Sexual ethics

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Sexual ethics or sex ethics (also sexual morality) 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. [1] More recently, the feminist movement has emphasized personal choice and consent in sexual activities.

Terminology and philosophical context

The terms ethics and morality are often used interchangeably, but sometimes ethics is reserved for interpersonal interactions and morality is used to cover both interpersonal and inherent questions. [2]

Different approaches to applied ethics hold different views on inherent morality.

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 sometimes 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 prosperity.

Viewpoints and historical development


The Woman Taken in Adultery by Rembrandt depicts Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. Religion affects views on issues in sexual ethics, including adultery. Rembrandt Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (cropped for central figures).jpg
The Woman Taken in Adultery by Rembrandt depicts Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. Religion affects views on issues in sexual ethics, including adultery.

Many cultures consider ethics and morality to be intertwined with religion. Some acts that might be considered ethical or unethical from a religious standpoint include adultery, contraception, homosexuality, masturbation, promiscuity, various paraphilias and prostitution.


Christian denominations generally hold that sexual morality is defined by natural law, the Bible, and tradition. [4] In many cases, the Bible contains direct commandments or statements about specific sexual acts.

Marriage and procreation are key factors in Christian sexual ethics, particularly in the teachings of the Catholic Church. [5] Catholicism teaches that there is a universal human nature established by God, and that which disrupts God's natural plan for human beings is inherently wrong. This teaching stipulates procreation as the natural purpose of sexuality, and thus sexual activity not aimed toward procreation is prohibited. In Humanae vitae, the most recent Catholic encyclical, permanent monogamous marriage is stated as the only appropriate context for the fulfillment of moral sexuality.

St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine were some of the key figures in honing Christian ethics. Augustine underlined fidelity, offspring, and sacrament as the core aspects of sexual morality. [4]

Sexual Rights as Human Rights

Present and historical perspectives

From a human rights and international law perspective, consent has become 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 - this is due to some not essentially viewing the act as rape. In the UK, marital rape was made illegal as recently as 1992. [6] 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. [7] [8]

Many modern systems of ethics hold that sexual activity is morally permissible only if all participants consent. Sexual ethics also considers whether a person is capable of giving consent and what sort of acts they can properly consent to. In western countries, the legal concept of "informed consent" often sets the public standards on this issue. [9] 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. [10]

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. [11] [12] [13] Under that view passivity, not saying "No," is not consent. [14] [15] 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.

The concept of consent being the primary arbiter of sexual ethics and morality has drawn criticism from both feminist and religious philosophies. Religious criticisms argue that relying on consent alone to determine morality ignores other intrinsic moral factors, while feminist criticisms argue that consent is too broad and does not always account for disproportionate power dynamics. [5] [16]

Feminist views

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 feminist position is that women's freedom of choice regarding 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. [17] [18] [19] [20] [21]

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. [22] 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. [22]

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. [23] The age of consent averages around the age of 16. [24] 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, [25] Afghanistan, [26] [27] Iran, [27] Kuwait, [28] Maldives, [29] Morocco, [30] Oman, [31] Mauritania, [32] United Arab Emirates, [33] [34] Sudan, [35] Yemen, [36] 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

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. [37] [38] In recent decades, premarital sex has increasingly become more socially and morally acceptable practice among Western cultures. [39]

Extramarital sex

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.

Public health

A billboard in Chad encouraging fidelity, abstinence, and condom use to help prevent AIDS AIDS-prevention-Chad.jpg
A billboard in Chad encouraging fidelity, abstinence, and condom use to help prevent AIDS

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.

Public decency

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. Nevertheless, 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.

Sex work

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 [40] ).

Gender identity and sexuality

Three different approaches to gender identity and sexuality may be identified: the person-centered approach, the rights-based approach, and the deconstructive approach.[ citation needed ] The deconstructive approach draws on ideas from Queer Theory. Among other issues, the question wheter sexuality is predetermined or developed throughout a person's life is a central aspect of this approach. [41] Other views include the claim that sexuality is something someone is born with and cannot not be changed. Someone may choose to suppress their sexuality or behave differently from it due to their family or society, or the view that sexuality is developed based on someone's environment and sexual relationships.


In ancient Athens, sexual attraction between men was the norm.[ citation needed ] 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. 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.

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.

See also

Related Research Articles

The age of consent is the age at which a person is considered to be legally competent to consent to sexual acts. Consequently, an adult who engages in sexual activity with a person younger than the age of consent is unable to legally claim that the sexual activity was consensual, and such sexual activity may be considered child sexual abuse or statutory rape. The person below the minimum age is regarded as the victim, and their sex partner is regarded as the offender, unless both are underage. The purpose of setting an age of consent is to protect an underage person from sexual advances.

Human sexual activity Human behaviour that is sexually motivated

Human sexual activity, human sexual practice or human sexual behaviour is the manner in which humans experience and express their sexuality. People engage in a variety of sexual acts, ranging from activities done alone to acts with another person in varying patterns of frequency, for a wide variety of reasons. Sexual activity usually results in sexual arousal and physiological changes in the aroused person, some of which are pronounced while others are more subtle. Sexual activity may also include conduct and activities which are intended to arouse the sexual interest of another or enhance the sex life of another, such as strategies to find or attract partners, or personal interactions between individuals. Sexual activity may follow sexual arousal.

Sexual abstinence Act of refraining from sexual activity

Sexual abstinence or sexual restraint is the practice of refraining from some or all aspects of sexual activity for medical, psychological, legal, social, financial, philosophical, moral, or religious reasons. Asexuality is distinct from sexual abstinence; and celibacy is sexual abstinence generally motivated by factors such as an individual's personal or religious beliefs. Sexual abstinence before marriage is required in some societies by social norms, or, in some countries, even by laws, and is considered part of chastity.

Religion and sexuality Religion and sexuality

The views of religions and religious believers range widely, from giving sex and sexuality a rather negative connotation to believing that sex is the highest expression of the divine. Some religions distinguish between sexual activities that are practised for biological reproduction and those practised only for sexual pleasure in evaluating relative morality.

Virginity State of a person who has never engaged in sexual intercourse

Virginity is the state of a person who has never engaged in sexual intercourse. There are cultural and religious traditions that place special value and significance on this state, predominantly towards unmarried females, associated with notions of personal purity, honor and worth.

Sex and the law deals with the regulation by law of human sexual activity. Sex laws vary from one place or jurisdiction to another, and have varied over time, and unlawful sexual acts are also called sex crimes.

The sex-positive movement is a social and philosophical movement that seeks to change cultural attitudes and norms around sexuality, promoting the recognition of sexuality as a natural and healthy part of the human experience and emphasizing the importance of personal sovereignty, safer sex practices, and consensual sex. It covers every aspect of sexual identity including gender expression, orientation, relationship to the body, relationship-style choice, and reproductive rights. Sex-positivity is "an attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, encouraging sexual pleasure and experimentation." The sex-positive movement also advocates for comprehensive sex education and safe sex as part of its campaign. The movement generally makes no moral distinctions among types of sexual activities, regarding these choices as matters of personal preference.

Philosophy of sex is an aspect of applied philosophy involved with the study of sex and love. It includes both ethics of phenomena such as prostitution, rape, sexual harassment, sexual identity, the age of consent, homosexuality, and conceptual analysis of concepts such as "what is sex?" It also includes questions of sexuality and sexual identity and the ontological status of gender. Leading contemporary philosophers of sex include Alan Soble and Judith Butler.

Sex-positive feminism is a movement that began in the early 1980s centering on the idea that sexual freedom is an essential component of women's freedom. Some feminists became involved in the sex-positive feminist movement in response to efforts by anti-pornography feminists to put pornography at the center of a feminist explanation of women's oppression.

The social construction of sexual behavior—its taboos, regulation, and social and political impact—has had a profound effect on the various cultures of the world since prehistoric times.

The legal age of consent for sexual activity varies by jurisdiction across Asia, from age 9 to 21 years of age. The specific activity engaged in or the gender of participants can also be relevant factors. Below is a discussion of the various laws dealing with this subject. The highlighted age refers to an age at or above which an individual can engage in unfettered sexual relations with another who is also at or above that age. Other variables, such as homosexual relations or close in age exceptions, may exist, and are noted when relevant, for example in Indonesia.

Ages of consent in Africa

The age of consent in Africa for sexual activity varies by jurisdiction across the continent. The specific activity engaged in or the gender of its participants can also affect this age and the legality of sexual activity. Below is a discussion of the various laws dealing with this subject. The highlighted age refers to an age at or above which an individual can engage in unfettered sexual relations with another person who is also at or above that age. Other variables, for example homosexual and/or sodomy provision(s) that are illegal or close in age exceptions may exist and are stated when relevant.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to sexual ethics:

Sexual repression is a state in which a person is prevented from expressing their own sexuality. Sexual repression is often linked with feelings of guilt or shame, being associated with sexual impulses. What constitutes sexual repression is subjective and can vary greatly between cultures and moral systems. The ways in which individuals and groups undertake sexual repression can also be undertaken through religious exclusion, legislation and physical mutilation. Psychologists, the like of Sigmund Freud, discuss the reasons and function of sexual repression in the individual. The process of chemical castration as a means of achieving sexual restraint is a practice intrinsically tied to sexual repression.

Sodomy law Laws criminalising certain sexual acts

A sodomy law is a law that defines certain sexual acts as crimes. The precise sexual acts meant by the term sodomy are rarely spelled out in the law, but are typically understood by courts to include any sexual act deemed to be unnatural or immoral. Sodomy typically includes anal sex, oral sex, and bestiality. In practice, sodomy laws have rarely been enforced against heterosexual couples, and have mostly been used to target homosexuals.

Feminist views on prostitution

There exists a diversity of feminist views on prostitution. Many of these positions can be loosely arranged into an overarching standpoint that is generally either critical or supportive of prostitution and sex work. The discourse surrounding prostitution is often discussed in terms of sex workers who are women, but those in the field of sex work and prostitution are not always cisgender women.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to human sexuality:

<i>Sexual Desire</i> (book) 1986 book by Roger Scruton

Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation, published as Sexual Desire: A Moral Philosophy of the Erotic in the United States, is a 1986 book about the philosophy of sex by the philosopher Roger Scruton, in which the author discusses sexual desire and erotic love, arguing against the idea that the former expresses the animal part of human nature while the latter is an expression of its rational side. The book was first published in the United Kingdom by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and in the United States by Free Press.

Fornication Consensual sexual intercourse while not married

Fornication is generally consensual sexual intercourse between two people not married to each other. When one or more of the partners having consensual sexual intercourse is a married person, it is called adultery.

<i>Sex and Reason</i> 1992 book by Richard Posner

Sex and Reason is a 1992 book about human sexuality by the economist Richard Posner, in which the author attempts to explain sexual behavior in economic terms and discusses a range of controversial subjects related to sex, proposing reforms in American laws.


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Further reading