‘I’ Column - Sunila Abeysekera

... on how sexual rights affect one personally, and how they are affirmed and/or violated in one's local cultural setting.

Sunila Abeysekera

find it hard to even speak about sexual rights in a context in which rights in general do not exist as something that can be enjoyed by everyone, in a society where speaking of sex is taboo.

In Sri Lanka, where I come from, for example, there is a range of quite public commentary about my sexual history and my sexual behaviour which inhibits me in my social activism on all sides. As a single mother, for years I had to deal with questions about my children, their fathers, my relationship with their fathers, their relationship with their fathers, the lack of a marriage certificate ‘sanctifying’ their birth and so on. I felt this was completely invasive of my privacy and violated my rights, including my sexual rights, as well as the rights of my children. Yet, within our culture there is sanction for these kinds of invasions. Everyone feels that they can have a say in your life, and especially in your private /sexual conduct.

Something that has always remained with me is something that happened when my daughter was about ten years old. I was reading a magazine – published by a group that sets itself up to be radical and post-modern – which had a piece in which they took apart my life including the fact that I used to sing on stage without a bra. She was reading over my shoulder. At that time I was slimmer than I am now, I was radical, I did not see the need to curb my breasts and I did not wear bras. The magazine piece implied that not wearing a bra meant much more than the actual fact of not wearing a piece of under-clothing – it meant that I was sexually free, available and flaunting that on stage, in public, in a performative manner. That was intolerable, even to these radical guys. So my daughter asks me ‘Ammi what did it matter to them that you were not wearing a bra?’. That’s the question, indeed.

Public commentary on appearance of this kind is often linked to attempts to ‘sexualise’ people, most often women, and to invest certain events or incidents with a sexual nature even when actually they are not meant to be perceived as sexual at all. This is also a violation of my ‘sexual’ right, I feel, of my right to be a woman, sexually, in my own right, enjoying my body and inhabiting it with all its various possibilities, without having outsiders commenting on my body and on how I inhabit it.

Sexual rights are not about having sex, not about who you have sex with, or how, or when. It is about living your life, freely, as a sexual being, as a sexual being who is also many other things – a mother, a sister, a friend, a co-worker. Whenever I affirm that I have sexual rights, I am engaged in an act of resistance. I am resisting being sexualised, being made a sexual object, being controlled.

Sunila Abeysekera is a feminist and human rights activist, who works in Sri Lanka and internationally on processes of conflict transformation and the impact of conflict on women, as well as on issues of identity and of sexual and reproductive rights.