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Sexual politics” refers to the contestation of power relations with respect to sex, gender, and sexuality. The concept originates in the second-wave feminist movement which emerged from the 1960s in western societies. Its definitive textual origin is Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, first published in 1970, which analyzed patriarchy” – the social system of rule by men. For Millett, sexual politics” meant that sex is a status category with political implications.”
Sexual politics was revolutionary for sociology. Power relations between men and women became understood as products of society by feminists who initially sought to distinguish sex, as biological, from gender, as social. More recently the assumption of two pre-social sexes has been challenged by radical transgender and feminist theorists advocating a new gender politics” (Butler, 2004). Sexual politics today encompasses activities by women, men, transgender people, lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and heterosexual people, sadomasochists, pedophiles, pornography campaigners, and others.
In many wealthier states feminism has achieved a fundamental shift from the assumed model of the heterosexual nuclear family, with a male breadwinner” and corresponding norms of femininity and masculinity, to legitimization of both partners having paid employment. Diverse heterosexual masculinities and femininities are more acceptable, while gay and lesbian movements have achieved a shift Beyond the Closet (Seidman 2004). The emergence of queer politics” and queer theory,” influenced by poststructuralist Michel Foucault, challenges the heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy, heteronormativity,” and a liberal assimilationist gay politics. Transgender people in some states have experienced legal reforms such as the UK’s Gender Recognition Act (2004). Meanwhile men’s movements have emerged to campaign on fathers’ rights. In the global south sexual politics is equally dynamic: HIV/AIDS interventions, post-colonial nationalisms and religious movements are everywhere structured by gender and sexuality.
- Butler, J. (2004) Undoing Gender. Routledge, London. Seidman, S. (2004) Beyond the Closet: The Transformation of Gay and Lesbian Life. Routledge, London.
- Millett, K. (1972) Sexual Politics. Abacus, London.
- Weeks, J., Holland, J., & Waites, M. (eds.) (2003) Sexualities and Society: A Reader. Polity Press, Cambridge.
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