Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Marco Fanara - Cultural Relativism Versus Sexual Rights as a Coherent Set of Human Rights

At one point in his discussion, Fanara offers this quote:
The notion that there are two and only two genders is one of the most basic ideas in our binary Western way of thinking. Transgender people challenge our very understanding of the world. And we make them pay the cost of our confusion by their suffering. (O’Flaherty, Michael & John Fisher (2008) Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and International Human Rights Law: Contextualising the Yogyakarta Principles)
We label anyone who transgresses the accepted gender binary as ‘different’ or weird or even ‘abnormal’ - we make them 'other' and exclude them from most communities - forcing them to live "on the fringes, or outside the periphery of society in regards to enjoying human and/or sexual rights."

These exclusionary structures - the process of "othering" - Fanara argues, "cultivate and permit symbolic and even physical violence against any form of sexual difference or ‘deviance’ that may be perceived as a possible threat to sexual ‘normalness’."

Good article.

Marco Fanara
United Nations Mandated University for Peace

May 24, 2010

Proponents in favour of sexual rights as a coherent set of human rights argue sexuality is a fundamental component of one’s self and are therefore universal. Opponents of such views suggest sexual rights are not in fact universal mainly due to cultural relativism, which includes, but are by no means limited to religion, cultural beliefs, social systems, and politics must be taken into account when discussing ‘universal sexual rights’. This paper aims to address and attempt to answer one question: Do various ideological differences undermine sexual rights as a coherent set of claims within human rights?
This is a short but interesting article - here is the first part of his argument:
Sexuality is an evolving concept at best, fluid and ever changing.1 It is a concept that transcends, but nevertheless includes, notions of sexual activity to encompass gender identities, sexual orientation, and reproduction, to name a few. There are many aspects that interact and contribute to one’s sexuality, such as cultural, social, economic, ethical, legal, historical, religious, biological, psychological, and spiritual factors.2 Sexuality is expressed through one’s desires, attitudes, beliefs, thoughts, values, fantasies, practices, and relationships.3 Many argue sexuality is a fundamental component of the personality of every human being, and as such are universal and entitled to protection through sexual rights.4 Miller (2008) concurs, “sexual rights make a strong claim to universality, since they relate to an element of the self which is common to all humans: their sexuality.” As is the case with universal human rights, universal sexual rights are based on the inherent freedom, dignity and equality of all human beings.5 Others argue cultural relativism and various ideological differences (be they political, religious, cultural, social or otherwise) must be taken into account when discussing ‘universal sexual rights’.

Herein, for the purposes of this paper, we will now discuss the various issues surrounding sexual rights. Albeit this paper covers an extensive array of issues, note it is by no means comprehensive or exhaustive, rather allow this paper serve as a mere introduction into the vastly complex issues surrounding sexual rights. More specifically, we will address and attempt to answer one essential question: Do various ideological differences undermine sexual rights as a coherent set of claims within human rights?

So what exactly are sexual rights? As noted by Richardson (2000), there are “competing claims for what are defined as sexual rights and lack of rights, reflecting not only differences in how sexuality is conceptualized but also the fact that there is no singular agreed definition of sexual rights.” O’Flaherty and Fisher (2008) state sexual rights are those rights relating to one’s perceived or actual gender identity and/or sexual orientation. The World Health Organization cites sexual rights as those that are:
human rights that are already in national laws, international human rights documents and other consensus statements. The include the right of all persons, free of coercion, discrimination and violence, to: (1) the highest attainable standard of sexual health, including access to sexual and reproductive health care services; (2) seek, receive and impart information related to sexuality; (3) sexuality education; (4) respect for bodily integrity; (5) choose their partner; (6) decide to be sexually active or not; (7) consensual sexual relations; (8) consensual marriage; (9) decide whether or not, and when, to have children; and (10) pursue a satisfying safe and pleasurable sexual life. The responsible exercise of human rights requires that all persons respect the rights of others.
Similarly, the Yogyakarta Principles are a set of principles on the application of international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity. The Principles affirm binding international legal standards with which all States must comply.6 Said rights include: The right to universal enjoyment of human rights, non-discrimination and recognition before the law; The right to human and personal security; Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; The right to expression, opinion and association ; The right to freedom of movement and asylum; The right of participation in cultural and family life; The right of human rights defenders; and last but not least the right of redress and accountability. Alternatively, Miller (2008) argues there does not exist a universally, politically or substantively accepted set of sexual rights standards in the world today. She further asserts international human rights law, contrary to popular belief, actually facilitates the state’s repressive role in regulating sexual activity and expression as it says very little about the national regulation of sexuality.

The question now becomes, can states relegate the above noted sexual rights on cultural or ideological grounds? As Miller (2009) notes, “attacks on sexual rights are linked to the emergence of an amalgam of political interests that draw together justifications based on religious, culture and nation to undermine human rights.” Many academics argue a number of states restrictive and discriminatory regulation of sexuality is interrelated to power relations between heterosexuality and any ‘other’ form of sexuality and that there is little moral justification for such oppressive regulation.7 “Means to control sexuality are institutionalized not only in cultural and social norms and customs, but also in legal policy and practice.”8 What is often deemed as ‘normal’ sexuality (hegemonically masculine heterosexuality) by cultural and social expressions leaves little space for social recognition of sexual diversity and as such often times defines ‘other’ forms of sexuality as deviant.9
Full citation:
Marco, F. (2010, May 24). Cultural Relativism Versus Sexual Rights as a Coherent Set of Human Rights. Available at SSRN:

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