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I sing the body autonomous: a call to renew our struggle for sexual freedom.

Contemporary feminism identified predominant sexual practices as a key element in maintaining inequities between women and men, as one more way of subordinating women. The fight for the autonomous body thus became central in feminists' demands, involving as it did not only the fiercely debated role of motherhood and the fight to legalize contraception, but also, and very significantly, the need for tools to confront serious sexual violence and to find ways of acknowledging one's own sexuality (Careaga, 2001).

The debate in Latin America in the 1970s paralleled similar developments in the United States and is reflected in Carole Vance's book, Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality (Boston: Routledge, 1984). Vance emphasizes society's double standards regarding women's sexuality in which women are responsible for controlling sexuality but not permitted to exercise it freely. Feminists' contribution, apart from exposing gender disparities in the exercise of sexuality, was to speak out for recognition of women's varied sexual expressions and against obligatory heterosexuality and the different forms of sexual violence.

While it is true that sexology, psychology and anthropology seek constantly to explain human sexual behavior and have contributed significantly to the construction of a theoretical framework for recognizing diversity, the political drive came from another source--from sexual minorities themselves. Most societies have now seen a steady effort by lesbians and gays to articulate and develop differentiated identities within the context of broader subcultures and social communities.

As homosexual lifestyles have become more public and self-confident, other sexual minorities have begun to affirm their identities; a range of political and organizational strategies have become available to mobilize other erotic groups to demand their right to expression and legitimacy. They are no longer clinical specimens and are taking their place in history and daily life as living evidence of a sexuality so diverse that we can scarcely find names for all its manifestations.

Even so, there is still a strong tendency to seek causes and create and defend categories. But as Kinsey pointed out, only the human brain invents categories and tries to force the facts into separate pigeonholes that are constantly unable to hold them. We can thank this tendency for all the new categories, erotic minorities and subdivision of earlier groupings as specialized tastes and specific needs and abilities create a proliferation of other sexual identities--bears, S&M, leather daddies, swingers, femmes and trannies, to name only a few. The list is potentially endless: each specific desire becomes a center of political affirmation and possible social identity; they are impossible to count and sometimes even to name. A little observation provides evidence of the constant flow of forms of expression, each one quite specific.

The study of sexual minorities has thus created its own space with little input from feminism. Lesbian/gay studies have become queer studies (a way of reclaiming the term from its pejorative use), and sexual diversity studies as a means of opening up reflection on sexuality's multiple forms of expression.

Though the feminist banner stills waves for "freedom of sexual choice," few feminists now take up the struggle, and even fewer give it a content commensurate with the way sexual diversity has developed as both a theoretical and a political phenomenon.

Sexual Diversity

There are major challenges in approaching the study of sexual diversity. Sexuality as the product of a social, historical and political context is the result of a long process that has defined its expressions and actions. If the attempt to understand sexuality throughout history is too complex a goal, in simply trying to understand its present forms of expression there is a major challenge even to recognize and accept one's own sexuality, let alone that of others.

The concept of sexual diversity arises with the recognition of different expressions of sexuality far removed from the conventional definition of "in bed, at night, within marriage and for reproduction," and its implications--monogamy, heterosexuality, and absence of desire, fantasy or pleasure.

To approach the subject we must necessarily revise our concept of sexuality and accept the idea that it is the product of a socio-cultural process related to the erotic-loving aspects of our lives that go far beyond genitality. This requires us to recognize the significance of our body and of our relationship with our body as arising from cultural and religious traditions and values; we cannot understand sexual diversity outside cultural diversity.

Sexual diversity is a complex of expressions of sexuality that requires us to analyze and define three dimensions: sexual orientation, according to the erotic-emotional direction of the love object; sexual identity based on sexual self-definition; and sexual expression in relation to the individual's preferences and practices, which are given meaning in each culture. But this diversity is also expressed over time through the different stages of personal development (Weeks, 1998). These stages are not linear but overlap, interact and change at different moments of life.

In other words, we can recognize our own mutability in the expression of desire, but to recognize our transitions in sexual orientation or sexual identity is another matter. They are still so stigmatized as to be impossible to approach openly. Yet we are in constant transition. We may perhaps recognize a curiosity to "play dress up" with the clothes and accessories of the opposite sex; we may even remember a moment of jealousy over our dearest friend. But from that point to eroticizing the situation or the relationship ... is more difficult.

In fact, recognizing and understanding these dimensions through our interpretations of the cultural expressions of sexuality is an enormous challenge that allows us to identify not just our difficulties in recognizing sexual diversity but the various forms of racism and discrimination we still harbor.

Sexual diversity studies are no longer simply a matter of research projects for a few interested individuals; they are having an increasing impact in related university centers and some curricula (Carreaga and Cruz, 2001). Sexuality as a subject is coming out of the closet and gradually becoming a topic for daily reflection--hence the 1998 initiative in the UNAM Gender Studies Program to set up sexual diversity studies. Although the original idea was to continue working along the lines defined by lesbian/gay studies and queer theory, the concepts we proposed could not be limited within these frameworks, and we opted to explore the concept of sexual diversity, that seemed to cover more fully the multiple expressions of sexuality that challenge us today.

The search for the causes of human sexual conduct has become less significant than the interest in seeing the forms and the frequent expressions of sexual diversity. Research in this field has been directed towards identities, cultural and literary expressions, forms of resistance and organization, and lifestyles.

The political struggles have also meant that the conservative forces have to be increasingly belligerent to make their voice heard while other forms of sexual expression are not only ever more visible but are also winning rights.


To re-launch the debate on sexuality we must incorporate the progress made in other fields, such as the studies of sexual diversity and masculinity. We must incorporate our socio-cultural framework with its profound social contradictions and religious domination. We must recognize not only sexual but cultural diversity to better understand the stigmas, stereotypes and limits in which we move.

We must recognize that sexuality frequently has been used to serve other interests, for social control and to maintain male supremacy. But fortunately for us, they have never been able to repress and control the concept they would like to impose; in fact, the multiple expressions of sexuality have grown ever stronger and force us to reflect on our own desires, fantasies and practices in a way that makes us better understand both ourselves and others.

Sexuality is an important part of human development. It is net the most important, as we are supposed to believe, but it is fundamental for establishing relations of respect and love among people. The quest to study sexual diversity has forced us to take positions on the concepts and decisions guiding our daily life in recent years. Sexuality is an elusive practice that defeats categories and conceptions and forces us constantly back to our starting point.

Today, we talk openly and publicly about the sexual lives and practices of men and women who have distanced themselves from conventional heterosexuality, individuals who previously would have been relegated to private life. This is the result of socio-cultural events and conditions conceived and constructed historically. A number of factors have played their part: the form of social organization; economic and political interests; social movements; the new language of human rights and democratization; fast and easy access to and exchange of information throughout the world; changes in intergenerational values; and changes in the relations between men and women. Scientific language, research and the construction of theory on sexuality have helped make visible the coexistence of a great diversity of relationships and forms of expressing and experiencing human sexuality.

But acknowledging the existance of other expressions of sexuality does not necessarily include recognizing rights or objecting to discrimination, which may even come from within their own groups. To produce the commitment to change, this aspect is still lacking. From our current research we can suggest elements for understanding the deep roots of sexual identities and their expression; but because it is based on recognized categories, we need to peer between the cracks to recognize and document the movements between these categories which express human sexual behavior. There are still major challenges to be confronted.

Accepting sexual diversity requires us to revise the categories we have built around sexuality and recognize their insufficiencies. We must acknowledge they are neither immovable nor definitive, but constantly shifting and overlapping in ways we may not even realize. We are called to look at a world without categories, where all expressions of sexuality have their place and can be enjoyed to the full. Reflecting on our own sexuality options for breaking the stereotypes and stigmas on some sexual practices and fully exercising our sexuality based on freedom and respect--the fundamental human rights that sustain democratic societies.


Careaga, Gloria (2001) "Las sexualidades, el reto pendiente del movimiento feminsta." In Beijing + 5. Avances y retos. Mexico: International Lesbian and Gay Association, Women's Secretariat.

Careaga, Gloria and Salvador Cruz (2001) Sexualidades diversas: aproximaciones para su analisis. Mexico: Fundacion Arcoiris por el respeto a la diversidad sexual, A.C. and Programa Universitario de Estudios de Genero, UNAM.

Foucault, Michel (1979) Historia de la Sexualidad. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Economica.

Freud, Sigmund (1905) Tres ensayos sobre la teoria de la sexualidad. Barcelona: Amorrortu.

Vance, Carole (1984) Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality Boston and London: Routledge.

Weeks, Jeffrey (1998) Sexualidad. Mexico: Paid6 and Programa Universitario de Estudios de Genero, UNAM.

The author is a Mexican feminist and activist in the lesbian movement in Mexico. She was the driving force behind the creation of the first academic center for sexual diversity studies, the University Program for Gender Studies (Programa Universitario de Estudios de Genero, PUEG), at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, UNAM.
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Title Annotation:Panorama
Author:Careaga, Gloria
Publication:Women's Health Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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