Menchaca on Cerretti, 'Abuses of the Erotic: Militarizing Sexuality in the Post-Cold War United States'

Author: 
Josh Cerretti
Reviewer: 
Hailee Josefina Menchaca

Josh Cerretti. Abuses of the Erotic: Militarizing Sexuality in the Post-Cold War United States. Expanding Frontiers: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Series. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019. 228 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4962-0556-8.

Reviewed by Hailee Josefina Menchaca (San Diego State University) Published on H-War (February, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56106

Gender and sexuality historian Josh Cerretti’s book, Abuses of the Erotic: Militarizing Sexuality in the Post-Cold War United States, examines and critiques the role of the state in imposing heteronormative structures revolving around militarism, which the US military used to both criminalize and justify sexual abuses at home and abroad from the post-Cold War period through the 1990s. By centering his argument on the connection between the military industrial complex and sexual identity, Cerretti seeks to understand how the state used race, gender, and reproduction as an oppressive, manipulative force in which its proponents would conform to national ideology. Cerretti highlights the importance of the era covered, being that the 1990s have wholly been overlooked by historians of sexuality studies in relation to militarism. Throughout, the author takes an intersectional approach to the primary source material by acknowledging the major feminist influences (primarily of women of color activist scholars) that shaped his anti-militarist rhetoric at the heart of his exploration of reproductive and sexuality studies in the field of contemporary history. As each chapter follows a similar argument, each of the four chapters explores subthemes that further connect the reader to the systemic nature of sexual abuse and its connection to the US military regime, which must be explored fully within this text.

Chapter 1 identifies how the US government and military used sexual violence as a means to assert themselves as a paternalistic power while simultaneously perpetrating acts of sexual violence against those they sought to defend. By uncovering how the US, under the George H. W. Bush administration, used the female body as a means to mobilize and justify ideological disputes, Cerretti argues that media sensationalized violence against women abroad to enact support for the violence against foreign “aggressors” in the name of the state. By condemning violence against American and non-American women, the author makes it clear that the military primarily sought to use victims’ experiences to justify intervention. Additionally, this section heavily relies on the analysis of abuses of American men and women at the hands of the US military, arguing that media outlets and film highlighted these abuses as “deviations from militaristic values rather than products of those values” (p. 35).

Chapter 2 follows a similar methodology by exploring the connections between heterosexuality and domestic ideology at the foundation of militarism. As highlighted briefly in the previous chapter, US government/military organizations presented women as nonautonomous helpless beings and white American men as moral protectors. Cerretti then takes this argumentation further by developing the use of heterosexuality and whiteness as a device used by the US to rationalize state violence and intervention through claims that the white nuclear family was in danger of collapse. While Cerretti claims that few historians have attempted to connect sexuality, militarism, and the family structure, he fills these gaps successfully by formulating a comparative analysis that ties US intervention in the Gulf War to acts of domestic terrorism within the US. The author makes these connections by claiming that both the government and media used the safety of women and children as a means to further mobilize and promote a national identity where the threat of lost heterosexuality and family was the primary concern of the US government.

Chapter 3 outlines the militarization of homosexuality and queerness by exploring the pathways of the 1993 “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy to not only frame the LGBTQ political theater at the time but also open up debates on how political actors approached homophobia and violence within the US military. Of these debates, Cerretti calls on highly contested agendas that sought to assimilate LGBTQ people enlisted in the military according to heteronormative expectations and combine military terminology into the HIV/AIDS movement (for example, such terminology as “war on AIDS”) (p. 84). As LGBTQ activists were attempting to formulate national identity within the military sphere, the US government sought to define activists as militant, a term used negatively unless used to benefit the military industrial complex itself. Through his analysis of public policy and activist networks, the author seeks to identify the coalition between the public and private life where sexuality defined policy of the 1990s. In closing, the author attempts to highlight that while major strides have been made for LGBTQ people within the military industrial complex, LGBTQ people of color have not witnessed the same results; however, this point is not fully explored.

Chapter 4 seeks to elucidate the connection between militarism and reproduction through a case study of US intervention in the Marshall Islands. Within this section, the author relies on personal accounts from women living on the Marshall Islands who recount the generational traumas and medical issues that have affected their ability to reproduce due to atomic testing in Bikini Atoll by the US military, thus tying together military presence and women’s reproductive health. Cerretti, in composing this section, addresses the lack of systematic collection of data at the hands of the US government identifying gaps in which the nature of US military testing is not fully realized on the health of those living across the Marshall Islands. However, the author is able to successfully use the information that is available to conclusively describe the effects of militarism on reproduction and the land itself. Subsequently he then uses the rest of the chapter to highlight how communities on the islands shaped resistance to military impact and sought to provide health education to decolonize US patterns of abuses on reproduction.

In closing, Cerretti provides well thought-out organization that connects the US military industrial complex to various modes of sexuality studies. By elucidating the broader impacts of the unexplored period of militarism of the 1990s the reader can attempt to engage in studies of conflict and military abuses through a critical lens based in feminist anti-militarist rhetoric. Each chapter within the text stands alone to highlight the nature of US intervention on sexuality abroad and within the state, but the author makes deep connections among each chapter within the conclusion, which serve to explain how these unique chapters are intertwined. However, some gaps are existent within this book. Several times the author alludes to deeper matters of race and their connection to militarism, but these ideas are not always analyzed as fully as they could be despite the author’s attention to secondary literature by women of color feminist activists. Additionally Cerretti states that this work attempts to be a “critique of the powerful rather than to create representations of those on the margins” (p. 135). Though representations of those affected by militarism would be a powerful study, this reflects the gaps within military research that Cerretti perhaps was unable to reach due to lack of source material. Though these gaps exist within the book, the author clearly identifies them as a call for more research and activist resistance due to the field’s relative newness. Overall, this book successfully expands new and innovative historical discourse that provides hopeful resonance across the field in which activist scholars can incorporate intersectional and feminist thought into the field.

Citation: Hailee Josefina Menchaca. Review of Cerretti, Josh, Abuses of the Erotic: Militarizing Sexuality in the Post-Cold War United States. H-War, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56106

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.