Sotadic and Other Zones: The Cartography of Human Sexuality

Reading Brian Whitaker’s excellent and informative Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian life in the Middle East, I came across the concept of a Sotadic Zone, advanced by Richard Burton in his “Terminal Essay” to The Book of a Thousand Nights and One Nights (1885).

Taking it’s name from the ancient Greek poet Sotades, famed for his homoerotic verse, Burton’s Sotadic Zone (mapped above) covered the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Indo-China, the South Sea Islands and the New World, and defined a geographic zone in which pederasty was particularly prevalent and tolerated, and claimed that within this zone a homosexual orientation was much more common than outside it.

Burton wrote not only in the earliest days on Anthropology, but from what is now a discredited, Orientalist position (as critiqued by Edward Saïd). However, it’s worth noting that he wrote in a time of Victorian repression of sexuality, and his public disavowal of such acts disguised an attempt to show that such practices were in fact widespread, and should not be dismissed as “abnormal”. Mapping is one way of visualising an alternative view of aspects of the world – in this case, human sexuality – and so normalising it.

Such has been the function of maps for some time, although of course such efforts go both ways. The implementation of Megan’s Law in the United States has led to an explosion of cartographic activity. Take these extracts from California’s sex offender locator site, where each blue dot represents a registered sex offender:

These maps hold up a dark mirror to those presented by Grindr, the iPhone app facilitating geo-located hook-ups for gay men:

Such geographies are a physical translation of the mental maps all sexual beings carry with them: how far am I from sex? Where did I have it last? Where might I have it again? (One of the counterintuituve points raised in Unspeakable Love is the widespread eroticism present in modern Islamic cultures: when sexuality is denied private and inviolate spaces, it permeates the entire sphere – the street, the marketplace, the bus station, all become erotic zones, charged with possibilities).

In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop obsessively charts his sexual conquests across a Blitz-scarred London on a street map plastered with stars. These locations appear to correspond with the later impact points of V2 rockets, which we can subsequently reproduce through our own records of London V2 Rocket Sites, a cartography of sex and death, of grandes and petites morts:

Visualisations allow us to obtain an allegedly dispassionate overview of human sexuality. In “Chains of affection: The structure of adolescent romantic and sexual networks” (Bearman PS, Moody J, Stovel K., American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 100, No. 1), researchers chart “the structure of romantic and sexual relations” at the presumably pseudonymous “Jefferson High School”.

“Allegedly”, because such surveys rely on the honesty of those interviewed, and a chart that contains only one two same-sex relationships (that I can find) among hundreds of Western adolescents invites accusations of incompleteness, not to mention stereotyping in its use of pink and blue for gender identification [Image Source]:

But maps can be liberating as well. At humansexmap.com, visitors are invited to place pins in a map delineating their preferences, peccadilloes and fetishes – not without prejudice, as woe betide those explorers who traverse the Lesser and Greater Barrier Mountains to penetrate the forbidden zones beyond the Impassable Reaches:

Cartography is not, despite its pretensions, an exact science. Kevin Slavin, in a recent talk on the occasion of the launch of the BLDGBLOG book, critiqued the current cartographic obsession with locating the individual at the core of everything, saying: “a world and a life in which you are always the centre of the map… fuck that”.

Bookkake might paraphrase such a sentiment indelicately as: “a world and a life in which you are not at the centre of the map… fuck there”.

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Know of any good maps, charts or visualisations which should be added to this collection? Do let us know in the comments, as we’d love to do a follow-up post.

5 Comments

  1. “(One of the counterintuituve points raised in Unspeakable Love is the widespread eroticism present in modern Islamic cultures: when sexuality is denied private and inviolate spaces, it permeates the entire sphere – the street, the marketplace, the bus station, all become erotic zones, charged with possibilities).”

    In my observation this is also quite true in countries like Spain or Italy, where Catholicism casts a shadow and economic/cultural factors drive young people to live with their parents until marriage. Perhaps because of the conservatism in private spaces, it’s not uncommon to see young people gettin’ it on (or coming very close to doing so) in parks, etc.

    # by Claire, August 21, 2009

  2. See also Martin Wattenberg & Fernanda Viegas’ project, Fleshmap (http://www.bewitched.com/fleshmap.html) for other sex+infovis.

    # by Golan Levin, August 24, 2009

  3. I see three same-sex relationships in the map; there’s a blue-blue in the lower left of the main oval, a blue-blue ending an upward branch of the long up-right branch of the oval, and a pink-pink in the sideways Y thing just to the right of the oval.

    # by Ben, August 24, 2009

  4. @Claire – You’re not wrong – I saw the same thing in India earlier this year, with the benches in public parks thronged with the young folk a-petting. Much like teenagers who still live at home – except it applies all the way up to marriage…

    @Golan – Thanks that’s a great link.

    @Ben – I can’t find the lower-left one, but good catch on the blue-blue – the pink was the one I’d spotted.

    # by James Bridle, August 28, 2009

  5. What’s nice about seeing these sexual maps is that they give visual representation to something that is normally so private and hidden. Don’t know if that’s ‘normalising,’ but it is certainly fascinating!

    # by Sex Toys, Adam & Eve, December 2, 2009

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