Sexual ethics provides a framework for choice and decision making regarding one’s sexual conduct. It presupposes that humans are moral agents, that is, that we have the capacity and responsibility to evaluate and make moral choices that inform our actions and that affect others. Mature sexual ethics provides a potential tool for preventing sexual violence and abuse for individuals as well as for a context for asserting social values to counter sexual violence as a fact of life.
Historically, sexual ethics have offered rules of conduct primarily focused on heterosexual marriage, paternity, and the treatment of women and children as property. These values have frequently been reflected in laws as well.
Some believe that this reliance on patriarchal values (primarily male control of property) as the foundation of sexual ethics has clouded the Western cultural, legal, and religious understanding of sexual issues and sexual violence. Confusion about the nature of sexual ethics has distorted many efforts to provide guidance in sexual matters within our society in recent years as well as to address the pandemic of sexual violence. But sexual ethics that are based on the primary concern for the safety and well-being of individuals can provide a valuable framework that allows sexual violence to be addressed in our society.
If unethical sexual behavior is understood as the violation of the precept that sexual activity should take place only within heterosexual marriage, then ethical questions about consent, bodily integrity, choice, power, and vulnerability are never asked. (Traditionally, this idea has meant that sexual ethics have focused on abortion, adultery, homosexuality, and masturbation.) If, however, unethical sexual behavior is understood as the violation of the bodily integrity of another person through sexual coercion, abuse, or assault, then questions about consent, bodily integrity, choice, power, and vulnerability take center stage.
Sexual violence is a violation of the victim that causes physical and emotional harm. Violating the sexual boundaries of another person is considered wrong because sexual violence is a violation of bodily integrity that denies a person the choice to determine her or his own boundaries and activities, distorts and misuses sexuality, destroys trust and relationship, and causes injury and harm.
To counter sexual violence, many believe it is imperative to affirm the bodily integrity of self and partner and strive to ensure that each person is free from bodily harm within an intimate relationship. The goal then is doing least harm in relation to others; and guidelines can be helpful. But what is the difference between guidelines and rules? Rules are externally imposed requirements that may or may not have a reasonable basis. They sometimes represent the common concerns (or prejudices) of society and are usually expressed in legal statutes or codes of ethics enacted by some representative body, such as a state legislature. But rules and laws may not be adequate to guide one’s actions as a moral agent and decision maker within one’s significant relationships. Guidelines are standards by which one can determine one’s choices and actions. The questions below are standards by which one can determine one’s choices and actions. They can act as an internal anchor that informs one’s decision making in sexual relationships. Many interpersonal violence professionals consider these guidelines necessary to lessen harm in such a relationship.
- Is my choice of intimate partner a peer; that is, someone whose power is relatively equal to mine? This guideline helps one recognize that power is an issue in an intimate relationship and that when power is relatively equal one has the best opportunity to experience authentic consent and choice in a relationship.
If there are differences in power due to physical realities such as size or socially constructed realities such as gender, then it is wise to consciously consider how to minimize the impact of those differences in a relationship.
A person may experience sexual feelings toward others who have significantly more power or significantly less power, but whether one pursues those feelings is a choice. Pursuing such a relationship means running a high risk of either being taken advantage of (where one has less power, e.g., as a client vis à vis a therapist) or of taking advantage of the other person’s vulnerability (where one has more power, e.g., as a doctor vis à vis a patient). The possibility of harm is great in either case.
- Are both my partner and I authentically consenting to our sexual interaction? To have authentic consent, both partners must have information, awareness, equal power, and the option to say no without being punished as well as the option to say yes. The possibility of authentic consent rests upon equality of power in a relationship. Consent should not be confused with submitting, going along, or acquiescing.
Consent may be an alien concept to persons whose life experience has been that sex is something someone does to them; in other words, they feel that they have never had any say in the matter. This feeling is the common experience of many women and some men. In sexual interaction, authentic consent requires communication and agreement that no means no, yes means yes, and maybe means maybe. Saying no will not be punished by withdrawal or more overt coercive tactics. Hearing maybe requires waiting for yes, not cajoling and pushing.
- Do I take responsibility for protecting myself and my partner against sexually transmitted diseases and to ensure reproductive choice? This guideline is a matter of anticipating the literal consequences of one’s actions, particularly with regard to the issue of protection against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. In order to exercise moral agency and make careful choices about sexual activity, the following is needed:
- accurate, science-based information about sexually transmitted diseases and reproduction;
- access to the material means to exercise moral options—this right means access to condoms and all forms of contraception as well as access to abortion regardless of financial means; and
- communication with a partner—issues such as contraceptive options and disease prevention options should be discussed before the fact, not during the act.
- Am I committed to sharing pleasure and intimacy in my relationship? The concern should be both for one’s own needs and for those of one’s partner. Sexual intimacy is given and received by both; it is a person’s responsibility to meet his or her own needs as well as his or her partner’s needs in a context of consent and respect.
- Am I faithful to my promises and commitments? Whatever the nature of a commitment to one’s partner and whatever the duration of that commitment, fidelity requires honesty and the keeping of promises. Faithfulness is a daily discipline fulfilled through truthfulness, promise-keeping, attention, and the absence of violence or fear.
The values that support the above standards reinforce the concept of not meeting one’s own sexual needs at the expense of someone else. These values are also more stringent than traditional patriarchal sexual mores. They recognize that there are no simple answers, but rather a constant process of ethical discernment if we are to do least harm to those we love the most.
- Farley, M. A. (2006). Just love. New York: Continuum
- Fortune, M. M. (1995). Love does no harm. New York: Continuum.
- Fortune, M. M. (2005). Sexual violence: The sin revisited. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press.
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