“Sexual rights are human rights; what about sexual pleasure?” – AUB panel on Human Rights Day

For the occasion of the Human Rights Day 2017, a series of events entitled “Sexual Rights are Human Rights: What About Sexual Pleasure?” were held around the globe in Johannesburg, London, New Delhi, and Beirut on 11 December 2017 to boldly address this topic from its different medical, legal, and cultural perspectives.

​The Network of Arab Scholars on Sexuality and Sexual Health (NASSS) hosted the panel in collaboration with the Global Advisory Board for Sexual Health and Wellbeing (GAB) and Durex. Organized by NASSS coordinator Dr Faysal El Kak, this panel was held at the American University of Beirut, gathering large crowd of professionals, activists, and students.

Panelists coming from different backgrounds and organizations tackled the topic at the psychological, medical, and public health levels. Interventions focused on sexual pleasure as an integral part of sexual rights, protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly back in 1948.

The panel was chaired and moderated by Dr. Faysal El Kak, Senior Lecturer at the Health Population and Community Health Department, FHS, AUB, Clinical Associate, AUBMC, and member of the Global Advisory Board on Sexual Health and Wellbeing. The panelists, Shady Ibrahim, psychologist at LebMash; Pascale Kolakez, psychologist at MOSAIC Foundation; Sandrin Atallah, sexual medicine and psychosexologist, and Rola Yasmine, Sexual Reproductive Health researcher and A project director; animated this discussion through sharing their enriching experiences in various and respective fields.

Speakers reaffirmed that sexual pleasure should be exercised within the context of sexual rights, particularly the rights to equality and non-discrimination, autonomy and bodily integrity, the right to the highest attainable standard of health and freedom of expression. Throughout the discussions, the panelists underlined the main challenges that individuals face in being able to exercise or even discuss their basic right to sexual pleasure, including the lack of access to support from health institutions, lack of sexual awareness and education, and discrimination that vulnerable populations, such as IDPs, refugees, and people with disabilities are facing to achieve their sexual rights.

“We are here to celebrate Human Rights Day, and to focus on a very important proxy of human rights which is sexual rights, and to ask: Is sexual pleasure part of sexual rights, said Dr. El-Kak in his opening statement. “We also want to reflect on the importance of the sexual pleasure as a testimony of the individual freedom, society, diversity, social justice, and on power dynamics,” he added.

Dr. El Kak spoke about the “battle” for sexual rights in the Arab region. “We, as professionals and activists have been involved in the struggle for sexual health and rights in this region since 1975, to be acknowledged as an essential part of people’s health. Debating this topic was considered to be a major breakthrough.”

In his turn, Shadi Ibrahim defined sexuality and sexual health as “the place where physical and mental health get together.” “Now when we talk about sexual health, it is not just a science that we need to study, we also need to understand the importance of sexuality in people’s lives”.

Ibrahim asserted the right to equality in sexual rights, affirming that “international rights and sexual rights apply to everyone regardless of their sexual identity.”

The experiences of human sexual pleasure are diverse and sexual rights ensure that pleasure is a positive experience for all concerned and not obtained by violating other people’s human rights and wellbeing. In this context, Pascale Kolakez, a Psychologist and co-founder of MOSAIC, addressed sexual pleasure and sexual diversity and tackled the subject from her clinical experience. Kolakez stressed the importance of honest and open communication between partners on sexual preferences, in order to avoid any “sexual behavior that is not accepted or understood by a partner.” “The main question nowadays with the current stereotypes: am I sexually normal? This causes a lot of hurt and suffering, which will impact our mental health and our physical health,” added Kolakez.

Underlining the importance to provide support for those seeking help about their sexual health, Kolakez emphasized the role of the psychotherapists and those who work in the mental health field “to create spaces that are safe enough for people to be able to talk about their fantasies, imagining and re-imagining their sexuality, without any shame or any guilt.”

Talking about the place of sexual pleasure among couples, Sandrin Atallah, started by questioning whether sexologists talk about pleasure with their patients or not. “Are Sexologists also pleasure-ologists?” asked Atallah. “Sexual pleasure is a complicated issue because it’s taboo. In our clinical practice, pleasure is a core component of sexual health […] yet, it remains taboo for a number of health practitioners,” she added.

“Our patients are trapped in a conspiracy of silence. No one talks about pleasure. In order to give this right to our patients, we need to communicate and encourage them to communicate with their partners because with no communication there is no pleasure.”

Rola Yasmine, Sexual Reproductive Health researcher, addressed how sexual pleasure is affected by practices of violence and unhealthy relations, and the systemic violence in particular. “There are systemic violence and powers that are affecting the attainment of pleasure on the very individual level”.

Yasmine spot the light on the importance of reproductive justice in attaining pleasure. “Sexual pleasure is not possible without reproductive justice”, said Yasmine, highlighting the institutional racism towards vulnerable population as one of the obstacles in this regard. Another obstacle according to Yasmine is the lack of knowledge, absence of sexual education and access to reproductive health services. “There are major financial, social and cultural constraints preventing access to reproductive health services. Even Lebanese middle class girls have problems accessing proper education and information on reproductive health matters and tools.”

Yasmine also criticized the “medical patriarchy”, stating that “one of the saddest constraints of sexual pleasure is the one that happens from medical patriarchy, since a lot of physicians are not discussing sexual pleasure. Medical patriarchy limits its primary focus and care, and considers everything related to sexual pleasure and satisfaction as secondary."

Following the short interventions by the speakers, this successful panel featured a series of Q&As where participants shared their views about topics related to sexual rights, stereotypes, identities, and social prejudices. Questions related to the current legal framework in Lebanon, pharmaceutical and medical products, as well as sexually transmitted infections were also addressed.​