Sexuality Policy Watch

How sexual politics intersect with a shifting global landscape

SPW republishes the article “Reflecting on 2011 events: scattered notes on how sexual politics intersect with a shifting global landscape“, written by Sonia Corrêa, who analyzed the intertwine between the sexual and wider political contexts. She focuses on a myriad of noteworthy events in the year of 2011 and that to this day reflect in our current political context, especially the attacks that took place in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 2019.

April 2012

By Sonia Corrêa1

Since late 2010, the world has witnessed a sequence of outstanding and relatively unexpected events. In late December, the unpredicted Arab political spring erupted and, since then, has been unfolding in contradictory ways: the deep political transformations but also deadlocks in Tunisia and Egypt, the “granted” constitutional reform in Morocco, the political stalemates in Bahrain and Yemen, the Libyan war and its paradoxical outcome and the ongoing bloody Syrian slaughtering.

As the Arab revolution evolved, mobilizing and resistance was also shortly visible in countries like Uganda and Malawi, even when these events did not capture much media attention. Not surprisingly, in the same period, the Chinese state adopted public security measures – including the arrest and imprisonment of dissidents – in an attempt to prevent these winds of change from crossing the Great Wall. The Chinese political containment would be, however, obscured by the tragedy of the Japan earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear disaster that painfully stirred the memories of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernobyl, tragic icons of the bi-polar world that have left deep traces on the contemporary experience.

As the word was still processing the shock of the Japan disaster, Osama Bin Laden was executed by a US highly specialized military team in Pakistan. The multiple implications of the Bin Laden killing were not yet fully debated when the signs of a deepening economic crisis in the Euro Zone became flagrant. People took over the public space in Portugal, Greece and Spain to shout against the failures of misguided economic policies, but also to make explicit their indignation in the face of the structural deficits of liberal democracies in responding to societal aspirations. In June, a national strike was called by UK unions to protest against the cuts in public spending adopted by the conservative government. By July, the winds of popular protest had reached Santiago (Chile) and Tel Aviv (Israel), in the first case to call for publicly funded and quality education, and in the second to cry out against rising living costs, which mostly affect young people.

Then, also quite unexpectedly the Norway bombing shattered the image of Nordic countries as stable and pacified societies. The episode also revived somber 20th-century memories recalling that Fascist ideologies do not die away easily and can be revamped in times of uncertainty. The Norwegian events have also splintered the simplistic association between terrorism and Islam that had been crystallized in geopolitical discourses, mainstream media analyses and societal imagination after 9/11. It bluntly reminded that Christian religious dogmatism has killed in the past and that it may also kill today in the name of faith. As reported by the press, the Norwegian terrorist acts may have been inspired by the cumulative political gains of the Tea Party in US politics. If this information is correct the connection is not at trivial.

Meanwhile, Norwegian society mourned the lives lost in the terrorist attacks, the US Congress was paralyzed by the political filibustering around the debt-fiscal ceiling resulting from radical Tea Party calls for reducing of “big government”. When, in early August, an agreement was finally reached that, by and large, accommodated the extreme Tea Party demands, the global financial instability got worst threatening now Italy and perhaps also France. As these words were being written the stock exchange losses shared the headlines and screens with the glaring flames of the UK riots. As correctly noted by the Portuguese sociologist Boaventura dos Santos (Folha de São Paulo, August 16th, 2011) the headlines of the week projected a frightening symmetry between the greed of financial markets and the furor sweeping through British cities. At the other side of the world, in India, protests against corruption gained visibility when its leader was arrested, an episode that, among other, reveals the authoritarian trait of one of the most stables democracies South of Equator.

This brief recollection merely connects the dots. Yet it is rather perplexing how intense and shifting the last seven months have been. Furthermore, I have realized how easily and fast relevant and tragic events may be swallowed into the vortex of contemporary infoxication2. Today it is increasingly difficult to capture the meanings and potential linkages between facts and trends, to keep alive the feelings of pain that many of these events have sparked, or to critically reflect on their immediate and long term implications for human rights, gender, sexualities or even the environmental uncertainties of our times.

It is neither simple nor easy to interpret more deeply the contours that emerge from this dot connecting exercise. Yet in broad strokes, this rapidly shifting landscape recalls those analyses that, for some time, have signaled towards the decline of Western economic hegemony. But it also revives the literature on the effects of finance based capitalism and the unrestrained perverse effects of deregulated financial markets, texts examining the intersections between persistent inequalities and unchecked appeals of consumerism, as well as analyses suggesting that market forces may, in unexpected ways, amplify aspirations for freedom in ways that destabilize authoritarian regimes. The 2011 trends in world politics once again confirm the polymorphous and globalized nature of religious dogmatism.

While retracing this sequence of events I have also asked myself: if and how it intertwined with the multiple dynamics at play in sexual politics, broadly speaking? In the next paragraphs, I will share some scattered insights that emerged while I examined the contours of this changing cartography using a sexual politics lens. I may start with the Norwegian terrorist attacks because there has been an important gap in the media reporting about its connection with Christian dogmatism. Nowhere have I seen mention to the fact that, since the early 1980s, in the US, Christian Right activists had bombed abortion clinics and kidnapped and killed abortion providers. In fact, the last of these episodes occurred two years ago when Dr. Tiller3 was shoot in Wichita, Kansas when arriving at his church to attend a cult.

When the lenses are shifted to the sequence of political mobilizing inspired by the Arab spring, the connections between gender, sexuality and politics are quite glaring. The reason may be that 2011 “revolutions” have been predominantly youth rebellions. Since April, a string of Slut Walks4 has quickly spread from Toronto to dozens of cities as disparate as Delhi, Malmo and Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Sexuality was openly expressed in the big kiss protest performed by Chilean students on the week of August 15th. In the Madrid pride parade, the M15 related the Orgulllo Indignado (Indignant Pride) protested against the public funds being provided to the upcoming visit of the Pope. Gender was one inescapable dimension of the UK riots, sparked as they were by a “classical” episode involving the police and young males.

Gender and sexuality were indeed flagrant dimensions at play in the complex transformations underway in the Middle East. As extensively analyzed, women’s voices and political action were crucial in the uprising and sustainability of political resistance, particularly in Egypt. But the in the sequential waves of occupation and dislodging of Tahir Square, the control and disciplining of women’s autonomy and sexuality has been used as a blatant tool of political coercion. The ongoing conflicts and state repression in Libya and Syria painfully revive the somber realities of systematic rape as a weapon of domain.

Most principally, since January, the “absence” of sexual dissident bodies and voices in the Arab revolutions became a subject of concern of the Western mainstream media and a few Northern LGBT groups. In responding to the queries raised by these actors many local voices stressed that while people of diverse sexualities were indeed part of the revolution, LGBT visibility should not be defined as an indicator of democracy. Others correctly reacted saying that the insistence on the topic was simply aimed at further stirring anti-Islamic feelings. While these debates were evolving, foa r few weeks, the Syrian lesbian blogger – A Gay Girl in Damascus blog – captured the hearts minds of Western audiences before being disclosed as a fraud. The episode sparked a whole range of old and new critical reflections on the pitfalls of virtual politics, on Western biases on Islam and sexuality and the ways in which pink-washing has become an insidious feature of the ways in which politics and sexual politics entwine in the Middle East.

Lastly, I was definitely instigated by the geopolitical implications of this landscape because it strongly indicates that the global power dynamics and state-societal relations that presided over the legitimizing of sexual and reproductive rights as human rights, in the mid 1990s and early 2000s, are drastically changing. States’ support in relation to gender, reproductive rights, sexual rights or even LGBT rights specifically seem to have become entirely imbricated with strategies designed to cope with growing internal contradictions and potential losses or gains in terms of geopolitical power. In June, the Italian group Facciamo circulated a series of reflections, which may throw some light into the shadows of this new era we seem to be entering into:

The implementation and institutionalization of feminist and LGBTIQ issues in many European countries has led to sexual policies that have improved the lives of many women, lesbians, gays and transsexuals. But a contradiction is there palpable that must be addressed. In particular, we want to disclose the ways in which sexual politics can be turned into a tool that is used by the systems to justify its own struggles for hegemony… “Sexual democracy” can also be a “regime of justification” that deploys discourses appraising the recognition of sexual citizenship as a distinguishing mark of the superiority of the West, which coexist and are interwoven with imperialist and nationalist discourses that legitimize this supposed superiority5.

There is nothing new about states happily bargaining issues of gender and sexuality in global negotiations. Many of us have seen that happening repeatedly at UN conferences and other instances. Yet what Facciamo correctly suggests is that under the effects of the rapidly shifting geopolitical balance of power these bargains tend to become more ferocious, and within this context the “sexuality card” tends to be played as a superior feature of states that are either being threatened on other fronts, or are re-positioning themselves in the global check board. Needless to say that these novel and tricky conjunctions will play differently depending on where you are located, not simply in regard to North and South or Western or non-Western, but also in relation to gradients of emergence and decline and the re-configurations underway in regional terms. Food for thought!


1 Sonia Corrêa is SPW’s Co-Chair.

2 A neologism used to describe the excess of information flows that characterize contemporary communication systems in terms of both circulation and reception.

3 Read more here.

4 Read more here.

5 Read more here.

Further reading

Turning the Gendered Politics of the Security State Inside Out? by Paul Ammar

The force of organizations consisting of women and youth was decisive

Egypt women protesters forced to take ‘virginity tests’ – BBC

Iman al-Obeidi, Libya Woman Claiming Rape, Will Face Charges – HuffPost

After ‘Amina’: Thoughts From Cairo – OpEd, by Scott Long

Gay Girl in Damascus is actually Straight Man in Scotland –

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