06 December 2010

Book Review: The Sexual Organization of the City

Edward O Laumann is a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. Stephen Ellingson is an assistant professor of sociology at the Hamilton College. Jenna Mayah is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago. Anthony Paik is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Iowa. Yoosik Youm is an assistant professor of the sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

I will admit upfront, that I'm not a sociologist and I've generally avoided most sociological literature. This has been in part because of the heavy reliance on statistical regressions that I've always found in sociology along with traditional political science, etc.,. There were parts of this book that were really really uninteresting (including almost every methods section of every chapter).

Now, I may not have gotten passed the first chapter had I not stumbled upon this passage:
Derek is a bisexual African American man from the city's South Side. Following his usual routine of looking for a straight, Hispanic gang-banger, Derek visits a public park in Chicago's Northwest Side neighborhood of Erlinda -- the scene of a curious interracial detente that brings together unlikely buyers and sellers. Gay white and African American men looking for 'drive-up' (i.e., a quick blow job) cruise the park to trade cash or drugs for sex with drug addicts, Hispanic gang-bangers, and other straight-identified Hispanic men looking to make a quick buck. At the park, Derek meets Juan, forty-something, straight, married and Hispanic. The initial encounter is a simple transaction: oral sex for a few dollars. On subsequent visits to the park, Derek keeps coming back to Juan. The two become friends, and the casual sex becomes something more than casual. The relationship ends when Derek decides to be exclusively heterosexual. Juan, however, decides to become exclusively homosexual, takes a new lover and is dumped by his wife.
So you see, the 350+ pages was undaunting if I could get some analytical insight into the workings of this dynamic, its cultural and social context, etc.,. The book was a dense forest of research into the sexual organization of Chicago. It is a place I've never been to. It also did it through the lens of "sexual markets".

When I first skimmed through book, I thought I had stumbled upon a chapter on prostitution, but instead, these sociologists have adopted the so-called "theory of sex markets" where individuals and groups are studied using the metaphors and theoretical functions of market economics and market actors. It's a fascinating way of looking at things, although, these sociologists certainly aren't psychologists and may have benefited a little from cross pollinating with the current research on brain and understanding.

I was very much fascinated with the breadth and depth of this book and it reminded me of the tremendous life time work of Landa Jocano. I suspect that with enough funding, a similar series of chapters could be written about the sexual organization of Manila and the sexual organization of the Philippines. It would be an ambitious project and could build upon the work of Michael Tan et al in their Love and Desire about the understanding and organization of sex in the lives of young Filipinos.

I found the most interesting chapter to be Religion and the Politics of Sexuality and how various churches with varying degrees of autonomy from their central religious offices come to deal with homosexuality and how that is mediated by the actual congregation. I think an extensive social survey conducted similar to the one in this book would provide some real meaningful answers toward population research and sexuality research in the Philippines. Of course, more immediately, we need to pass the Reproductive Health bill immediately and then fine tune approaches to reproductive health with more refined data and analysis.

The version I read was a 435 page paperback published by University of Chicago Press (November 21, 2005), ISBN-13: 978-0226468976. It is written in English. The lowest price I found online was at abebooks.com.


  1. the book does seem daunting but that paragraph blew my mind. how much of it is real? or was it just an anecdote created to express a point. phew!

  2. well. if you force yourself to go through each chapters methods section, you'd believe its real!

  3. wow, sounds interesting. i may buy it since your review is so good.


  4. Sexual capital, markets and exchange have been around for awhile. The problem has been operationalizing the studies. If too few people are willing to talk candidly about sex, it doesn't matter how many public health statistics one tries to gather. Since people don't talk, (or when they do talk, they dissemble) sociologists need methods of making them talk, so to speak. I wonder if the methods used in Chicago would work in Manila.

  5. about a 1/3d of the book is explanation/justification of methods which are primarily multiple methods: complex computer based questionnaires, individual follow up interviews with same race/gender researchers, etc., etc., i find methods boring so i didn't go into it although about a 1/3d of the book (1/3d of each chapter) is devoted to methods....

  6. If you were to have written "You know, I found the methodology to be the most interesting part," you would probably recieve instant marriage proposals from a statistically significant faction of the available gay sociologist population. Unfortunately, the sexual marketplace for sociologists is probably rather small. I am assuming the number of suitors gained would not make up for the number lost. "Bored" is probably a safer play in the broader market, especially since sociologists are concentrated in widely dispered networks, too distant to make altering your theoretical orientation an optimal or even possible choice. If you met the empirical types more often, you'd come to realize how sexy knowledge of a method can be...and structure your desires accordingly.

  7. well, having previously taught social science statistics, i did find the first chapter hammering out the details to be interesting, but by the third chapter of repeat-in-my-own-words, my eyes started to glaze over. regardless of the numbers of ways to skin a cat, the kitty has no fur.