Sexual ethics or sex ethics (also sexual morality – for closer distinction see section below) is the study of ethics in relation to human sexuality, and sexual behavior. Sexual ethics seeks to understand, evaluate, and critique the conduct of interpersonal relationships and sexual activities from social, cultural, and philosophical perspectives. Sexual ethics involve issues such as gender identification, sexual orientation, consent, sexual relations, and procreation. Sex has historically been an issue of great importance to people in cultures all over the world, and as such is a pertinent topic of discussion and study. As sex is a social practice that varies widely in the ways that it is understood, performed, and discussed, there is much to be said for a critical and comprehensive study of sexual ethics and norms.
Historically, the prevailing notions of what was deemed as sexually ethical have been tied to religious values. More recently, the feminist movement has emphasized personal choice and consent in sexual activities.
Terminology and philosophical context
However, not all approaches to applied ethics agree that there is an inherent morality:
- Moral nihilism is the meta-ethical view that nothing is inherently right or wrong, and that all value judgments are either human constructs or meaningless.
- Moral relativism is the meta-ethical view that moral judgments are subjective. In some cases this is merely descriptive, in other cases this approach is normative – the idea that morality should be judged in the context of each culture's convictions and practices.
- Moral universalism is the meta-ethical view that moral judgments are objectively true or false, that everyone should behave according to the same set of normative ethics.
In philosophic terminology, hedonism is the idea that the only intrinsic good is pleasure, making selfish pleasures their primary goal. This may be combined with nihilism in a selfish morality, or with utilitarianism to seek maximization of happiness for everyone. Some religions derive a normative sexual ethics from their texts or teachings, and these range from nihilistic utilitarianism to more complex, fixed systems for determining right and wrong.
Many practical questions arise regarding human sexuality, such as whether sexual norms should be enforced by law, given social approval, or changed. Answers to these questions can be considered on a scale from social liberalism to social conservatism. Considerable controversy continues over which system of ethics or morality best promotes human happiness, and which, if any, is inherently right.
Viewpoints and historical development
Many cultures consider ethics to be intertwined with religious faith. Some acts that might be considered ethical or unethical from a religious standpoint include:
Sexual Rights as Human Rights
|Sex and the law|
(Varies by jurisdiction)
|Sex offender registration|
Present and historical perspectives
From a human rights and international law perspective, consent is a key issue in sexual ethics. Nevertheless, historically, this has not necessarily been the case. Throughout history, a whole range of consensual sexual acts, such as adultery, fornication, interracial or interfaith sex, 'sodomy' (see sodomy laws) have been prohibited; while at the same time various forced sexual encounters such as rape of a slave, prostitute, war enemy, and most notably of a spouse, were not illegal. The criminalization of marital rape is very recent, having occurred during the past few decades, and the act is still legal in many places around the world. In the UK, marital rape was made illegal as recently as 1992. Outside the West, in many countries, consent is still not central and some consensual sexual acts are forbidden. For instance, adultery and homosexual acts remain illegal in many countries; and in five countries and in parts of two others, homosexual acts carry the death penalty.
Almost all modern systems of ethics insist that sexual activity is morally permissible only if all participants consent. Sexual ethics also considers whether a person is capable of giving consent and the sort of acts they can consent to. In western countries, the legal concept of "informed consent" often sets the public standards on this issue. Children, the mentally handicapped, the mentally ill, animals, prisoners, and people under the influence of drugs like alcohol might be considered in certain situations as lacking an ability to give informed consent. In the United States, Maouloud Baby v. State is a state court case ruling that a person can withdraw sexual consent and that continuing sexual activity in the absence of consent may constitute rape. Also, if infected with a sexually transmitted disease, it is important that one notifies the partner before sexual contact.
Sexual acts which are illegal, and often considered unethical, because of the absence of consent include rape and molestation. Enthusiastic consent, as expressed in the slogan "Yes means yes," rather than marriage, is typically the focus of liberal sexual ethics. Under that view passivity, not saying "No," is not consent. An individual can give consent for one act of sexual activity, however, it does not condone proceeding into other acts of sexual activity without reestablishing consent.
Feminists aim to redefine feminine sexuality in this world. The primary concern of feminists is that a woman should have the right to control her own sexuality. The woman's freedom of choice, regarding her sexuality, takes precedence over family, community, state, and church. Based on historical and cultural context, feminist views on sexuality has widely varied. Sexual representation in the media, the sex industry, and related topics pertaining to sexual consent are all questions which feminist theory attempts to address. The debate resulting from the divergence of feminist attitudes culminated in the late 1970s and the 1980s. The resulting discursive dualism was one which contrasted those feminists who believed that patriarchal structure made consent impossible under certain conditions, whereas sex-positive feminists attempted to redefine and regain control of what it means to be a woman. Questions of sexual ethics remain relevant to feminist theory.
Early feminists were accused of being 'wanton' as a consequence of stating that just as for men, women did not necessarily have to have sex with the intention of reproducing. At the beginning of the 20th century, feminist authors were already theorising about a relationship between a man and a woman as equals (although this has a heterosexual bias) and the idea that relationships should be sincere, that the mark of virtue in a relationship was its sincerity rather than its permanence. Setting a standard for reciprocity in relationships fundamentally changed notions of sexuality from one of duty to one of intimacy.
Age of consent
Age of consent is also a key issue in sexual ethics. It is a controversial question of whether or not minors should be allowed to have sex for recreation or engage in sexual activities such as sexting. The debate includes whether or not minors can meaningfully consent to have sex with each other, and whether they can meaningfully consent to have sex with adults. In many places in the world, people are not legally allowed to have sex until they reach a set age. The age of consent averages around the age of 16. Some areas have 'Romeo and Juliet' laws, which place a frame around teenage relationships within a certain age bracket, but do not permit sexual contact between those above or below a certain age.
In all cultures, consensual sexual intercourse is acceptable within marriage. In some cultures sexual intercourse outside marriage is controversial, if not totally unacceptable, or even illegal. In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Kuwait, Maldives, Morocco, Oman, Mauritania, United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Yemen, any form of sexual activity outside marriage is illegal.
As the philosopher Michel Foucault has noted, such societies often create spaces or heterotopias outside themselves where sex outside marriage can be practiced. According to his theory, this was the reason for the often unusual sexual ethics displayed by persons living in brothels, asylums, onboard ships, or in prisons. Sexual expression was freed of social controls in such places whereas, within society, sexuality has been controlled through the institution of marriage which socially sanctions the sex act. Many different types of marriage exist, but in most cultures that practice marriage, extramarital sex without the approval of the partner is often considered to be unethical. There are a number of complex issues that fall under the category of marriage.
When one member of a marital union has sexual intercourse with another person without the consent of their spouse, it may be considered to be infidelity. In some cultures, this act may be considered ethical if the spouse consents, or acceptable as long as the partner is not married while other cultures might view any sexual intercourse outside marriage as unethical, with or without consent.
Furthermore, the institution of marriage brings up the issue of premarital sex wherein people who may choose to at some point in their lives marry, engage in sexual activity with partners who they may or may not marry. Various cultures have different attitudes about the ethics of such behavior, some condemning it while others view it to be normal and acceptable.
Premarital sex is sexual activity between two people who are not married to each other. Usually, both parties are unmarried. This might be objected to on religious or moral grounds, while individual views within a given society can vary greatly. In recent decades, premarital sex has increasingly become a socially and morally acceptable practice among Western cultures.
Extramarital sex is sex occurring outside marriage, usually referring to when a married person engages in sexual activity with someone other than their marriage partner. Commonly there are moral as well as religious objections to sexual relationships by a married person outside the marriage, and such activity is often referred to in law or religion as adultery. Others call it infidelity or "cheating".
In contrast, there are some cultures, groups or individual relationships in which extramarital sex is an accepted norm. In today's western cultures some people practice "polyamory", otherwise known as responsible non-monogamy, or "open marriage". The ethical practice of this necessitates honest dialogue and consent of all those involved.
Individuals and societies
Most societies disapprove of a person in a position of power to engage in sexual activity with a subordinate. This is often considered unethical simply as a breach of trust. When the person takes advantage of a position of power in the workplace, this may constitute sexual harassment, because subordinates may be unable to give proper consent to a sexual advance because of a fear of repercussions.
Child-parent incest is also seen as an abuse of a position of trust and power, in addition to the inability of a child to give consent. Incest between adults may not involve this lack of consent, and is, therefore, less clear-cut for most observers. Many professional organizations have rules forbidding sexual relations between members and their clients. Examples in many countries include psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, doctors, and lawyers. In addition, laws exist against this kind of abuse of power by priests, preachers, teachers, religious counselors, and coaches.
In countries where public health is considered a public concern, there is also the issue of how sex impacts the health of individuals. In such circumstances, where there are health impacts resulting from certain sexual activities, there is the question of whether individuals have an ethical responsibility to the public at large for their behavior. Such concerns might involve the regular periodic testing for sexually transmitted diseases, disclosure of infection with sexually transmitted diseases, responsibility for taking safer sex precautions, ethics of sex without using contraception, leading to an increased level of unplanned pregnancies and unwanted children, and just what amount of personal care an individual needs to take in order to meet his or her requisite contribution to the general health of a nation's citizens.
Legal and social dress codes are often related to sexuality. In the United States, there are many rules against nudity. An individual cannot be naked even on their own property if the public can see them. These laws are often considered a violation to the constitution regarding freedom of expression. It is said that common sense needs to be used when deciding whether or not nudity is appropriate. However, in Hawaii, Texas, New York, Maine, and Ohio allow all women to go topless at all locations that let men be shirtless. In California it is not illegal to hike in the nude, however it is frowned upon. Also in state parks it is legal to sunbathe in the nude unless a private citizen complains then you are to be removed from the premise by force if the individual doesn't comply. Breastfeeding in public is considered wrong and mothers are encouraged to either cover themselves in a blanket or go to the restroom to breastfeed their newborn. There are no actual laws that prohibit the action of breastfeeding in public except two places in Illinois and Missouri.
Various sexual acts are traded for money or other goods across the world. Ethical positions on sex work may depend on the type of sex act traded and the conditions in which it is traded, there are for example additional ethical concerns over the abrogation of autonomy in the situation of trafficked sex workers.
Sex work has been a particularity divisive issue within feminism. Some feminists may regard sex work as an example of societal oppression of the sex workers by the patriarchy. The ethical argument underlying this position is that despite the apparent consent of the sex worker, the choice to engage in sex work is often not an autonomous choice, because of economic, familial or societal pressures. Sex work may also be seen as an objectification of women. An opposing view held by other feminists such as Wendy McElroy is that sex work is a means of empowering women, the argument here being that in sex work women are able to extract psychological and financial power over men which is a justified correction of the power unbalance inherent in a patriarchal society. Some feminists regard to sex work as simply a form of labor which is neither morally good or bad, but subject to the same difficulties of other labor forms.
If sex work is accepted as unethical, there is then the dispute over which parties of the contract are responsible for the ethical or legal breach. Traditionally, in many societies, the legal and ethical burden of guilt has been placed largely on the sex worker rather than consumers. In recent decades, some countries such as Sweden, Norway and Iceland have rewritten their laws to outlaw the buying of sexual services but not its sale (although they still retain laws and use enforcement tactics which sex workers say are deleterious to their safety, such as pressuring to have sex workers evicted from their residences).
Gender identity and sexuality
There are three different approaches to gender identity and sexuality. These three different approaches are the "person-centered", "rights-based", and "deconstructive" which draws on ideas from Queer Theory. Queer Theory is a book that discusses different sexuality categories of 'woman', 'man', 'lesbian', and 'heterosexual' based on the opinions of Judith Butler, Steven Epstein, Steven Seidman, and Michael Warner. The debate between sexuality being predetermined and developed throughout a person's life is further talked about. Despite the opinions of these commenters, we can talk about the two different opinions about sexuality. One opinion is that sexuality is something someone is born with and will not be changed. Someone may choose to suppress their sexuality or behave differently from it due to their family or society. The other opinion is that sexuality is developed based on someone's environment and sexual relationships. See also queer theory.
In ancient Athens, sexual attraction between men was the norm. In the Levant, however, persons who committed homosexual acts were stoned to death at the same period in history that young Alcibiades attempted to seduce Socrates to glean wisdom from him. As presented by Plato in his Symposium, Socrates did not "dally" with young Alcibiades, and instead treated him as his father or brother would when they spent the night sharing a blanket. And in Xenophon's Symposium Socrates strongly speaks against men kissing each other, saying that doing so will make them slavish, i.e., risk something that seems akin to an addiction to homosexual acts.
Although there has been a lot of debate regarding homosexuality, there is evidence that supports the notion that individuals are born with their sexual orientation. There was a study in 1991 that showed the hypothalamus of a gay man differed with that of a straight man. Also there is however a debate that environmental aspects impact the sexuality of individuals.
Most modern secular ethicists since the heyday of Utilitarianism, e.g. T.M. Scanlon and Bernard Williams, have constructed systems of ethics whereby homosexuality is a matter of individual choice and where ethical questions have been answered by an appeal to non-interference in activities involving consenting adults. However, Scanlon's system, notably, goes in a slightly different direction from this and requires that no person who meets certain criteria could rationally reject a principle that either sanctions or condemns a certain act. Under Scanlon's system, it is difficult to see how one would construct a principle condemning homosexuality outright, although certain acts, such as homosexual rape, would still be fairly straightforward cases of unethical behavior.
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Media related to Sexual ethics at Wikimedia Commons