Education About Asia: Online Archives

Gender, Sexuality, and Body Politics in Modern Asia: Key Issues in Asian Studies, No. 1

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BY MICHAEL PELETZ
ANN ARBOR: ASSOCIATION FOR ASIAN STUDIES, 2007
120 PAGES, ISBN: 978-0-924304-50-7, PAPERBACK

Reviewed by Jan Bardsley

This informative booklet by Michael G. Peletz, Gender, Sexuality, and Body Politics in Modern Asia, can serve as the model for this Association for Asian Studies series. An accessible, well-argued text, the booklet will aid instructors in taking up sensitive and often controversial issues in their undergraduate and advanced high school classrooms. Most importantly, students will learn that sexuality, gender, and body politics are not fixed, not somehow “more natural” in one location than another, and not to be taken for granted. They will see that approaching modern Asia through this lens not only sheds light on the experience of Asian people, but also makes students aware of their own beliefs as having a history. Certainly, this booklet can engage students in questioning the politics and power of definition itself.

In fewer than one hundred pages, Peletz takes on three topics: “Dynamics of Gender and Sexuality,” “Bodies, Pleasures, and Desires: Transgender Practices, Same-Sex Relations, and Heteronormative Sexualities,” and “Bodies on the Line.” He explores each theme with examples that vary across countries in South, East, and Southeast Asia, using as his references the most influential scholarship in English. While Peletz guides his reader to see certain commonalities in regions in Asia as created by geography, religion, colonial experiences, global markets, and so on, Asia does not emerge as a monolith. Indeed, one of the many strong points about the booklet is the way Peletz manages to focus and develop his thematic essays in a lively way while offering such variety.

In the “Introduction,” Peletz invites his reader to consider issues involved in defining Asia as well as gender, sexuality, and sex. Chapter Two, “Dynamics of Gender and Sexuality” introduces the concept of gender ideologies, showing how they are often inflected, legitimized, and naturalized through religious practice, familial structure, and labor practices. Discussion extends to new technologies such as the boom in cosmetic surgery and the use of medical technologies to favor the birth of boys. Chapter Three, “Bodies, Pleasures, and Desires” illustrates “the divergent . . . ways in which genders, sexualities, and bodies are aligned and combined in ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ context.” Here, the author’s explanation of the influence in Asia of modern Western scientific discourse, especially sexology, and its notions of pathology, provides a striking example of the power of definition. Chapter Four, “Bodies on the Line” provides sobering accounts of prostitution, AIDS, militarization, rape, trafficking, and abduction. The “Conclusion” offers possible scenarios of the future and hints at how Asian nationalisms play a key role in today’s definitions of gender, sexuality, and body politics.

The broad scope and the questions raised here set the stage for students in Asian Studies classes to take an in-depth look at the issues through novels, articles, films, and visual materials. (See Suggestions for Further Reading at the end of the booklet). In addition, the book could be effectively used in classes on global issues, such as AIDS, showing how the epidemic has been understood, and dealt with in Asia, again provoking questions about the politics of definition.