Irregular Connections: A History of Anthropology and Sexuality

Irregular Connections: A History of Anthropology and Sexuality

Irregular Connections: A History of Anthropology and Sexuality

Irregular Connections: A History of Anthropology and Sexuality


Irregular Connections traces the anthropological study of sex from the eighteenth century to the present, focusing primarily on social and cultural anthropology and the work done by researchers in North America and Great Britain. Andrew P. and Harriet D. Lyons argue that the sexuality of those whom anthropologists studied has been conscripted into Western discourses about sex, including debates about prostitution, homosexuality, divorce, premarital relations, and hierarchies of gender, class, and race. Because sex is the most private of activities and often carries a high emotional charge, it is peculiarly difficult to investigate. At times, such as the late 1920s and the last decade of the twentieth century, sexuality has been a central concern of anthropologists and focal in their theoretical formulations. At other times the study of sexuality has been marginalized. The anthropology of sex has sometimes been one of the main faces that anthropology presented to the public, often causing resentment within the discipline. Irregular Connections discusses several individuals who have played a significant role in the anthropological study of sexuality, including Sir Richard Burton, Havelock Ellis, Edward Westermarck, Bronislaw Malinowski, Margaret Mead, George Devereux, Robert Levy, Gilbert Herdt, Stephen O. Murray, and Esther Newton. Synthesizing a wealth of information from different anthropological traditions, the authors offer a seamless history of the anthropology of sex as it has been practiced and conceptualized in North America and Great Britain.


If conjectures and opinions formed at a distance, have not sufficient authority in
the history of mankind, the domestic antiquities of every nation must, for this very
reason, be received with caution. They are, for most part, the mere conjectures
or the fictions of subsequent ages; and even where at first they contained some
resemblance of truth, they still vary with the imagination of those by whom they
are transmitted, and in every generation receive a different form. They are made to
bear the stamp of the times through which they have passed in the form of tradition,
not of the ages to which their pretended descriptions relate. The information they
bring, is not like the light reflected from a mirror, which delineates the object from
which it originally came; but, like rays that come broken and dispersed from an
opaque or unpolished surface, only give the colours and features of the body from
which they were last reflected

Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society

Jenny sat down in a folding chair by the window and pretended to read a copy of
National Geographic for July 1946 that someone had left about. It had native
girls with bare busts. (Why did native busts not count?)

Kingsley Amis, Take a Girl Like You

Many people still believe that anthropology is largely about sex. There is a persistent image of the anthropologist as a voyeur. Moreover, information about “primitives” is often used to justify or deplore Western sexual desire and practice. This is a recurring theme in writings of various kinds. It can be found, to name but a few famous sources . . .

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