Demystifying Sexual Rights: Ascribing Concrete Indicators to Contentious Terms (#throwback)

May 17, 2016 shutterstock_152116562 copy

On the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT), we look back at a seminal piece of work by ARROW during the ICPD+15 review process when we were one of the first organizations to develop indicators on sexual rights.

By Sivananthi Thanenthiran and Sai Jyothirmai Racherla, ARROW

Much of this content is from Chapter 4 on sexual health and sexual rights of ‘Reclaiming & Redefining Rights – ICPD+15: The Status of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Asia’ which was written by the same authors.[i]

Detractors often dismiss ‘sexual rights’ as terminology which has not been agreed upon by governments within the UN system. Sexual rights issues are seen by many governments as being synonymous with the legalization of homosexuality and same sex marriage. This is a highly limited perspective on sexual rights because the majority of women, who live in patriarchal societies, still continue to struggle for sexual rights. The concept of sexual rights is also so closely intertwined and interlinked with that of reproductive rights so much so that, in some aspects, it is difficult to separate both. In order to achieve desirable SRH outcomes, it is crucial to empower men and women with rights which enable them to be equals[ii] in the public and in the most private spheres of life. It is also important to empower women to exercise their decision- making with regards to sexuality and reproduction.[iii] It is also imperative to establish rights for women, where those rights may not currently exist, in order to enable women’s decision-making capacities.[iv]

“The concept of sexual rights is also so closely intertwined and interlinked with that of reproductive rights so much so that, in some aspects, it is difficult to separate both.”

But what are sexual rights? Are they really so contested?

“Sexual rights embrace human rights that are already recognized in national laws, international human rights documents and other consensus documents. These include the right of all persons, free of coercion, discrimination and violence, to:

  • the highest attainable standard of health in relation to sexuality, including access to SRH care services;
  • seek, receive and impart information in relation to sexuality;
  • sexuality education;
  • respect for bodily integrity;
  • choice of partner;
  • decide to be sexually active or not;
  • consensual sexual relations;
  • consensual marriage;
  • decide whether or not, and when to have children; and
  • pursue a satisfying, safe and pleasurable sexual” [v]

This WHO working definition is wholly consistent with and does not deviate from the principles of the ICPD PoA. It is useful to enunciate and enumerate the separate and different components of sexual rights in order to build the discourse and create support for the language among governments and civil society. This review attempts to do exactly this.

We will ascribe, what we feel to be, important indicators of sexual rights. In order to determine the rights around choice of partner, decision to be sexually active or not, consensual sexual relations and consensual marriage, we choose to look at the laws and implementation of legal age of marriage and the existence of arranged marriages and forced marriages. As indicators of bodily integrity we look at traditional practices harmful to women and laws on sexual violence and trafficking.

As indicators of the rights to the highest attainable standard of health in relation to sexuality, in choice of partner, in consensual sexual relations and to pursue a satisfying, safe and pleasurable sexual life we look at laws around sex work, same sex sexual relations and transgendered people.

All of these, we hope, will demystify the notion of sexual rights through the use of the following indicators, and show issues of sexual rights that need to be addressed by governments: legal age of marriage and the enforcement thereof; arranged/ forced/ child marriage; traditional practices harmful to women; laws against sexual violence – marital rape, rape, and sexual harassment; laws on the trafficking of women; laws on sex work; laws on same-sex sexual preference/ relations/ unions; and transgenderism.

We agree that “[t]he creation of the concept of sexual rights is something we should value as a platform for conversation that may help drive coalition building… While the definition of sexual rights in Cairo has limitations, we need to value it. It was the feminist community working at the UN level that crafted this incredible concept of sexual rights that goes beyond identity politics, allowing us to address issues of violence, race and disease prevention and at the same time issues of pleasure, autonomy and self-determination.”[vi] We also feel strongly that 17 years after ICPD, we need to realize and recognize the value that sexual rights brings to facilitate the achievement of the ICPD PoA and the SRHR community.

Intrigued? Click here to read the full article (page 15 onwards).


[i]  Reclaiming & Redefining Rights – ICPD+15: The Status of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Asia
[ii] As is said in Paragraph 7.34: “Human sexuality and gender relations are closely interrelated and together affect the ability of men and women to achieve and maintain sexual health and manage their reproductive lives. Equal relationships between men and women in matters of sexual relations and reproduction, including full respect for the physical integrity of the human body, require mutual respect and willingness to accept responsibility for the consequences of sexual behaviour.” This is reiterated under the section’s objectives in Paragraph 7.36: “permitting relations of equity and mutual respect between the genders and contributing to improving the quality of life of individuals.”
Paragraph 7.35 also recognizes that: “In a number of countries, harmful practices meant to control women’s sexuality have led to great suffering.” Paragraph 7.38 encourages governments to “base national policies on a better understanding of the need for responsible human sexuality and the realities of current sexual behaviour.”
[iii] Paragraph 4.1 states that: “The power relations that impede women’s attainment of healthy and fulfilling lives operate at many levels of society, from the most personal to the highly public …. In addition, improving the status of women also enhances their decision-making capacity at all levels in all spheres of life, especially in the area of sexuality and reproduction.”
[iv] Paragraph 4.4 (c) under Actions proposes: “Eliminating all practices that discriminate against women; assisting women to establish and realize their rights, including those that relate to reproductive and sexual health.”
[v] World Health Organization (WHO). (2009). Gender and Reproductive Rights Glossary. Retrieved Aug 10, 2009, from WHO Web site:, http://www.who. int/reproductive-health/gender/glossary.html
[vi] Correa, S.; Germain, A.; Petchesky, R. P. (2005). Thinking Beyond ICPD+10: Where should our movement be going? In Reproductive Health Matters (RHM) Vol 13 No.25. London, UK: RHM