US government adopts 'sexual rights' vocabulary: What does the term mean?

The White House announcement follows years of work by lobbyists pushing for the US government to take a bigger role in promoting gender-related issues.

Mike Segar/Reuters
The United Nations headquarters in Manhattan is seen across the East River as the sun rises in New York, Thursday. More than 100 world leaders are expected to gather at UN headquarters this month for the 70th United Nations General Assembly which convenes September 28.

The US government has expanded its vocabulary with the new term “sexual rights.”

A statement at a United Nations meeting this week announced that the US government will begin using the term “sexual rights” in discussions of human rights. The statement is a result of years of lobbying by interest groups who argued the United States should show global leadership on addressing the rights of all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Sexual rights, according to the US statement posted on a State Department website, include "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.” The US definition is generally in line with a pre-existing definition on the World Health Organization website (which is not an official WHO definition). 

The announcement precedes a gathering of 150 world leaders at the UN to launch ambitious new development goals, including gender equality. A major push at the gathering will be to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights by 2030. 

Richard Erdman, a deputy US ambassador to the UN, was specified that the term “sexual rights” will not be used for anything legally binding.

“Our use of the term does not reflect a view that they are part of customary international law. It is, however, a critical express of our support for the rights and dignity of all individuals regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity,” Mr. Erdman told the Associated Press.

Proponents of the term are still optimistic that the adoption of the phrase will add weight to the global discussion of gender-specific issues. The Washington-based Center for Health and Gender Equity applauded the decision.

“On one level, it’s symbolic. It also sends a signal to the global community that sexual and reproductive health are rights are a part of the global development agenda,” Serra Sippel, the center’s President, told the AP.

Ms. Sippel said the decision was “the United States catching up with the rest of the world.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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