Human Rights, Sexual Rights and World AIDS Day
World AIDS Day brings into focus the micro-strategies needed to combat a macro problem.
The theme for World AIDS Day 2011 is ‘Leading with Science, Uniting for Action’. Coincidently, later this month, December 10th to be precise, we will commemorate Human Rights Day. This is the 63rd anniversary of the adoption, by the United Nations General Assembly, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
The promotion and protection of human rights has been a major preoccupation for the United Nations since 1945, when the Organization’s founding nations resolved that the horrors of The Second World War should never be allowed to recur.
Respect for human rights and human dignity “is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”, the General Assembly declared three years later in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the foundation of international human rights law, the first universal statement on the basic principles of inalienable human rights, and a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.
In a world wracked by poverty, disease and war; where we threaten our very existence with climate altering pollution, nuclear proliferation and extreme population growth; is there room to talk about human rights that include sexual rights?
I emphatically say yes! In fact, I assert that sexual inequality and oppression is at the heart of many of the world’s problems. I contend that trying to address human rights without including the essential component of sexual rights is ultimately doomed to failure.
An absence of sexual rights leads to domestic and societal violence; human trafficking; suicide; a rise in Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) including HIV/AIDS; unplanned pregnancies, abortion, and sexual dysfunction.
You know how we are always being encouraged to Think Globally and Act Locally? Well, on this World AIDS Day while we busy ourselves with local concerns, I think we’d do well to focus some of our attention on what intricately binds us to the rest of the human community.
I offer three examples of what I’m talking about. I invite you to consider how a myopic HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention effort, when divorced from the overarching issues of human, economic, social and sexual rights often make our efforts ineffectual and, in some cases, even counterproductive.
A couple of years ago the research community was all aflutter about ‘conclusive’ evidence linking HIV transmission and uncircumcised males. While I’m certainly not ready to take this data on face value, let’s just say, for the sake of discussion, that the link is conclusive. A massive campaign of circumcision was proposed as the best means of HIV prevention. The medical community would descend on epicenters of the disease, scalpels in hand, ready to eliminate the offending foreskins from every male in sight, young or old.
But wait, there’s a problem. Most HIV/AIDS epicenters are in underdeveloped countries. In these places, access to enough clean water to attend to even the most basic personal hygiene, like daily cleaning under one’s foreskin, remains an enormous chronic crisis. Without first addressing the problem of unfettered access to clean water and adequate sanitation, which according to The United Nations is a basic human right, further disease prevention efforts are doomed.
I mean, what are the chances that surgical intervention would succeed—one that would involve significant and sophisticated aftercare; especially if there’s not even enough clean water for bathing?
These well-meaning medical personnel suggest imposing a strategy that not only works against nature—our foreskins do have a purpose after all: a healthy prepuce is a natural deterrent to infection. But this intervention would also violate long-held cultural and societal norms—circumcision is abhorrent to many of these same cultures. Wouldn’t this proposed prevention effort to stem the tide actually make matters worse?
Other epicenters of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic are associated with indentured sex work. Until the economic and educational opportunities for women throughout the world improve—which is a basic human right according to The United Nations—women will remain chattel. Families in economically depressed areas of the world will continue to be pressured to sell their daughters (and sons) simply to subsist.
Closing brothels and stigmatizing prostitutes as a means of disease prevention overlooks the more pressing human rights concerns at play here. Sex is a commodity because there is a voracious market. Men from developed nations descend on the populations of less developed nations to satisfy sexual proclivities with partners they are prohibited from enjoying in their own country. Young women (and boys) in developing countries are viewed as exploitable and disposable, because they don’t have the same civil protections afforded their peers in the developed world. And runaway population growth in countries that deprive their women and girls access to education and contraception inevitably creates a never-ending supply of hapless replacements.
Addressing the endemic gender inequality in many societies is key. Equal access to education and economic resources must come before, or at least hand in hand with any serious sexually transmitted infection prevention effort.
Finally, people in the developed world enjoy a certain level of affluence and economic stability which allows them to indulge in sex recreationally. Thanks to effective birth control methods we can ignore the procreative aspects of sex and replace it with a means of expressing a myriad of other human needs. Not least among these are status, self-esteem and self-expression.
If we’re trying to prove something to ourselves, or others, by the way we conduct our sexual lives, simple prohibitions against certain sex practices won’t work. If I’m convinced that unprotected sex with multiple partners and sharing bodily fluids is edgy, cool fun, without serious consequence, as it’s portrayed in the media (porn); I will be more likely to express myself the same way. This is especially true for young people who are already feeling invincible.
Case in point: there has been a startling uptick in seroconversions among young people, particularly gay men, which indicates that disease prevention efforts, even in the world’s most affluent societies, are simply not up to the task. It’s not that there is a scarcity of resources, quite the contrary. It is more likely that these efforts are not connected to a fundamental understanding of the role sexuality plays in the gay community (and increasingly among non-gay people). I believe that sexual expression and sexual pleasure are the overarching issues here. These too are fundamental human rights.
Bareback (condomless) porn went from being a pariah genre on the periphery of the gay porn industry just a few years ago, to the hottest, most prolific and biggest moneymaking genre today. It’s no accident or coincidence that this surprising reversal coincided with this the increase of HIV/AIDS infections in certain populations. I hear from people all the time, from those inside as well as outside the porn industry, who tell me that it’s their prerogative to engage in unprotected sex. “I have the right to express myself that way,” I am often told. “If one has the bad luck to seroconvert, it’s just that, bad luck. After all, HIV is now a manageable chronic condition, not unlike diabetes,” or so the reasoning goes. So I should just get over it and mind my own business.
No amount of safer sex proselytizing is going to overcome this kind of resistance. I propose we need to look at why and how we express ourselves sexually. As we unravel this complex jumble of motivations and behaviors, effective prevention strategies will manifest themselves clearly. We must develop a sex-positive message; one that celebrates sexuality, builds self-esteem and counteracts the prevailing media messages of sex with no consequences.
World AIDS Day brings into focus the micro-strategies needed to combat a macro problem. But it also shows that we cannot fight this, or any disease, in a vacuum. It’s imperative that we see how global health and wellbeing is completely dependent on basic human rights, including sexual rights that include gender and reproductive rights, the elimination of sexual exploitation and the freedom of sexual expression.
Human rights that include sexual rights encompass the goals of World AIDS Day—increasing awareness, fighting prejudice and improving education. But applying these principles must cover the full spectrum of human sexuality, gender equality, reproductive health and, dare we say it, pleasure. To repeat the General Assembly declaration; Respect for human rights and human dignity “is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
Part 4 of a 5-Part Series — Understanding Catholic Moral Theology
Something earthshaking happened the weekend before Thanksgiving last year. It was so dramatic it was felt right round the globe, don’t cha know.
Pope Benedict made a most extraordinary comment in an interview with the German journalist, Peter Seewald, in July 2010. He said that condom use could be justified in some cases to help stop the spread of AIDS. This startling statement came to light as part of a promotional push for Seewald’s latest book on Cardinal Ratzinger, (now Benedict XVI): Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times.
In order to see just how astonishing this is one need only look back to the spring of the previous year. In March, 2009, during his trip to Cameroon, the pope not only reaffirmed Church teaching on the unacceptability of condom use under any circumstance, including the effort to diminish the spread of AIDS. He went on to say that he thought condom use might actually make HIV infection worse. This reiteration of the Vatican’s hard line, especially on African soil, coupled with his casual dismissal of established scientific evidence, drew immediate criticism from around the world. It was yet another public relations nightmare this pontiff didn’t need, or apparently want.
But now Benedict says condoms are not “a real or moral solution” to the AIDS epidemic, adding, “that can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.” But he also says that “there may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.”
To the avid Vatican watcher this is nothing short of revolutionary. I tell you the Catholic world has shifted on its axis, Benedict’s tortured logic aside.
The week that followed the initial revelation of the pope’s condom statement was a maelstrom. The Vatican curia, bishops from around the world as well as Catholic activists all tried to spin his words. Church conservatives insisted the pontiff had been misquoted or misunderstood. — “The pope’s statement on condoms was extremely limited: he did not approve their use or suggest that the Roman Catholic Church was beginning to back away from its prohibition of birth control” said Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, one of Benedict’s former student and editor in chief of the very conservative Ignatius Press. The liberal wing of the Church was hopeful. — “It’s a marvelous victory for common sense,” said Jon O’Brien, the head of the Catholic group — Catholics for Choice.
Then, only a couple of days after the original news broke, more startling information came to light. At a news conference in Rome, papal spokesman, the Fr. Frederico Lombardi, said Benedict knew his comments would provoke intense debate, and that the pope meant for his remarks to apply not just to male prostitutes, but also “if you’re a man, a woman, or a transsexual.”
The pope seemed to be clarifying and expanding his comments, instead of walking them back. At this point, my head began to reel. Had he undergone some kind of metanoya? Did he develop a sense of compassion for male (female and transsexual) prostitutes and their johns? Was he finally having second thoughts about all us sexual reprobates and the damnation that awaits us for our unnatural acts? It was utterly astonishing! And who knew the word transsexual was even in the pope’s vocabulary?
Astonishing, because in October 2010 Belgian Archbishop, André-Joseph Léonard, asserted aloud what most hardliners say in private. He said the worldwide AIDS epidemic is a matter of “immanent justice”, i.e. God’s retribution for sodommite depravity.
By week’s end all hell had broken loose. Many prominent conservative Catholics were publicly rejecting the Vatican’s own explanation of what the pope said. They declared that they would only accept a more formal papal pronouncement, like an encyclical. Liberal Catholics, on the other hand, were taking the pontiff at his word. For them the pope had spoken; exceptions to the Vatican’s previously uncompromising ban on the use of artificial contraception CAN be made in the worldwide effort to combat AIDS.
But what is the average pew Catholic supposed to make of all of this?
The pope is appealing to the principle of double effect, a standard of Catholic moral theology since Thomas Aquinas. This doctrine claims that sometimes it is permissible to bring about, a harmful side effect (contraception) in an effort to promote some greater good (the fight against the spread of AIDS). In other words, accepting the lesser of two evils.
No matter how you look at it, this seemingly innocuous papal statement has created a fissure in the bedrock of Catholic moral theology. It is a total game-changer and nothing will ever be quite the same.
Part 1 of this series HERE!
Part 2 of this series HERE!
Part 3 of this series HERE!
Sins Of The Flesh
Part 2 of a 5-Part Series — Understanding Catholic Moral Theology
I was absolutely mesmerized by the recent papal visit to Spain for World Youth Day. I confess it was a morbid curiosity in the spectacle, but who among us doesn’t have a guilty pleasure or two? My clergy days are way behind me, but the pomp and ceremony are still very familiar and even a little beguiling.
Benedict XVI, the kindly grandfather figure, kisses babies, waves to the crowd from what looks like a clown car. Yet there was a palpable tension in the air that was not missed by the devout and the skeptic alike. The pope came to Spain to mark his territory and that is always an anxious time for those whose territory he invades.
The innocuous visit soon turned ominous when the elderly pontiff began to scold against the dual evils of relativism and secularism. You’d think having so much to apologize for in terms of the worldwide priest sex abuse scandal he’d take a more humble approach to our common human foibles. But there was no hint of that.
His litany of our cultural sins is as familiar as his papal vestments. Abortion; homosexuality, particularly those who advocate same-sex marriage; sexual permissiveness among the young; and the spiritual vacuum at the heart of a modern society bent on instant gratification. The common thread being an abhorrence of sexual pleasure.
Catholic doctrine specifically states that the sacred act of procreation is the only legitimate reason for sexual expression and that, or course, can only occur within the confines of a marriage between one man and one woman. If a married couple is interested in having intercourse, then they’d better be willing to accept the real potential for creating another life each and every time.
On New Year’s Eve 1930, the Roman Catholic Church officially banned all “artificial” means of birth control. Condoms, diaphragms and cervical caps are artificial, in as much as they block the natural journey of sperm during intercourse. Douches, suppositories and spermicides kill or impeded sperm, so they too are banned. Tampering with the “male seed” is tantamount to murder. A common admonition at the time was “so many conceptions prevented, so many homicides.” To interfere with God’s will is a mortal sin and even grounds for excommunication.
Catholics are left with abstinence or the rhythm method (the practice of abstaining from sex during a woman’s period of ovulation) as the only means of family planning. But, the rhythm method is wildly unreliable. The roulette of it all places its heaviest strain on the women, but the marital relationship is also stressed.
In 1966 the Church revisited the doctrine. A papal commission set up to review the dogma voted 30-5 to relax the concerns on birth control. But in 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical, Humanae Vitae which overrode the bishops and reiterated the anti-birth-control stance. He said this was necessary for several reasons. Chief among them was — if sex were not about creating children in a loving family unit, then sex would solely be about pleasure with no responsibility. Men would simply use women as pleasure objects and would lose respect for them.
Some argued that Pope Paul’s decision to issue the letter was more about exerting papal authority then it was about birth control. They claimed he wanted to reserve to himself the authority to decide the issue rather then let the bishops of Vatican II decide. But I see it differently; the pope had virtually no choice. If he buckled on the bedrock issue of the procreative nature of sex he would have undercut the totality of Catholic sexual morality. There’d no longer be a cogent argument for outlawing masturbation, homosexuality, premarital sex, extramarital sex and divorce as disordered and intrinsically evil.
Obviously, the practical application of this encyclical goes way beyond the marital bed. It prohibits condoms in the fight against AIDS; young people are set adrift in a void of sex education; teenage pregnancies soar; gay and lesbian people are vilified; and married people as well as theologians are left questioning the relevancy of a doctrine that causes so much harm.
But, in this matter at least, that faithful have spoken. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention’s 2002 National Survey of Family Growth revealed that 97% of American Catholic women over age 18 have used a form of contraception, which is the same percentage as the general population. A 2005 nationwide poll of 2,242 U.S. adults by Harris Interactive showed that 90% of Catholics supported the use of birth control. Use of modern contraceptive methods is also high in many predominantly Catholic countries: 67% of married women of child-bearing age in Spain, 69% in France, 60% in Mexico, and 70% in Brazil.
These statistics underscore what we’ve all known for a long time. There is massive “disobedience” on the part of Catholic faithful. But they’re not being obstinate just to be contrary. These are women and men of conscience, who have weighed the Vatican arguments and found them wanting. Most Catholics know their religious affiliation is more than a slavish adherence to dogma; they know that it actually means finding the divine in the crucible of their own life.
Part 1 of this series HERE!