The human right to sexual pleasure: why feeling good is revolutionary

By Remy Marshall

Photo by Dainis Graveris, 2020.

Content warning for mentions of misogyny.

A woman in a nightclub cubicle once told me that rubbing your clit is a private act of resistance. She was drunk and slurring, but these were wise words nonetheless. 

It is no coincidence that the one part of female anatomy that exists purely for pleasure is neglected. Though it has become the butt of many jokes, there is nothing comical about the neglect of the female orgasm. It is a reflection of power dynamics; the needs and desires of men supersede those of women. It is a fact equally true in the bedroom as it is in the international arena of human rights. 

How do we combat this? Step one: declare sexual pleasure a human right.

This is a project that goes beyond just sex. Sexual pleasure is the starting point, certainly. Still, the insertion (no pun intended) of pleasure into the human rights arena allows us to shift our focus from harm minimisation and making things ‘less bad’ to fostering purposeful and joyful existences.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) fails to mention sex explicitly. There are vague allusions to it within articles that pertain to the family unit. For example, Article 5 calls for “a proper understanding of maternity as a social function”, while Article 6 refers to the right “to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children”. There is something quite Handmaid’s Tale-esque about the only sex-related womens’ rights being tied up in her reproductive ability. As such, CEDAW and the human rights framework must extend far beyond this. For starters, mentions of consent, autonomy and contraceptive or abortion rights would be nice. But, further, the right to sexual pleasure would demonstrate some acknowledgement of how sex intersects with misogyny, and would be a meaningful contribution to feminist efforts.

The right to sexual pleasure transcends the cis- and heteronormaitvity of the current human rights framework. Sexual pleasure encompasses sexual exploration and all sexual preferences; it is, therefore, a tool to embrace queerness and the full spectrum of gender identities into human rights. Whether someone is into knife play or temperature play, wants to peg their partner, or perhaps only finds pleasure in getting themselves off, every sexual identity, orientation and preference are protected and respected. The right to sexual pleasure promotes an inclusivity and progressiveness that is often absent from human rights discourse.

It could be argued that there are people who get sexual pleasure out of peculiar or outright unethical practices. In response to this, I say firstly, that we do not kink-shame in this family. Secondly, the right to sexual pleasure ensures that both or all parties involved are enthusiastic participants. I have yet to hear of an unethical sexual act in which everyone involved is a consenting adult who gains pleasure out of it.

Let us turn to sex workers as a class of people that this has direct implications for. Currently, Article 6 of CEDAW says that State parties shall suppress “exploitation of prostitution for women”. The attachment of exploitation to sex work is odd considering capitalism requires the exploitation of physical and intellectual labour for any and all profit. If the problem CEDAW has is with exploitation, then it has an issue with capitalism, not with sex work. I digress. Article 6 undermines sex work as a legitimate form of work and creates harmful working conditions. This is evidenced by the fact that states that criminalise sex work experience far higher rates of rape, assault and murder of sex workers.

So, how does the right to sexual pleasure help to remedy this?

The right to sexual pleasure acknowledges two things: first, that people will seek out sex work no matter the law’s stance on it and second, that sex workers should be experiencing pleasure just as much as their clients are. To prioritise pleasure in this field of employment is a radical thing — it encourages better and protective legislation, the uplifting of both women of colour and the trans community (groups that are overrepresented in this field), and shifts the human rights framework to one that supports sex workers’ rights rather than undermines them.

The right to sexual pleasure goes beyond affirming people’s right to ask for it faster, deeper, slower, softer. It is about elevating women and reframing the discussion of human rights. It is about untangling the tentacles of the patriarchy and capitalism from our bedrooms. It is about transforming the human rights project into something with real vision and substance. To centre pleasure in our discourses and frameworks is to recognise that people do not just have the right to life, they have the right to a good life. Pleasure is indeed revolutionary and sexual pleasure is how we begin this journey.

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