17 Things to Remember about Sexuality

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csbr1Over the course of seven packed days in mid-September 2009, I had the chance to take part in the 2nd CSBR Sexuality Institute in Istanbul, Turkey, organized by the Istanbul-based NGO Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR) – New Ways, which serves as the international coordination office of the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR). And I have to say those were seven of the most fulfilling, enriching, and thought-provoking days of my life so far, which I shared with 18 other participants from the Middle East and North Africa, South and South East Asia. The 11 – 18 September 2009 CSBR Institute was a treasure trove I’d been given open access to, a feast of information and knowledge I couldn’t get enough of. Even though a summary wouldn’t do the Institute or the experience any justice, I will still share with you a selection of the most delicious food for thought I savored there:

  • Sexuality is a transfer point for relations of power. Power is not a thing. It’s a relation. It’s productive, not only repressive. It’s not only the property of the state. It’s exercised throughout the social body. Everybody participates to some degree in the continuation or modification of existing power relations.
  • “Sexuality is a central aspect of being human throughout life and encompasses sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction. Sexuality is experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviors, practices, roles and relationships. While sexuality can include all of these dimensions, not all of them are always experienced or expressed. Sexuality is influences by the interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors.” – World Health Organization, working definition, 2004
  • Sexuality is used as a tool of power, control and oppression in both the private and public spheres by the new religious right. Women’s bodies are being used to protect morality.
  • Patriarchal social constructs based on genderized notions claim that women’s bodies and sexuality belong to men, the family and society and uphold constructions of “chastity”, “honor”, and “morality”, turning sexuality into a taboo.
  • Heterosexuality is presented as ideal and stable but its stability is fragile because people are afraid of other sexual and gender identities.
  • Homophobia is a western import/concept, not homosexuality. A study of history and literature in Muslim societies shows a richness in erotic poetry – both heterosexual and homosexual. It is modernization and colonialism that brought about the criminalization of homosexuality.
  • The arbitrary dichotomous categorization of all individuals as either male or female, which seems self-evident in many societies, is in fact itself a socio-cultural construction that is not universal. Gender roles and identities that do not fit into the bi-polar restriction of the male/female paradigm have traditionally been recognized in several societies in the past. Colonization often suppressed any identities that did not fit into the male or female categories such as the hijras in India and Pakistan or the two-spirit people of the Native American cultures.
  • Islam respects sex and even advocates that believers should enjoy their sexual life. As in all other religions, Islam regards sex basically as a tool for reproduction, but Islam does not regard reproduction as the only objective of sexual activity. Joy is another main objective of sex.
  • Muslims have the right to interpret the Koran according to their needs. If a Muslim is a homosexual, God is still their God. They’ve the right to define their relationship with Him the way they see fit.
  • Condemnation of homosexuality in religious texts is based on narrow-minded interpretations of the latter.
  • Trends in HIV/AIDS show that the disease is afflicting the general population. The statements that the virus is only prevalent in Africa, gay men and sex workers are all false.
  • HIV/AIDS affects women through the dominating power relations, gender-related issues such as inequality, transactional sex and gender-based violence, lack of education, cultural attitudes toward female sexuality and marriage, marriage itself (adolescent marriage, multiple partners), and the female physiology.
  • Sexual health is about the well-being of every human being, not just the absence of disease. It involves safety, freedom from discrimination and violence, as well as respect. Much like health is a fundamental human right, sexual health must be a basic human right. Sexual health is an ongoing process that covers the entire life span, people of diverse sexualities and forms of sexual expression. It is influenced by gender norms and roles.
  • “Sexual rights embrace human rights that are already recognized in national laws, international human rights documents and other consensus statements. They include the right of all persons, free of coercion, discrimination and violence, to:
    • The highest attainable standard of sexual health, including access to sexual and reproductive health care services;
    • Seek, receive and impart information related to sexuality;
    • Respect for bodily integrity;
    • Choose their partner;
    • Decide to be sexually active or not;
    • Consensual sexual relations;
    • Consensual marriage;
    • Decide whether or not, and when to have children; and
    • Pursue a satisfying, safe and pleasurable sexual life.

    The responsible exercise of human rights requires that all persons respect the rights of others.” – World Health Organization, working definition, 2004

  • Sexual rights are relevant to all people. Separating rights from identities can shift the debate from being about certain groups of people oppressing other groups, to identifying the underlying structures of inequality.
  • Poverty and politics are the most devastating diseases of the century.
  • Perceptions change. Attitudes change. Invest in learning about the body and letting go of inhibitions.

The aforementioned tidbits were taken from and inspired by referenced presentations and open discussions which took place during the 2nd CSBR Institute and which reflect previous literature and/or on-going debates surrounding the related topics. As such, they are not credited to the CSBR, nor do they reflect the CSBR’s position on the related issues. But rather they are ideas and arguments that marked the author who chose to raise them in this article for further reflection.

Sometime in the first decade of the 21st century, Joelle found queer and feminist activism, which only added to her always being lost – in thought, that is. Joelle likes to wander (or is it ponder?) the world, read books, listen to her – yes, her – music, and mull over her existence, the human condition, and the thoughts zooming through her mind when she’s running or biking in the city and beyond. Queer existentialism anyone?

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