You are here

A sexual culture of justice

Published: 
Sunday, April 16, 2017

“Sexual citizenship” used to be my favourite big-word. I put it in the title of my op-ed the people in the Commonwealth published. The piece that got Australian Judge Kirby’s knickers in a twist.

The idea of sexual citizenship, which emerged in social and political theorising around the turn of the century, grew out of the recognition that sexuality isn’t just this private thing, but that people’s sexuality and the state bump up against each other in all sorts of ways. Like sodomy laws—which tell two grown people what they can’t agree to do with each other for pleasure. But also laws against rape and sexual violence, laws against sexual harassment, against sex and marriage with minors, where the state steps in to protect people by criminalising “bad sex.”

As citizens, we should be able to expect our states to protect us from harm, or at least provide ways for us to get justice when others harm us. But, increasingly, we also expect our states to support our fulfilment of ourselves. At the least by not meddling in our self-expression and self-determination. Also by levelling differences in opportunity, addressing bias and badmind by those with the power to decide who can access what.

It’s not only laws and punishment, though. More ideally, states also create social policy that does this. Government programmes, incentives, funding initiatives, vision statements. The best example is the so-called “gender policy,” which for all the demonisation and disinformation it elicited about what “gender” is, was at its core simply an effort to lay out national policy for treating with the fact that there are sexual differences in nature, in whether we’re born male, female or intersex. To say what our values and efforts will be as a nation with regard to ensuring fairness in the face of those differences, and how they’ve been handled historically. And a whole lot of things that flow from there, including whether the school system meets our learning needs, how we decide if we want to have children and when, who’s responsible for caring for them, different kinds of violence we’re vulnerable to, and yes who we’re attracted to sexually.

State policy ought to make sex safe and prevent sexual differences from making people unequal. That’s the basic idea about sexual citizenship. But it’s a really unsatisfying way to talk about how, as my Commonwealth Opinion, “Decolonising Sexual Citizenship,” puts it, “society and nation recognise that sexuality is a precious part of personhood.” So increasingly, I and others are falling out of love with “sexual citizenship,” like a good lover you’ve now grown out of, who’s no longer able to hit the spot you need to get to. Furthermore, that spot isn’t just how the state delivers justice with regard to sexuality, but how we make our culture on sexuality just.

Some years ago Rhoda Reddock and her UWI Gender Studies team undertook a somewhat radical project, to study sexual cultures in Trinidad and Tobago. And last year I found myself in a partnership with the Institute for Gender & Development Studies at the St Augustine campus on a project called “A Sexual Culture of Justice,” which is being guided by one of IGDS’s newest faculty members, Bahamian Angelique Nixon. It’s a fascinating initiative the European Commission just invested about TT$1.2 million in over the next three years, which tries to thread together a few core strands of work on sexual cultures of bullying, partner violence, homophobia and policing, and ends with a learning summit where really dissimilar people who’ve participated—eg, a lesbian’s father, a recovering wife-beater, a police corporal, a school principal, a trans sex worker, a youth activist and a sociology professor—can teach each other lessons, and plan joint human rights activities.

What’s fascinating about it is the collaborations it builds between some of the longest-standing and freshest local actors doing work on “sexual cultures” and how it puts the university in an uncommon, but really forward-thinking role, of using its serious implementation capacity as a bridge to funding for innovative programmes that grassroots NGOs developed together over a half-year of planning.

I guess feminism has something to do with that; so does IGDS’s long history of making action research, outreach, public education and community partnerships part of scholarship. It’s a badly needed model for local advocacy groups, who need to recognise each other’s complementary strengths, share resources, and pool capacity if we’re going to make change. It’s also a paradigm within the university for generous collaboration as self-interest.

Equally fascinating is the express commitment by the project, like Reddock’s research, to grounding change, not in imported ideas, but local knowledge and analysis, by documenting working-class LGBTQI lives and grassroots feminist activism, launching a website that makes existing knowledge about Caribbean LGBTQI communities easily accessible, and tuition waivers for a new short course on Caribbean Sexualities.

I’ll be helping with a radio campaign to convince Parliament that protective laws are needed where culture discriminates. But I’m most looking forward to the learning opportunities of working with the surprise coalition whose advocacy led to Mayor Tim Kee’s 2016 resignation, who’ll work with diverse men to champion a culture of gender equality and non-violence in their different communities through workshops and media creation. With youth leaders in the Silver Lining Foundation and young feminists in Womantra on developing knowledge and tools to address the culture of bullying of young people related to sex and gender, and to help families and police fulfil their obligation to ensure justice for those they protect (the Equal Opportunity Commission is partnering here, too). And with building this new organisational culture among NGOs to share key resources and push in the same direction.