Sexual rights and human rights are core to a person’s sexuality.
These are the building blocks of pleasure-based sexual health.
Pleasure-based sexual rights which relate to a person’s sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity, sexual behaviours, and sexual health are based on and related to universally recognized human rights.
Feeling safe and respected helps us feel pleasure. We should value respectful and consensual relationships; recognise the importance and diversity of gender identity, sexual identity; and prevent or speak out against discrimination based on race/ethnicity, gender, and sexual expression.
The World Association of Sexual Health’s (WAS) Pleasure Declaration is an important document that outlines how self-determination, consent, safety and the confidence and ability to communicate and negotiate sexual relations are essential to pleasure and sexual health and well-being.
Additionally, the Global Advisory Board for Sexual Health and Well-Being (GAB) shows the link between sexual pleasure, sexual health, and human rights. GAB introduced the triangle between the three concepts. It shows that, where intersections between sexual health, sexual rights and sexual pleasure are reinforced in law, in programming and in advocacy, it can strengthen health, wellbeing and positive sexual experiences of people everywhere. Sexual health is already recognised to be closely associated with sexual pleasure. GAB believes that people’s experience of sexual pleasure is also dependent on theextent to which their sexual rights are respected, protected and fulﬁlled. Autonomy, freedom, non-discrimination, equality, equal treatment under the law, right to privacy and safety as well as the right and respect for individual differences are the foundation for our ability to safely enjoy sexual pleasure.
Currently, there exists no universal human right to express and experience sexual pleasure. However, many of the internationally recognized and fundamental human rights such as the universal human rights to autonomy, freedom, non-discrimination, equality, equal treatment under the law, right to privacy and safety as well as the bodily integrity of the person, are the core building blocks of our ability to safely enjoy sexual pleasure, alongside respect for individual differences.
The World Association for Sexual Health’s (WAS) Declaration of Sexual Rights and the accompanying technical guide clearly explains how sexual rights are necessary to sexual health. Another helpful resource is this IPPF guide on young people’s sexual rights which recognises the complexity of acknowledging young people as sexual beings who have a need for both protection and empowerment.
Human rights and Sexual rights
Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world, from birth until death. They apply regardless of where you are from, what you believe or how you choose to live your life. These basic rights are based on shared values like dignity, fairness, equality, respect and independence. https://www.un.org/en/global-issues/human-rights
Sexual rights relate to a person’s sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity, sexual behaviours and sexual health. However, your sexual rights, for example your freedom of sexual expression, should not violate the rights of someone else. No one should have the right to force sex on another person, because that amounts to the violation of the other person’s right to bodily integrity, among other rights.
How can we put Rights First into our pleasure work?
Moving away from the conventional models of sexual liberation is a good start, so for example not assuming that pleasure need to lead to orgasms achieved between heterosexual and monogamous bodies. We can also expand our sexual liberation goals to include a broader concept and understanding of sexual and human rights.
One way to do this is to ensure equal access to what makes pleasure possible for people, such as health services, information, and sexuality education. Remember that no one should feel pressured to have sex that they don’t enjoy in order to achieve pleasure for another person. In addition, this involves raising awareness among people to claim their sexual rights to value and achieve the pleasure they want. It also includes working with duty bearers, such as health providers, educators, and policymakers in ensuring that these sexual rights are translated into policies, implemented as properly funded programmes, and included in programme evaluations to learn about what works and what does not.
Tips and actions
When you want to make sure your colleagues, peers and clients are clear that you believe in pleasure based sexual health (policy level changes)
- You can make sure you have clear policies that enable people you serve to claim their sexual health-related rights. For example, you could have posters and statements on your website showing that you are advocating for sexual health related rights that enable your clients to have fulfilling, pleasurable sex lives that improve their well-being. This will signal to people that they are safe to disclose their sexual identities and open conversations about what they want from their sex lives.
- You can draft and implement policies which show that you support and embrace the right to a safe, fulfilling, and pleasurable sex life within the boundaries of sexual rights. Policies can include the right to information and the means necessary to enjoy good sexual and reproductive health, not merely to prevent disease.
- You can work to ensure that as an organisation you understand and promote a positive, open, and accepting approach to sexuality, inclusivity, and gender equity.
- Staff can use evidence-based approaches that highlight how sex can be good for you and your partner/s if it is premised on sexual rights. This might include sex-positive and rights-based attitudes as an aspiration in the recruitment process of new staff by including sex-positive interview questions and sex-positivity as part of job descriptions. At The Pleasure Project, our job adverts include a description of our values as a pleasure based sexual health organisation so people know what we stand for and can decide if our goals fit in with their own values.
- You could also have staff trainings on sex-positive and rights-based approaches. For example, IPPF has an online induction programme on SRHR for all new staff members. The Pleasure Project also advocates for a human rights approach in the pleasure industry, including recruitment, safety, and decriminalisation. For example, decriminalization of sex work and sex workers’ ex-work maximizes sex workers’ legal protection and their ability to exercise other key rights, including to justice and health care. Legal recognition of sex workers and their occupation maximizes their protection, dignity, and equality.
When you are doing your work, or starting interventions, you can:
- Think about how you want to embrace sexuality, sexual rights, and sexual pleasure as an essential part of programming and activities. As a starting point, we at The Pleasure Project suggest talking about how you will be positive about a range of non-traditional relationships, sexual identities, and sexual preferences. For example, to promote the right to freedom of sexual expression, educational materials can include the specific challenges members of the LGBTQI community face when it comes to experiencing sexual pleasure.
- Have a discussion in a staff meeting and allow people to express themselves in a safe space. We understand that this may be new to some staff members who may find it difficult to embrace all sexual rights related to pleasure. Just remember to always be kind, open, and allow discussion while being cautious that those with stigmatised sexualities remain supported. Become familiar with how sexual pleasure-related rights can allow clients to be honest about the relationships and sex they want and seek.
- Management teams play an important role in trying to ensure their staff possess an adequate level of competencies (knowledge, skills, and attitudes) on sex-positive, non-discriminatory approaches. It’s a journey, so you can have regular conversations or invite outside facilitators to talk to staff to encourage reflection and learning, to unpack concepts and hear different perspectives. You might want to try a standard session on personal values and the meaning of sexual pleasure as part of core induction training. Regular supportive supervision could also be made available for staff and volunteers.
- As much as possible, organisations should ensure funding for sexual pleasure-related rights programmes. As we have found in The Pleasure Project, this isn’t always easy, but it can be done. Increasing funders’ knowledge about access to sexual justice and improving their understanding of the link between sexual rights, sexual pleasure, and better sexual health outcomes often serve as a strong justification for programme funding.
- It is important to celebrate sexual diversity through social inclusion. This means trying to represent diverse sexual identities and experiences with respect, dignity, and sensitivity. Pleasure based sexual health means understanding and addressing the specific challenges in enjoying sexuality and sexual relationships for specific groups, including people with disabilities. Rather than showing that pleasure is only for a privileged few, use images and narratives that illustrate joy, pleasure, and well-being for a wide range of sexually diverse relationships.
- It is important that staff do not assume people’s gender expression or identity until told. Related to this, it is very important that staff don’t assume that certain identities don’t enjoy pleasurable sex lives.
- Practitioners need to strive and support all clients/learners who may be experiencing abuse. Your organisation can ensure they receive appropriate knowledge and skills to address gender and homophobic-based violence. This includes explaining that experiencing sexual pleasure is a possibility again after abuse and is part of the gradual process of reintegrating sexuality in their lives in a positive way.
- Every individual has the right to have sexual health and to feel sexual pleasure for full psychophysical well-being of the person. Women who have undergone FGM/C can also have the possibility of reaching an orgasm and other forms of sexual pleasure. Therefore, women who have undergone FGM/C have the right to appropriate support to enjoy sex and sexual relationships.
When you are thinking about how to check if programmes and interventions are creating an impact
- You can ask questions to stimulate reflection and spark discussions on how sexual pleasure and well-being can be (more) integrated into SRHR programmes. Assessment tools by GAB and Share net Netherlands are examples of ways to monitor and evaluate integrating sexual pleasure into health care. Also, the work by Rutgers in Ghana and Kenya shows how to include sexual pleasure and sexual rights in their research. See The Pleasure Principle Embrace Learning for more tips and resources.
Examples of work / initiatives / programmes
- Love Matters (RNW Media) has engaged young people both offline and online by using innovative content to talk about sexual pleasure rather than focus on sexual dysfunction and disease.
- The Body is Not an Apology, an international movement that advocates for self-love and bodily empowerment, published this article about how to enjoy good sex with a non-binary person https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/sex-with-the-non-binary-person-even-when-that-person-is-you-maya/
- The Pleasure Project has increased the presentation of sexual health, rights and pleasure https://thepleasureproject.org/
WAS technical document: Coleman, Eli & Corona, Esther & Ford, Jessie. (2021). Advancing Sexual Pleasure as a Fundamental Human Right and Essential for Sexual Health, Overall Health and Well-Being: An Introduction to the Declaration of Sexual Pleasure. International Journal of Sexual Health.
Further resources you might find useful
Amnesty International: Q&A Policy to protect the human rights of sex workers https://www.amnesty.org/en/qa-policy-to-protect-the-human-rights-of-sex-workers/
Braeken, D., & Castellanos-Usigli, A. (2018). Sexual pleasure: the forgotten link in sexual and reproductive health and rights training toolkit. Global Advisory Board for Sexual Health and Wellbeing. https://bit.ly/3w8GF6G
Catania, L., Abdulcadir,O., Puppo, V., Baldaro Verde, J., Abdulcadir, J. and Abdulcadir, D. : Pleasure and Orgasm in Women with Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) https://bit.ly/3JiIBwY
Coleman, E., Corona, E. & Ford, J. (2021). Advancing Sexual Pleasure as a Fundamental Human Right and Essential for Sexual Health, Overall Health and Well-Being: An Introduction to the Declaration of Sexual Pleasure. International Journal of Sexual Health. 1-5. https://bit.ly/3tbeVw4
Fava, N. M & Fortenberry, J.D. (2021) Trauma-Informed Sex Positive Approaches to Sexual Pleasure, International Journal of Sexual Health, DOI: 10.1080/19317611.2021.1961965 https://bit.ly/3w4MyS3
GAB, A working definition of sexual pleasure. https://www.gab-shw.org/our-work/working-definition-of-sexual-pleasure/
GAB: Sexual Pleasure: An assessment tool https://www.gab-shw.org/resources/sexual-pleasure-an-assessment-tool/
Gruskin, S., Yadav, V., Castellanos-Usigli, A. Khizanishvili, G.& Kismödi,E (2019) Sexual health, sexual rights and sexual pleasure: meaningfully engaging the perfect triangle, Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters, 27:1, 29-40, DOI: 10.1080/26410397.2019.1593787 https://doi.org/10.1080/26410397.2019.1593787
Human Rights Watch, Why Sex Work Should Be Decriminalized https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/08/07/why-sex-work-should-be-decriminalized
International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), Sexual rights: an IPPF Declaration https://www.ippf.org/sites/default/files/sexualrightsippfdeclaration_1.pdf
International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). Exclaim! Young People’s guide to sexual rights. https://www.ippf.org/resource/exclaim-young-peoples-guide-sexual-rights-ippf-declaration
International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) /WAS. Fulfil! Guidance document for the implementation of young people’s sexual rights https://bit.ly/3Jd5mCA
Kismödi, E., Corona E., Magicka-Tyndale E., et al. (2017), Sexual rights as human rights: a guide for the WAS Declaration of Sexual Rights. Int J Sex Health.;29(Suppl1):1–92.
Mitchell, K.R., Lewis,R. O’Sullivan, L. & Fortenberry, JD (2021) What is sexual wellbeing and why does it matter for public health?, Lancet Public Health; 6: e608–13 https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lanpub/PIIS2468-2667(21)00099-2.pdf
Philpott, A. (2014) To Stop HIV, lets bring sexy back, – Open Democracy liberation series, https://bit.ly/3CN3A8D
Plan International: Sexual and reproductive health rights statement https://www.planusa.org/blog/sexual-and-reproductive-health-rights-statement/
Sexual rights Initiative : https://sexualrightsinitiative.com/sexual-rights
Sexual Rights Initiative, National Sexual Rights Law and Policy Database to document and compare the status of laws and policies related to sexual rights issues in different countries worldwide. Ultimately, the database will serve as a tool to strengthen the respect for and the protection and fulfilment of sexual rights at the national, regional and international levels. https://sexualrightsdatabase.org/page/welcome
Share-Net Netherlands Community of Practice on Sexual Pleasure: Sexual Pleasure Checklist https://pleasure-checklist.share-net.nl
Singh, A, Both, R, Philpott, A, (2020) ‘I tell them that sex is sweet at the right time’ – A qualitative review of ‘pleasure gaps and opportunities’ in sexuality education programmes in Ghana and Kenya. Global Public Health, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17441692.2020.1809691
Sladden, T., Philpott, A., Braeken, D., Castellanos-Usigli, A., Yadav, V., Christie, E., Gonsalves, L. & Mofokeng, T. (2021). Sexual Health and Wellbeing through the Life Course: Ensuring Sexual Health, Rights and Pleasure for All, International Journal of Sexual Health, DOI: 10.1080/19317611.2021.1991071
World Association for Sexual Health (2014). Declaration of Sexual Rights. https://worldsexualhealth.net/resources/declaration-of-sexual-rights/
World Association for Sexual Health (2018), Sexual Health for the Millennium: A Declaration and Technical Document. http://188.8.131.52/worldsexology.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ millennium-declaration-English
World Health Organization (2015): Sexual health, human rights and the law. https://bit.ly/3CJs8PW