“Sexual Rights” vs. “Human Rights”

Development with a Body: Sexuality, Human Rights, and Development is a collection of scholarly articles aboutsexual rights as human rights and how this is related to development.  After reading this, I started thinking about universal human rights.  First, I pondered their existence.  Of course I believe that there are many rights that should be guaranteed to all people, but this isn’t really what I meant.  I could not think of one example that all people actually have.  Even the most basic rights, such as life and liberty, are constantly being challenged, violated, and stripped away.

Once I came to this conclusion, I began thinking specifically about sexual rights.  Should these rights be given their own category?  Up until now, people have not used the words “sexual rights” to describe these rights; instead, they lump them in with the rest of human rights.  I have previously stated that certain categories need to be created within the framework of human rights (ex. women’s rights) because they apply to a specific group of people with specific needs.  However, sexual rights apply to all people.  Often times when speaking about sexual rights, people will refer to them as women’s rights: “The human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence…” (45).  Every person, regardless of their sexual or gender identity, should have the right to control their own body and sexuality.  Women are not the only individuals that need their sexual and reproductive health to be recognized as a human right.  Therefore, I think it may be useful to reevaluate the stance that sexual rights advocates are taking.  I do agree that we should not shy away from words that directly relate to gender and sexuality, but I feel that something is being lost in translation.  Perhaps it would be better if we referred to them as human rights that pertain to healthy sexuality. I think this would be even more effective because there would be no way to justify a violation of said rights, regardless of the person’s age, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.  Also, the right to sexual and reproductive health does fall within the greater category of the right to health.  It is important to recognize these individual rights, such as the right to an abortion or the right to give birth without being shackled, but these specific rights are also applicable in many other situations.  For example, the right to have an abortion falls under the broader category of the right to control one’s body and decide when to start a family.  The latter has already been specified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but this does not mean it is being enforced in real-life situations.  We can continue advocating for new laws to pass everyday, but I feel it would be better if we worked towards change in a more productive manner.  Instead of spending money in the courtroom, we could be giving micro-loans to women in underdeveloped areas to help them start their own business and become self-sufficient.  We could be using this money to build schools for children that currently cannot access an education.  Instead, we continue fussing over the language that is or is not being used.

Another related problem is the way that sexual rights are defined in relation to violence and harassment.  “If we are to realize the full promise of sexual rights we also have to move beyond the violation-based protectionist model of human rights… By this I mean the model that focuses only on the negative articulation of rights – the right to be free from rather than free to – and on protection from disease, harm and danger, which seeks only to limit sexual rights” (48).  It is very important that we have the right to be “free from” these situations, but we also need the right to be “free to” express our sexuality as we please and make decisions that work best for us as individuals.  By looking at it this way, it becomes important to specify what exactly constitutes a sexual right within this framework and who these rights apply to.

At first, one would assume that these rights would apply to all people, but upon closer examination, it becomes evident that certain groups are ignored under certain circumstances.  First young children are not usually thought of as sexual beings; regardless, their sexual rights need to be equally guaranteed.  Deevia Bhana does a great job explaining how children’s sexual rights are often ignored and why this is problematic.  Here, the model of “free from” vs. “free to” applies well.  Regardless of age, children do need to be recognized “and treated as autonomous individuals” (77).  Other groups of people which I could see being marginalized within the movement for sexual rights are the elderly and the disabled, two groups which are often considered to have little to no sexuality.  First, this claim is absolutely false.  Second, instead of focusing on how they express their sexuality, we should try to understand why.  There is great social stigma surrounding old age and disability.  We need to disprove these myths and recognize that each person has the right to healthy sexuality.

Overall, I think it is crucial that there be a shift within the movement towards gaining sexual rights.  As many writers in the text point out, sexual rights will help achieve development and gender equality.  Development is a goal for many countries around the world, but the means to achieving this are often ineffective.  Instead of focusing so much attention on what words are or are not being used, we should focus on how current laws are being abused and violated.  This does not in any way mean that pro-sex advocates need to compromise their stance.  Instead, we need to recognize why people view matters of human rights vs. sexual rights differently.  We need to take into account cultural and religious factors.  We need to be respectful of others but also respectful of ourselves.  As we have noticed, the current approaches that are being taken to integrate sexual rights into the human rights framework are not working.  In my next post, I will discuss what sexual rights are and how they are being violated around the world.

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