(De) Politicizing or Delineating Health from Gender, Sexuality, Society and Culture

July 16, 2015


Citizen Journalist & Editor: Bianca van Bavel


How we come to situate sexuality in the discourses of health and human rights can be very political.

From  questioning the medicalization of sexuality to queering heteronormativity and gender binary, the International Association for the Study of Sexuality, Culture and Society (IASSCS) hosted its tenth biennial conference in Dublin (City University) this year from June 17th—20th . The event brought together a variety of academics, advocates, and artists from all over world, eager to engage in discussions of ‘Literacies and Sexualities in Cultural, Fictional, Real, and Virtual Worlds: Past, Present, and Future Perfect?

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IASSCS was first established in 1997 (Amsterdam), to rectify the fragmentation of sexuality studies, support research and promote principles of academic freedom, social justice, and human rights. Prior to this there was no formal organisation that could provide an international forum for the interdisciplinary, social, and cross-cultural studies of sexuality.  Since their inception, IASSCS has helped to facilitate trans-disciplinary dialogue towards the strengthening of global networks and creation of inter-professional coalitions.

At the conference in Dublin discussions emerged regarding the (de)-and (re)-politicization of sexuality; past, present, and future perfect.  Participants questioned the inclusion of reproductive, sexual health and gender equality in the UN MDGs and SDGs.  Is this (de)-politicization or are we minimizing the complexity of sexualities when we fit them in ‘goals’, ‘agendas’ and ‘strategies’?

References were made to a recent WHO report on sexual health, human rights, and the law; exploring the realization of rights linked with the achievement of the highest attainable standard of sexual health.

The report defines sexual health as: “the achievement of the highest attainable standard of sexual health is therefore closely linked to the extent to which people’s human rights – such as the rights to non-discrimination, to privacy and confidentiality, to be free from violence and coercion, as well as the rights to education, information and access to health services – are respected, protected and fulfilled… but also, the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence”.

Cycles of (de)- and (re)-politicization were also explored using the HIV epidemic.  With the recognition that a disease specific focus can reduce sexuality to biological dispositions, categories, and practices; isolating it from social, cultural (and even legal) contexts.

We also know that the separation of sexuality, health, and education can come with its own set of hindrances.  For example, the challenge of socially integrating sexual literacy and education that will actually inform practices and understanding. Experts from across the world spoke to a dramatic distinction between information access and uptake, along with a need to focus on how information is being exchanged.

Whether it is (de)-or (re)-politicization, how sexuality has been placed in-relation to, either rooted within or separated from, this state of health and well-being can be both hindering and/or liberating. Platforms like the IASSCS conference enable the coalescence of diverse knowledge and expertise, which are critical for comprehensively thinking about sexuality and exchanging information. In particular, they help with articulating and re-framing sexuality so as to dismantle prejudices and alleviate exclusion.

When we reflect on the politicization of sexuality in relation to health and human rights, it often involves a dangerous separation of utility and attachment. Such separation is evident in the diverse, and sometimes fragmented, ways in which societies and individuals have come to experience and express sexualities: past, present and future perfect.

Bianca van Bavel holds an MSc in Global Health and has carried out research in Indonesia on the social and environmental determinants of health. While advocating for a holistic One Health and systems approach to global health research and practice, she is an Intern with the IFGH and editor of their Global Health Writes initiative.

Email: [email protected]


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