Literature Review on Sexuality and Poverty

Series paper (IDS)
Authors: 
Oosterhoff, P., Waldman, L. and Olerenshaw, D.
Publisher: 
Institute of Development Studies (IDS)
Publication date: 
Friday, 28 February, 2014

The literature review finds that considerable work has now developed the case for sexuality as an appropriate concept for a development agenda. Critiques of the focus in development – on two fixed gender categories and on heterosexual sex relations – include firstly, that it privileges heterosexuality. Secondly, it projects a sexual identity onto men and women, which essentialises, reifies – and often racialises – notions of sexuality. And third, while identifying and privileging categories of sexual identity such as lesbian, gay, queer, it fails to address the fluidity of these identities and the ways in which identity is understood in diverse contexts. This, in turn, can result in understandings of men and women, often aligned to gender stereotypes, in which men cannot be vulnerable and women are seldom powerful or sexual. Social and political norms about sexuality thus affect people’s ability to choose between different ways of living that they value and this is therefore relevant to discussions on poverty and development.

The arguments for including sexuality within the development agenda are linked to the acknowledgement of sexuality as a social and political process. Failing to address sexuality thus undermines broader attempts to ensure human rights and to facilitate empowerment, including participatory development approaches. The failure to recognise the ways in which assumptions about sexuality shape political processes and development interventions can result in undermining local activities, essentialising identities, and further stigmatising those already marginalised. A core reason for examining the role of sexuality is that it raises awareness of assumptions about the kinds of relationships that the beneficiaries of development engage in. Addressing sexuality may also help shed new light on seemingly intractable issues related to gender and development. While mainstream gender and development work often fails to acknowledge trans people and, despite decades of work, still frequently overlooks men, a sexuality lens sheds light on non-normative gender expression and provides lessons for people interested in gender issues as well as the rights of all other people. By focusing on sexuality, it is possible to move away from understanding women as passive and vulnerable and to recognise that men too are often vulnerable in relation to sexuality.

  • Considerable work has now developed the case for sexuality as an appropriate concept for a development agenda. 
  • The arguments for including sexuality within the development agenda are linked to the acknowledgement of sexuality as a social and political process.
Opendocs reference: 
oai:opendocs.ids.ac.uk:123456789/3529