Canadian Journal of Sociology Online September - October 2002

Jeffrey Weeks, Brian Heaphy, and Catherine Donovan
Same Sex Intimacies: Families of Choice and Other Life Experiments
Routledge, 2001, 245 pp.
$37.95 paper (0-415-25477-9), $135.00 cloth (0-415-25476-0)

What a change a quarter century makes. While there was once general agreement that same-sex relationships of any duration were unlikely if not impossible, we have now come to a point of widespread legal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships across most of the advanced, industrialized societies. With major social theorists like Giddens theorizing the “pure relationship,” and the feminist revolution having upset the presumptions of the patriarchal family, same-sex relationships have been catapulted from the margins of pathology and criminality to a new frontier of relationship innovation and “life experiment.” Today the press and scholarship are captivated by the merits of “gay marriage” and there is something of a publication boom on the topic.

In the midst of this very particular historical moment, Weeks, Heaphy and Donovan have written what may be the best stock-taking of same sex relationships done to date. Based on intensive interviews with 96 Britons in a wonderful array of diverse intimate relationships, the volume shows the characteristic judicious even-handedness we have come to expect of Jeffrey Weeks’s work. It balances family scholarship with gay community debates. It contextualizes current developments against an historical backdrop. It accesses the voices of participants and understands their creation of narratives about themselves inside a larger sociological loop of narrative generation about family and relationship. It carefully documents internal differences and diversities among ‘non-heterosexuals’, and maps how same-sex relationships are at once “same” and “different” from their heterosexual counterparts. It digests and sorts out existing scholarship, yet captures the excitement of the rapidly changing conditions of intimacy that are happening today.

The authors do well in capturing the ambivalence of gay and lesbian communities regarding ‘family’ and ‘marriage.’ “People are uneasy with a term that is so clearly associated with an ‘institution’ which has often excluded them, and which continues to suggest the perpetuation of an exclusively heterosexual mode of being,” they note (16). At the same time, they find that despite the apparent aspiration of many gay and lesbian couples to be let into family law, “none of the participants in our research wished to establish a new norm of couple commitment that created new divisions within the non-heterosexual world, dividing the ‘good gays’–the monogamous couples–from the ‘bad’–the single, the ‘promiscuous’” (109).

The book also refrains from the assimilationist rhetoric that wants to argue that same-sex relationships are “as good as” heterosexual relationships, thereby making itself complicit with the idea that heterosexual institutions have the right to judge same-sex relationships against heterosexist norms. Rather, it delineates the contours of gay and lesbian cultural formations in their own terms. They point out the centrality of friendship, and the continuity between friendship and relationship. They document how lesbians value escaping patriarchal presumptions, and gay men, escaping conventional, uncommunicative masculinity. They embark on the complex field of sketching out how “monogamy” is often constructed and practised differently, usually in terms of emotional fidelity and not in terms of sexual ownership. They show the rush toward new ways to have and raise children.

My only irritation about this work is the consistent employment of the term ‘non-heterosexual’ throughout the book. “While all the male interviewees described themselves as gay in one sense or another (sometimes in conjunction with ‘queer’), the majority of women defined themselves as lesbian, 6 described themselves as bisexual, 2 as queer, and 1 declined to define herself in terms of sexual identity” (202). From this, the authors decided to try to avoid the currently overloaded politics of nomenclature by avoiding all of these words in favour of a term that nobody uses for themselves. Rather like the AIDS research industry that has dumped ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ for ‘men who have sex with men,’ the result is yet another observer’s term that has no resonance among those who are studied.

Weeks, Heaphy and Donovan have written a book which opens up the richness of the field of same-sex intimacies. It is an important book for family scholarship, but it is also a book accessible to undergraduates and one likely to capture their interest. Finally, it is a book that captures the historical moment and offers a tool for further reflection.

Barry D Adam
University of Windsor

Barry D Adam is University Professor of Sociology and author of numerous works in gay and lesbian studies.
September 2002
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