State Autonomy, Gender & Sexuality - Part 1

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In order to understand definitions surrounding gender representations and sexuality, the concept of the nation-state and its connection to these theories must be analysed. It is specifically important to grapple with the concept of autonomy. The autonomy of a nation-state is a feature of the nation that should be celebrated but also cautioned. What happens when this autonomy directly violates the human rights of various people? It is this question that leads us to challenge the relationship between the autonomy of a nation-state and the agency of an individual. Once a person’s agency is threatened, this could lead to a potential cycle of human rights abuses, primarily towards women and people within the LGBTQ community. Therefore, it is necessary for discussions surrounding gender and sexuality to be paralleled with an analysis of the nation-states through which these representations emerge.

The three main arguments of the following two-part series are: 1) the idea of a nation-state being inherently Western; 2) nation-state privileging men with freedom over women as property; and 3) the notion of a nation-state not being useful for gender and sexuality because individual agency is not taken into account. Part 1 of this series will flesh out Social Contract Theory and interact with the concept of the nation-state as a patriarchal theory that excludes marginalised social groups. 


Social Contract Theory: The Nation State as Inherently Western

Social contract theory is based on the idea of a contractual agreement between an individual and the society they choose to take part in. Human beings have an inherent need to be part of a community and gain a sense of purpose. 

Philosophers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau have explored the concept of the nation-state, debating how governance and varying forms of democracy are conceptualised. The ideas of Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau align with various points along the political spectrum: with Rousseau being considered more liberal in his ideas of governance; Hobbes at the end of the spectrum as conservative; and Locke fitting in the middle of the spectrum with his more moderate views. The views of these three philosophers reflect how definitions of a nation-state have been inherently rooted in the ideas of what men want. Within prominent governing societies, all people have to be explicitly included in the dialogue and the language of the nation-state for it to be reflective and representative of its people.

The ideas of Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau are divided into four concepts: the state of nature; the purpose of government; representation; and impact (, n.d.). The most contested element of these four points has been around the state of nature and how this aspect alone has been the leading foundation of the creation of nation-states. According to Hobbes, the inherent state of nature is war, within which morality does not exist. There is equality in the state of nature being a state of war because no apparent hierarchy exists and we, as people, are left to wander. Hobbes also argues that governments are not built to protect their people, but instead to exert control over them. Contrastingly, Locke argues that the state of nature is a state of pure freedom and no aspect can be labeled ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. Similarly, Rosseau notes that “men” are equal and governments have to be representative of their people.

Although their conceptulisations of the nation-state differ, it is clear that their theories are based on man’s relationship with the world around him. In various ways, these norms have been adopted into how societies operate. The voices of marginalized communities - specifically women and LGBTQ peoples - are often excluded. Their theories also evidence the importance in understanding how the personal is truly political. It is, therefore, necessary to address the background of philosophers whose ideas have ultimately shaped our understanding of how nation-states navigate gender and sexuality.

Iris Marion Young states that democracy “inherits from republicanism a commitment to a unified public that in practice tends to exclude or silence some groups” (Young, 2011). Therefore, the concept of the nation-state is extremely complex. On the one hand, Social Contract Theory creates the idea of unification, while on the other hand, its patriarchal nature risks the erasure of marginalized communities. Being able to be part of a broader community can bring a sense of self and a shared sense of responsibility for others within the group. However, the idea of Social Contract Theory could also work against people within marginalized communities depending on sexuality (anyone falling within the LGBTQ spectrum) and gender (particularly women, in this case). 

Men have remained the dominant force in holding the conversation around specific contracts between individuals and our communities.

In The Sexual Contract, Carole Pateman notes how most social contracts refer to a man’s position over a woman as opposed to equality (Friend, n.d.). On the surface, Social Contract Theory appears to incorporate all human beings. It is commonly understood that the contract is primarily between human beings and our shared experiences. For this ideal to be true, marginalized groups would have to be considered as equal. Men have remained the dominant force in holding the conversation around specific contracts between individuals and our communities.

Regarding the concept of a nation-state, it is necessary to understand that the nation-state is inherently Western. The definition of a nation-state focuses on how states will act within their own interest, possibly before the consideration of its citizens. Immanuel Kant states in Perpetual Peace (1795) that “no independent states, large or small, shall come under the dominion of another state” with the focus being primarily on men who had the privilege to develop the nation-state into its own entity (Kant, 1903).

Kant's definition of a nation-state accurately captures the whiteness upon which the notion of the nation-states was founded. Western countries were the leaders in the creation of a nation-state, as these societies wanted to impose their autonomy on the global community. These 'developed' societies wanted to defend their own rights, beliefs, and stances through state autonomy, with developing countries following suit. 

Blessing Ikpa is an editor at the CFFP and a postgraduate student in Ethics, Peace and Global Affairs at American University. Follow her on Twitter: @_cacaobeans

Bibliography (n.d.). Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau Comparison Grid. [online]

Campaign, H. (2018). Glossary of Terms | Human Rights Campaign. [online] Human Rights Campaign.

Friend, C. (n.d.). Social Contract Theory | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [online]

Kant, I. (1903). Perpetual peace; a philosophical essay, 1795. London, S. Sonnenschein.

Mikkola, M. (2017). Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). [online]

Young, I. and Allen, D. (2011). Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Marissa Conway