Sexual Citizenship

The concept sexual citizenship was introduced in 1993 by Edwards to underline the material fundament of sexualities from a neo-marxist perspective, amending social-constructionist theories. Nowadays, it is mostly used to draw attention to the political aspects of erotics and the sexual component of politics. It is developed in particular in Great-Britain. Contrary to received opinion that considers sexual expressions to be natural phenomena and private matters, they have as well cultural and public aspects. Postmodernism, gender studies and queer theory have been breaking down various dichotomies. Culture/nature and public/private were obvious targets. Sexuality and citizenship include both facets. Sexual privacy can not exist without open sexual cultures. Homosex might be consumed in the bedroom, but first partners must be found in the public space of streets, bars, media or internet. The concept sexual citizenship intends to bridge private and public, and to stress the cultural and political sides of sexual expression.

Citizens have been defined in classical liberal theory as adult males operating on a free market (Clarke). These men were seen as abstract beings without sexuality or body. Nowadays the privileging of masculinity and economics attracts strong criticism. The cultural, ethnic, gendered, and sexual facets of citizenship are underlined in daily politics and academic theories. Citizens have genders, sexualities and bodies that matter, also in politics. The focus on the sexual aspects here should not suggest that other fields of citizenship are unimportant; in fact the various terrains show clear interconnections. Citizenship is about discourses, bodies, institutions and public space. Thus, I will here discuss the right of free expression, bodily autonomy, institutional inclusion and spatial themes. All these issues are of course closely intertwined.

Sexual citizenship has to do with the right of free sexual expression, which especially concerns less privileged groups. Seen male heterosexual dominance, it is in the first place a topic for women and sexual minorities. Many girls and women are still dependent on fathers, husbands or other figures of male authority while gay men and lesbian women often are condemned to the silence of the closet. They miss the civic right to express their sexual belongings and experiences and the media access to do so. Free expression of sexuality means that the public sphere, from schools to politics, cannot continue to be a monoculture of male heterosexuality that it largely was in the past and remains in the present. Pornography is a contested field of free expression because according to some it is based in the exploitation of women and minors. Others defend it as a legitimate form of sexual self-expression as long as the rights of the involved persons are respected, like in other domains of labor.

A special issue is consent. Countries have stipulated very different ages of consent in law, restraining at one hand access of "minors" to erotic expressions, and at the other hand demonizing nowadays those "adults" who have sexual activities across the age boundary. Some places had no age of consent, and others set it somewhere between 11 and 27 years, at the time of marrying or the beginning of puberty. Different limits were set for various activities, for example homo/heterosexual, married/unmarried or paid/unpaid. Consent is also an issue in erotic situations among adults where it may be unsettled, can be extracted from partners, or they may change opinion on the issue. Lack of it can be a sexual stimulus for lovers.

Another question concerns hate speech, for example where physicians, orthodox christian or muslim leaders use the freedom of expression to offend gay men by calling them sick, criminal or worse than pigs or dogs. This name-calling is offensive for sexual minorities that are thus kept in the abjection that was for ages bestowed on them and that has afflicted their psychic and social well-being. It keeps a tradition of civic rejection alive. To oppose such insults, some states have create hate-crime laws.

Citizenship also refers to embodiment. For women, it means reproductive and contraceptive rights, to be boss in their own belly. It regards decisions on birth control and abortion. For gay men and lesbian women, it concerns the freedom to engage in various kinds of sexual acts that often are still prohibited by national and local authorities. Criminal laws restrain access to sexuality by forbidding certain acts, information and imagery, by imposing ages of consent, or by making certain groups dependent on the authority of others. Public indecency laws are typically used to proscribe erotic pleasures to gay men. The various sexually transmitted diseases, in particular aids, have raised questions of access to medical care and pharmaceutical products, to sex education and to condoms. Denial of these civic rights endangers the life of many more people than only gay men.

Medicine has added to bodily disempowerment by defining certain sexual practices as pathological, as it did with homosexuality and masturbation, and continues to do with other "paraphilia's" (formerly called perversions) in the various updated DSM's of the psychiatric profession. It refused lesbian women access to new reproductive technologies because of their sexual preference. It suggested circumcision of boys that endangered their physical and psychological well-being.

Gender performance is another issue of sexual citizenship, including topics of sex change, gender transgression and body transformation. Social reactions to gender deviant behavior belong to the most atrocious all over the world, including various kinds of violence and the denial of basic rights for example to legally change sex. Operations on intersexual children have been discussed in terms of genital mutilation. Desired body transformations for reasons of erotic pleasure have at the other hand been withheld. Laws, regulations, medical practices and social prejudices continue to inhibit bodily expressions of sexual and gender variation.

Many institutions foreclose the possibility to participate fully as sexual citizen to certain groups. Main issues have become recently the right to marry and to enter the army for gay men and lesbian women. Only few, mostly European, countries have extended some of these rights to this constituency of denizens. Although some have argued that marriage as a private contract between citizens should not be the state's business, refusal to allow same-sex couples to marry where other couples can do so, constitutes discrimination. Most institutions privilege the nuclear family which is a breech of sexual citizenship for all outsiders to this social arrangement. Denial of institutional and social equality and participation to sexual minorities also happens in the fields of education, parental rights, health care, labor market, housing, taxing, pensions and insurances, partner benefits, political representation, immigration laws, to name some of the major terrains. There is no country that has achieved equality on all these points, while most show little or no interest in such issues. The denial of institutional equality in these fields is a clear example that gays and lesbians and other erotic groups are not fully recognized as citizens.

Another field of interest to sexual citizenship is space. Women often have been restrained to the private world of homes and families and gay men and lesbian women to a subculture of bars. Even these locations are not safe for them. Protection against abuse and violence in the personal world is a basic civil right. Beyond these hidden and (semi)private places, the spatial interests of sexual citizens remain largely unacknowledged. Agency in public life is strongly restricted by the sexism and homo-aversion of straight male society. Spatial claims of queers, for example on public cruising or the establishment of gay venues, streets and communities, remain contested sometimes even in the gay world itself. Visibility and safety in the public realm are prime concerns of queer activists. Going from the closet to the street means that gays and lesbians need public space to express their sexual desires, to find partners, to debate politics, to demonstrate, shortly, to enact their civic rights.

The various concepts of citizenship enable a comparison of the importance given to them. Most Western countries, to give an example, value religious far above sexual belongings. Although most democracies have separated state and church, old traditions remain of major relevance. Religious citizenship continues to receive wide acknowledgement and to keep strong influence, for example in education and politics while in both fields a strong denial or neglect of intimate citizenship remains the norm. Religious leaders who rely on vital anti-sexual traditions and continue to invoke them, keep a stronger foothold in civic society than leaders who speak out for sexual rights. Most churches want to keep up the triangle of monogamous marriage, reproduction and heterosexuality, at most giving "a place at the table" to non-heterosexual individuals who will not queer religious traditions.

Issues of sexual citizenship, or sexual politics, have become a minor theme in Western countries and remain even more marginal in most other places. Sexual rights are denied to women and erotic communities in most muslim and African countries. They are often neglected in Asian and Latin-American nations. Few states outside the European Union have been actively involved in extending civil rights to gays and lesbians. South-Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Australia, some states and cities in the United States are examples. Other countries that had no anti-homosexual criminal laws such as Japan and Thailand have been slow to offer safeguards to sexual communities in civil law. Rights given to gays and lesbians are rarely extended to transgenders and transsexuals or sadomasochists and never to pedophiles.

Even in most places where gays and lesbians receive legal protection, the social climate remains largely unfavourable. In those countries, issues of sexual citizenship have moved from law reform and erasure of institutional intimidation to education, equal representation, visibility and spatial claims. In some European countries where most blatant forms of sexual discrimination have disappeared, it has become difficult to mobilise gay and lesbian populations for issues of intimate citizenship. The change from legal to social emancipation where goals are more difficult to define, diminished interest in sexual activism.

The concept of sexual citizenship draws our attention to all kinds of social exclusion that sexual communities, foremost of gay men, lesbian women, transgenders, prostitutes, persons who like public sex, sadomasochists and pedophiles, are subjected to. These restrictions inhibit their political, social, cultural and economic participation. The various constraints point to the necessity to queer all kinds of institutions because simply allowing sexual minorities into these organisations on an individual basis, does not change their sexist straight fundaments. Sexual citizenship refers to the transformation of public life into a domain that is not any longer male and monosexual, but based in gender and sexual diversity, where people can take responsibility for their own sexual life.

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