Sexual ethics

Sexual ethics or sex ethics (also called sexual morality) is the study of human sexuality and the expression of human sexual behavior. Sexual ethics seeks to understand and evaluate the moral conduct of interpersonal relationships and sexual activities from social, cultural, and philosophical perspectives. Historically, the prevailing notions of what was deemed as sexually ethical has been tied to religious values.[1] Sexual ethics involve issues, such as gender identification, sexual orientation, the imbalance of power in relationships, consent, sexual relations, and procreation.

Sexual behavior is impermissible if the individual is: under the age of majority, mentally handicapped, mentally ill, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or there is a distinct imbalance of power in the relationship.[2] Therefore, the individual is unable to consent and it would be considered unethical to partake in sexual activity if he or she meets any of the above qualifications.

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.[3]

However, not all approaches to applied ethics agree that there is an inherent morality:

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.


Main article: Flirting

Flirting is an expression of sexuality and a common form of social interaction whereby one person obliquely indicates a romantic and/or sexual interest towards another. However, flirting undertaken for amusement, with no intention of developing any further relationship, poses ethical dilemmas and sometimes faces disapproval from others, either because it can be misinterpreted as more serious, or it may be viewed as "cheating" if the person flirting is already in a romantic relationship with someone else; or if the person to whom flirting is directed is in an exclusive or a serious relationship.

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 in the world. Outside the West, in many countries consent is still not central. 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.[4]

Almost all modern systems of ethics insist, as a minimum, that all participants consent to a sexual activity. Sexual ethics (which is reflected in laws) 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 an informed consent. In the United States, Maouloud Baby v. the State of Maryland is a state court case ruling that a person can withdraw sexual consent and that continuing sexual activity in the absence of consent constitutes rape.

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," is typically the focus of liberal sexual ethics, rather than marriage.[5][6][7] Under that view passivity, not saying "No," is not consent.[8][9] An individual can give consent for one act of sexual activity, however, it does not condone preceding into other acts of sexual activity without reestablishing consent.

Main article: 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.[10] The age of consent averages around the age of 16.[11] It is often debated whether or not people under the age of consent are capable of having consensual sexual relationships.

Feminist views

Feminists aim to redefine feminine sexuality in a patriarchal world, where men have dictated the sexual norms and expectations of women[12] 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 issues concerning consent to sex under conditions of male dominance are controversial topics among feminists. The debate resulting from the divergence of feminist attitudes culminated in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Parts of the feminist movement were deeply divided by these debates, which came to be known as the feminist sex wars. The feminist sex wars pitted anti-pornography feminism against sex-positive feminism.[13][14][15][16][17]


See also: Marriage and Fornication

In all cultures, consensual sexual intercourse is acceptable within marriage. In some cultures sexual intercourse outside of marriage is controversial, if not totally unacceptable, or even illegal. In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan,[18] Afghanistan,[19][20] Iran,[20] Kuwait,[21] Maldives,[22] Morocco,[23] Oman,[24] Mauritania,[25] United Arab Emirates,[26][27] Sudan,[28] Yemen,[29] any form of sexual activity outside marriage is illegal.

As the philosopher Michel Foucault has noted, such societies often create spaces or heterotopias outside of themselves where sex outside of 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 of 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

Main article: 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.[30][31] In recent decades, premarital sex has become a socially and morally acceptable practice among Western cultures.[32]

Extramarital sex

Main article: Extramarital sex

Extramarital sex is sex occurring outside of 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 of 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.

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, in some countries, such as Sweden, Norway and Iceland, the legal burden of prostitution has been moved solely to the consumer.

Gender identity and sexuality

There are three different approached to gender identity and sexuality. There three different approaches are the "person-centred", "rights-based", and "deconstructive" which draws on ideas from Queer Theory[33] 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 pre-determined 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.

For more information: Queer theory


See also: Homosexuality and Sodomy

In ancient Athens, sexual attraction between men was the norm with writers as Plato and Aristophanes writing extensive treatises on the benefits of homosexual love. In the Levant, however, persons who committed homosexual acts were stoned to death at the same period in history that Socrates dallied with young Alcibiades. As presented by Plato in his Symposium, Socrates did not "daily" 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.[34] Plus 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.


Often, sexuality is separated into two groups, those being homosexuality and heterosexuality. However, there are other sexualities as well, including bisexuality. Bisexuality is being romantically or sexually attracted to two or more genders.


Many cultures consider ethics to be intertwined with religious faith. Along with all those activities listed above, some acts that might be considered ethical or unethical from a religious standpoint:


Main article: Paraphilia

Public health

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

See also: 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. 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.

See also


  1. "Sexual Ethics".
  2. "Consent & Consensual Sex".
  3. See usage note on wiktionary:ethics.
  5. Friedman, Jaclyn; Jessica Valenti (2008). Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. Seal Press. ISBN 1-58005-257-6.
  6. Corinna, Heather. "What Is Feminist Sex Education?". Scarleteen. Retrieved October 3, 2010.
  7. Corinna, Heather (2010-05-11). "How Can Sex Ed Prevent Rape?". Scarleteen. Retrieved October 3, 2010.
  8. Stephen J. Schulhofer (May 5, 2000). Unwanted Sex: The Culture of Intimidation and the Failure of Law (trade paperback) (New ed.). Harvard University Press. pp. 1, 2. ISBN 978-0674002036.
  9. A number of American Law Institute members (May 12, 2015). "Sexual Assualt [sic] at the American Law Institute--Controversy Over the Criminalization of Sexual Contact in the Proposed Revision of the Model Penal Code" (quoted memorandum of ALI members). Larry Catá Backer. Retrieved June 28, 2015. Section 213.0(5) defines “sexual contact” expansively, to include any touching of any body part of another person, whether done by the actor or by the person touched. Any kind of contact may qualify; there are no limits on either the body part touched or the manner in which it is touched….
  10. "Age of Consent Laws By Country". Retrieved 2016-09-25.
  11. "Are you old enough?". Retrieved 13 October 2016.
  12. Diprose, Rosalyn. The Bodies of Women : Ethics, Embodiment and Sexual Differences. Routledge. ISBN 9780203981061.
  13. Duggan, Lisa; Hunter, Nan D. (1995). Sex wars: sexual dissent and political culture. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-91036-6.
  14. Hansen, Karen Tranberg;; Philipson, Ilene J. (1990). Women, class, and the feminist imagination: a socialist-feminist reader. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 0-87722-630-X.
  15. Gerhard, Jane F. (2001). Desiring revolution: second-wave feminism and the rewriting of American sexual thought, 1920 to 1982. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-11204-1.
  16. Leidholdt, Dorchen;; Raymond, Janice G (1990). The Sexual liberals and the attack on feminism. New York: Pergamon Press. ISBN 0-08-037457-3.
  17. Vance, Carole S. Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Thorsons Publishers. ISBN 0-04-440593-6.
  18. "Human Rights Voices – Pakistan, August 21, 2008".
  19. "Home". AIDSPortal.
  20. 1 2 "Iran".
  21. "United Nations Human Rights Website – Treaty Bodies Database – Document – Summary Record – Kuwait".
  22. "Culture of Maldives – history, people, clothing, women, beliefs, food, customs, family, social".
  23. Fakim, Nora (9 August 2012). "BBC News – Morocco: Should pre-marital sex be legal?". BBC.
  24. "Legislation of Interpol member states on sexual offences against children – Oman" (PDF). Interpol. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 December 2007.
  25. "2010 Human Rights Report: Mauritania". 8 April 2011.
  26. Dubai FAQs. "Education in Dubai".
  27. Judd, Terri (10 July 2008). "Briton faces jail for sex on Dubai beach – Middle East – World". The Independent.
  28. "Sudan must rewrite rape laws to protect victims". Reuters. 28 June 2007.
  29. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "Refworld | Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa – Yemen". UNHCR.
  30. Premarital sex Definition. The Free Dictionary.
  31. Sex and Society. New York: Marshall Cavendish Reference. 2010. ISBN 0761479074.
  32. "Global Views on Morality: Premarital Sex".
  33. Jones, Reginald L. (2010). LGBT Issues: Looking beyond categories. Policy and Practice in Health and Social Care. Dunedin Academic. p. 10 via
  34. Park, Alice (2008-06-17). "What the Gay Brain Looks Like". Time. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved 2016-11-26.

Further reading

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