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Sexual citizenship

Sexual citizenship is a relatively new concept that entered the social sciences and related disciplines in the early 1990s. In particular, the work of sociologists Evans (1993), Richardson (1998), Plummer (2003) and Weeks (1998) has been crucial to the development of the concept of sexual citizenship. However, significant contributions to the field have also been made by scholars in the fields of human and social geography, most notably by Bell and Binnie (2000), in the field of political science by Phelan (1995), and by literary critics (Berlant 1997).

The meaning of this concept is not entirely set in stone. It can encompass a fairly wide range of issues and can be understood in a number of different ways (Richardson 2017). (Richardson 2017). The related but often differently or more widely understood term “intimate citizenship” is also used at times (Plummer 2005).

Both concepts, however, point to changes in the perception of the boundaries of the public and private “sphere”, whereby some issues that were previously completely excluded from the public space, such as sexual violence, genital mutilation (e.g. female circumcision) or issues related to the rights of sexual minorities, have now come to the forefront of public discussion and have ceased to be taboo topics.

The topic of “sexual rights” covers the theory surrounding issues relating to  the various legal, social and cultural requirements of sexual and intimate citizenship. Such rights can be demanded by  men,  womenheterosexual people and non-heterosexual people, but among heterosexual people, it is more often women than men who emphasise the need for these rights, and  they are primarily demanded by “sexual minorities” for whom sexual citizenship and sexual rights are of particular importance in a heteronormative society.

As a result of our increasing understanding of human sexuality, gender identity, and other aspects of human natural diversity, there is a related increase in visibility of “needs, desires, and issues” that have been completely excluded or marginalised in previous approaches.

Over the past few decades, a significant shift has taken place in the acceptance of non-heterosexual people in society. Firstly, this societal shift involved decriminalising consensual homosexual intercourse andremoving homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses, thenequalising the minimum age for same-sex and opposite-sex sex, introducing legal changes that guarantee people with non-heterosexual orientations protection against discrimination and hate crimes, legally recognising same-sex relationships, and making available family, property, and other rights that the state had previously granted only to opposite-sex couples.

As a result of these changes, it is logical that we have also witnessed a number of social, legal and cultural changes in recent decades. In social geography and sociology, we have noticed in particular the increasing social visibility of non-heterosexual people, the concentration of non-heterosexual people in big cities and, as a rule, their greater integration into mainstream society.

All of these and many other questions closely related to the concept of “sexual citizenship” emerge, especially if we step away from uncritical reflections on the “automatic democracy” of our societies and move towards a more critical perspective, within which we can reveal the persistent differences between the perceived and real levels of “civic equality” (Weeks 1998, s. 37–8).

In order to clearly present the concept of sexual citizenship, we will use the analytical scheme introduced by Richardson (2000), which includes three requirements for sexual rights:

  1. requirements based on behaviour and relations
  2. requirements based on identity
  3. requirements based on relationships

Requirements based on behaviour and relations:

These requirements include, in particular, civil rights relating to the ability to engage in sexual activities, access to means of sexual pleasure or self-sufficiency in reproductive matters.

The right to sexual activity is a specific issue for non-heterosexual people affected by laws that prohibit, restrict, or otherwise regulate consensual “homosexual relations”. These include laws on “outraging public decency”, or legislation that generally prohibits or punishes same-sex intercourse (in certain parts of the world). Amnesty International continues to publish reports on the executions, torture, imprisonment and other forms of persecution of non-heterosexual people around the world (8 countries still punish “homosexuality” with death). In Czechoslovakia, “homosexuality” ceased to be a criminal offence in 1962, but even during the First Republic we came significantly close to its decriminalisation (Seidl et al. 2012).

Sources: this map is based on original research and is valid as of February 2018. We have largely relied on the available information provided in the ILGA report – International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association: Carroll, A. and Mendos, L.R., State-Sponsored Homophobia 2017: A world survey of sexual orientation laws: criminalisation, protection and recognition (Geneva; ILGA, May 2017).

Photo by Hans Moerman on Unsplash

The right to participate in sexual activities and to have access to means of sexual pleasure is also a significant concern for people living with disabilities, who are often treated as “asexual” or as people “without sexual needs” (Begum 1992, p. 78). Awareness has been brought to this issue by the director Dagmar Smržová in her film ‘Miluj mě, jestli to dokážeš’ (Smržová 2016). Issues of sexual and reproductive rights are also important in the autonomy of the female body for people with learning disabilities, who may be significantly more vulnerable to domestic violence and victimisation (Begum 1992). Disabled women are more likely to be sterilised without their direct consent (Williams 1992).At the most general level, issues related to sexual and reproductive behaviour and health concern female citizenship, which affects women’s physical integrity and their reproductive choices and health. This includes social rights such as access to contraception and the right to abortion.

Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

Sexual rights and behaviour-based citizenship are therefore closely connected to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which on the one hand has created a demand for  sex educationand has led to the formulation of new definitions of ‘safe sex‘, but which, on the other hand, has brought with it a number of new restrictions on civil rights, especially for those living with HIV (Watney 1991) or those who are biologically most at risk from the HIV epidemic (i.e. non-heterosexual men). These new issues have in turn had an impact on, for example, the stigmatisation of HIV-positive people and their access to (free-of-charge) treatment (ART) or preventative medication (such as PrEP – pre-exposure prophylaxis) or medication which can be taken to prevent this infection immediately after exposure has taken place (PEP – post-exposure prophylaxis).

Requirements based on identity

These requirements relate primarily to non-heterosexual (LGBTQ) and gender non-conforming (trans, intersex) people and were formulated primarily within the “gay and lesbian liberation movement”. These claims relate to public recognition of groups of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people and are in contrast with the mere “tolerance” of specific sexual acts that were supposed to remain hidden in private.

In particular, this includes the right to self-determinationself-expression and self-realisation. This includes “the right to have a voice in the mainstream mediathe right to dignified and non-stereotypical representation (and protection from undignified and stereotypical representation) and the right to be able to disseminate information and values related to sexual identities and the lifestyles of sexual minorities” (Pakulski 1997). A typical example of interference with these rights is the “Section 28” under British law, passed in 1988. This law prohibited local authorities from “promoting” the “acceptance of homosexuality” in schools.

Currently, such laws can be found, for example, in Russia and some other Eastern European countries, where so-called “homosexual propaganda” is prohibited and laws are characterised by their anti-gay orientation.

The lack of possibility to express one’s non-heterosexual identity, for example, has meant that, in some countries, restrictions have been placed on “non-heterosexual people” serving in the armed forces. A well-known example of this is the rule that used to be applied frequently – “don’t ask, don’t tell“, which was intended to prevent discussion of sexual orientation (and thus, coming-out) within the heteronormative armed forces.

At the political level, then, it is still clearly problematic for non-heterosexual legislators who are open about their sexuality to represent citizens, as coming-out in politics, as in sports, is subject to a strong level of hetero-social control. According to Lister (2002), however, full and effectively valid citizenship cannot be achieved without the presence of “sexual minorities” being publicly legitimised (in the sense of holding public office without having to conceal their identity).

On the contrary, issues related to the representation of “sexual minorities” in politics or in other fields of society and culture (e.g. in film and popular culture) are often rejected and criticised by various conservative groups, e.g. within the discourse of “political correctness“, which Lister defines as “a concept used by dominant groups … to ridicule and silence the demands of oppressed groups” (Lister 2002, p.193).

The right to self-determination is especially crucial for trans people, because in many countries, for example, it is still forbidden for a trans person to change their birth certificate and the gender of a person who was born as intersex must be determined. These requirements stem from the lack of legal recognition that one’s true gender may not be the one that is identified by others at birth as the obvious (or dominant) gender based on their physical features. Additionally, in many countries, a person may only change their gender identity on condition that they are sterilised or undergo other (surgical) interference with the integrity of their trans body.

Requirements based on relationships:

Sexual relationships are restricted, for example, by the minimum age of legal consensual sex, which is or used to be set at a different age for “heterosexual” people than for “homosexual” people.

In some countries, people are not free to choose their sexual partners even when they reach the age of consent; these rights may be restricted by “race” or religion, for example.

One specific topical issue here is the right to the public recognition and legal legitimacy of same-sex relationships.The broader symbolic meaning of such recognition “ultimately [points] to the question of recognising the moral legitimacy and ethical validity of the shared ways of life of lesbians and gay men as citizens.” (Kaplan 1997, s. 209).

Another typical example is the right to marry, which is an institution that regulates the citizenship and related rights of the persons who enter into it, and therefore privileges these people in an objectively definable manner. The constitutional courts of a number of developed states have found that denying the right to enter into marriage to persons of the same sex was contrary to their existing constitutions.

Many states currently still hierarchise the degree of their citizens’ sexual citizenship by, for example, institutionalising some form of second-class union in the form of “civil or registered partnerships”, which often disadvantage same-sex unions in comparison to opposite-sex unions in a number of areas, especially in the area of parental rights.

The legitimacy of same-sex relationships in various countries is symbolically and legally constrained, for example, by the absence of laws that would legalise same-sex relationships, or by the presence of laws that, on the contrary, clearly regard opposite-sex relationships as superior and privileged by (for example) placing constitutional “restrictions” on the institution of marriage which make it exclusively “heterosexual”.

We also have to include rights and duties based on the desire to start families and maintain family relationships here, whether the parents are same-sex or opposite-sex parents. In actual fact, it is true that a child can only be conceived by a woman and a man, but these persons need not in all circumstances assume the role of parents, since, as is well known, adoptive parents are also equally parents, lesbian mothers are equally mothers (whether from a social or biological perspective), and gay men can also be fathers and have the same potential to create a family environment suitable for raising a child as a same-sex couple. Therefore, gay and lesbian couples cannot be seen as infertile couples, as they are also naturally able to start families, albeit often under difficult conditions. The legal problems of these families and their consequences therefore fit fully into the issue of sexual citizenship.

Sexual citizenship also clearly falls short of equality in relation to, for example, protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment law or in ordinary civil law relations. It is common for laws to protect against discrimination on the grounds of sex, religious affiliation, race and ethnicity, but it is not yet common for the law to protect against discrimination on the basis of sexuality.


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