Orientalism and the modernisation of sexuality

In the last two decades gendered and sexual ‘others’ have been ‘included’ in citizenship, as new sexual rights–bearing subjects. To what extent is this a Euro-American configuration within political liberalism? How do colonial and orientalist ideas about democracy follow from this restricted notion of the sexual citizen? 

Leticia Sabsay
5 November 2012

Introduction: Obama and the wellbeing of the Other

The degree to which the US approach to human rights has shifted during President Obama’s administration is a highly controversial matter. Notwithstanding the extent to which Obama’s administration has followed or changed his predecessor’s lines of action, President Obama’s foreign policies increasingly rely on his rhetorical commitment to the promotion of human rights, freedom and democracy across the world. Whereas the administration of President Bush justified US interventions in a much more overtly imperialist and self-defensive manner, President Obama bases his policies on allegedly humanitarian solidarity with the wellbeing of the Other.

In this context, the motive of protecting LGBT people across the world has started to play a greater role in the justification of his foreign policies; as Hilary Clinton declared in a speech she gave at the Palais des Nations of Geneva, Switzerland, on the occasion of the celebration of Human Rights Day, the recognition of human rights of LGBT people ‘is now one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time’.

Clinton made this declaration on 6 December 2011, the same day that President Obama formally urged US officials to consider how countries treat their gay and lesbian populations when making decisions about allocating foreign aid. In a Presidential Memorandum delivered by the White House that day, Barak Obama stated:

"The struggle to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States’ commitment to promoting human rights.  I am deeply concerned by the violence and discrimination targeting LGBT persons around the World

The Department of State shall lead a standing group… to help ensure the Federal Government's swift and meaningful response to serious incidents that threaten the human rights of LGBT persons abroad.

Agencies engaged abroad are directed to strengthen existing efforts to effectively combat the criminalization by foreign governments of LGBT status or conduct..."

A critical reader may well ask, does President Obama make the same demands of the Tea Party and the fundamentalist Christian right in his home country? The flagrant gap between the diligent vigilance he selectively shows towards sexual rights violations abroad and the lack of concern about what happens at home is indeed striking.

However, it does work. As Jasbir Puar puts it, ‘homosexual subjects who have limited legal rights in the US civil context gain significant representational currency when situated within the global scene of the war on terror’. The message contained in Obama’s call is part of the same discourse that has justified recent US wars as making good on a commitment to liberate gender oppressed and sexually intolerant societies from themselves. The antidiscrimination ideal conveyed here does not preclude the imperial function that this call actually serves.

President Obama’s claim closely follows the logic of what Joseph Massad has termed the ‘Gay International’. Massad uses ‘Gay International’ to refer to those organisations such as the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International who undertake a ‘universalising project’ in order ultimately to make, ‘itself feel better about a world it forces to share its identifications.’ For Massad, the organisations of the Gay International not only represent the friendly branch of armed interventions, although this aspect is also central to his arguments, but also entail the definition of the terms on which sexual modernisation can and should be achieved and recognised.

What is at stake here is the hegemony of a western mode of understanding the sexual subject who would become, by virtue of this sexuality, a potential claimant of rights. Here, it is not so much a blunt disqualifying process by which the ‘cultural other’ is constructed as sexually undeveloped, primitive, religiously repressed, homophobic, and traditional. Rather, while various culturally specific sexual practices are destroyed through this framework, they are also being offered entry to democratic modernity on the condition that they conform to secular, modern and what the west understands as democratic, sexual norms. In this way, this sexual subject also becomes the referent by which international human rights organisations and western governments at national and regional levels now draw the bad and the good sexual political subject, and by extension, the east and the west, and also the north and the south.

When the Ugandan gay activist David Kato was killed in Uganda in January 2011 this was the oppositional logic that was mobilised. Tragic as it was, this event gave way to a myriad of discourses condemning Ugandan ‘vernacular outrageous homophobia’ carefully ignoring the fact of the conservative Christian groups in the US and elsewhere that espouse antigay beliefs, and have a prominent influence in Uganda. Homophobia was understood to be intrinsic to this ‘cultural site’ and its practices, and in turn, the characterisation of Uganda as essentially homophobic and backward legitimated the project of modernisation.

Indeed, modernisation in this context implies not only the establishment of a rights–bearing subject with rights to sexuality, but also a set of cultural norms that alternately expel and assimilate non-western ‘others’.  Consider the operation of both of these dimensions of liberal discourse in Hilary Clinton’s response to the assassination of Kato:

Everywhere I travel on behalf of our country, I make it a point to meet with young people and activists – people like David – who are trying to build a better, stronger future for their societies. I let them know that America stands with them, and that their ideas and commitment are indispensible to achieving the progress we all seek… Our ambassadors and diplomats around the world will continue to advance a comprehensive human rights policy, and to stand with those who, with their courage, make the world a more just place where every person can live up to his or her God-given potential.

In contrast to the ‘bad others’ who actually killed the gay activist, Kato functions in Clinton’s discourse as the representative of the ‘good other’ who identifies himself with – in this case – American notions of progress. Far from being inclusive, this interpellation configures a sometimes more implicit and sometimes more explicit set of ‘others’ who fail to integrate: those ‘non-integrated others’ who serve as a background of and foil for the ‘good integrated ones’.

The split between ‘bad and good others’ is not just an opposition: the former defines the conditions of possibility of the latter, and so becomes its constitutive Other. In this way, the apparent inclusive discourse of universal human rights produces a tension between integrated and non-integrated ‘others’ showing the process of othering on which inclusive ideals depend.

We can uncover this logic within European politics concerning LGBTI asylum seekers and migration as well. Asylum seekers are welcomed in Europe on the basis of non-discrimination against cross-gender identification or sexual orientation, as long as they adhere to a recognisable form of gayness or transgenderness. However, in a much less benevolent fashion, the development of anti-migrant policies within the EU, where migrants are by default assumed to be homophobic and have to prove their liberal credentials, gives a clear example of the othering logic on which integration is based.

The birth of sexual citizenship

In The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault describes liberalism as a regime of government where a new relation between state and subjects is established. The kernel of liberalism is freedom, and it would be ‘the management and organisation of the conditions in which one can be free’ that would distinguish the liberal reason from any other form of government. According to Foucault, what characterises liberalism is that it is a ‘consumer of freedom’, which can only function, he continues, ‘insofar as a number of freedoms actually exist’. Of course, the freedoms of the subject of liberalism are not there as a universal given; Foucault says, if ‘the new governmental reason needs freedom’, this means that ‘it must produce it’. In this regard, it is worth noting that the liberal self and the Foucauldian sexual subject are born together under the episteme of liberalism as a new form of relationship between governors and governed.

Following Foucault’s insight one could suggest that it was precisely through this liberal self that sexuality was also produced and reified as an already existing reality and an entitlement of such a self (always already enticed to seek freedom). According to Foucault, ‘liberalism must produce freedom, but this very act entails the establishment of limitations, controls, forms of coercion, and obligations’. In order to govern, he continues, ‘freedom of behaviour is entailed, called for, needed, and serves as a regulator… (65). If the liberal system of freedom entails a whole new regulative order, as he argued in the first volume of the History of Sexuality, freedom with regards to sexual behaviour will not be exempted from it.

We can see the traces of this liberal framework in the ideal of sexual democracy itself. At the centre of the continuing veil debate in France and in Spain, for instance, is the question of autonomy (related to an idea of freedom reduced to choice and individual rights) and the presumption that women cannot choose to use a hijab. As Joan Scott pointed out in her analysis of the headscarf controversy in France, the positions for and against the ban were partly organised around one central question: ‘could the headscarf be considered a legitimate expression of individual conscience and therefore warrant protection under liberal secular law?’ At stake within the veil debate was the defence of a restricted notion of liberal sovereignty of the individual that, in Scott’s words, is presumed to ‘exist prior to his or her choices of lifestyle, values and politics’. These choices, Scott continues, are conceived as ‘external expressions of a fixed inner self, a self which, by definition, cannot relinquish its autonomy’. The problem appears when certain choices cannot be considered as expressions of such a liberal self, endangering the problematic relationship between ‘sovereign autonomy’ and the legal definition of the subject of rights.

Similarly, feminist abolitionist stakes in relation to sex work and the current hegemonic sex trafficking discourse rely on the idea of slavery and assume that no sex worker would ever choose to make a living from the sex industry. Within this framework, the campaigns against sex trafficking generated by mainstream feminist groups have relied upon the monolithic representation of migrant women in their entirety as mere victims of hetero-patriarchy and various ‘pre-modern’ sexist gender cultures.

In situations such as these, the ideas of individual sovereignty and freedom, understood in terms of personal choice as a requirement to be entitled to become a subject of rights, shows its limitations, since it seems that certain choices, such as wearing a hijab, and also, working in commercial sex, could not be choices at all. As Scott remarked, from the point of view of those in favour of the ban of the veil in France, even when girls chose to wear a headscarf, ‘wearing a veil didn’t represent a choice that could be respected as such’. It appears that only certain kinds of personal choices can be regarded as a legitimate expression of sovereign autonomy, since when other choices are made, they are suddenly understood as what are called, oxymoronically, ‘compulsory choices’ that serve as evidence that such subjects lack sovereign autonomy altogether. In this way, the normative restrictions on what counts as a possible personal choice become a way to deny the autonomy of those they describe and judge.  In order to be understood as a sovereign subject, certain compulsory choices should have already been made.

With regards to the problem of identity, in a similar manner, the politics of recognition concerned with sexual diversity depend on sexual norms of citizenship that point both to the normalisation of former sexual ‘others’ and to the configuration of a new sexual respectability, based on the inclusion of some sexual ‘others’–invested in as sexual citizens – and the exclusion of sexual dissidents who challenge those norms. The scope of  ‘sexual diversity’ does not easily encompass those who are not normalised according to the grammars of this version of sexual progressivism: sex workers; gender-queers and those who exhibit non-conforming expressions of gender that cannot be easily classified according to the available institutionalised gender variants; bisexuals or others with more problematic sexual ‘orientations’ or preferences; non-monogamous, or even not already coupled sexual others.

In effect, when the sexual rights-bearing subject becomes the referent by which to measure every sexual subject, it is a progressive narrative that is at stake: those who do not recognise this referent are conceived either as strangers, because of their refusal to define themselves in accordance to this point of reference, or as outsiders unable to recognise this referent ‘yet’; therefore something has to be done for them to acquire this capacity in time.

Of course, through the narrative of progress, this referent forecloses what can be considered political. This is the referent against which the terms of political sexual subjectivity are articulated, and if one wants to be political one can only be so in the terms that this referent gives. Political liberalism and the Eurocentric institution of citizenship are not just models but also a narrative in which some people move forward and others are left behind or outside. Sexual rights have taken on a role in this story, understood as a moment or stage in the progressive advance of democracy. And in this way, some feminists and G&L movements have focused on a politics of inclusion that legitimates this orientalising idea of progress. 

A conclusion on civil courage 

Activists who identify as queer and trans activists of colour have been seeking to disrupt the progressive narrative that belongs to such orientalist projects. Among them, one could mention for example the queer and trans activists groups GLADT, LesMigraS, SUSPECT and also ReachOut, which acquired a prominent visibility when Judith Butler refused the Berlin Pride Prize for civil courage she was offered by mainstream German LGBT associations in 2010, and symbolically passed it to them. In a massive act on the occasion of the Berlin Gay Pride, on 19 June 2010, Judith Butler publicly refused this prize due to the complicity of the Berlin Pride organizers in racism. She stated that she could take the prize only if she could offer it to German activist groups in alliance with queer and trans activists of colour that are fighting against homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism and militarism - because they are the queers who ‘render this racism’ visible and ‘are fighting against such a policy’. It is such intersectional expressions of the queer that teach us something about citizenship or political subjectivity aimed at countering orientalism in mainstream sexual politics.

Countering the liberal imaginary, an intersectional approach allows us to see that we must counter the conversion of the queer into another identity-based community within a liberal framework. In the context of liberal democracy, subjecthood and identity remain intimately linked to imaginary fixed, recognizable, stable and unequivocal positions, and in these terms, sexuality and cultural difference continue to be central to the pluralisation of identities, and the drawing of the political map. This imposes a limit on the field of citizenship that is sustained by norms that implicitly regulate what form those identities are compelled to take, and relates directly to very specific versions of who the sexual subject of rights is, and under what conditions this subject can be read as such. The kind of self that establishes the field of what can be conceived as politics is sustained by a conception of sovereign freedom, which, effectively, extends to the cultural and political regulation of ‘others’ who are understood to lack this defining characteristic for ‘becoming political’, that is, becoming the subject of rights.  

How can the ideal of sexual freedom question its own current regulatory dimension and, while preserving the right to non-sovereign forms of autonomy, point beyond the scheme of personal liberties and the western conception of individual sovereignty, which is, in effect, profoundly exclusionary? This first question leads to even larger ones: Can we do without the idea of ‘having a right’? Would it be a good idea to abandon the language of rights altogether? Shall we look for another language beyond citizenship?

Maybe thinking in terms of citizenship after orientalism means in this case continuing to pose these questions in order to disrupt the narrative of progress that dismisses other sexual struggles and justifies both normalising and condescending or overtly discriminatory racist cultural assessments. This task demands that we question the universalising normative framework that forecloses what we can understand as political, and reminds us that the language of western sexual citizenship is by no means the only way of making sexual claims. This challenge implies keeping open the basic political issue of how bodies and their pleasures can and do become the locus of political practices of citizenship beyond liberal and orientalist presumptions.


This article is an edited extract of ‘The emergence of the other sexual citizen: orientalism and the modernisation of sexuality’ which appeared in the Citizenship Studies 2012 special issue ‘Citizenship after orientalism: an unfinished project’. The referenced and complete essay can be found hereThe research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement n° 249379.


This article forms part of the Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism editorial partnership, funded by the Oecumene Project at the Open University, launched in November 2012.

An editorial partnership with Open University

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