United States Once Again Embraces Sexual Rights−with a Catch

This fall, the Obama Administration made a decision that seems to be a step forward for sexual rights, but is it?

On September 15, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations announced that it would now begin to use and support the phrase “sexual rights,” based on a definition drawn heavily from the Beijing Platform for Action. This policy shift, if fully embraced, would bring the U.S. position at the UN more firmly in line with its support for women and LGBTI persons overall—the rights of everyone to live free of discrimination and violence. Many activists, including IWHC, were initially very excited by this announcement, which followed years of advocacy.

However, the United States may still not be the champion for sexual rights it once was. In its announcement, the U.S. Mission also stated that while it supports sexual rights, it does not consider these rights to be “legally binding human rights.” This is a significant step backwards from what was established in Beijing.

Twenty years ago, advocates and leaders at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing adopted a Platform for Action, which enshrined in paragraph 96 the human rights of women 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.”

This landmark agreement recognized—for the first time—that human rights apply to issues of sexuality. Interpreted broadly (as they should be), these rights guarantee the freedom of individuals to control all matters related to their own sexuality, reproduction, sexual orientation, bodily integrity, choice of partner, and gender identity. They include the right to the highest attainable standard of sexual health and access to services, education, and information necessary to make informed decisions related to sex and sexuality. Sexual rights mean we all have the right to pursue a satisfying, safe, and pleasurable sexual life.

If paragraph 96 is the building block of the U.S. government’s new position on sexual rights, why then claim that sexual rights are not binding human rights?

The United States was a key actor in crafting Paragraph 96 in Beijing, but it reneged on its commitment to sexual rights under the Bush Administration. And things have not been that different under President Obama. Despite the Obama Administration’s stated commitment to the rights of all individuals to equality and to lives free from violence and discrimination, the United States continued to repeatedly block the inclusion of sexual rights in international agreements after 2008.

In fact, we know sexual rights are human rights; they are universal and inalienable, and governments must vigorously protect these rights as they do all other fundamental rights.   Many of the worst human rights violations faced by women and girls around the world—including sexual violence and child marriage—are efforts to control, suppress, or dominate their sexuality.

While we’ve made significant progress on women’s human rights and gender equality since the Beijing declaration, progress has been slow on sexual rights. In recent UN negotiations, including at the Commission on the Status of Women and the Commission on Population and Development, sexual rights were left out of  the final agreements. The recently negotiated 2030 Agenda—which lays out global development goals for the next 15 years—calls for universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, but does not cite sexual rights.

Recognition of sexual rights is all the more crucial in light of increasing attacks against LGBTI individuals around the world. All persons, regardless of their gender orientation or gender identity, should be guaranteed the right to choose a partner, to get married or not, and to have children or not—free of discrimination, coercion, or violence. But in many parts of the world, sexual minorities face serious threats.

U.S. representatives at the UN must lead the way in championing sexual rights in international negotiations. There is growing international recognition that sexual rights must be explicitly acknowledged. In 2013, sexual rights were endorsed in regional agreements in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Asia and the Pacific.

Now that the Administration has agreed to the term, it must fully acknowledge that sexual rights are human rights. As it did two decades ago in Beijing, the United States has the opportunity to once again become a prominent voice on this issue. We need bold leadership on this issue now more than ever.

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