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Sexual Sovereignty


The cover of Hobbes’ Leviathan shows the sovereign state as a towering giant composed of many individuals. This is not what I have in mind.


I have been using a term lately, “sexual sovereignty,” that people are finding compelling, once they grasp what is encompassed by it.  Until that point, they tend to assume the content and do not like it.  So, I thought it would be good to write a quick blog on what is meant by this term and why I think it is useful.

The notion of sexual sovereignty is meant to encompass the range of reproductive and sexual domains over which a women must have power in order to live as a free and equal citizen, as well as to have full capability to realize her potential creatively, professionally, spiritually, and economically.

Most modern thinkers can see that providing such capability for a female means they must be guaranteed laws, regulatory policy, and service delivery that enable reproductive autonomy.  From this, we might infer access to reliable birth control and safe abortion, as well as information about reproductive functions.

One of the reasons that the girls I have studied in Africa do not have reproductive autonomy is that the communities tend to keep them ignorant about menstruation and intercourse until after menarche.  So, the first time they see blood, they are terrified and go to tell a trusted adult.  Unfortunately, this confession puts them straight into the jaws of the beast:  they sacrifice themselves unknowingly because when the community finds out they have menstruated, they are reclassified as “sexually available” and become vulnerable to early marriage and rape.

This, then, brings us to the reason for emphasizing sexual sovereignty and not only autonomy.  The girl needs to be able to freely choose for herself things like the timing and number of her children by having unfettered access to birth control, but she also needs to be recognized by others as having independent power over her own body.  Under an accepted notion of sexual sovereignty, she could not be raped or traded in marriage, but always be allowed to choose her sexual and marital partners.

I am intentionally building on the analogy to national sovereignty, a concept that has roots going back to the Greeks, with a notable detour through Hobbes.  The meaning of the term “sovereignty” has evolved and been contested.  However, we may say, in a general sense, that the notion of sovereignty as applied to nations implies

(1) an organized entity within a territory that has authority over the activities that occur there

(2) a power held by that entity to control the traffic across its borders, in or out

(3) the recognition of that entity’s authority by other sovereign states (as well as other institutions, such as religions and international agencies).

So, my idea here is to extend the notion of access to include recognition of the girl’s right to be free from sexual harassment, rape, groping, and all manner of forcible sexual actions coming from another person or group of people, regardless of their apparent source of power (patriarchy, class, religion, etc.).  Perhaps we might say that reproductive autonomy is about “freedom to,” while sexual sovereignty also attempts to encompass “freedom from”–and to call attention to freedom from sexual violence as key to reproductive rights of all sorts.

Let me give an example of why this slight change of scope is needed in practice.  In my travels, I see a lot of propaganda and programs aimed at teaching schoolchildren  to abstain from sex in order to avoid contracting sexual diseases.  If they are going to have sex, they are told, using a condom is a must.

Yes.  We can all agree, I think, that in an ideal world, teens would be circumspect about having sex and would use condoms when they do.  In the rich nations, we assume that girls have sexual sovereignty and so can choose to abstain or use condoms. In the poor nations, however, you cannot assume that the girl will have the sovereignty that allows her to “say no.”  Her will–the conscious entity within the territory of her body–is simply not recognized as having any importance.  On the other hand, the boys do have sovereignty over their own bodies.  And, anyway, the big risk for the girls is not from boys their own age, but from older men, as potential husbands or as predators.

I can’t tell you how many times I have sat there listening to some public health person rattle on about the importance of abstention, knowing that evidence suggested the girls in that place were usually coerced into their first sexual experience.  This is not to mention the number of times teachers have remarked that the girls were not safe even coming to school because men would lie in wait for them as they made their journey.

A practical program that really intended to be effective in this situation would recognize that harping on at the boys might have some impact, but that an entirely different strategy would have to be taken to protect the girls.  Females may not have any choices about their sexual partners–and may be pushed suddenly into sex with no moment or power to ask that a condom be used.

Indeed, the audience for this particular program of education probably needs to be the men of that community who are no longer of school age.  That suggests quite a different kind of program, of course, and one likely to meet with much more resistance than one would get from a captive audience of schoolchildren.  But resistance should be our clue we have gotten closer to the root of the problem.

On several occasions lately, the world press has remarked over learning that a  common “solution” to a rape case in India or the Middle East is to make the girl marry her rapist. Actually, this idea is an old one, harking back to ancient laws (not just Sharia) that put the right of sovereignty in the hands of the girl’s father.  The father has utter power to trade his daughter’s body in whatever way he sees fit, often specifically by choosing her husband.  If the girl loses her virginity, the father’s ability to trade her profitably is substantially reduced. Thus, the restitution for a rape must be made to the father, not to the victim. By the rapist marrying the victim, the score is evened.  Bizarre as this arrangement is in the eyes of “the West,” it is completely consonant with a legal scheme in which the rights over the body of the girl belong to her father.


Deaths from unsafe abortions by region. I think we tend to assume that unwanted pregnancies result from “accidents” between consensual partners. If we acknowledge that, in some regions, they often result from sexual attacks, you might begin to reduce the death rate by guaranteeing safe abortion, but to get at the root problem, you would need to address issues of sovereignty.


If you look closely at the fertility issues in the Middle East, you can discern an apparent pattern in which birth rates are dropping and the age of first marriage rising to a level commensurate with the developed nations.  Yet the adolescent fertility rate remains high, as does maternal mortality–and there is a very high rate of death from unsafe abortion. It seems to me the only way to reconcile those figures is to think that there is a great deal of rape against teen girls. Thus, “family planning” programs focused exclusively on married women may be missing the real need.  And, clearly, “the need” encompasses not only access to birth control and safe abortion, but protection of each girl’s sovereignty over her own body.  She must be able to say who crosses her borders and when–and this right must be recognized by the other bodies in question.

Importantly, the right of national sovereignty has also been taken as carrying a moral imperative (1) to properly care for matters within the country’s borders and (2) to behave appropriately toward other sovereign states.  Thus, by giving females sovereignty over their own bodies, we would not be opening the flood gates to promiscuity, as often goes the quick rebuttal, but would be conferring an obligation under the conditions of the authority bestowed.  That obligation might include using a condom, exercising restraint in sexual activity, taking care of children thus produced, and even honoring vows of fidelity.  Unfortunately, as it is, we bestow all of the obligations but none of the authority.

Feminist activists and legal scholars have often argued the “freedom from” sexual violation as a right to privacy. The privacy argument has its problems, though, because it has a double edge.  That’s because it is often used to guarantee the sanctity of the home as the domain over which the father/husband has sovereignty.  Thus, you might argue a right to privacy to give a woman access to abortion, but equally that argument can be (and has been) used to declare domestic violence and, especially, marital rape as a private matter off limits to outside intervention.

The whole point here is that we cannot simply focus on the woman’s “right to choose” in the common usage sense of having access to information, services, and products related to “family planning” (what a silly euphemism!).  We must recognize that achieving our goals–whether they are to reduce mortality, control disease, further education, or achieve gender equality–requires granting also a female’s sovereignty over her own body, in her own eyes and those of the world.

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