MedHum Monday Book Review: Riotous Flesh

Riotous Flesh book coverIn Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Chicago Press, 2015), historian April R. Haynes “tells the story of how masturbation became a reviled sexual act charged with political meaning in the United States” during the antebellum period (4). While masturbation, or “onanism,” had long been understood as a problematic sexual practice, prior to the 1830s Americans were largely unresponsive to calls for widespread moral panic. Yet by the late nineteenth century, masturbation — “the solitary vice” — was commonly understood as a dangerous habit. Social reformers and the medical establishment alike held it responsible for a wide range of social and personal ills. At the dawn of the twentieth century it had become a cornerstone of white, progressive America’s policing of bodies considered deviant.

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Review Conversations: The Means of Reproduction

DailyDose_PosterThe Means of Reproduction: A Conversation

with Anna Clutterbuck-Cook and Emily Contois

Welcome back to the Daily Dose! Today, we offer the next in a new series of “conversations,” a book review where two readers engage to discuss the work. On the table today: Michelle Goldberg’s work on reproduction. In her first book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (W. W. Norton, 2006), journalist Michelle Goldberg introduced us to twentieth century American Christian nationalism — the belief that the United States was founded as a Christian state and should be governed by (narrowly interpreted) Goldberg CoverChristian principles. In her second book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World (Penguin, 2009), Goldberg turns to the international scene and explores the relationship between grassroots women’s rights and the international political and financial infrastructure that shapes what is possible in much of the global south. The story of women’s global reproductive autonomy and access to medical care over the past seventy-five years is a story that implicates the recent history of medicine, gender and sexuality, religion, globalization, and race among other highly contested issues. Today we’re going to chat about how Goldberg weaves her narrative together and what scholars can (and cannot) learn from The Means of Reproduction.

Reviewer Bios:                                                        

Anna Clutterbuck-Cook is a historian, writer, and reference librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society. She holds Masters degrees in History and Library Science from Simmons College. Her scholarly interests lie at the intersection of gender and sexuality, education, religion, and social justice activism. She blogs at and can be found on Twitter @feministlib.

Emily Contois is a PhD student in American Studies at Brown University. She holds a MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University, a MPH focused in Public Health Nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley, and a BA in Letters from the University of Oklahoma. She studies food, eating, health, and the body in the everyday American experience and popular culture, and her current project explores masculinity and dieting. She blogs at and tweets @emilycontois.


Anna: Welcome, Emily! Thanks for agreeing to have this conversation with me. I know this is a new format and forum for you.

Emily: Thank you for the invitation, Anna! I’ve been looking forward to this and hearing what you thought about Goldberg’s text, which you had read before, right?

Anna: I had, yes. My historical interests meet at the intersection of gender/sexuality/feminism and American religious history, so Goldberg’s first book on Christian nationalism put her on my radar. I read this one when it first came out in 2009, and actually had a chance to hear the author speak on campus while in graduate school. What really struck me at the time (2009) was the way she framed the relationship between grassroots women’s rights activists and international power-brokers (governments and NGOs) as a complex, two-way street rather than one of top-down exploitation or white savior politics. Re-reading six years later, I still think that is an underexplored relationship. What made you interested in picking up the text this spring?

 Emily: My path to this book was an odd and bizarrely uninformed one in that I picked it up for *free* (who doesn’t love free books?) from the Penguin books table at this year’s AAHM conference. I was drawn to the book’s topic, since gender and health is one of my areas of focus. And as evidence that sometimes it really pays to judge a books by its cover, I was drawn to it as an object too. Perhaps gesturing to the figure of Atlas, forced to hold up the heavens, the cover depicts a classically nude woman, faceless, head and body folded inward, literally shouldering the weight of the world. It’s such a visceral representation of Goldberg’s subtitle, “Sex, Power, and the Future of the World.”

Anna: It is a beautifully designed cover!

Emily: I was doubly drawn to the Marxist leaning title, a subtle enough play on access to the means of production as the source of domination and power. The joining of industrial, capitalist metaphor and the landscape of women’s bodies also made me think of Emily Martin’s The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction (1987; 2003) in which she analyzed medicine’s industrial metaphors for the female body as a reproductive machine, a corporeal economy in which labor takes on multiple meanings.

Anna: I was particularly struck, during this second reading, by the origins of global family planning in the population scares of the postwar period. Since my first read-through I’ve had occasion to look at some of those figures and discourses in more depth and it’s striking how different the political battlelines were then compared to the 1980s onward.

 Emily: I so agree. I was also surprised to learn how the Cold War shaped the earlier discourses and the United States’ role in promoting family planning (including abortion!) across the globe. I also learned how much of an impact current American anti-abortion debates have internationally; Goldberg claims more impact overseas than at home.

Anna: It seems part of the disparate impact comes down to (as so often) funding streams. Domestic accessibility is not dependent on foreign aid — and we also have a very dedicated, organized opposition (not always successful) fighting to protect individuals access to birth control and abortion care. Internationally, poorer countries seem to be held hostage by foreign aid with strings attached. What fascinated me on the international scene was how grassroots activists drew upon international resources to fight other international interventions, if that makes sense. Like in chapter five (“Rights versus rites”) Goldberg observes of one of the activists she interviewed, “No outsider could ever create the kind of change Pareyio has, but Pareyio couldn’t have had such a profound impact without outside help” (p. 147). This strikes me as an observation that is relevant to many contemporary political struggles where accusations of outside influence and non-local funding get thrown at the opposition.

 Emily: That is such a powerful example and it illustrates so well some of the critiques made of international feminism. The most effective international development work–and in my experience, domestic public health work too–gives that agency to the community itself. I also think Goldberg’s training as a journalist, so, a writer who always explores, as evenly as possible, both sides of an issue, is part of what was so effective about this book, especially in the chapter you’re referencing.

Anna: As a historian, I found myself thinking a lot about Goldberg’s approach as a journalist and whether I was comfortable with her handling of some of that background to the more contemporary narrative she was constructing. I felt like the book had more of an agenda than most works of history (though of course that likely just means it was more overt, not that it was more political).

 Emily: I would agree with that. Her thesis is very clear from the start: to demonstrate how these issues of population control, family planning, and reproductive rights are all symptoms of women’s overall gender inequality and lack of equitable access to status and power. Her evidence points to this argument and reinforces it over and over again, but I’ll agree that she uses evidence differently than a historian might if writing a book on the same topic.

Anna: I agree with you (so much agreement :)!) that she uses her evidence well, and I think responsibly. Certainly I have not read any body of evidence in the past five years that would contradict any key point of her argument.

 Emily: One thing I’ll add is that Goldberg’s work made me think about Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (1998). Maybe it’s because I read it relatively recently, but both authors reveal how the dominant discourse around reproduction in the United States, particularly in election years, often focuses on issues of personal liberty and choice, while women’s reproduction is also an issue of justice, equity, and power, particularly for non-white and non-middle class women. Goldberg makes that apparent on an international scale, and as you already pointed out, linked to US funding streams that oscillate as different political parties occupy the oval office.

Anna: Yes! She doesn’t pull in American black women’s work on reproductive justice and the way that way of approaching reproductive experience and decisions as embedded within larger communities of care and abuse challenges the neoliberal liberty/choice narrative. I realize that her focus is on (white) Americans interacting on the international stage with non-American (predominantly non-white) individuals and populations … but it would have added a useful dimension to her story to acknowledge the domestic RJ work that has flowered since the 1990s. If there was a weakness to this book’s narrative, it would be a whitewashing of American feminism.

 Emily: I definitely agree, but if we fault her for that, I did really appreciate how she expanded the US feminist discourse from one of reproductive rights as “women’s issues” or even human rights issues to thinking about these variable case studies (HIV/AIDS, abortion access, female circumcision, sex-selective abortion, negative population growth rates) within a framework something more like climate change. That these are such huge, collectively global issues that they affect all women and, well, at the risk of sounding super cheesy, everyone!

Anna: Absolutely. I, too, appreciated the insistence that we all remember that women’s rights are human rights — and that recognizing the worth of women and girls as human beings, and providing them with the support for self-realization and full participation in society, is key to addressing urgent geopolitical and environmental issues. I was reminded, at points, of the book A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Mary Ann Glendon (2002). A historian, Glendon makes a very compelling argument against the charges of imperialism that came to taint the UDHR and reminds us of the many philosophical and religious traditions that supported its basic assertions. Like Glendon, Goldberg is reminding us that notions of pluralism and multiculturalism aren’t always protective of human flourishing — and, in fact, can work to support the “choice” of a reactionary community over the needs and desires of individuals.

 Emily: Yes! And we’re back at those big, broad notions of “the world” and how problematic and limited the notion of choice is in framing these debates. So, time for a thinker, Anna. How did/does/will this book inform your thinking or work?

Anna: Mm. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking in recent weeks about the way in which lesbian, bisexual, and other queer women have been obscured within the mainstreamed LGBT rights movement — particularly the marriage equality campaign. Male voices (Andrew Sullivan, Evan Wolfson, Dan Savage, David Bois and Theodore Olson) tend to dominate the collective memory of the push for marriage equality. But lesbian couples, lawyers, activists have all been very active on the ground — and they tend to voice a very feminist argument for same-sex marriage (in contrast to many male arguments, which often turn on notions of domesticating promiscuous gay men). Goldberg’s work reminded me how important it is to center the voices and perspectives of women, whose lived experienced (bodily and culturally) is human experience even as it is distinct from men’s social and biological experience.

Emily: That’s really interesting. I feel like that’s something I’m still working out with Goldberg’s take: her walking of the line about universal human experience that might, or might not, fall short within feminist difference versus equality debates.

Anna: It echoes some of the work of Julie Stephens (Confronting Postmaternal Thinking: Feminism, Memory, and Care, 2013), sorting through how we meaningfully account for the unique bodily experience of those whose physical beings bear the brunt of human reproduction — and layered onto / woven into that socialized gender of various kinds — without reducing those with wombs to their reproductive capacity. I’m not sure I have encountered an author yet who has found a satisfactory way to encompass both of those equally necessary assertions. I suspect part of it — at least in a U.S. context — is that we have such a very fraught relationship with embodiment generally and sexually-implicated embodiment in particular … but that’s a topic we’d have to tackle on a different day!

Emily: Sounds like it! We’ve hit so many of the penetrating themes, maybe a good way to end is with some of the fun tidbits Goldberg includes along the way?

Anna: Go for it! What were your favorites?

Emily: Okay, here are my top three:

  1. While a congressman, George H. W. Bush was so ardent about global population control and family planning that he was nicknamed “Rubbers” (p. 40).
  2. A USAID researcher in the 1970s, Duff Gillespie recounts checking through to Tunisia a suitcase of five hundred condoms for family planning programing. When questioned by a customs agent whether the content of his luggage was for personal use, he replied, with a straight face, “Yes, it is” (p. 62).
  3. To promote fertility, the Singaporean government not only set up a matchmaking service, but also published tips on how to have sex in the back of a car. And in the Russian province of Ulyanovsk, the governor sponsored a national campaign that gave couples the day off from work to have sex, offering prizes—from home appliances to cars—to couples giving birth exactly nine months later on the country’s independence day (p. 208).

Anna: Oh! The “rubbers” story was definitely an excellent one. Hmm … let me think.

  1. I enjoyed the exchange between John D. Rockefeller III’s wife, Blanchette Hooker, and Joan Dunlop (p. 77) about how Hooker was glad that Dunlop had been hired to call Rockefeller on his bullshit. The recounting of the early years of international family planning (1960s-70s) was a fascinating tale of gender politics within these non-profits and political organizations.
  2. The Chinese newspaper People’s Daily reported Hillary Clinton’s celebrated speech on women’s rights (“let it be that human rights are women’s rights”) at the 1995 Beijing conference with the line, “The American Mrs. Hillary Clinton also spoke at the conference” (p. 120).
  3. It comes in the midst of the difficult chapter on genital cutting, but the story about Agnes Pareyio commissioning a woodworker to create a teaching model of female genitalia that she could use to argue against excision was so inspired! (p. 143) I think her husband really missed out choosing to leave her for second wife.

Emily: Oh those are great! I remember those moments as well. They’re almost like an intellectual version of comic relief.

Anna: Well put! Thank you so much for taking time out of your week to talk with me about this book and all of the ideas it touches on — it was a great excuse to indulge in a re-read.

Emily: Thanks so much for inviting me to do so, Anna! It was definitely worth the read and our discussion only made it more meaningful.