by Brenda Cossman. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007. 256pp. Cloth $50.00. ISBN: 9780804749961.

Reviewed by Jennifer Woodward, Department of Political Science, University at Albany. Email: jw735896 [at]


Who defines which sexual practices are good and which are bad? Do your sexual practices make you a good citizen or an outlaw? Brenda Cossman argues that the boundaries of acceptable sexual practices, and hence the answer to these questions, are undergoing a transformation based in legal and cultural regulations. In SEXUAL CITIZENS: THE LEGAL AND CULTURAL REGULATION OF SEX AND BELONGING, Cossman explores the becoming and unbecoming of citizens through ever-changing boundaries. In other words, who is considered a good citizen is based upon boundaries of what is legally and culturally acceptable.

To make her argument, Cossman focuses on the role of law within three subgenres of the citizenship literature: sexual citizenship, privatization, and self governance. She contends that citizenship under any of these literatures’ criteria have certain costs and benefits. However, the historical and contemporary contexts of the United States have resulted in a focus on privatization and market logic which use self governance as the measure of good citizenship.

In the first chapter of the book, Cossman discusses the regulation of consensual sexual practices through the lens of sexual privacy and speech. In particular, she discusses how those considered outlaws based upon sexual practices such as sodomy, the use of pornography, sex toys and indecent language have challenged their outlaw status and based their claims as members of lawful citizenry upon these sexual practices. Some of these challenges, such as the challenge to sodomy, have led to acceptance of the practice as a part of lawful citizenship. Meanwhile others, such as those selling and using sex toys, are gaining acceptance both socially and legally. Through this discussion, Cossman provides support for her argument for the influence of consumerism, private boundaries and self regulation in defining what constitutes good citizenship. Sex toy parties for example, not only promote consumerism, but they are conducted in private settings and in a way that sets boundaries of responsible use for the participants.

The second chapter discusses the role of sex within marriage as self governance. Self governance, Cossman contends, is a vital component in whether a sexual practice is compatible with good citizen. In other words, good citizens are those who self regulate their sexual practices and desires. Marriage as a legal form of regulation reduces infidelity and the risk of relationship breakups. However, with increasing rates of divorce and marital infidelity, Cossman argues that popular [*185] culture has become the main proponent of marriage as a form of proper citizenship, usurping even the law as the main authority of what is and is not proper sexual conduct for married citizens. For example, she argues that the media have broadened the definition of infidelity to include acts such as internet pornography, emotional cheating and oral sex; an expanded definition that has resulted in changes within divorce litigation. In conjunction with the first chapter, Chapter Two demonstrates Cossman’s ability to consider history, popular culture and other contextual factors as influences upon legal definitions that regulate sexual practices and marital contracts.

Chapter Three discusses the role of that popular culture played in creating and defining outlaw behavior. In other words, Cossman explores how political discourses result in outcomes that determine who is considered a proper citizen. Specifically, she uses the discourse surrounding welfare reform to argue that terms such as “welfare queen” and “deadbeat dad” were used to define those who were failed citizens within the market, sexual, and self-governance realms – all three of Cossman’s criteria for citizenship. These political discourses and their resulting legal regulations are shown to influence popular culture, particularly in the Black community’s contestation of stereotypes upon which much of this legal regulation was based. Although, in this chapter, the discussion shifts from litigation as a form of regulation to legislation, the focus on legal and societal strictures continues to support her argument that both legal and cultural regulations determine the boundaries of sexual citizenship. In particular, one could see how policies such as welfare have discouraged beneficiaries from marrying. In this sense, Cossman sets strong groundwork for the study of how marriage is treated within the spheres of law and popular culture and lends support to her earlier argument that legal regulations are no longer the dominant regulators of what constitutes good citizenship within marriage.

The fourth chapter returns to the focus of most contemporary literature on sexual citizenship, the struggles of gays and lesbians. Already successful citizens in terms of market consumption and no longer sex neutral in popular culture, Cossman argues that homosexuals are increasingly recognized both legally and socially as good citizens. Through legally sanctioned same sex marriage, Cossman argues that gay and lesbian individuals will be able to cross over into fully legitimate citizenship. This new status, however, is producing new forms of self governance for gay and lesbian individuals which Cossman contends can have both positive and negative effects. In this chapter Cossman is able to demonstrate how gaps can occur between the legal and cultural regulations. The chapter also enables Cossman to bring her arguments full circle to demonstrate how outlaws can redefine and cross boundaries in order to become good citizens.

Continuing the tradition of the literature, SEXUAL CITIZENS discusses who are good and who are bad citizens and the changing boundaries between these two categories. Good citizens are heterosexual, celibate until marriage, and once married, loyal and eager to procreate. Bad citizens watch vulgar pornography, use sex toys and have [*186] sexual encounters with many people, possibly even members of their own sex. However, Cossman contends that these boundaries have changed. Sodomy no longer has the outlaw status it once did. Private “passion” parties marketed to “save” marriages enable good citizens to use sex toys as long as they self regulate their behavior. Indeed, such parties encourage better citizenship through market consumption and relationship loyalty. Phrases once considered sexually explicit are no longer obscene when understood as a critique of an overly sexualized hip hop industry. These are just a few of the examples Cossman uses to show that, due to the law and popular culture, good citizens can be more sexual, in more ways, than ever before.

However, it is not a one way street. In other ways society has made it harder to be a good sexual citizen. The definition of infidelity has been expanded in today’s increasingly electronic and equal opportunity world. Internet pornography, cyber sex, emotional intimacy, sexual contact without intercourse are all now part of an expanded legal definition of which acts constitute infidelity. The creation of “welfare queens” and “deadbeat dads” has made outlaws out of economically disadvantaged individuals. Through their market failure (their inability to completely support their children) these individuals become bad sexual citizens, seen as unable to self regulate their sexual desires and suspected of using procreation as a means of additional economic support. In this manner, Cossman does an excellent job describing the roles that both law and popular culture play in defining the boundaries of good and bad citizenship. Homosexuality is given particular attention in her discussion of sexual citizenry in light of gradually moving borders of acceptability. However, one of the strongest points of her book is her ability to see sexual citizenship as involving more that just a discussion over sexual orientation and citizenship.

In the end, this book shows the intertwining role of legal and social regulations in defining citizenship on the grounds of sexuality. However, the argument could be made more broadly toward citizenship in general. Cossman is particularly strong in her demonstration of the importance of popular discourses in impacting and reacting to both formal and informal laws in society. It is the book’s major strength, both from an argumentative standpoint and for its ability to engage the reader. This focus on discourses, however, may point to the book’s major weakness. At times, the narrative seems to be carried along by discussions of popular movies, television shows and music. Further consideration of the theories upon which Cossman bases her argument, both as they relate to her argument and as an introduction to those unfamiliar with their major points, would have assisted the reader and give the book more grounding within its genre.

Cossman rests her arguments clearly within the debates over the definition of citizenship. She touches on some of the major scholars in these debates, such as T.H. Marshall, J├╝rgen Habermas, and Michel Foucault. Cossman also uses queer theory to make her argument and her background in feminist theory is seen throughout the book. For this reason, scholars interested in queer or [*187] gender studies, regardless of their interest in citizenship or sexuality studies, should consider the book. Cossman also touches on race studies with her discussion of the unique location of blacks within the boundaries of citizenship. She argues, for instance, that blacks are not seen as potential market citizens by popular culture (p.68). Law and Courts colleagues may also find the topic and presentation of Cossman’s argument is useful for engaging students in the debates of citizenship, legal and social boundaries, feminism, and media impact. Finally, the book makes an excellent addition to studies of sexuality and the law, from general issues of privacy to specific issues, such as same sex marriage. Readers should find SEXUAL CITIZENS: THE LEGAL AND CULTURAL REGULATION OF SEX AND BELONGING worthwhile and engaging.

Copyright 2008 by the author, Jennifer Woodward.