Book review: Prudish Nation, Paul Dalgarno

Over 30 authors offer their perspectives on "unconventional" relationships.

Prudish Nation is a multilayered snapshot of past, present and potential attitudes towards gender and sexuality. In Australia, a country with a history of viewing life through colonial and gendered lenses, issues pertaining to compulsory heterosexuality, default monogamy and the capitalist concept of the nuclear family, are too often forgotten or ignored. ScreenHub Managing Editor, Paul Dalgarno dismantles these lenses, along with many others, in his narrative non-fiction centred on a central theme of ‘life, love and libido’. 

Framed by the mundane (but unexpectedly complicated) task of filling out a census form, Prudish Nation touches on Dalgarno’s personal experience with polyamory, and captures the pressure placed on writers to portray their differences under certain lights, presumably due to the relative scarcity of such narratives, fictional or otherwise. Acknowledging the experience of marginalisation by those who are used to a certain degree of privilege, Dalgarno muses on the ethical status of monogamy, and questions the (ultimately arbitrary, yet socially necessary) nature of labels, which can be used as tools of affinity and communication as easily as they can be deployed as weapons of exclusion. 

Dalgarno interviews more than 30 authors, each with their own unconventional lived experience, to blend objective fact with subjective experience. Lee Kofman touches on the etiquette of sex talk, railing against an unspoken expectation that breaking norms gives others licence to intrude upon one’s private life. Holden Sheppard writes about growing up gay, and failing to grow out of it. Christos Tsiolkas, Dennis Altman, Andrea Goldsmith, Rochelle Siemienowicz, Jinghua Qian and many others bring abstract concepts to concrete life, with raw vulnerability and articulate insight. 

Some perspectives contained herein warn readers against replacing one arbitrary hierarchy with another; for example, elucidating on how same sex marriage can be framed as a step towards equality, but can also be seen as a way for traditional heterosexual norms to creep insidiously into queer culture – implying a fickle acceptance that depends on how well those norms are adhered to. Citing instances of cultural amnesia in the queer community, Prudish Nation exposes ways in which the so-called diversity factor overshadows other elements of identity, activity and dialogue. 

Monogamy, as a concept enshrined in the law, extends beyond marriage into an array of life-affecting arenas. Valorised norms are often challenged by differently shaped families, with judgements of partner choice applying differently to parents and non-parents. Generational attitudinal differences towards non-traditional sexualities and genders are examined by Dalgarno and interviewees alike, implicitly underlining the importance of change to the accepted cultural lexicon.

From age-gap relationships to asexuality – no social, psychological or emotional stones are left unturned in this concise but thorough examination. Media representations of marginalised identities (and the fine lines they walk between hurt and harm) are given appropriate attention, as are Indigenous perceptions of gender fluidity, experiences of shame, the shaping effects of adolescence and the burden of wearing so many identifiers.

The disturbingly recent decriminalisation of homosexuality in Australia, and the stigma still experienced by many are among the more mainstream issues addressed by Dalgnarno. His approach is conversational yet comprehensive, augmented by a diverse range of fascinating interview quotes. Backed by sound research, these sensitive (and sometimes confronting) anecdotes of life outside the norm run the full gamut of emotional tone, eventually landing on the beauty of optimism as an affirming closing statement. 

Beginning and ending with political contextualisation, Dalgarno unravels nuanced facets of gender and sexuality in terms of social reform and legislative change, interwoven with deeply personal prose. The tapestry of his words, born from the multiplication and division of love in polyamorous dynamics, extends far beyond the burden of basic identifiers. Prudish Nation journeys through diverse perspectives to explore unconventional terrain, adding invaluable voices to an ongoing cultural conversation.

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This brilliant book is a must-read for people of all sexualities, genders and lifestyles. It will resonate most with those whose own stories remain over-judged and under-told. 

Prudish Nation by Paul Dalgarno
Publisher: Upswell Publishing
ISBN: 9780645536928
Format: Paperback
Pages: 200 pp
Release Date: 30 May 2023
RRP: $29.99

Nanci Nott is a nerdy creative with particular passions for philosophy and the arts. She has completed a BA in Philosophy, and postgraduate studies in digital and social media. Nanci is currently undertaking an MA in Creative Writing, and is working on a variety of projects ranging from novels to video games. Nanci loves reviewing books, exhibitions, and performances for ArtsHub, and is creative director at Defy Reality Entertainment.