What is sexual surveillance and why does it matter

6 March 2017

Original design by Paru Ramesh

The work of caring and writing about sexual surveillance elicits occasional productive puzzlement over its precise meaning. Questions usually boil down to versions of —

  • What is sexual surveillance?
  • What is sexual about surveillance?
  • We are all under surveillance, why make it about _______?
    • ◻ sex?
    • ◻ gender?
    • ◻ race?
    • ◻ category of difference of your choice?


While the latter might seem easy to dismiss on extended WATM grounds, the general gist of these questions reveals a relatable desire for a snappy definition that frames sexual surveillance as its very own “thing”. Satisfying this desire, however, risks making sexual surveillance decidedly not about everything left out of that particular frame.

Sexual surveillance, you may have guessed, cannot simply be reduced to a distinct instance where x happens to y (f.ex. where men surveil women). Instead, we can think of the expression “sexual surveillance” as a shorthand to talk about an assemblage of several interdependent gendered, sexualised, and racialised modes and effects of surveillance. And suddenly, the last question becomes the most useful one because it prompts us to think about all the ways in which intersectionality is relevant to surveillance.

Instead, we can think of the expression “sexual surveillance” as a shorthand to talk about an assemblage of several interdependent gendered, sexualised, and racialised modes and effects of surveillance. And suddenly, the last question becomes the most useful one because it prompts us to think about all the ways in which intersectionality is relevant to surveillance.

Sexual surveillance potentially takes place anywhere surveillance at large takes place – be that mass or targeted surveillance by state actors, corporate surveillance for marketing purposes, or peers like family, spouses, friends or strangers monitoring one another. Sometimes it indeed takes the shape of men surveilling women. After all, surveillance has long functioned as a powerful patriarchal tool to control women’s bodies and sexuality. Online harassment, stalking, and other forms of sexualised violence often directly rely on practices and technologies of surveillance. The connections between surveillance and violence against women are substantial enough to think of surveillance in itself as a form of violence.

But reducing sexual surveillance to instances where the sexuality of an individual person (or even group of people) is under surveillance, misses wider sexist, racist, or transphobic outcomes of surveillance practices. A wide range of surveillance technologies, for instance, privilege particular bodies (mostly white, male, able bodied and conclusively gendered ones) over others by design:

This far from conclusive list illustrates that even though a technology may not have been created with discriminatory intent, it can have sexist, racist, ableist and transphobic outcomes that reproduce social bias and further disadvantage the already marginalised disproportionately. What sexual surveillance does rather than is, therefore, is also a good question to ask. The point of thinking about sexual surveillance in terms of the gendered and racialised effects of surveillance practices is to maintain a focus on the power relations involved in these practices: surveillance affects racialised groups, the gender non-conforming, people with disabilities, and other marginalised populations disproportionately.

Feminist work on surveillance, concerned with the intersections between gender, race, sexuality and surveillance, furthermore reminds us that not only practices habitually named as surveillance such as CCTV, wiretapping, signals intelligence or drone footage warrant our attention. Public health measures, fertility screenings and birth certificates, social media interactions, health and fitness trackers or menstruation and pregnancy apps can become equally complicit in sexual surveillance. In the spirit of extending the frame a little further, many of the ways in which gender is policed and sexuality surveilled point us in the direction of important historical continuities that link contemporary surveillance practices to race, gender, and sexuality. The patriarchal surveillance of women, for example, takes on new dimensions with the availability of apps and platforms that allow for the tracking (read stalking) of family, friends, or acquaintances, either by design or repurposing. And the connections between colonial rule, its modes of looking/seeing, collecting, and managing information to control populations, and the complex ways in which gender, race, class, and sexuality shaped colonialism are well documented.

Feminist work on surveillance, concerned with the intersections between gender, race, sexuality and surveillance, furthermore reminds us that not only practices habitually named as surveillance such as CCTV, wiretapping, signals intelligence or drone footage warrant our attention. Public health measures, fertility screenings and birth certificates, social media interactions, health and fitness trackers or menstruation and pregnancy apps can become equally complicit in sexual surveillance.

These histories are far from confined to the past. Browne traces intricate connections between contemporary surveillance technologies and the methods used historically to surveil and police slaves. These continuities manifest most acutely in racial profiling that relies on surveillance mechanisms designed to disproportionately target people of colour. Black women in particular can attest to how commonplace their exploitative monitoring by law enforcement, media commentators, and online communities is. Based on longstanding cultural values, it extends pervasively to contemporary digital spaces and at times includes white feminists’ encounter with black women online.

Understanding big data. Designer: Paru Ramesh

Migrants encounter further historical legacies through modes of sexual surveillance in place at national borders. The beginnings of anti-trafficking legislation in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century, for instance, were a result of the racialised and classed sexual surveillance of Chinese sex workers. As Pliley notes, immigration decisions relied on the gendered, racialised, and sexualised imagination of those (literally) manning the border and their “moral reading of women’s bodies that reflected assumptions about class: attire, demeanour, and hygiene.” The registers may since have shifted in many ways, but sexualised border policing is alive and kicking.

Recent cases of queer asylum seekers’ treatment at the UK border serve as case in point. While until 2010 most claims of queer asylum seekers were rejected as it was deemed safe to return to countries hostile to queers and simply hide one’s sexuality, this (thankfully) is no longer admissible. As a result, however, queer asylum seekers face an attitude of disbelief in border officials and have been asked to “prove” their sexuality by providing photos or videos of their sex life or submitting to incredibly dehumanising and intrusive lines of questioning.

To conclude: of course everyone is under surveillance, and at an unprecedented scale for that matter. That’s all the more reason to think very carefully about the ways in which different modes of surveillance (who is doing the surveilling, of whom, to what ends), different spaces and places under surveillance, and different technologies of surveillance affect different groups of people in different ways. Rather than narrowly defining what sexual surveillance is and isn’t, it seems urgent to think of it as a tool to keep gendered, racialised and sexualised continuities in surveillance practices, the power relations that sustain them, and the varying effects it has on different groups of people firmly inside the frame.

Rather than narrowly defining what sexual surveillance is and isn’t, it seems urgent to think of it as a tool to keep gendered, racialised and sexualised continuities in surveillance practices, the power relations that sustain them, and the varying effects it has on different groups of people firmly inside the frame.

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