Sexual Citizenship Essay

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Until the emergence of the concept of sexual citizenship, sociological explorations of human sexualities were limited by focusing on discrete forms of sexual deviance,” without critical reference to their emergence in patriarchal, heteronormative capitalism. Sexual citizenship focuses on the complex dynamic material (political, legal, economic) construction of sexualities through differential citizenship (civil, political, social rights), determined by divergent legal and moral judgements of sexual status within and out with the ideological norm of the marital, monogamous, reproductive, heterosexual family.

Differential sexual citizenship is determined by degrees of moral and legal inclusion and exclusion, from, for example, unmarried heterosexual relationships, single parenthood, surrogacy,    adoption,    homosexuality, lesbianism through to sex work, transvestism and transsexual-ism to the criminal: rapists and pedophiles. This construction of sexualities through statutory recognition (civil, political, social rights) modified by differential moral approbation, is also qualified by degrees of niche market access and lifestyle consumption. Sexual citizenship thus embraces such apparently non-sexual” differentials as taxation, life insurance, health care, home ownership, inheritance rights, conditions of employment, use of public” and private” spaces, etc. Sociological interest in general citizenship was stimulated in the 1980s by analyses of disorganized” capitalism: fragmentation of economic interest groups with greater industrial flexibility in increasingly consumerist economies; breakdown of neo-corporatist state regulation; growing contradictions between state and capital; growth of fragmented and discrete social movements, with active citizens as reflexive consumers. Capital, culture, technology and politics developed beyond the regulatory power of the national state, which retreated from moralist to causalist principles of governance. Rather than appraising   deviant” sexualities as immoral” and interfering in the private lives of citizens, the law concentrated on causal effects, preservation of public order and decency, and restriction of tolerated sexual   deviance” without victims” to private,” i.e. public” but discrete, increasingly leisure and lifestyle territories and markets. Despite this acknowledgement of sexual citizenship diversity, the ideal of heteronormativity” within the family context, threatened by AIDS, child sex abuse, and other immoral” dangers, remained pronounced.

This materialist formulation of sexual citizenship” emerged simultaneously with a markedly different interpretation. Plummer (1992, 2003) interprets disorganised capitalism” as symptomatic of postmodernity rather than adaptive capitalism, notable for a new intimate” sexual citizenship, an empowering radical, pluralistic . . . participatory politics of human life choices and difference” (Plummer 2003), manifest through communities” of sexual stories. Whilst Evans (1993) concentrates on the structural readjustments and consequences of the late modern state’s deployment of citizenship to incorporate still immoral” though legal sexual citizens, through the distractions of single-issue rights” fetishized as equal,” disorganized” conditions leading to crises in governance in the short term but resolved through further citizenship readjustments, Plummer (1992) asserts that rights’ campaigns around being gay’ and lesbian’ have had . . . remarkable payoffs in the western world . . . [in which] being gay and lesbian . . . [brings] no more problems than any other way of living and loving.” For Evans (1993) such claims demonstrate how effectively bourgeois citizenship reconstructs and contains sexual difference and dissent, imposing on sexual political movements the language of citizenship rather than of that of liberation” as twenty years earlier. Thus, behind the rhetorical facade of liberty” and equality,” the state fragments, neutralizes, and distracts sexual dissidents to sustain its own moral authority” and the heteronormative ideal.

Potentially both interpretations provide complementary perspectives on the comparative analysis of the macro-dynamic structuration of sexualities in late capitalism and globally. In both hitherto discrete sexualities are grounded in the same material conditions of disorganized” capitalism; all citizenship rights and duties are revealed as heteronormatively discriminating and hegemonic heteronormativity, so often left as an all-powerful nebulous organizing principle, is revealed in all its concrete complexity, inconsistency, and duplicity.


  1. Evans, D. T. (1993) Sexual Citizenship: The Material Construction of Sexualities. Routledge, London.
  2. Plummer, K. (1992) Speaking its name: inventing a lesbian and gay studies. In: Plummer, K. (ed.), Modern Homosexualities. Routledge, London.
  3. Plummer, K. (2003) Intimate citizenship and the culture of sexual story telling. In: Weeks, J., Holland, J., & Waites, S. (eds.), Sexualities and Society. Polity Press, Cambridge.

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