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Reviewed by Mark Carrigan (PhD candidate, Department of Sociology, University of Warwick; firstname.lastname@example.org)
We approach the end of this first decade of the 21st century as inhabitants of a world that seems ever more open and ambiguous. On all sides we face a bewildering array of choices about what to do, how to live and who to be. It is a world – argues Jeffrey Weeks – that we have won; a world that's been changed, seemingly irrevocably, through the decline of traditional authorities and the growth of new technologies. While economic restructuring and globalizing forces present new challenges and new hardships, they also seem to offer new opportunities and new rewards, albeit in a chronically uneven fashion. The World We Have Won is an attempt to make sense of these changes and to understand how their plural roots extend deep into the social ferment of the post-war 20th century. Weeks, a renowned historical and sociological commentator on human sexuality tells a story of consistent liberalization, secularization and growing agency. Our decisions about intimacy, sexuality and eroticism, so long confined to the private sphere under the lop-sided remit of a liberalism that long seemed to fail to live up to its promise of personal liberty, have moved to the forefront of the public consciousness as personal narratives and the questions posed by them proliferate around us (Plummer 1995). Others have written on these changes and what they mean (Bauman 2001, 2008; Beck & Beck-Gernsheim 2002; Giddens 1990, 1991, 1992) but rarely with such a deep grounding in the historical study of sexuality and the changing socio-political realities surrounding it. In telling the story of the “long, convoluted, messy, unfinished but profound revolution” (Weeks, 2007, p. 3) taking place in our intimate lives, Weeks attempts to understand the changes wrought in terms of wider political, economic and cultural processes of social restructuring. The World We Have Won is a deeply valuable contribution to ongoing academic debates in these areas, as well as a telling account of how we've come to this point and a potent treatise on where we might go from here.
The book is intended to be a “balance sheet of the changes” that have occurred in how we live our sexual, intimate and erotic lives (Weeks, 2007, p. 3). It’s consciously offered against cultural pessimists of both left and right who see in these changes only decline and loss, as well as the sort of unreflective optimism which sees these changes as an automatic or inevitable movement out of a sexual dark age into a brighter and freer future. Our world is one that people have struggled and died to create and the changes undergone have occurred unevenly, as new freedoms have come hand in hand with new burdens, all unevenly distributed across a rapidly globalizing world rife with economic and political inequalities. Nevertheless, he argues that this revolution has been overwhelmingly beneficial to the vast majority of those in the West, as well as increasingly so to those living in the global south. Perhaps inevitably, given his long study of the area, the book focuses on Britain, though it also includes America, Europe and the emerging global sphere within its impressively panoramic vista.
The first chapter moves across time from the present to 1945, working backwards to try and draw out the linkages between the changes that emerged over this period. He considers the explosion of sexual discourses, the recognition of sexual diversity and the broadening of reproductive rights. There was the gender revolution as “millennia of male dominance over women have fundamentally and almost certainly irreversibly declined” (Weeks, 2007, p. 13), though this remains an uneven and incomplete process. Women around the world asserted that the personal is political and the terms of the public sphere found themselves contested as never before. Weeks suggests that inequality has lost its moral justification which has profoundly shifted the terms of social debates throughout the world, as oppression and inequality are forced to reconfigure themselves ideologically to represent the assertion of traditional values in a changing and uncertain world. There was the commercialization of the erotic, as sex became an increasingly central part of advertising and the sex industry grew explosively across the world, soon harnessing the power of the Internet. There was AIDS and, for the first time, it became manifestly impossible to separate intimate choices and wider social forces, while the bigotry and prejudice that lay tacit within much public policy-making found itself politically contested.
The second chapter focuses on the world of the 1940s and 1950. It begins in the Rhondda Valley of 1945 in South Wales, the year and place of his birth. He paints a vivid picture of an area, dominated by the coal mining industry, alive with solidarity and community but inward looking and resistant to criticism. There were strong and widespread political commitments to trade unionism and socialism but, as Weeks observes, “these commitments rarely challenged the patterns of everyday life” (Weeks, 2007, p. 31). There was a fraternity that pessimists on the left might lament as missing from the anomic world of the early 21st century but these were very much bonds between men, forged in “the mutual dependencies of the pit, the union, the club” (Weeks, 2007, p. 25) while women’s proper place was seen to be in the home, tending to the family. In wider Britain, an increasing sense of security and burgeoning affluence changed patterns of social and family life.
The third and fourth chapters cover the prolonged period of transition between the 1960s and 1990s. The combined oral contraceptive pill revolutionised birth control, fuelling an ongoing sense of sexual revolution. Sex became detached from reproduction in a way never before possible in human history. A highly conscious sense of sexual agency grew throughout society, especially among women and sexual minorities. The new social movements contested the boundaries between the private and the public, while growing freedom brought with it an increasing sense of risk.
The fifth and sixth chapters move to the present, considering the changing meanings attached to sexual life, as well as the social forces that shape it. Weeks explores the growing diversity throughout society and the implications they hold for intimate life. He considers the contradictions of contemporary sexuality and the ambiguities and open questions surrounding new reproductive technologies, from Viagra to in vitro fertilization (IVF).
The seventh chapter engages with the debates about marriage, family life and friendship in the modern world, as well as the empirical shifts that stimulated them. He discusses the individualization of moral choices that has occurred and its consequences. He criticises pessimistic accounts of declining social capital, pointing to the emergence of new forms of solidarity and community, particularly amongst young and LGBT people, that contemporary critics often fail to recognize. The final chapter places these changes within western society into a global context and, in doing so, works to ensure that they are understood not simply to be the product of individual or collective agency but also of the wider processes of social restructuring that make new forms of agency possible. Globalizing forces are reconfiguring the dynamics of national societies, as international flows of people, capital, culture and crime circulate across ever more porous national boundaries.
Though in many ways articulating a case similar to Giddens (1991, 1992), a major strength of Weeks’ book is its level of scholarship. Written after thirty years of research in the area, Weeks’ sensitivity to the material conditions in which people live their lives ensures a realistic analysis of changing social conditions which are, in turn, changed by people acting reflexively upon them.
It should be noted there is a heavy focus throughout the book on British society. The World We Have Won cries out for further in-depth studies of changing intimate and political realities in other areas of the world. An emphasis on the way in which differing economic and social arrangements affect the forms of collective and individual agency emerging within society implies that any attempt to make substantive generalizations must respect the actual institutional differences between societies. For instance Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2002: p.23-24) suggest that the welfare state is a crucial factor in the types of individualism that emerge within a society, as legal norms make individuals the bearers of rights and create incentives towards individuals managing their own lives in certain ways. If we accept this claim, it becomes crucial that the conclusions we draw about forms of agency within societies be informed by an account of their differing forms of welfare arrangements. A similar point can be made in reference to societies’ varying legal structures, national cultures and religious histories. However this doesn’t constitute a criticism of the book, simply a suggestion for further lines of inquiry. Weeks successfully synthesizes an impressive range of diverse sources yet inevitably in a book of little over 200 pages there is a limit to what can be achieved. The World We Have Won is a potent resource and a valuable starting point for further work, either concerning debates about the new forms of individualism and human life, or the changes in sexual and intimate life that are occurring throughout the world. If anything, this book shows us that these two strands of debate cannot be properly separated. The World We Have Won is truly an impressive achievement.
Bauman, Z. (2001). The Individualized Society (Cambridge: Polity Press)
Bauman, Z. (2008). The Art of Life (Cambridge: Polity Press)
Beck, U., and Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2002). Individualization (London: Sage)
Giddens, A. (1990). The Consequences of Modernity ( Cambridge: Polity Press)
Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and Self-Identity ( Cambridge: Polity Press)
Giddens, A. (1992). The Transformation of Intimacy (Cambridge: Polity Press)
Plummer, K. (1995). Telling Sexual Stories (London: Routledge)
Weeks, J. (2007). The World We Have Won (Oxford: Routledge)
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