Sexuality, Health and Human Rights

On October 7, 2008 CLAGS was delighted to host a panel on Sexuality, Health and Human Rights, a new book by Sonia Corrêa, Richard
Parker and Rosalind Petchesky (Routledge, 2008). This ground breaking work, intended as a companion volume to the 2007
e-book SexPolitics: Reports from the front lines, provides a critical analysis of shifting theoretical perspectives and activist strategies
regarding sexual politics and their larger geopolitical context in the twenty-first century. Long in the making, the book surveys the “Global
‘Sex’ Wars” in the shadow of both religious resurgence and political conservatism; new research agendas in the face of biomedical discourses
and HIV/AIDS; and “The Promises and Limits of Sexual Rights,” both from within international LGBTQI and feminist human rights activism
and beyond.
Each of the authors is a leading scholar and advocate of sexual rights. Sonia Corrêa is research coordinator for sexual and reproductive health
and rights at Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (Brazil); Richard Parker is professor of sociomedical sciences and director
of the Center for Gender, Sexuality and Health at Columbia University (USA); and Rosalind Petchesky is distinguished professor of political
science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York (USA). In addition, all share a commitment to, and have
leadership roles in, the global forum Sexuality Policy Watch (SPW), which consists of researchers and political activists from around the
world who seek to strengthen sexual health and rights through policy-oriented research and analysis. Of central importance to SPW— and
in many ways also hallmarks of Sexuality, Health and Human Rights—are protecting sexual diversity and freedom, understanding sexuality
and the body through the lens of political economy, and building transnational and multisectoral alliances.

At this event, the authors invited a panel of three guest speakers to introduce Sexuality, Health and Human Rights and draw attention to its
major contributions and challenges. Rafael de la Dehesa, an assistant professor of sociology, anthropology, and social work at CUNY, College
of Staten Island, commended the authors for effectively straddling the divide between academia and activism, for detailing the impacts of
global capitalism, the “war on terror,” UN agencies and human rights regimes on local and national settings, and for analyzing secularism and
religious conservatism from the same critical perspective. De la Dehesa also raised interesting questions about the authors’ ambivalent position
with regard to secular politics: should an understanding of religions as complex and diverse mean
dismissing a commitment to secularism?
Ananya Mukherjea, an assosciate professor of women’s studies and sociology also at CUNY’s
College of Staten Island, noted the authors’ healthy skepticism toward the emerging conceptual
framework of sexual rights at the same time as they embrace its aspirations. Mukherjea
also commended their skillful theorizing of desire and motivation, which have, of late, often
been diluted or obscured in sexuality studies and policy platforms in the wake of the HIV/
AIDS epidemic. In particular, she found the critique of human rights groups that remain
silent on issues of sexuality, and of the recent trends toward re-medicalizing HIV/AIDS, to
be especially illuminating and important contributions to related bodies of literature and approaches
to advocacy.
A third colleague, Nomvuyo Z.T. Nolutshungu, a doctoral candidate in political science at
CUNY’s Graduate Center who is writing a dissertation on transitional justice and human
rights, was grateful for the authors’ treatment of human rights as insufficient yet indispensable,
and their vision of how human rights policies could be improved. She was especially taken
by their recommendations that sexual rights be individually relational rather than universal,
necessarily transformative of boundaries of inclusion/exclusion, and expanded and made locally as
well as globally relevant through broad coalitions of diverse social movements.
In terms of the book’s challenges, all three of the presenters spoke of the same general concern: the challenges of effecting change. That is,
they wanted to know how to build sexual rights as discourse and advocacy, transform ideals such as erotic justice and sexual freedom into
realities, identify agents and important decision-makers, and create shifting spaces for different voices to be heard. Sonia Corrêa responded to
this concern in her closing remarks, admitting that, indeed, these are dilemmas that perplex the authors as well but are far too complex to be
resolved in a single publication or by only a few authors. Sexuality, Health and Human Rights, rather, is intended precisely to raise these types of
difficult questions and to inspire activists and academics to keep thinking and struggling: remaining actively engaged in sexual rights debates
yet always challenging the issues from an outside viewpoint.
This event was cosponsored by the Program in Political Science at the The Graduate Center, CUNY; the Women & Gender Studies Program and
the Political Science Departments at Hunter College; and the secretariats of Sexuality Policy Watch at Columbia University’s Mailman School
of Public Health and at ABIA in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Nancy Worthington is a member of the SPW – Columbia Secretariat Team