Sexual Rights: Meanings, Controversies, and Sexual Health Promotion

Article excerpt

For nearly two decades, the use of the term sexual rights has emerged in multiple disciplines, including public health, family planning, sex education, and academia, as well as in advocacy campaigns of groups working for nondiscrimination and equality for those with nonnormative sexual and gender identities. National, regional, and international sexuality organizations such as the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, the European Federation of Sexology, and the World Association of Sexual Health have included "sexual rights" in the themes and titles of their conferences. In response to the new rights and sexuality discourse following international conferences in the mid-1990s, a new World Health Organization (WHO; 2004a) publication focused entirely on sexual health and provided its own definition of sexual rights as part of its new focus on the links between sexual health and human rights. Miller and Vance (2004) wrote that at both the local and national levels, advocacy groups have used sexuality and rights discourse to work for legal reform on issues relating to discrimination, HIV/AIDS, and sexual violence. Yet the meanings and understandings of sexual rights remain unclear. Sexual rights are often referred to as human rights without an adequate explanation of what human rights are and why all the sexual rights referred to are indeed human rights. Miller (2000) emphasized that there is a need for a clarification on the scope and content of sexual rights for this "is critical not only for promoting governmental accountability but also for ensuring that sexual rights can be claimed by diverse populations around the world" (p. 68). Barroso (2010) stated that the term human rights is not part of the vocabulary of many people and that the concept of sexual rights is even more foreign. Wronka (2008) stressed that only about 10% of Americans have ever heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Plummer (2010) emphasized that many assume sexual rights are "straightforward" and "uncontestable" but wrote that this is not that case (p. 47). On the contrary, he stated that this view is shallow and culturally limited, and that in fact the "massive and polarized literature on human rights" in law, politics, and sociology is highly contested. Although the topic of human rights invites controversy, the extension of human rights to sexual rights presents even more conflict.

My goals in writing this article were (a) to summarize literature on sexual rights and thus to facilitate an understanding of the complexities, controversies, and applications of such rights by those in sexuality and sexual health fields and (b) to enable sexuality professionals to reflect on how sexual rights principles may be applied in their professions and advocacy campaigns that promote sexual health. I begin with a discussion of human rights, for I believe that knowledge in this area is lacking. This is not surprising because human rights courses are not required for the vast majority of disciplines. It is not possible to understand why sexual rights are human rights without this beginning. In the second major section I describe conceptualizations of sexual rights and social factors and movements that have facilitated sexual rights discourse and applications. I give examples of applications of sexual rights principles to sexuality education, research, and sexual health services. An important aspect of these applications concerns how many have related sexual rights to sexual health, and I illustrate how this is part of a larger movement that links human rights to health and public health programs. Gruskin (2005) emphasized that linkages between rights and health often fail to go beyond opinion and rhetoric; many would argue that linkages between sexual rights and sexual health have been even more inadequately operationalized. I discuss conflicts/limitations and strengths/potential of sexual rights frameworks and their application to promote sexual health and contribute to improving the "conditions required for the formation and expression of diverse sexual identities" (Miller, 2000, p. …