Tom Claes (University of Gent)


7 February 2017

The post WWII era has seen the emergence of a widely embraced human rights discourse and activism. Human rights were later on applied to specific groups and specific sectors, such as women’s and children’s rights and  rights pertaining to labour and to sexuality. The formulation of so-called ‘sexual rights’ is one of the latest  developments and they are now widely mobilised in sexual activism and development policies.

Progressive activists and movements of all stripes have enthusiastically embraced this rights-based sexual politics of equality and agency. But it has recently come under increased scrutiny and has been heavily criticised as an  overly individualistic and decontextualised stance that obfuscates the impact of the wider neo-liberal economic and political context. A sexual politics of freedom and choice, it is claimed, fails properly to account for structural and cultural gender or for power imbalances, precariousness and vulnerabilities. It also is unable to problematise the intensifying marketisation and commodification of sexuality, and leads to a politics and ethics of freedom and tolerance (often couched in terms of ‘citizenship’, ‘agency’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘choice’) over a politics and ethics of solidarity and care. In my talk I will critically evaluate these allegations and weigh the pros and cons of a sexual
rights-based sexual politics. I shall argue that a sexual rights and health agenda – the often correct criticism  notwithstanding – still has huge emancipatory potential and when properly connected to issues of gender, social and economic justice can serve as the basis for the development of a notion and practice of sexual justice.

Tom Claes is Associate Professor of Ethics at the Department of Philosophy & Moral Science at Ghent University. Since 2012 he has been the director of CEVI – Center for Ethics and Value Inquiry (CEVI), Ghent University.  Together with Paul Reynolds (Edge Hill University, UK) he is network leader and founding member of INSEP – International Network for Sexual Ethics & Politics. He is also a member of GCGS – Ghent Centre for Global Studies and co-promoter of the Ghent-based Academic Network for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Policy, bringing together SRHR activists and policymakers from more than ten countries world-wide. He teaches and publishes on ethics, sexuality and  globalisation. His main research focus is on issues of consent, the globalisation of sexuality, sex work and  trafficking. He is currently exploring new approaches to the formulation of a theory of sexual justice based on sexual health and rights discourses and activism.

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