Should sexuality be considered a basic human rights issue?

July 16, 1999

Certainly, say some academics who argue that even liberal societies constrain people's sexual choices. Jennifer Currie reports

Is the right to choose and express your sexuality a fundamental human right, as basic as the right to food and water or free speech?

Of course, say a group of academics who have founded an association to push for the connection between sexual choice and human rights to be recognised internationally.

Gail Hawkes, sociology lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, says that too many people - especially heterosexuals - assume that everyone enjoys freedom of choice in sexual expression, particularly in democratic societies.

But look at Britain - where it is illegal to have homosexual relations before the age of 18, whereas the age of consent for heterosexuals is 16.

Even in seemingly liberal societies, people's sexual choices are constrained by unconscious fears of deviating from the social norm - which is usually that of heterosexual, stable couples.

In the Pacific island of Vanuatu, for instance, despite the fact that homosexuality is lawful, academic Anita Jowitt's research has uncovered a society riddled by intolerant and homophobic attitudes.

The "wrong sexual choice", as Hawkes describes it, is further compounded by repressive religious attitudes. "The openly homophobic attitudes encouraged by religious beliefs shape and distort the consequences of sexual choice," she says. "The right to choose is only valid where there is true freedom of choice. It is the provision of this true freedom that is the human rights agenda."

The International Association for the Study of Sexuality and Culture in Society was founded at the University of Amsterdam two years ago. Next week its members will explore the connections between sexuality and human rights at a conference at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Neil Duncan, a senior lecturer in Wolverhampton University's School of Education, will tell conference delegates that the erosion of sexual choice starts at school.

His paper, "Sexual bullying in UK secondary schools", describes the struggles experienced by pupils while trying to conform to social expectations and outlines the generation of homophobia and misogyny in adolescents.

Seven years of observation, both as an ethnographer and a support teacher, have given Duncan a rare insight into teenage subcultures. He believes the problem of sexual bullying, or sexualised hostility, is inherently linked to the school system. "Going to school is one of the most emphatic and profound socialising experiences. By bringing lots of people within a very tight age band together for 11 years you are bound to create various social practices."

And pressures on adolescents to conform, perform and achieve can manifest themselves in bullying.

"For a long time, feminists have pointed out that there is no masculine equivalent response for the word 'slag'," Duncan says. "I would argue that the word 'gay' in school sub-culture has more impact on boys. It is a catch-all term that is almost unrelated to homosexuality."

Duncan's interviews reveal that the term is reserved for boys who fail to live up to expectations of masculinity and that some of those struggling to come to terms with their sexual identity can be scarred for life by being branded "gay" in such a hostile context.

Sexual bullying is used to reaffirm notions of normality during puberty. "There is always a mythical character in the class everyone believes has only one testicle," Duncan says.

The battle to lower the age of consent for gay men from 18 to 16 is tackled in another paper by Sonja Ellis and Celia Kitzinger, both of Loughborough University. They examine the ethical arguments that have been used to override the claims of gay men for equality with heterosexuals, arguing that when the House of Lords reversed the Commons' proposal to reduce the age of consent, democracy took precedence over equality. "Young gay men are being denied equal citizenship," Hawkes says.

Dave Unsworth, co-organiser of the conference and project manager in Manchester Metropolitan University's sociology department, thinks that the timing of this particular conference is crucial. "At the close of the 20th century we are encouraged to accept that choice offers the new doorway to freedom - much as the political franchise did at the end of the 19th century. Just as in the 19th century with the franchise, the appearance belies the reality. Some forms of choice are being prioritised over others."

"Despite cultural variations, the issue of sexual diversity and human rights is a universal one," Hawkes adds. "We hope to offer a platform to all those who promote through their research the right to truly choose, without stigma and repression."

Sexual Diversity and Human Rights, International Academic Conference, July 21-24 at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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