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Is sex a human right? Ummm, yes … no … maybe … it depends on what you mean by sex really

The upcoming SBS documentary Scarlet Road follows sex worker Rachel Wotton and her relationships with her disabled clients. SBS

Health care, fair trials and education are things we readily accept as human rights.

Unlike fresh air and food, we can actually live without school or a due process trial for a whole lot longer than without water, but of course, nobody is willing to give these things up. These aren’t rights as essential as peaceful protesting and voting and living without enslavement.

Sex should be included on this list. It is every bit as important as the right to practice one’s chosen religion or to not be discriminated against. It should be included on this list because, like religion, nobody should be forced to participate, but similarly, nobody should be denied access either.

Such a suggestion is of course, highly controversial as the new SBS documentary Scarlet Road testifies.

Thinking of sex as a human right, of touch, of pleasure, of orgasm as a human right and our concept of rights get blurry; our passion and advocacy for rights becomes much less fervent when we need to initiate dialogue about arousal and pleasure and satisfaction.

Sex might be nice, it might even be wonderful, but survival is possible without it, wants aren’t the same as needs and social mores dictate that right-status is rarely granted to something with so many caveats attached.

Ours is not a culture where sex can be had with whomever we please whenever want, and thus considering sex as a human right would be a complicated assertion.

I’m not going to place sex in the same category as food or water, obviously no one will die without it. But people won’t die without property rights or breached privacy either, and we still consider these as fundamental.

I am instead, going to contend that for many people a quality life necessitates sexual contact and that just as access to public transport for the disabled, or postal services for the geographically isolated are crucial in a civilised, compassionate society, that access to sex needs to be considered just as important as other rights. I’m similarly going to argue that feeling uncomfortable talking about a topic is never reason enough to shelve it.

Before defending sex work services for the disabled, for the elderly, for the lonely, the kinky and the just plain horny, I will acknowledge that considering sex as a right raises some very obvious concerns related to consent and sex provision; concerns which I will of course, repudiate, but which need tabling nevertheless.

Considering sex as a human right, potentially offers justification for rape: it could be contended, for example, that a man was simply partaking of his marital rights; that a woman was just exercising her right to orgasm. The exercising of such rights, potentially opens up a Pandora’s box of legal defenses: rampant horniness suddenly sounds legitimate rather than tabloid laughable.

Is sex a human right? It isn’t as simple as saying yes … or no. SBS

Similarly, to contend that a person has a right to sexual conduct implies that for those not in a relationship or without ready access to a willing partner, that a partner must be supplied; that people need to be provided to service this right.

These are both valid concerns, but concerns which are easily mitigated by that fabulous liberal dictum of choice. Sex may be a right, but like free speech, it cannot be exercised at the expense of others: you cannot force people to listen to your ramblings and you can’t force another person to have sex with you.

Similarly, while considering sex as a right provides justification for the sex industry, nobody should be forced to work in it; those who choose to need to be financially compensated - as in any other service industry - and those who don’t need to be offered protection.

Our culture readily accepts the outsourcing of all kinds of domestic services. We happily have our dogs walked, our lawns mowed, or shirts laundered all by people we don’t have breakfast with nor buy a card for on Valentine’s Day; our busy lives are readily propped up by the physical labour of others.

Sex has to be thought of in this way. No, maybe it’s not a romantic assertion, and perhaps not a politically correct one either, but pretending that sex is always about lovemaking and declarations of devotion is a naïve and discriminatory contention.

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