Civil Liberties

'Sexual Rights' Now Part of U.S. Foreign Agenda

The change emphasizes a commitment to "equality between men and women in matters of sexual relations and sexuality."



I can't quite get a read on whether it's good or bad (or a big fat nothing) that the U.S. government has decided to make "sexual rights" part of its official human rights and global development platform. The term "sexual rights" can encompass a host of issues related to sexual orientation, gender, reproduction, sexual violence, and more. According to U.S Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Erdman, sexual rights refer to people's "right 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." Using the term emphasizes a commitment to "equality between men and women in matters of sexual relations and sexuality," he said. 

At a meeting of the U.N. women's agency, Erdman stressed that the U.S. use of "sexual rights" reflected rights "that are not legally binding" and "not enshrined in international human rights law." Yet the shift is a "critical expression of our support for the rights and dignity of all individuals regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity." 

So how is this a departure from previous policy, and why might that matter? From The Christian Science Monitor

Until this week, the US had voiced its support for "sexual reproductive health" and "reproductive rights," but it was "not acknowledging sexual rights," says Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity. The US had come in for criticism abroad for making this distinction. But after heavy lobbying from lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender groups, the US has now agreed to the change.

With this minor language change, Ms. Sippel says, the US is now in a position to be a major contributor addressing global issues like early child marriage, HIV/AIDS prevention, and female genital mutilation.

"It does have practical implications for our US foreign policy and assistance," she adds. For example, the language change can help make US foreign aid "more effective," allowing the country to allocate aid for pressing sexual rights issues overseas, she says.

To the extend that this allows governments already getting humanitarian aid from us to use it more effectively, this seems like a positive step. Things like HIV/AIDS prevention and fighting female genital mutilation are obviously important efforts. But to the extent that this ups American-spearheaded initiatives and spending on these issues, I'm leery. Whether it's social or regime change the U.S. is after abroad, pouring money in to make problems worse is something of a specialty. Our humanitarian "gifts" tend to come with a lot of political strings, and our efforts—at least in areas concerning sexual rights—to miss the point at best, often actively harm those we're claiming to help.

For example, take our approach to sex trafficking in foreign countries. It's largely centered on a "raid and rescue" vision, and is ambivalent if not outright hostile to prostitution decriminalization.

During the George W. Bush years, the U.S. State Department specifically stated that prostitution was a form of "oppression" and predicated aid for various sexual-health purposes on whether a country was working to wipe out prostitution entirely. Many human rights and anti-trafficking orgs say decriminalizing prostitution is the best way to help people trapped in the sex trade—not to mention respect the labor rights of sex workers and the sexual rights of everyone—but no matter; it was either do it 100 percent our way or no grants. (Shameless self-promotion: I wade deeper into this in a feature—"The War on Sex Trafficking Is the New War on Drugs"—for the October issue of Reason magazine, which digital subscribers can read now online.) And not doing it our way doesn't only affect foreign countries or groups getting money from us. Failure to "reduce demand for commercial sex acts" could also help land nations on the U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons report watchlist—a form of public shaming, sure, but also a black mark on the country for other economic and political purposes.

In The New York Times, Melissa Gira Grant explains how these end demand, raid-and-rescue, and scarlet-letter policies come together in detrimental ways:

In 2008, Cambodia enacted new prohibitions on commercial sex, after the country was placed on a watch list by the State Department. In brutal raids on brothels and in parks, as reported by the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers in a 2008 documentary, women were chased down, detained and assaulted. The State Department commended Cambodia for its law and removed the country from the watch list.

Human Rights Watch later conducted interviews with 94 sex workers in Cambodia for a 2010 report. "Two days after my arrival, I was caught when I tried to escape," one woman said. "Five guards beat me up. When I used my arms to shield my face and head from their blows, they beat my arms. The guard threatened to slit our throats if we tried to escape a second time, and said our bodies would be cremated there."

She was describing a "rescue" and detention at the Prey Speu Social Affairs center near Phnom Penh. Human Rights Watch urged the Cambodian government "to suspend provisions in the 2008 Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation that facilitate police harassment and abuses."

Whether it's combating sex trafficking or gender-based discrimination or unintended pregnancies, the U.S. government can't seem to avoid imposing our ideology and policy solutions (du jour) along with any (financial or rhetorical) support. Maybe embracing "sexual rights" is a positive or neutral step; maybe it will open the door to more of this sort of overreach. 

But the U.S. adoption of the term "sexual rights" apparently puts in line with other right-thinking nations. This week, nearly 200 world leaders are gathered in New York City for the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Summit, where they'll reflect on global development goals set in 2000 and discuss new targets for 2030. Their aims are anything but modest, with "End poverty in all its forms everywhere" at the top of the new list. "Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls" is also an item.