
to the set-piece confrontations of the Cold War.

Not only is civil warfare - in Cambodia, Rwanda, Kosovo - the mark of the
present, so too is an extraordinary degree of violent crime and assaults on
the individual. The new world order is marked by escalating violence against
women and children, and rape seems to be the omnipresent sign of social
dislocation. Whether it be South Africa, Papua New Guinea or the former
Yugoslavia, reports suggest that rape has reached unprecedented levels, and
has become the dark side of the globalisation of sex.

In the same way, the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in poor countries reflects the
patterns of globalisation, whether it be via truckers moving across Zaire and
India, women taking up sex-work as a means of survival as old communities and
support systems crumble, men seeking work on the mines of South Africa and
Zimbabwe, or tourists (for example Americans in Haiti), refugees (Haitians
fleeing to the United States) and soldiers (Cubans serving in Angola) moving
across national boundaries. Prime Minister Hun Sen has said AIDS would be the
lasting legacy of the UN peacekeeping operations in Cambodia.

I have deliberately begun with the worst aspect of what is a much more
complex picture, namely a certain universalisation that is taking place
around sex and gender.

In very simple terms, the incorporation of the world within the dominant
capitalist order undermines ``traditional'' ways of understanding and
regulating the personal, and, as it does so, leaves open the possibility for
both greater freedom and greater suffering.

In destroying traditional pre-capitalist economies and ways of life,
globalisation breaks down existing assumptions of order and tradition and
incorporates sex into the market economy.

In rich countries, changing standards for what can be depicted on television
and the casualness about pornography (Frankfurt Airport now has its own sex
shops) can be seen as a mark of greater sexual freedom. But such changes have
very different meanings in poor countries, where the commodification of sex
becomes the only means of survival for many. Both the Australian sex tourist
in the Philippines and the young girls who service him can be seen as
products of globalisation, but it is hard to argue that they are equally

The growing demands of Japanese women for equality, often symbolised by their
refusal to enter into marriage, is one sign of the impact of globalisation
upon personal life. But so too are the savage restrictions being imposed upon
women in Afghanistan, in this case by a political movement motivated by a
desire to shut out external forces and to return to an imagined pre-modern

It is difficult fully to grasp the ways in which the emotional and ``inner
life'' are altered by the larger changes wrought by political economy. If
Anthony Giddens is right, ``globalisation'' is ``a short-hand (term) for a
whole series of influences that are altering not just events on the large
scale but the very tissue of our everyday lives''.

This is reflected in the breakdown of extended families, in the growth of
self-conscious gay and lesbian identities and communities, even in actual
changes to bodies, as Western-influenced norms are reflected in the growth of
beauty contests in the former Soviet Union or the development of gym cultures
among urban young men in Bangkok and Buenos Aires. The Age recently reported
that the introduction of television in Fiji had brought with it an outbreak
of bulimia, as girls sought to emulate the perfect bodies of Baywatch.

Thus globalisation lies behind the growing internationalisation of the
women's movement, and increasing demands for basic equality, just as it lies
behind the escalation of effective sexual slavery, as young children from
Burma, Nepal and Mozambique are shipped across borders into the brothels of
Bangkok, Mumbai and Cape Town.

Globalisation has allowed for the development of an international gay and
lesbian movement, now a reality in many parts of the non-Western world, but
it also means the export of hatred from American fundamentalist groups
through the Internet and televangelism.

Growing affluence and the impact of a globalising media will help produce a
greater convergence in sexual mores across the world, already reflected in
the decline of arranged marriages and the rise of divorce in a number of
Asian societies. But such changes will come slowly, and not without
considerable opposition.

Just because sexuality touches on the deepest and most taboo areas of human
behavior, it is likely to be the battleground for many of the frustrations
and anger of the new world order.

Dennis Altman is a professor of politics at LaTrobe University.

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