Sexuality Policy Watch

Reflecting on 2011: incomplete notes on how sexual politics intersect with a shifting landscape

By Sonia Corrêa*

Since late 2010, the world has witnessed a sequence of outstanding and relatively unexpected political and economic events. In late December the unpredicted Arab political spring erupted and, since then, has been unfolding in complex and contradictory ways: the deep political transformations in Tunisia and most principally Egypt, the “granted” constitutional reform in Morocco, the political stalemates in Bahrain and Yemen, the ongoing Libyan war and the bloody Syrian slaughtering, and the diplomatic deadlocks in relation these unresolved national crisis.

As the Arab revolution evolved mobilizing and resistance was also made visible in other countries like Uganda and Malawi, even when not capturing so much media attention. Not surprisingly, quite rapidly the Chinese state adopted public security measures – including the arrest and imprisonment of dissidents – in an attempt to prevent these winds of change from reaching China. The Chinese political containment would be, however, obscured by the tragedy of the Japan earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster, which painfully stirred the memories of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernobyl, the tragic icons of the bi-polar world that, although definitely gone, has left deep traces on the contemporary human experience.

As the word was still processing the shock and implications of Japan disaster, Osama Bin Laden was executed   by a US highly specialized military team in Pakistan and the event, inevitably, took over the headlines and screens. The multiple implications of the Bin Laden killing were not yet fully debated when the first signs of the economic crisis in the Euro Zone became flagrant. This crisis,  among other things, triggered renewed waves of political mobilizing. 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 public funded and quality education, and in the second to cry out against rising living costs, which mostly affect the young people.

Then, the Norway bombing and killings shattered the image of Nordic countries as stable and pacified societies, reviving somber memories of the 20th century and indicating that Fascist ideologies do not die away easily and can always be revamped in times of uncertainty. The Norwegian events have also splintered the simplistic association between terrorism and Islam, which was crystallized in mainstream media discourses and societal imagination after 9/11. It bluntly reminded the world that Christian religious dogmatism has killed in the past, and that it may also kill today in the name of faith.

It is also worth noting that, as reported by the press, the Norwegian terrorist acts may have been motivated, among other things, by the cumulative political gains of the Tea Party in US politics. If the information is correct this connection is not trivial. Meanwhile, as 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, drastic global financial instability ensued demonstrating that the 2008 economic crisis was not entirely over. This new wave of financial instability most directly affects the US and Europe, but its long term global effects are not easily predictable. 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 perceived by the Portuguese sociologist Boaventura dos Santos (in Portuguese, 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 in recapturing it I was sort of perplexed by how intensively shifting the last seven months have been. I have also realized how easily and fast relevant and tragic events may be swallowed into the vortex of contemporary infoxication(1),  in ways that make it increasingly difficult to capture their meanings and potential linkages between facts and trends, or even to keep alive the feelings of pain that many of these events have sparked, or their immediate and long term political implications in various critical domains, such as human rights or 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 made me think of analyses that, for some time, have signaled towards the decline of Western economic hegemony and the literature addressing the effects of finance based capitalism and the unrestrained perverse effects of de-regulated financial markets. It also made me recapture classical texts examining the intersections between persistent inequalities and unchecked appeals of consumerism, or the unexpected ways in which market forces may amplify aspirations for freedom in ways that can de-stabilize authoritarian regimes. Last but not least, the 2011 trends in world politics confirm that it is crucial to name and analyze the polymorphous and globalized nature of religious dogmatism.

But 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? Yes, there are certainly many connections, but it is not so easy to precisely identify what they are and to define if they are or are not relevant. In the next paragraphs I want to share some scattered insights that emerged while I examined the contours of this changing cartography using a sexual politics lens.

I want to start with the Norwegian terrorist attacks, simply because as I see it, there has been an important gap in the media reporting about its connection with Christian “fundamentalism” which would never be glossed over by those who have been engaged with sexual and reproductive right politics long enough. Nowhere have I seen a mention to the blunt fact that, since the early 1980s Christian Right activists have bombed abortion clinics, and kidnapped and killed abortion providers. In fact the last of these episodes occurred two years ago when Dr. Tiller was shoot in Wichita, Kansas, when arriving at his church.

Along the same line of thinking it is worth noting, perhaps, that, at least outside of the US, since when the Tea Party anti-big government obsession became inflated, its genealogy and the centrality of “moral issues” in its political agenda has been somehow effaced. From a sexual politics perspective it is, however, crucial, to constantly retrace the Tea Party background to the 1970s mushrooming of pro-family, anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality groups, under the overarching umbrella of the Moral Majority movement. And even today the permanent mobilizing against abortion and homosexuality remains a crucial source of political support to broader conservative agendas. I would also raise the hypothesis that the Tea Party moral agenda is not exclusively domestic but globally connected, through unmapped ramifications that may be creating obstacles to sexual and reproductive autonomy in unsuspected places.

One of my concerns is that if these facts indicate that connections exist between dogmatic religious ideologies, economic and governance policy agendas, and detrimental effects on sexual and reproductive autonomy, we have not been able yet to fully grasp how they operate. In the same manner, despite the scope and depth of the 2008 financial crisis that was revamped under the impacts of Tea Party politics, we still lack conceptual and analytical instruments to better understand how 21st century financial capitalism intersects with sexuality and gender orders.

In contrast, when my lenses were shifted to the sequence of  mobilizing that that followed the Arab spring, the signs of how gender and sexuality entwine with politics are much more easily grabbed. This is not surprising, given that the 2011 “revolutions” have been and remain predominantly youth rebellions. Sexuality was openly expressed in the big kiss protest performed by rebelling 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. I dare also saying that the spirit of the Arab spring is also palpable in the string of Slut Walks that, since April, have quickly spread from Toronto to dozens of cities as disparate as Delhi, Malmo and Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

Gender and sexuality were indeed dimensions at play in the complex transformations underway in the Middle East. As extensively analyzed by many, women’s voices and political action   were crucial in the upraising and sustainability of political resistance, particularly in Egypt. Yet 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  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.

>> Turning the Gendered Politics of the Security State Inside Out?, by Paul Ammar
>> The force of organisations 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 (Huff Post)

Moreover, since January, the question of the “absence” of the voices of sexual dissidents in the political transformations underway in the Arab world has also been raised by the mainstream media and a few Northern groups. In responding to the question many voices stressed that even when people of diverse sexualities were present in the protests everywhere, LGBT visibility should not be defined as an indicator of democracy. Others reacted saying that the insistence on the topic was simply aimed at further stirring anti-Islamic feelings.

While these debates were evolving, for few weeks, the Syrian lesbian blogger – A Gay Girl in Damascus blog – captured the hearts minds of many, mostly in Western countries, before being disclosed as fraud. The episode sparked a whole range of both new and old critical reflections on the pitfalls of virtual politics, the effects of Western perception and 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.

>> After ‘Amina’: Thoughts From Cairo – OpEd, by Scott Long
>> Gay Girl in Damascus is actually Straight Man in Scotland (

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 definitely and drastically changing. For those of us working on global-level advocacy, this implies that from now on states’ support in relation to gender, reproductive rights, sexual rights or even LGBT rights specifically tend to become increasingly 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 Europea countries has led to sexual policies that have improved the lives of many women, lesbians, gays and transsexuals. But a critical element of contradiction remains 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 superiority (2).

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 the Facciamo analysis correctly suggests, in my view, 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 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!


* Sonia Corrêa is SPW’s Co-chair

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


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