Gender and Sexual Agency: How Young People Make Choices About Sex. By Heather Powers Albanesi. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010, 166 pages. Cloth, $60.00.
Building upon claims that young people have inherited contradictory messages about sexual empowerment, Heather Powers Albanesi addresses some difficult questions about how young people make meaning of their early sexual relationships. The book asserts that such contradictions--first, that the sexual revolution catalyzed opportunities for full sexual agency; and second, that sex is still dirty, frightening, and something to avoid--inform young people's sexual lives. After interviewing 83 young women and men, ages 18 to 23 (an impressive sample for a qualitative study), about their sexual experiences, she features 11 of them in Gender and Sexual Agency, noting that each interviewee represents larger patterns she observed in the 83 interviews. The book is organized roughly into three parts, beginning in Part 1 with the young people she believes do assert sexual agency, followed by Part 2, which highlights those who she believes lack agency relative to their peers. The final section of the book analyzes those who have adopted more agency over time, often because they learned to better maneuver the landscape of sexual relationships once they entered college. Following chapter profiles on each interviewee, she concludes with her analysis of how gendered scripts influence individual decision making about sexuality.
Given the relative scarcity of texts that interrogate what people say about their sexual lives, Albanesi's work significantly expands the literature on young people's qualitative accounts of their sexual experiences. The notion of agency--often a subject negotiated in classes about bodies, sexualities, and individual decision making--is sorely understudied and certainly deserving of more scholarly attention. Utilizing lengthy interview conversations, along with Albanesi's interpretation of participants' words, the text undoubtedly speaks to psychology audiences, but may also appeal to sociology and women's gender studies scholars. Given the success of similar books--Lisa Diamond's (2008) Sexual Fluidity and Deborah Tolman's (2002) Dilemmas of Desire, for example--this work would likely also appeal to undergraduates, who may see representations of themselves in many of these same-age interview participants.
Curiously, though Albanesi identifies as a sociologist, the text primarily focuses on a psychoanalytic reading of her subjects, often interpreting their intentions and the subtextual meanings beneath the literal dialogue. She rarely takes the interviewees' statements at face value, often asserting her analytic voice in between large sections of interview dialogue. For example, she says the following of Claire's "childish tendencies":
I felt frustrated with Claire's level of ambiguity.... I am less convinced of the firmness of her resolve and more impressed by the ease of others to lead Claire around. Thus, while Claire views herself as in control and agentically choosing not to have premarital sex ... it is also clear that she is motivated to please her boyfriend. (p. 45)
While providing a relatively brief "sexual biography" of each interviewee, she adopts a largely individualistic reading of their statements. The goal of the book, it seems, is to encourage readers to step away from the more common sociological assumptions that people internalize, and act upon, sexual scripts. Instead, she highlights individual choices and individual negotiations of sexual scripts that may stem from childhood or personal histories (Albanesi notes that she closely mimics and admires the work of her mentor, Nancy Chodorow). While this leads to some interesting in-depth analyses of her subjects, it also leads to some disjointed sections that over-rely upon (the pitfalls of) psychoanalysis. For example, …