Current debates on sexuality and development need to be seen in relation to a longer historical cycle. This contribution provides a pictorial overview of the last three decades, laying out the diverse influences from the 1970s, which produced both the Washington Consensus and Foucault’s History of Sexuality, through to the current paradoxes of the 1990s and 2000s, with advances in sexual rights struggles pitted against the rise in conservatisms and fundamentalisms. This time line roots current sexual rights struggles in recent history, showing how the same themes resurface and gain new meanings over time. Throughout this history, how does development deal with sexuality? Development language regarding sexuality is far from transparent. Sexuality is never directly spoken about, yet it is here all the time. This is sharply illustrated by the population-development discourse, which entirely avoids the issue of sexuality, as if it would be possible for fertility to occur in the absence of the sexual act. However, the opacity of the language around sexuality is now being pierced by the sexual rights discourse. Possibilities for further progress can be created by taking a political economy perspective that addresses the interactions between sexuality and structures such as class, race and gender, and recognizes sexuality as a source of well-being, entitlements and fulfilment.