What do sexuality and policy have to do with each other? Is not sexuality personal, private, and more to do with your body than your politics? Of course on one level it is. However, if we consider our sexual relations in a little more depth, we discover that the terms for them are set by policies and politics, including social norms and gender dynamics, national policies and international relations.
Suppose you are touching your spouse, lover, or a sex worker, for example — your fingers on their skin. It may be just between the two of you. You may be luxuriating in your immediate feelings rather than thinking about your professional or public commitments.
But what enables you both to get to that situation? What sets up the dynamics of the relationship between you? What influences how you feel about that contact? And what will the consequences be?
This issue of insights considers the policies and politics which start to answer these questions even before your fingers reach out to touch that skin.
For instance, the United States’ (US) conditions on HIV and AIDS funding have altered the possibilities for how people live out their sexualities. The Bush administration has introduced a set of conditions including promotion of abstinence from sex, and condemnation of sex work and abortion as pre-conditions for receiving support. This has had a significant impact on developing countries, including changing the content of sex education, reducing the availability of condoms and leading to clinic closures.
In this issue of insights, Sonia Corrêa, Richard Parker and Rosalind Petcheskey argue that the US government has violated the rights of people living with HIV and AIDS through its ‘moral’ policies. They track US efforts to limit production of generic AIDS drugs, and link this economic injustice with the erotic injustices of American policy.
Even the World Bank is there in bed with you! Ken Camargo’s article analyses World Bank policy documents to show how sexuality is addressed in relation to gender, and sexual and reproductive health and risk. The World Bank’s approach to sexuality assumes medical experts and health economists know best, instead of considering people’s own versions of their sexuality experiences and related policy needs. It fails to get beyond the technical and medical aspects to deal with social and power issues, and the view of health stops at absence of disease rather than including any consideration of rights and pleasure.
On a national level, Xiaopei He considers how policies in China have both regulated and opened spaces for different kinds of sexual expressions since the communist revolution in 1949. She traces changes through the publicly asexual representations during the Cultural Revolution, where even portrayals of marital relationships disappeared, through to economic reform and responses to HIV and AIDS, which increased spaces for sex workers and gay men in particular. Xiaopei He concludes that the current political climate is more liberal but inconsistent, allowing more possibilities for diverse sexualities, but no guarantee of security from persecution.
Mauro Cabral considers the contradictory policies in Argentina regarding intersex children (born with genitalia that diverge from standard male and female embodiments) and transsexual adults (people who identify with a different sex from that assigned to them at birth). In order to access surgery transsexual adults are required to conform to a gender stereotyped model of the sex they wish to change to, and to pursue a long and difficult legal process. However, intersex babies and infants, who are unable to give informed consent, are subject to body modifications without any challenge from Argentine law. This practice derives from the idea that their bodies are incomplete until ‘properly’ sexed (even if their bodies are healthy). Only once clearly cut into shape as male or female can they be properly human and entitled to human rights.
Dorothy Aken’ova focuses on the politics of gender and sexual pleasure in Nigeria, reporting on her action research in Niger state. In many heterosexual relationships, sexual pleasure is considered a male prerogative. Through training and counselling for couples, the non governmental organisation INCRESE challenges such norms, promoting greater equality in relationships, including more pleasure for women.
And it goes both ways. Not only is policy influencing your sexuality; sexuality also plays a significant role in the construction of national identities and their deployment in global politics. Pinar Ilkkaracan describes how nationalist Islamic discourses portray a conservative sexual morality as a contrast to the decadent West. These portrayals make it harder to contest marital rape or honour killings, or to legalise abortion and same sex relations.
Policies and politics in society, the state, and international relations have a huge and often harmful impact on sexual practices and sexual rights
At the same time the global war on terror and ‘Islamaphobia’ from the West tend to spread a view of Islam as monolithic and universally oppressive to women. This becomes part of the justification for invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and maybe Iran. This leads to further backlash in these countries, and drowns out more liberal voices in Islam. And, ironically, at the international level, opposing political forces such as the Bush administration and Islamic states converge at the United Nations in their opposition to sexual rights. These are just some of the challenges with which the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies engages.
In summary, policies and politics in society, the state, and international relations have a huge and often harmful impact on sexual practices and sexual rights. And sexuality features as an instrument in political struggles. Who touches whom? Who experiences pleasure? Is a price paid such as facing state persecution, or an HIV positive life without access to drugs? Who undergoes genital cutting without consent? These are all highly political questions.
Sexuality needs to be clearly recognised as a policy issue. We need to leave behind the World Bank’s medical technical perspective in order to recognise and challenge the power dynamics, whether at the level of society, the nation or internationally. We need to shift away from a moralistic view of sexuality as only appropriate within marriage, or in heterosexual relationships which meet the gender conventions of the context.
A new political outlook is needed which promotes sexual rights: rights to seek the relationships of our choosing, based on consent and respect of those involved, rights to enjoy our bodies whatever our gender expression, rights to sexual health free from obstruction by global pharmaceuticals and the US trade regime. Forging alliances between people working on a range of different sexuality issues, and between activists working for sexual rights, economic justice and other progressive politics will help us move towards that goal.
Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9RE, UK
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