Sexualities in the South

What do we mean when we say “Global South”? What are the issues involved in thinking of “our own” analytical categories, “our theory” and “our politics” outside the hegemony of metropolitan centers? What is the role of capital flows when it comes to defining topics of interest? What is “situated knowledge”? What sorts of humanity and what universes are served by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Thirty intellectuals from Africa, Asia and Latin America met in Buenos Aires in late April, convened by an active group of local specialists, to address the ways these questions intersect with the study of the political dimensions of sexuality.

The South-South Week on Sexuality and Politics, organized by members of GES (Grupo de Estudios Sobre Sexualidades) at the Gino Germani Institute, University of Buenos Aires, and CEDES (Centro de Estudios de Estado y Sociedad), brought together scholars from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Kenya, Lesotho, Nigeria, China, Hong Kong and India. An audience made up of local students, scholars, and activists filled the capacity of the Gino Germani Institute and the CEDES auditorium.

From a variety of political, educational and research fields, speakers discussed the connections between sexualities, gender, politics, rights, social movements, health, and structural inequalities, while questioning Western European and North American hegemony in the production and circulation of knowledge. The seminar was successful in facilitating a dialogue about theories and methodologies, as well as addressing situational aspects of research on the political dimensions of sexuality in heterogeneous yet comparable contexts: democracies in the making whose concerns include social and erotic justice – an opportunity due to the legacy of feminism and LGBT movements’ legitimate claim to partnership in social struggles, as well as to gender and sexuality studies’ earned status in scholarly research and university curricula.

Intersectionality as an epistemological problem

The South-South Week was a time to re-consider the various ways in which gender, sexuality, class, race/ethnicity, and generation intersect in the context of each country’s social and political reality. By reviewing the origins of “intersectionality” as an analytical perspective, introduced by black and Chicano feminism in the 1970 in North-American counterculture, anthropologist Mara Viveros (National University of Colombia) highlighted the importance of keeping in mind the locations where research projects are situated, as well as the conceptual crossroads framing them.

Likewise, sociologist Karabo Mokobocho Mohlakoana, from Lesotho, stressed the importance of looking at the social and political positionality of researchers, as constitutive aspects of their scientific work. To her, the personal experience and biographies of researchers are a potent source of epistemological criticism. Drawing from her own work, Karabo noted the theoretical usefulness of the notion of “in-betweeness”, to understand deterritorialization both as experience and as an epistemological perspective. She referred to the everyday transit of men and women from Lesotho, a nation all-surrounded by another (South Africa), prompting an interaction with contrasting constructions of whiteness and blackness on each side of the border. She also noted the threshold position of “coloured” people, a category established by Apartheid, which further reifies skin color classifications.

Kenyan sociologist Nyokabi Kamau explained that in her country, the intersectional approach to sexualities is guided by a health perspective, in which issues classified as related to affect and emotion are not even considered, and sexual practice out of wedlock is looked down upon and morally condemned. Thus, research on gender and sexuality is limited to HIV/AIDS, sexual initiation, and marital sex, leaving out all other issues, like those related to the study of dissident sexualities or “emotional” matters.

To Nigerian feminist researcher and activist Charmine Pereira, inasmuch as intersectionality is useful to show the ways domination operates, it is also useful to show how power mechanisms are structured. On this, Nyokabi Kamau stressed that theoretical choices are never innocent, as they determine which subjects will be represented and whose subjectivity will remain hidden.

Academia, sexuality and politics

What is intellectual labor like when dealing with sexualities and politics? Brazilian anthropologist Maria Luiza Heilborn (CLAM/IMS/UERJ) and Argentine political scientists Daniel Jones and Mario Pecheny (organizers of the seminar) addressed the history and current trends in gender and sexuality studies in their countries. Both presentations stressed the intrinsic relation between academia, public policy and social movements, upon which sexuality-related issues are anchored. Heilborn, Pecheny and Jones highlighted the importance of feminism in this formation, as an approach which has successfully managed to legitimize its studies and its subjects both socially and academically. Such legitimacy is subjected to the demands of activism. When authorship and authority are questioned, intellectual production is brought to the table as an act of representation, whereby identities are generated.

In addition, Jones and Pecheny raised a question about the costs researchers are willing to pay in the face of intersecting demands by the social subjects represented, by their academic peers, activism, and by the State itself. Regarding this issue, Argentine anthropologist Horacio Sívori (CLAM/IMS/UERJ) went back to a point made by the African colleagues in an earlier session, suggesting a critical observation of the singular ways in which the researcher is constructed as an actor in both academic and political fields. At producing knowledge –which is both a scientific and political activity–, particularly with regards to sexual rights activism, it becomes crucial to evade the imprisonment of dichotomies that reproduce the trap of representation (talking of or for the other).

On this specific point, Mexican researcher Ana Amuchástegui (UAM-Xochimilco) remarked that social scientists should be very careful in thinking about sexuality-related social phenomena without imposing notions inherited from the framework of social identities. For Amuchástegui, this move is patent in the workings of publication circuits, in other words, the ways in which knowledge circulates. An example are academic publications from the USA, whose emphasis on identity obscures other analytical vectors.

With regard to to how themes and research methodologies are defined in the field of sexuality, speakers addressed the impact of technocratic demands for universities to become (economically) efficient. This has caused research in the field of sexuality to be bound to minimal empirical units, and shallower investigative approaches. In addition, the way in which research projects are carried out also determines the choice of research themes, based on agendas established by State and private donors. On this point, Nyokabi Kamau emphasized the importance that studies on HIV/AIDS have had in the legitimization of teaching about sexuality in universities. The response to the epidemic has opened the possibility of addressing other questions as well. Without AIDS, she noted, some other related questions would not have been addressed.

Theoretical production from the South

The seminar dealt with the challenges of creating theory, historicizing theoretical practice, and discussing North-South power relations, as well as South-South exchanges, their challenges and limitations. “What can we teach the North about theorizing sexualities and gender?”

In her contribution, the Chilean sociologist Teresa Valdés returned to the tapestry where the threads of questions about sexuality are woven into: the agendas of social movements, policymakers and funding agencies. In keeping with previous contributions, Valdés emphasized the proliferation of voices from the field of dissident or “nomadic” sexualities in Chile, and their interconnection with broader political demands.

Indian sociologist Radhika Ramasubban showed how, in her country, gender studies are considered to be concerned only with women-related topics, while sexuality studies are narrowed down to HIV/AIDS and masculinity. Ramasubban called attention to the path of sexual politics in India, as well as in other Asian countries such as Nepal, Thailand and Indonesia, where “third gender” categories are becoming legitimized in State practices like identification, censuses, and the establishment of electoral quotas.

Charmaine Pereira stressed the responsibility involved in the production of knowledge and women’s participation in academia, as a counterbalance to political power and a way of questioning androcentrism and the hetero-sexist norm. This is why, for Mara Viveros, cross-cutting analysis is a way of setting this machine in motion, since it “brings about a permanent reflection on the tendency that any emancipatory discourse has to adopting a hegemonic position and giving rise to a field of power and knowledge whereby certain elements become excluded, unpronounceable or dissimulated. In these studies, a self-critical attitude means keeping in mind the principle that exclusions are continually made, which cannot be determined beforehand”, explained the Colombian researcher.

As an example of theoretical production from the South, Brazilian anthropologists Sérgio Carrara (CLAM/IMS/UERJ) and Adriana Vianna (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) stressed the originality of sexuality studies in their country. In the 1980s, those studies analyzed the intersection between LGBT political demands, and the social identities reworked through such demands. Their examination of the dynamics of the use and circulation of categories in academic and political fields shed light on the continual proliferation of names for all that is sexual, and on the tensions between categories and the meanings they acquire, connected to experiences, practices, bodies and identities. Vianna and Carrara referred to the “theoretical crystal case” in which researchers find themselves trapped, for fear of essentializing identity categories which they cannot escape using in order to name the subjects they meet and with whom they interact.

The most well-known and debated tension refers to the use of (Northern) Western categories such as ‘homosexual’, ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘LGBT’, ‘MSM’ o ‘WSW’ in various contexts. Anthropologist Sealing Cheng (Wellesley College) suggested alternative ways of doing ethnography in different settings. She talked about prostitution, where those who practice the trade are frequently seen as victims, while in sites such as that of middle-aged married women, eroticism acquires other forms and legitimacy. Cheng proposed an inversion on the focus of sexuality research, by desexualizing that which is hypersexualized (prostitution) and sexualizing practices which, at first glance, do not seem to be marked by that type of pleasure (gastronomy, card games, pet care).

For Argentine researcher and activist Mauro Cabral (National University of Córdoba), in academic production on sexuality, the categories, problems, and the way those are formulated speak not only of a double division, North-South on one hand, and East-West on the other, but also of an economy of representations where certain subjects are authorized to participate only as objects of study, invited to “bear witness,” but unthinkable as producers of theory. Likewise, Cabral referred to the central position of identity as a structuring category of a theoretical corpus, that prevents thinking about what currently happens to sexualized bodies. “The exclusions in discourse widely correspond to exclusions in academia. That is to say, one does not speak of certain bodies, which also do not have the possibility of dialogue in their own theoretical construction,” he argued.

Southern epistemologies, regional epistemologies

As a result of a carefully crafted program, the debate led to interrogate what concrete practices have been taken up, which over various decades of research have brought about the establishment of a field of studies around sexualities in the social sciences. Can we speak of specific epistemological and methodological trends or traditions for each region? What are their canons and orthodoxies? Which heterodoxies are permitted? What kinds of methodological and epistemological violence are they capable of producing?

Brazilian sexual and reproductive health specialist Vera Paiva suggested exploring the instrumental contexts in which constructionist approaches to sexuality were originally conceived, in respond to the processes of stigmatization and discrimination that produce female subordination and hetero-normativity. According to Paiva, since the 1980s, attempts have been made to respond to demands which surfaced in Latin American post-dictatorial and African post-colonial process. These “strengthened an autochthonous production and an anti-imperialist attitude, in order to understand the workings of, and mitigate inequality in southern countries”, increasing the value of the language of human rights. For the purposes of this task, she proposed producing what she called both “light” and “hard” technologies of intervention, in order to reach people through public health policies.

As regards to the development of technologies, Chilean researcher Soledad Falabella presented ESE:O, an investment on the practice of writing (academic, in this case) as a “place of friction” when one talks about sexuality. ‘Writing sexuality’ might then be a way into what is erased or regarded as abject; by way of a “critique of academic work under [the current] neo-liberal logic of academia in the global South, and articulating a dynamics of solidarity and collective work”.

By commenting on the Studies of homosexuality and extramarital sexuality in China, Chinese MD and researcher Peng Tao reflected on the role that dissident or ‘disobedient’ sexualities have in his country, in relation to government control over the sexual life of citizens. According to Tao, these practices face up to gender stereotypes on one hand, and to State population control politics promoting the nuclear family on the other.

Also an MD, Carlos Cáceres (UPCH), Peruvian researcher specialized in public health, discussed the task of research on sexuality and sexual and reproductive rights. Upon reviewing his own biographical trajectory, he read a process of progressive decentralization vis-à-vis hegemonic discourses in HIV/AIDS prevention, whereby critical visions from the South might be emerging as protagonists. Cáceres connected that effect to the weakening of other global discourses on sexual and reproductive health, whose counterbalance is the activation of local experiments and the construction of South-South networks.

Argentine philosopher Diana Maffia (currently a member of parliament) emphasized the value given to dialogue in the seminar, and to what she called a hermeneutics of listening, a practice that can be applied in public policy. Legitimizing who speaks, she argued, is a strategic point in the construction of power. However, when observing who can take part in the dialogue, we must not lose sight of who is invited to converse, and who isn’t. Maffia highlighted the importance of distinguishing the “power of resistance” achieved when an individual or collective self-designation is possible, in the face of the “power of domination” exercised in hetero-designation, in other words, the designation of norms by which the subjects will later be identified. “Naming is also invisibilizing and avoiding certain identities”, she affirmed.

Also an Argentine philosopher, Eduardo Mattio (National University of Córdoba) focused his comments on the displacements made in the process of translating inherited epistemological frameworks and –in keeping with one of the central questions in this part of the seminar– on trying to elucidate what kinds of violence this translation produces. For Mattio, thinking of ourselves as “excentric” researchers, who live in a border zone between academia and activism, is a useful way of rephrasing this interrogation, as put earlier by Sívori, embracing the impurity of practices as an emancipating condition.

Towards a South-South perspective, legal approaches

Brazilian Federal Judge Roger Raupp Rios looked for the meaning of “autochthonous” in the key field of national legal cultures. In Brazil, test cases have been devised as a collective strategy by the LGBT movement. According to Rios, this conception differs from the individualist premises of classical liberalism, involving a different notion of suject and a social change of a greater scope. This is characteristic of the role of the judiciary, as conceived in relation to Brazil’s current democratic process.

Regarding the same point, Radhika Ramasubban suggested that if law is inspiration for social change, the requirement that societies share a vision is indispensable for achieving real changes. Notwithstanding, Charmine Pereira complicated the idea of sameness involved in visions of law, by asking “what law are we talking about when we talk about law,” in a country like Nigeria, where three alternative legal systems co-exist.

To the point of appropriating the language of law, Brazilian anthropologist Sonia Correa claimed that “the question no longer is whether or not human rights and sexuality can be connected. Networks of Latin American prostitutes, people living with HIV, transgender, as well as prestigious legal scholars speak often of this today. The umbrella-category of ‘Sexual and Reproductive Rights’, successful as it was when it got coined in the 1990s, now seems to be empty of meaning. This is tangible in the political arena: feminists and young people speak of reproductive rights, while LGBT people are speaking of sexual rights”.

Inflexibility in the use of categories leads to silencing “disobedient” sexualities – a process Carrara called the game of “displacing sex figures”: while the homosexual is normalized, the pedophile is pathologized; while the prostitute is normalized (as a victim), the client is criminalized. In turn, the Argentine historian Dora Barrancos argued about the difficulty in supposing that sexuality must be legislated in positive norms. “Sexualizing law implies constructing a body of fixed identifications”, she stated.

To conclude, Argentine lawyer and activist Paula Viturro explained that rights are not only defined by questions of doctrine, thus the necessity of asking about the political systems whereby those rights are shaped. In Argentina, she stated in response to Raupp Rios, law does not have the same theoretical openness it does in Brazil; therefore it is imperative to put politics at the center of discussion.

An agenda

How should “the South” or “Souths” be rethought? What does reclaiming spaces and “one’s own” original perspectives mean, or what is the potential and meaning of contributing to a “universal science”? Through which paths is it possible to create methodologies that allow observation and pedagogies that permit the transmission of the complexities and singularities of these social experiences, but also the interconnections between these histories and their dissident practices? How can we contribute to the forging of alliances across national, regional and disciplinary borders and among different social insertions? The South-South Week allowed different layers of these concerns to emerge (epistemological, ethical, methodological, political, theoretical). These, re-situating the original questions, act as a starting point for developing future dialogues and inquiries.


The South-South Week on Sexuality and Politics was the result of a confluence between the project Incorporating Sexualities in the University Curricula of Argentina, Chile, China, Mexico and South Africa, and the work of the Research Group on Sexual Rights and Politics, of the Latin American Center on Sexuality and Human Rights (CLAM), with the support of the Ford Foundation.