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What Does Human Rights Have To Do With Sex?

By Chris Beyrer

Sexuality is a core component of human identity and well-being. Basic human rights include the right to control fertility, the right to be free from sexual coercion and exploitation, and the right to health care that includes treatment for sexually transmitted infections and other threats to sexual health. These sexual rights are enshrined in several international conventions, but not always respected in reality. Too often women, gay and bisexual men and transgendered persons are stigmatized or even branded criminals because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or behavior. Civil and religious laws can conflict with sexual rights. The result? Some of us are limited in enjoying the basic freedom and dignity inherent in living lives true to our sexuality—yet these violations may be perfectly legal and have broad public support.

Wherever women do not have control over their own bodies, sexual rights are abrogated. And where sexual violence occurs with impunity, whether in domestic settings or in war zones, human rights are threatened. These kinds of violations are always a particular affront to our shared humanity because they are inflicted on our most personal, most private of realms. And indeed it is partly due to the hidden and private nature of the suffering that comes from these violations that they have proven so difficult to identify, investigate, prosecute and relieve. All the more reason then, that those of us engaged in sexual and reproductive health projects need to be mindful of the human rights dimensions of our work. Sexuality is part of our shared humanity and part of the dignity of being human. And sexual rights, like other human rights, must be protected and respected.