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Sex and Social Justice

by Martha C. Nussbaum
Oxford University Press, 1999
reviewed by Michael Walker, Oasis Science and Medical Editor

Last Fall, I read one of the most illuminating and moving autobiographies I have ever encountered: Frances K. Conley's Walking Out on the Boys (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998). This book relates the story of Conley, a neurosurgeon and professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University being sexually harassed by her male colleagues and her efforts to combat this situation. This book was important to me for several reasons: because it told the story of a woman in a very elitist and supposedly highly professional working environment suffering from bias and harassment; because it was eloquent and well-written throughout; and not the least, because Conley not only stressed the substandard treatment that women to this day receive from health care institutions but also how gender and sexuality shapes bias towards groups outside of the heterosexual white male majority in health care and medical education. This was the first time I had seen anyone make a clear, definitive, link between gender, status, and concepts of both legal/administrative and social justice, although I am sure that others have made the same points as Conley did in other forums that I simply have not encountered. In any case, Conley's book spurred me to look for more detailed, scholarly works on the concepts of justice, fair treatment, and gender. While there are many varied volumes out there, I have at last found one that offers both a detailed approach and the sort of clear prose and consummate insight we hope for in all academic writing. This book is Sex and Social Justice, by Martha C. Nussbaum.

Nussbaum, a Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, is well-known in the field of legal studies for her thorough scholarship on issues dealing with feminism, gender relations, and civil/personal rights law, having authored several other books and a host of journal publications. Sex and Social Justice is a compendium of essays Nussbaum wrote over the past decade or so dealing with a variety of aspects of sex, gender, and justice. Yet this book is much more than simply an anthology of an author's work, indeed, the essays have been linked together through careful editing to make the book flow as a complete and integrated work. Through the interpolation of these essays and thanks to Nussbaum's expansive learning (she has studied, as well as law and related disciplines, classics and theology in depth), Sex and Social Justice presents a multiform representation of how sex and gender influence our roles in society and our perceptions of others in their social roles. Nussbaum concentrates primarily on the plight of women in society, but she also devotes considerable space in her book to the treatment of gays and lesbians by an often misunderstanding and hostile social majority and its legal systems. By placing the context of gay and lesbian discrimination and marginalization laterally with the situation of women and by comparing biases towards gender-based qualifiers with other prejudices, Nussbaum is able to offer a lucid representation of how contemporary societies are not, despite great advances in civil rights, really treating their minorities that much better than they have historically.

The importance of this book to gay and lesbian readers, especially to queer youth, is that the analyses and arguments Nussbaum provides form a concise and sturdy core for many of the political and social claims and demands that we, as gays and lesbians, are making from our governments and fellow human beings in general; Nussbaum gives us a savvy account of how various cultural settings have treated sexual differences and what the basal causes of sexual prejudice actually are. Her examinations of various social structures extend logically into examinations of the legal institutions that these societies create to administer and regulate their people and in turn, her analyses often come full circle back to the individual. Thus, Nussbaum's ability to look at difficult and multifaceted issues on both the largest, broadest, levels and the most intimate and personal ones allows her to illustrate more clearly than many writers how urgently we need better legal devices to deal with the gender/sex-based social ills we currently face. If legal systems may be seen as a sort of "social engineering", an applied mechanism for needed social regulation, then Nussbaum's commentary can be viewed as the physics behind the engineering, the theory that drives the practice.

Though many others have said it, I want to stress again the importance of feminism to the gay rights movement: without the feminist movement preceding it, gay rights would have been nearly impossible and gender studies and alternate constructions of social manifestations of gender would be vacant, perhaps even non-existent. Martha Nussbaum ties feminism and gay rights together in a way that shows sex and gender and our personal rights to our bodies and our involvement of them in sexual practices as varied, complicated, but entirely logical and natural. I don't believe that any gay male can fully understand how gay men are largely perceived by the American majority without a good working knowledge of the struggles that women have faced and continue to face in this country and elsewhere. Nussbaum's book cannot be expected to explain everything in one fell swoop, but it is the best single introduction to this subject matter I have yet to come across, and due to its 1999 publication date, it is as up-to-date as possible. While the reading level is rather advanced, it is not technical nor aimed for an exclusively legal or academic readership. Some prior knowledge of Greek history and Classics in general as well as an understanding of world politics is useful, but anyone with the desire to learn from this book can do so with some effort. Furthermore, if I had to pick the best overall non-fiction book I have read that was published this year, I can without reservation say that Sex and Social Justice would be it.

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MICHAEL C. WALKER is the Science and Medical Editor of Oasis Magazine. In addition to writing for Oasis, he is also the author of a number of research proceedings, review articles, essays, commentary, poetry, and fiction pieces for a variety of other publications, both academic and popular. Currently, he is researching and writing on the interpretations of the body in rave subculture. He may be reached at: MCWalker@hotmail.com


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