Sexual Rights: Advocating for Vibrant Reframing

Sexual Rights: Advocating for Vibrant Reframing

by Juhu Thukral

As social justice advocates, we are often searching for ways to connect and strengthen our movements, and to bring various stakeholders closer together. Gender-based violence, sex workers rights, LGBTQ (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-and-queer) rights, sexuality education and reproductive rights are all issues that share a single core element – they are related to sexuality and the implications of sexual behavior. And yet these connections are rarely discussed in terms of advocacy.

Slowly over the last few decades, a new framework has emerged from some quarters that holds great promise for cohesive and coordinated progressive activism – a “sexual rights” agenda.

Born free and
equal in dignity

The sexual rights agenda builds on an understanding of human rights, and takes advantage of what social justice advocates today, optimistically, might call an era of human rights. As an advocate who has been fortunate to observe focus groups of progressive Americans, I have seen first-hand how deeply held the idea of human rights is for a great many people. Research from 2007 shows that a vast majority of Americans agree that human rights are important here in the United States.

Questions still remain. People do not always have common understandings of rights and wrongs in the context of gender and sexuality, and they do not agree on the necessary solutions to violations of rights.

The very term “sexual rights” is unfamiliar to many. But sexuality itself is a core part of who we are. Of course, it encompasses our desires and actions and our quests for pleasure in the sexual arena. Sexuality also includes the personas we wear out in the world, and the ones that are placed upon us – the way we are expected to act according to our perceived gender. Whether or not people see us as fitting into proscribed gender and sexual roles often dictates their reactions to us. These perceptions can have implications for our economic well-being (am I the bitch in the office or do I get along with everyone?) and for our safety (do I do as I am told, or am I difficult and in need of a “lesson”?) Sexuality imbues human interaction in many ways, and these offer a guide to what “rights” mean in this context, as well.

Expressing and Protecting

The basic human needs for dignity, autonomy, safety, financial security and pleasure all commingle within the concept of sexual rights. This framework cultivates the idea that sexuality is an inherent part of all people, and as human beings, we have a right to express it – or not – in a way that we decide, with necessary resources, and in the larger context of our own rights and those of other people. The notion of sexual rights addresses the intersections of gender concerns, sexuality and LGBTQ issues. In fact, those of us working on sexual rights find ourselves regularly weaving in and out of these areas.

The Sexual Rights Initiative, a coalition of human rights organizations advancing sexual rights before the UN Human Rights Council, gives this definition:

“Sexual Rights celebrate diversity and dignity in sexual behaviors, orientations and pleasures . . . we hope to build cross sectoral networks and movements that work together to develop a more balanced analysis of sexuality and sexual rights that will include but also move beyond issues of identity, violence and discrimination to allow for the consideration of positive claims such as the right to broader sexual freedom and a right to sexual expression and pleasure.”

Another useful analysis of sexual rights comes from the Yogyakarta Principles, which were created by an international group of human rights experts in 2006. These principles articulate protections specific to LGBTQ rights by viewing them through the lens of existing human rights standards. The principles cover difficult topics such as violence, torture and discrimination, but also access to justice, privacy, rights to freedom of expression and assembly, employment, health, education, immigration, public participation, and a variety of other rights. According to a shorthand description, “They promise a different future where all people born free and equal in dignity and rights can fulfill that precious birthright.”

A new sexual rights framework for progressive advocacy is important for several reasons. First and foremost, it calls for a positive articulation of sexual expression.

Currently, notions of sexuality, sexual orientation, gender and LGBTQ rights are often discussed in the context of violence and discrimination. While these are obviously important concerns and demand attention from law, policy and public discussion, they do not address the holistic and affirmative aspects of sexual life, including expression, autonomy and pleasure. Without a full articulation of what sexuality is, why it is important, and the role it plays in daily life, we cannot escape the ways sexuality has been used as an excuse to coerce or oppress people and communities, especially women, youth, LGBTQ and gender non-conforming persons.

Young people, in particular, exist in a double bind: the very existence of their sexuality and sexual agency is often denied outright, while, in the name of protecting them, they are simultaneously denied access to information and to the ability to engage in sexual expression.

There are also practical reasons for developing a sexual rights framework. Without a clear touchstone for what it means to attain sexual rights, it is difficult for activists to articulate a cohesive or actionable policy agenda that connects shared principles, identifiable outcomes and necessary resources. By highlighting the common interests of the gender, anti-violence, LGBTQ and sex workers rights movements, we can strengthen and empower the constituencies for each of these individual issues, creating a broader and deeper base calling for change.

Headlines Highlight Ups and Downs

This is especially important because advocacy in the sexual rights arena has gained and lost traction in the past year – there are both wins and setbacks.

Recent gains for sexual rights include marriage equality in New York State and the purging of criminal convictions for survivors of human trafficking in New York State and Illinois. In addition, the U.S. government agreed in its participation in the Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record before the Human Rights Council of the United Nations “that no one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on sexual orientation or their status as a person in prostitution.” Another victory occurred when the federal Department of Health and Human Services recently decided that new health plans will be required to include contraceptives as part of preventive services without demanding patient cost-sharing.

Policies that
protect vulnerable

But even as advocates celebrate these policy wins for sexual rights, new challenges have developed. A law in New York State increased criminal penalties for street-based sex workers, who are already vulnerable to violence and lack of necessary services. The dismissal of the prosecution’s case against alleged rapist Dominique Strauss-Kahn highlights the inherent challenges of using the criminal justice system to help people who say they have been victims of sexual violence, given the high levels of proof and “credibility” required by the system in such cases. There are continuing, and even accelerated, attacks on access to abortion – in Kansas, and Arizona and elsewhere. Another topic that bears watching is the ongoing trend toward the idea that the institution of marriage is the sole way to invest rights, obligations and financial security in others with whom individuals engage.

Using a sexual rights framework can address these issues, which, on the surface, may seem disparate. All are connected to sexual behavior. Sexual rights can articulate policies that encourage and protect vulnerable individuals, and that support economic opportunity, autonomy, and safety in daily life. This kind of environment would allow individuals to express their sexuality, or not; and to determine the terms of how, when and whether their sexuality – or the desire it may inspire – is commodified.

For example, an approach involving sexual rights would promote policy solutions that prevent gender-based violence, rather than punish violence after it has happened. Other rights-based solutions would encourage economic opportunity so that victims of violence have an easier time changing their living situations. This would also lead to a more targeted and appropriate use of the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the criminal justice system is used not just to police perpetrators of violence, but also those who have suffered from violence, including people who may be victims of domestic abuse but whose partners have called the police first, sex workers who have been beaten by the police or a customer, or a trafficked person who is caught up in a police or immigration raid. Blanket attempts to regulate or protect against sexual conduct through the criminal justice system must be viewed as efforts of last resort, rather than routine policymaking.

Law and policy solutions must include a wide range of voices and experiences and should be rooted in the lived experiences and needs of people. Sexuality and sexual expression are part of the everyday lives of most people – helping them to see how their rights connect to the rights of others will invigorate activism and strengthen the drive toward human rights and equality for everyone.

Juhu Thukral is the Director of Law and Advocacy at The Opportunity Agenda. She is a founding member of the Steering Committee for the NY Anti-Trafficking Network, and was the founding Director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, where she is a Senior Advisor. Ms. Thukral has been an advocate for the rights of low-income and immigrant women in the areas of sexual health and rights, gender-based violence, economic security, and criminal justice for 20 years.

Also see: No Stopping: From Pom-Poms to Saving Women’s Bodies by Carol Downer in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Also see: Heather Ault: Visualizing 4000 Years of Choice by Eleanor Bader in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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