This domain depends on the scope given to sex. From a Freudian perspective, much of life involves eros (as well as the death instinct, and so on), whereas for others, sexuality only concerns matters that involve the use and arousal of sexual organs. Some kind of middle path seems desirable. Perhaps the best way to measure the scope of sexuality for humans is to claim that a paradigm (or clear) case of sexuality involves the arousal of sexual organs or events that either do or would naturally lead to such an arousal (other things being equal). So, sexual intercourse or sexual self-stimulation (masturbation or auto-eroticism) seem clear cases of sexuality and so would events that approximate it, e.g. sexual stimulation but without intercourse and regardless of orgasm or ejaculation. There will be areas and actions that are difficult to classify: for example when is a feeling of attraction to someone sexual and when is playful interplay flirtatious and thus bordering on sexuality and when is it not?
It is estimated (conservatively) that around 3 million women and children are currently enslaved in the $32 billion dollar criminal sex trafficking industry.
Today, some forms of what is called “sexual assault” are not considered “sexual” per se, but as physical assaults. So, in some cases, legally, rape is considered a crime of violence. Still, a mainstay in sexual ethics is the necessary but not the sufficient condition of consent. Thus, it is not enough for a minor to consent to sexual intercourse with an adult for the act to be ethically permissible, but sexuality between two adults requires necessarily that there be reasonable assurance of sustained, contemporary mutual consent. The reasons behind making this condition “sustained” and “contemporary” is because if intercourse happens at a time when one person is not consenting, but afterward he or she does (looking back) consents, there was still a sexual violation of rape.
Perhaps the most discussed aspects of sexual ethics today concerns the status or value of single-sex relations and the meaning of gender both in terms of its relationship to sexuality and to society at large.
In large part, the case against the permissibility of single-sex relations involves one of four claims: 1) the Freudian thesis that single sex relations involves an arrested development of persons in a state of narcissism (being sexually aroused by the mirror image of oneself); 2) sexual orientation to same sex persons is the result of abuse from a same sex adult; 3) from a biological and biblical point of view, sexuality is largely oriented toward procreation, and yet single-sex unions are, in principle, non-reproductive; 4) single-sex unions are in violation of divinely revealed precepts.
In response, defenders of same-sex relations reply that: 1) persons are sufficiently different who are same-sex so that narcissism is implausable or no more plausable than when opposite-sex couples resemble each other; 2) there is no truth to the thesis that all same-sex oriented persons were abused; 3) opposite sex relationships can be sterile but valuable; 4) some theologians argue that the prohibition of same-sex relations is either not applicable to caring, committed sexual relations (they are, instead, at prohibiting temple prostitution) or should be seen as human interpolations (for example, note that Jesus is not recorded as prohibiting same sex relations).
Some defend the legal legitimacy of same-sex marriages on the grounds that same-sex orientation is “natural.” Others hold that such unions should be legally recognized whether or not this is true.
Here are some situations that might stimulate thought about issues belonging to sexual ethics:
How should we go about punishing those who commit rape? Should it be a capital crime? CLICK HERE to read about the recent debates in India concerning the proper punishment for egregious group rape.
What if you make a life-long vow to someone that you will remain married through sickness and health, but then the person has an accident (not by his or her fault) and can no longer function physically or mentally? What if you have a close friend who is in a committed relationship, and you discover that her or his partner is (secretly) sexually involved with another person? When, if ever, would you tell your friend about the betrayal, or confront the partner?
Times may have changed. There is reason to think that young adults in the USA thirty years ago assigned more significance to sexual union than today. As an experiment, I put the following question to two age groups, those below 24 and those above 40.
Compare two couples: Pat and Kris, and Tonie and Charly. They are equally romantically involved and both take great delight in each other’s company. The two couples take life-long vows. After the vows, Pat and Kris make love for the first time, and die the next day in an avalanche. Tonie and Charly want to make love but they first take a hike and are killed in the same avalanche. Does the one couple have a good that the other lacks?
Those over the age of 40 reply, ‘yes,’ those under 24 answer, ‘no’. Why is that?
When is it a duty to confront prejudice? What follows is a true story, but I will put you in the hot seat: You are an American guest of a British choir in Glasgow Scotland on a crowded bus. Everyone is tired; the traffic is terrible. You are trying to keep the bus driver awake and calm, as he seems a bit testy. The bus drives by a park. The driver says to you: “Don’t go in the park.” You reply: “Why? Are there gangs that hang out there?” The driver replies: “No. There are gays there.” Irrespective of whether you are gay, what do you do? If you do nothing to challenge, correct, or indicate you find this advice prejudicial and reprehensible, have you done something wrong?
Other concerns in terms of sexual ethics include: the permissibility of sex without explicit commitment (marriage, vow, or resolution), the nature of adultery, polygamy, divorce, perversions (is, for example, using fecal material in sex unnatural or dysfunctional), professional conduct (sex between persons who are in the same company), the use of pornography, prostitution, and sexual surrogates in the role of sexual therapists.
Check out the many articles on sexual relations found in this book, What Philosophy Can Teach You About Your Lover, edited by Sharon Kaye
Also click the title to read an article by Brenda Wirkus about sex from a theistic point of view: “Sex and Theism“