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Toward a Sound Sexual Ethic

In several recent contributions to our comments threads, reader David Ludescher has made the very sound observation that if we reject the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics, what are we to put in its place?  I agreed with him that an alternative, positive view of sexuality is desperately overdue (several senior priests and theologians I know have told me precisely the same thing).  My own history has led me to discard the standard teaching piece by piece, forcing me (in the absence of useful guidance from the Church) to attempt to piece together an ethical framework for myself, based on my own reading, prayerful reflection and spiritual direction. I still have a long way to go, but I do have some sound principles that I work with.

For a long time I have been wanting to share with my readers some of the contributions that I have found useful elsewhere, but like many of the projects that I would like to tackle, this is one I have not yet  begun.  Now, goaded by David’s important observation on the importance of the task, I would like to make at least a start. This is in no way intended to be a formally reasoned exposition, but just a mere listing of some starting principles, together with some preliminary links to outside thoughts. A more coherent presentation will come later.

Given that it is just a set of initial thoughts, I would welcome similar contributions from others. If you disagree with my ideas, please say so – and add your own guiding principles. I do ask, though, that given the purpose of this exercise, you steer away from simply regurgitating the catechism.  For the purposes of this discussion, let us leave aside church teaching entirely, for better or for worse, and concentrate on identifying the moral guidelines for sexual life that you would accept and apply in your own life – not because the Church says so, but because reason or experience have convinced you.

Sexuality – what is it?

I want to begin by making it clear that by “sexuality” I do not mean merely a set of genital acts, with or without another person.  It is a far broader concept, including other forms of touching, non-tactile aspects of our relationships, and awareness of ourselves as bodily beings.  Most of the ethical issues meant by “sexuality”  area bout physical elements, but we should not forget that there are also other dimensions.

Sexuality is good.

Sexuality is given by God, and is inherently good.  In Genesis 2 (the earlier creation story), we read that God said it is not good for man to be alone, and so he created for him a companion. Science has shown that a sound sexual life contributes greatly to both physical and mental health. I take it as fundamental that sound, intimate relationships are given to us for our benefit, and should be seen as positive.  They should emphatically not be seen as somehow second best to a state of celibacy.

Sex is clearly about procreation.

Children and families are of great importance to us as a species, and to many of us individually.  It should not be necessary to say so, but as some people seem to think that progressive Catholics are somehow against the family, I set it down here purely for the record.

Sex is about relationships.

As we develop in relationship with another, there is a natural desire to express that.  Initially this could be simple touching, caresses and kissing, but often, it will naturally move to fuller genital expression as well. As it does so, the shared experience has clear emotional and even physical effects, with a lasting impact on the people and their relationship. In this way, sex is unitive, deepening and strengthening the bonds that already exist between lovers.  For me, it is significant that Jesus has virtually nothing to say about sexual matters in the Gospels – except in the context of relationships (as where they are damaged by adultery or divorce).

Sex  can also be about play.

The most extensive Biblical treatment of sex comes in the Song of Songs, which is a lyrical, frankly erotic hymn to the delight of two people in each other, and in their physical bodies. The two people who express their sexual joy in this book give no indication that they are married, or are aiming to produce children. This book can and should be read as an extended metaphor for God’s delight in us, and we in Him – but it can also be read quite simply as it stands:  a celebration of sheer, unadulterated joy in physical sex. (Note though, that “sex” here is clearly physical, but not necessarily genital.  Unless I’ve missed something in my own reading, this is not specifically about penetration).

Sexuality and spirituality are complementary.

Christianity is unique among major religions in having placed the two in opposition..  Fortunately, many writers are now recognising that sexuality need not impede spirituality, but can lead to it – and vice versa. Chris Glaser is just one writer who has presented this very clearly, in the introduction to his book, “Coming out to God”. (See “The intimate Dance of Sexuality and Spirituality“)

Sex is about mutuality and equality.

One of the failures of “Western” traditional sexuality is that it created and enforced a rigid separation of sexual roles, and then extended those into the wider society.  By focusing on sex only in terms of genital penetration, it has downgraded other forms of sexual expression (including foreplay and afterplay), and also became inextricably linked with ideas of automatic male dominance and female submission in the wider relationship.  One of the ways in which same- sex relationships can teach the wider population about healthy sexuality, is in the way that they move beyond this concentration on penetration alone, to alternative ways of giving each other sexual pleasure.

In physical actions, in emotional interactions, and in devising sensible household routines,  sexual relationships should be devised equally for the benefit of both parties, and developed by mutual agreement.

Good Sex is about giving.

The delight in sex is not simply about a self-indulgent pursuit of orgasm, but is about bringing pleasure, both physical and emotional, to another.

What about the dangers?

Sex is an emotional minefield.

In exactly the same way that it can deepen the bonds of love in an existing relationship, the physical, neural effects of orgasm are still present even if an emotional bond does not exist beforehand: there is a danger of creating an illusion of some deep emotional attachment, when all that ever existed beforehand was  physical lust. This is one of the reasons why intimate sexual expression for the young should be discouraged.

Another is the sheer power of the emotions unleashed.  Even where  there is some degree of love present, for young people who are scarcely able to deal with the emotional and hormonal turmoil of adolescence to start with, adding the complications of sexual emotional turmoil justs adds to the confusion and dangers.

Sexual obsession is destructive.

Sex resembles other appetites in that avoidance is or can be bad for health, balanced use is healthy and satisfying, but overindulgence is unhealthy and often destructive.  In the case of sex, this can take the form of obsession with sex to the exclusion of other parts of life, to sexual addictions in which there is an ever present search for “good” sex, which is never actually achieved.

Sex can become self-indulgent.

Whereas sex should be about giving, its ubiquity in modern popular culture all too easily leads us to see it as something to be pursued for ist own sake, for our own personal pleasure.  Where we allow this to happen, we can destroy rather than enhance the relationships that should underpin it.

Obvious physical dangers

Of unplanned pregnancy, or of sexually transmitted disease , are so well known, I need say no more.


Out of these general principles, what are my own specific “rules”?

  • Sex is about mutuality, and is best expressed in loving, committed relationships.
  • Within a relationship, there must be mutuality and agreement as to how that relationship is played out and expressed.
  • Sex is about much more than just genital contact (still less, just about penetration).
  • Life is about more than just sex, which must be controlled and disciplined.
  • Outside of  committed, long-term relationships, I am not against sex as sheer play, or as part of dating leading up to something stronger, but am wary of the dangers.  Those who do engage in recreational sex need to have a very clear idea of what they are doing, and not confuse it with anything more meaningful – nor let it become addictive.
  • For the young, sexual activity needs to be delayed until some degree of emotional maturity has been achieved.  This does not have to be until after marriage:  the traditional opposition to pre-marital sex was appropriate when girls married young and matured late, when reliable  contraception was not available and pregnancy outside marriage was a social and economic disaster. In the modern world, where young people are delaying marriage until much later but reaching physical maturity much earlier, the old rule is unnecessary and inappropriate. But there is still a critical need for the young, to approach sexual expression with the greatest of care, until they have the emotional capacity to deal with it.  This is prety much the advice I gave to my own daughter, and she came to me as a young student, asking for advice.)

Those are my initial thoughts.  What are yours?

The specific value of sex

Quite obviously, a major benefit to humans of sexual expression is simple procreation.

See also:

John McNeill’s Prophetic Gay Theology: “Sex as God Intended Part 1” ( William Lindsey)

John McNeill’s Prophetic Gay Theology: “Sex as God Intended Part 2


14 Responses

  1. This is a good start Terry. I used some of this same reasoning with my daughter during her teen years–especially the emotional and exploitation angles. I told her unless she really wanted to get burned she better make sure any relationship in which her partner started pushing sex, that this push wasn’t coming from a purely sexual starting place. That it really came from a desire for a deeper relationship. She would probably know that when she had the same desire and fear of any sort wasn’t an issue.

    As far as spirituality and sex, I think we need to understand that sexuality is a literal exchange of energy and once that energy is exchanged it’s a part of you. If it’s not a clean equal exchange it’s a very negative part of you. Once that energy has been joined together, it is very difficult to unjoin the energy. Or to sunder the connection as Jesus pointed out.

    This is born out in the difficulty people have in dealing with sexual abuse. Until they can come to some form of forgiveness for their abuser the sexual energy link is always active in a negative way. Forgiveness is really the only way I’ve seen which neutralizes the effects of that kind of sexual energy exchange.

    Sexual energy fused with real love is a trip of epic proportions. Way beyond physical orgasm. It’s a very live link and why sex is so important in maintaining healthy living relationships.

    A sexual ethics which focuses exclusively on moral acts is like a science of physics which ignores quantum entanglement—or for that matter, the whole quantum multiverse. It takes all the very real ‘magic’ out of sex and makes it pretty much a commercial endeavor.

    • Thanks, Colleen for the insight on the exchange of energy as strictly literal, something more than just a figure of speech. Your description of the aftermath. either negative or positive, will have the ring of truth to anyone who has actual experience of sex – but is likely to meet with only puzzlement from celibate old men whose only knowledge of sex is from dated theology manuals.

  2. I’m really glad to see the topic of sexual ethics brought to the forefront. On an historical note, DignityUSA commissioned a task force to this topic. That was over 20 years ago. But, I believe, even though I might be prejudice, that it is still relevant today. DignityUSA’s Report from the Sexual Ethics task force can be found at http://www.dignityusa.org/sites/default/files/digusa-sexual_ethics.pdf .

  3. Terence,

    I think that this kind of conversation is sorely needed to attempt to bridge the gap that many are experiencing with the Church’s teachings.

    I will respond when I have more time.

    Thank you for the kind words about “sound observation”.

    • David, I was very conscious in all the responses to some of your previous remarks that it must have seemed at times as though we were ganging up to shout you down. While some of us at times disagree very strongly, and inevitably feel the Vatican’s opposition very personally as actual hostility, I also know that we and you also have a great deal of common ground. I look forward to exploring that, rather than the obvious areas of disagreement.

  4. Terence,

    A number of thoughts on your principles:

    1. It is difficult for me to understand how the principles are ranked/ordered. Sex is good is a principle. But, sex can have negative consequences. So, sex among the young should be avoided. Consequently, sex can be bad? Or, is it just not as good? When a person is forming his/her conscience about whether to be sexually involved, are there any principles that would always require a person to not have sex? For example, using your principles above, I see no impediment to paying for sex as long as proper precautions are taken, and both parties understand their sexual intents.

    2. Sex is about procreation. What does that mean? Does it mean that sex is clearly about procreation, except all those other times (play, foreplay, afterplay, homosexual, touching, etc.) when sex isn’t really about procreation?

    3. Sex is about relationships. Shouldn’t the principle be that relationships may be about sex? When should sex be in a relationship? When is it clearly taboo in a relationship? What about all the possible miscommunications that are possible in a relationship that involves sex, e.g. one person thinking they are having play sex, and another person thinking that it is an expression of love?

    4. How does one determine when one has crossed the line from healthy sex into indulgent, obsessive, lustful, or destructive sex?

    • David, thanks for the response. As I noted in the post, this was never intended to be definitive or systematic, as I feared that trying to do so would simply me into a never ending quest fro completeness. The ordering was roughly from the most important benefits down.

      Yo try to offer some greater (provisional) clarity:
      Yes, sex in general is good, but can be bad. Approached recklessly it can be emotionally dangerous – especially, but not exclusively, for the young. However, adults can be irresponsible and handle it badly, and some younger people, in the right conditions, can handle it well. I don’t see hard and fast dividing lines, any more than I see a clear division between “responsible” and “irresponsible”.
      The crucial principles in terms of conscience formation I see as mutuality, equality and consent. I did not specify payment as I am not sure that this is necessarily a matter of conscience – provided full mutuality and consent are present. I’m certainly not aware of anything in scripture against it (prostitution in biblical times was a low status profession for women, but was not prohibited.) In church history, there have been times when the church actively encouraged city authorities to set up licenced brothels, as away of regulating male sexual behaviour.

      My series of “about” statements were simply intended to list the more important aspects or purposes. They are not exclusive, and will usually occur in combination – bit not necessarily all at the same time. Inside a marriage, it may be about procreation and cementing the emotional bond and also be play all at the same time – but will not always include all of them on every occasion.

      I don’t make a clear distinction between “sex about relationships” and “realtionships about sex”. I think that one usually implies the other, although eiher could at times occur alone.

      The intricacies you list in 3 and 4 get to the heart of the problem, for which there are no easy answers. I think though that the best way to approach some is to think not of sex alone, but of relationships. How do we ensure that relationships are sound in general? By making sure that there is good, clear communication of each other’s desires, expectations and limits. When is it taboo? When there is no clear, agreed mutuality, equality and consent: and when one or both parties are too young to deal with the emotional consequences..

      How do know when we have crossed the line? The same way we sense when we have crossed the line in pursuit of anything – whether food, drink, attention or wealth: by learning to exercise some self-awareness, and some judgement.

  5. Terence,

    I understand that you were just laying out some principles without intending to be either complete or clear.

    I think there is substantial merit in gathering up the priniciples from the everyday experiences before attempting to arrive at a conclusion. To say that sex is good, but it can be bad, that sex is about play and procreation, that it can be constructive and destructive, etc. helps gather up the empirical data that can lead to an awareness that can help form conscience, which, in turn, can be used to form judgments.

    • David, the failure to base theology on empirical data is probably my biggest gripe against the officially sanctioned Catholic way of doing things. We need to speak frankly about these things, and about our experiences, to each other and to our pastors. This is why I believe that where we can, we need to stay in or return to the church, which gives us at least some opportunity to talk to others.

  6. Speaking of a “lack of empirical data,” this thread and the reflections that prompted it, are a fine example of that “lack of empirical data.”

    Anyone who’s read my posts knows I advocate the “institutional” Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality to the letter. But I start, or at least try to start, from Kinsey and not from Aquinas. Kinsey was a zoologist and was both professionally and personally unattached to organized religion, much less any form of Christianity. He just looked at the way people behaved and tallied up the results. Here’s what people do in the real world. Don’t like Kinsey’s results? Do your own study.

    So I start from Kinsey and work backwards, from zoology to biology, with a heavy weight towards evolution (which, to me, is not theory but fact). Lets start with something simple: why is sex pleasurable? It is not pleasurable to “create an intimate community of mutuality, equality and consent.” That sounds nice, but it doesn’t tell me anything about why I see what I see in nature. I’m not using the word “nature” here in the Thomistic sense; I’m using it in the sense of “the observable behavior of living beings in situ.”

    A straight shot to the pleasure centers of the brain from genital stimulation is, if nothing else, nature’s way of saying “pay attention.” Sexual pleasure is an inducement to living creatures to engage in reproductive acts. That’s what I think someone doing field-work might say.

    Reproduction. Without it there’s no conversation, is there? Nobody here to talk about what all this means.

    • “Reproduction. Without it there’s no conversation, is there? Nobody here to talk about what all this means.”

      And yet the church willingly marries heterosexual couples who cannot reproduce.

      While denying validity to gay lives and relationships on the grounds that those lives and relationships are non-procreative.

      And puts the children of same-sex couples out of Catholic schools on the grounds that their parents are not following church teaching.

      But willingly accepts children of couples whose parents are divorced. Or living together without marriage. Or practicing contraception.

      Empirical data. Would you like to talk about these data?

    • Mark, in placing my post I made it very clear that it was not intended to be formal, systematic treatment of the subject, but just an entirely personal opening of the discussion. As such, no I did not present empirical evidence. That does not mean I don’t have any. Like you, I have been influenced by Kinsey, but I also looked much further. Kinsey’s study was based on a geographically an temporally limited data set – Americans in the mid – twentieth century. I have also investigated and reflected on evidence from other societies and other cultures, particularly to work out what is meant by “natural”, and I can assure you that here is a far wider range of understandings here than you might expect. And no, most cultures have not identified sex solely with reproduction: in this, the Christian tradition appears to be almost unique. I also look at zoology, and again find that even the animal kingdom does not restrict sex to making babies, as Colleen noted in an earlier comment, based on her farmyard observations.

      I am disappointed that you appear to base your argument on “A straight shot to the pleasure centers of the brain from genital stimulation”. As I tried to stress, responsible use of he gift of sexuality is or should be about much more than mere genital pleasure, but should involve the whole person. As for empirical data, you refer to your reference to Kinsey and zoology, an then leap to conclusions with out actually specifying the data that supports those conclusions: my reading of Kinsey, and of zoologists studies of animal sexual behaviour, clearly leads to conclusions exactly opposite to yours.

      I will over time present the data on which I have based my conclusions. I hope you will do the same. Meanwhile, thank you for joining the discussion. By sharing views, perhaps we can find some common ground on which to build.

      • As the lone female voice I would like to make a few observations. The pleasure center in women is not always a slam dunk phenomenon or straight line shot as it mostly is for men. Even the sources of stimulation are different with men being far more visual which is why pornography works much better for men.

        It is more difficult for women to achieve a vaginal orgasm than a clitoral orgasm which says what about procreative intent in sex for women. I thought it was quite fascinating that in TOB John Paul II completely leaves out the reality of clitoris or clitoral orgasm. Had he acknoweldged such a concept he might have read the Song of Songs with slighly different eyes.

        Mark I have a difficult time with your pleasure center theory of reproduction precisely because historically billions of women have gotten repeatedly pregnant without experiencing the joys of tripping the pleasure center. Of course the more children the harder the trip.

        Women really wanted the change in birth control so they could actually enjoy sexuality. Stress and fear are not conducive to vaginal orgasm. In reality the Church’s position facillitates against women enjoying your notions of triggered pleasure centers. That is unless they’ve married a hugely mature guy who somehow, somewhere, learned something about how to help a woman trigger her pleasure centers while avoiding pregnancy.

        Just thought a little bit of a female perspective might be a novel contribution when it comes to sex and Catholicism.

    • Mark,

      I think I brought in the idea that Terence was sharing “empirical data”.

      What I meant by that comment is that Terence wasn’t proposing any sort of system to discuss sex. Rather, he was presenting a number of disjointed observations on sexuality.

      I am also an advocate of the Church’s teachings on sexuality. However, I must confess that the Church’s teachings are considered inadequate by the majority of those who consider themselves Catholics, and grossly inadequate by the majority of Americans.

      While that is not a test of its truth, it is a test of its usefulness. And, on that test the Church is failing, presumably for those whom the teachings indicate may be the most in need of understanding.

      I was given an insight this past Sunday upon hearing the story of the adulterous woman. When questioned by the crowd about whether the people should follow the law and stone the woman (or alternatively whether he was going to state that she could go free), his response was telling.

      “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

      I am willing to concede that, in the particular, the Church’s teachings fail to touch upon all of the elements that are necessary to fully inform the conscience. I can understand why the Church can be seen as casting that stone to condemn homosexual behavior.

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