What Are "Sexual Rights"? Our Government Just Began Recognizing Them For The First Time Ever

Here's a term more deserving to be in the Oxford dictionary than awesome sauce: sexual rights. In an unprecedented move, the U.S. government now officially recognizes "sexual rights," which have long been overlooked both in the United States and worldwide. But what, exactly, does sexual rights mean?

In the mainstream, we're used to talking about women's rights, gay rights, and transgender rights exclusively; rarely do we discuss all these issues together, even though they are constantly intersecting. This new umbrella term, which encompasses reproductive health, sexual orientation and sexual violence, will finally provide a way to discuss these issues in a broader context.

In a statement made to the United Nations Women Executive Board on Tuesday, Richard Erdman, deputy U.S. ambassador to the UN, elaborated on the federal government's "sexual rights" definition:

The United States will now begin using this phrase and will refer also to “sexual rights.” Our understanding of the term “sexual rights” draws heavily from paragraph 96 of the Platform for Action adopted at the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference. That language characterizes the human rights of women to include rights relating to sexuality and stresses equality between men and women in matters of sexual relations and sexuality. As a result, the United States understands the term “sexual rights” to include all individuals’ “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."

But are sexual rights human rights? Erdman made it clear on Tuesday the the U.S. government will not use the term sexual rights when it comes to the law. "We wish to clarify that the United States will use the term 'sexual rights' or 'sexual and reproductive health and rights' to express rights that are not legally binding," Erdman said.

The ambassador added that sexual rights "are not human rights and they are not enshrined in international human rights law." Still, Erdman called sexual rights "a critical expression of ... support" for the rights of all people regardless of their sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

This change from the U.S. government comes just a week before the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, where participating leaders will discuss the top challenges facing nations worldwide. Bathsheba Nell Crocker, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, emphasized in a public address on Thursday that sexual violence is still a key priority for the peacekeeping organization.

"As we seek these new commitments, we must be similarly committed to addressing shortcomings in peacekeeping," Crocker said. "And nothing in that category is more corrosive than the appalling and horrifying allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers."

The U.S. government's definition is similar to the guidelines put forward by the World Health Organization. WHO guidelines describe sexual rights as a way to "embrace human rights that are already recognized in national laws, international human rights documents and other consensus statements." The health organization adds that sexual rights seek to protect individuals from coercion, discrimination, and violence when it comes to all matters of sexuality, including reproductive health, sexual orientation, and consent to sexual acts.