Sexual Rights are Human Rights

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In 1999 the World Association for Sexual Health (WAS) proclaimed the Declaration of Sexual Rights that cover (among others) our rights to sexual freedom, safely, equality, and pleasure. This landmark declaration recognizes that sexuality and sexual health are fundamental to all humans; fittingly, the theme for WSHD 2013 is To achieve sexual health, picture yourself owning your sexual rights.

Dr. Eli ColemanFor insight into the state of sexual rights in the U.S. and beyond we turned to Dr. Eli Coleman, who is a professor and Director of the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Since the WAS Declaration of Sexual Rights was adopted nearly 15 years ago, how would you describe the progress made with sexual rights?
I think we have made quite a bit of progress. First of all, the WAS Declaration has been quoted all over the world. The International Planned Parenthood adopted a similar declaration in 2008 - obviously influenced by the WAS declaration. There has been extensive work at the World Health Organization (WHO) on sexual rights.

There is still work to be done to recognize sexual rights as fundamental to human rights but more and more it is recognized that sexual rights are founded in basic human rights laws, policies and international agreements.

Then of course, there are many states that continue to ignore basic sexual rights and there is a continual battle to oppose laws, policies, and actions that violate sexual rights.

The WAS Declaration calls for the right to comprehensive sexuality education. As I recall from my 70s-era sex ed classes, we covered anatomy, pregnancy, with a little bit of syphilis and gonorrhea thrown in. There are far more issues on the agenda now: how well have we adapted and kept up?
We still have a long way to go. More and more comprehensive sexuality education is seen as fundamental to human development. It has been understood as fundamental to stemming the tide of the HIV pandemic. It is essential to prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STI) and promotion of reproductive health. There is a slow but growing recognition that sexuality education encompasses more than reproduction facts and STI information. But getting broad comprehensive sexuality education implemented is still a challenging task.

We still confront attitudes that if you teach kids about sex they will do it. Opposition to sexuality education slows the progress. And I have come to realize that this is going to be a constant battle that is never over.

Success and opposition will come in waves. Comfort in talking about and educating about sexuality is possible but it seems to run against the grain of basic human discomfort.

How do we view the legality and legitimacy of commercial sex work when looking through the lens of sexual rights?
It is clear that commercial sex work, like all work, needs to be protected from abuses. There is far too much coercion and exploitation in sex work. Through legalization, sex work can become a right and no one has to be abused.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that most in the U.S. opposed same-sex marriage, now polls indicate those numbers are flipped with a majority in support. Why do you think the trend to support same-sex marriage has come about fairly quickly?
This is truly a stunning reversal. It came about by the braveness of individuals to come out of the closet and declare their sexual orientation.

Too many people came to know that their relatives, best friends, coworkers were gay and learned about their struggles to find companionship and love. To deny them the basic rights enjoyed by opposite sex couples did not make sense anymore. It also took decades of research to show that sexual orientation was not an illness and not a choice. It also took courage of political leaders and celebrities to come out in favor of same-sex marriage and to see this as a basic human rights issue. Each victory spurred on another, and sped up the whole movement.

The first question above asked about the progress we’ve made in sexual rights since the Declaration was made in the late 90s. Looking ahead: if we have a conversation in ten years about sexual rights, what do you imagine we’ll be talking about?
I hope that we will move beyond whether sexual rights are basic human rights to discussing how to handle violations of sexual rights. Unfortunately like human rights, this will be a battle for many generations to come. But a first step is recognizing that sexual rights are universal and basic human rights.

Dr. Coleman, a professor and Director of the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota Medical School and member of ASHA’s Board of Directors, conducts psychological research in treating a variety of sexual disorders, compulsive sexual behavior, HIV prevention, transgender health, sexual identity and sex therapy.