Sexual rights

Martha Nussbaum’s formulation of bodily integrity includes the right to have “opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction” This is a positive right, affirming people’s right to exercise choice in the areas of sexuality and reproduction. The Internet has brought about a radical transformation of the communication landscape, especially for marginalised subjects. The Association for Progressive Communications’ study ‘Sex, rights and the Internet’, explored the possibilities that the Internet offers for LGBT communities, sex education efforts and sexual activism. The study explored the case of Lebanon, where the availability of the Internet boosted queer activism in the country. The same study found that in India, queer-identified respondents felt that digital space provided them “immeasurable freedoms, particularly under conditions of criminalisation and being closeted, to find partners, social networks and for activism.” In India, a Delhi High Court judgement in 2009 decriminalised homosexual relations between consenting adults by reading down the scope of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. According to the Global Information Society Watch’s 2015 report, the aftermath of the decision saw the explosion of newly launched gay pride magazines online, like Pink Pages and Gaylaxy. Mobile dating applications also gained in popularity, and Whatsapp and Facebook groups were created as spaces where members of the community could interact.

A study on sexual activism, morality and the Internet among sexual rights activists, advocates, scholars and policy makers who filled the survey. This found that most respondents found the Internet useful both to share information (87 percent) and search for information (73 percent). Almost half of the sample said that they found the Internet useful for public action and support and 37 percent thought that it provided greater safety for networking, as opposed to face-to-face interactions. As cultural and social barriers can often keep women from participating fully in the public sphere, the Internet becomes a critical public space. The creation of new publics and communities online is important for both advocacy and alliance building. This enables the creation and proliferation of multiple discourses, which can challenge normative ideals.

Due to the wealth of information online, the Internet can be a site for sex education, especially for young people who might not be exposed to sex education in the school education system. This is the case in India, where the silence around sex is aggravated by the lack of comprehensive sexuality education in schools. There is thus an information gap, which is not being addressed adequately by the state. Agents of Ishq, an online sex education project, seeks to start positive conversations around sex, love and desire. It provides information and resources, as well as creating a safe space for people to voice their questions and tell their stories.


The right to anonymity in digital spaces, while it protects identities of marginalised groups, the rampant online abuse by nameless trolls and the fear that anonymity facilitates child pornography has made it a contentious issue. However, restrictions on anonymity would have a chilling effect, and would dissuade free expression and exchange of information, according to the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression’s 2013 report. The lack of anonymity online also makes individuals more vulnerable to State surveillance, and allows the identification of individuals accessing or distributing prohibited content in states with repressive laws. These restrictions would especially target whistle blowers, human rights defenders, political activists and journalists. Anonymity, and the use of encryption in communications is a necessary condition to protect the identities of people in these situations.

The Special Rapporteur’s goes on to say that the lack of anonymity could result in the exclusion of individuals from social spheres, exacerbating social inequality and undermining their rights to expression, information and association online. The APC’s Feminist Principles of the Internet had this to say on the subject of anonymity, “it is our inalienable right to choose, express, and experiment with our diverse sexualities on the Internet. Anonymity enables this.” Anonymity in online spaces is particularly important for sexual minorities, as the Internet provides a space for connection, mobilisation and building networks of support.

Another aspect of anonymous free speech is pseudonymous speech, using a name which is not your legal name. Facebook’s ‘real name’ policy undermines this right as people are supposed to use their ‘authentic’ name on the platform, disallowing the use of pseudonyms. This policy had disproportionately targeted people from the trans* community, demonstrated by the deletion of the accounts of prominent drag queens in the United States. Facebook had apologised for this, as their policy allows users to use the name they use in real life, not necessarily their legal name. However, there are factors that complicate this policy, such as in the case of Preetha G, a social activist in India. Preetha was harassed and abused on Facebook through hate pages in Malayalam, a native Indian language. When reported, these pages were not found to violate community standards. However, several accounts, of Preetha as well as those who publicly supported her were suspended for violating the real name policy, possibly reported by the same trolls who were harassing her. She does not use her surname as it is an indicator of caste, but her Facebook name is the one she goes by in real life. The failure of Facebook’s mechanisms to understand cultural complexities the lack of any real action by the platform is troubling, as their community policies resulted in the silencing of women, rather than their abusers.

As a result of protests over this issue, Facebook recently announced that they would test new tools that would allow to explain special circumstances where they could not share their real name, as well as an updated process of reporting fake names that requires more context for a complaint. However, this is still unsatisfactory as a solution as it is only for ‘unique’ situations which users have to report to Facebook.