Guidelines for a holistic sexual ethic, part 3

If you haven’t read my other two posts on sexual ethics, I suggest you do so to get the full context. The first post can be found here, and the second here.

As a reminder, I’ve been talking about a few basic guidelines that can help people form a holistic sexual ethic. I’m doing this to combat the idea that purity-culture and/or wait-til-marriage Christians have a monopoly on ethical sex, and the idea that waiting until marriage is in itself a holistic sexual ethic.

In my last post on this topic, I discussed the first two guidelines: 1. Consent, and 2. Respect and affirmation for self and others. Today, I’m going to discuss the next two: 3. Emotional and health risks/needs, and how to approach them, and 4. The meanings that you and your partner attach to sex.

3. Emotional and Health Risks/Needs

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I often hear purity-culture Christians claim that pregnancy, STDs/STIs, and heartbreak are reasons enough to avoid sex until marriage. They claim that those who don’t wait until marriage just want “consequence-free” sex. This claim often comes up against those promoting access to birth control and sex ed.

I don’t really understand this claim. The people promoting birth control and sex education are the ones who are trying to have “consequence-free” sex? Not the folks who get married and assume that sex will automatically be awesome and safe because they were virgins on their wedding night? 

It is important to consider the health “consequences” of sex–for yourself and your partner(s)–when forming a holistic ethic. But you can take precautions and be healthy and safe without getting married first. You can also get married and think that this means you’re safe from any health risks that might come from having sex. Marriage doesn’t mean you’ll be prepared for pregnancy if that is a biological possibility for you. It doesn’t mean you won’t get a urinary tract infection. There will always be risks for sex, but that doesn’t mean sex is a bad thing (even driving a car or eating dinner poses risks).

Also, the health risks involved in sex are different for everyone. For example, when Christians say that the possibility of pregnancy is the reason everyone should wait, they are erasing heterosexual couples who cannot have children. They are erasing same sex couples. They’re forgetting that not every married couple wants children and not every unmarried person minds having children before marriage. They’re forgetting that not everyone (not even heterosexual couples) has penis-in-vagina sex.

Purity-culture proponents also like to talk about how sex will bond you to another person for life, and if you don’t marry them first it will rip your heart out and you’ll never get over it. I mean, break-ups and disappointments can suck. Sometimes sex can make this even more complicated, especially if children are involved. But, depending on what meaning people put behind sex (see point 4), how people react emotionally to it and the expectations people have about it are going to vary from person to person.

People wanting to have healthy, ethical sex will consider both their expectations for it and the expectations of their partner(s). They will also consider health risks and needs for themselves and their partner(s). Don’t be a dick and convince someone who wants a relationship that you do too if all you want is a one-night stand. Don’t use your religion to try to manipulate someone who doesn’t share your religion out of using condoms or birth control. Don’t be afraid to express your emotional and health needs to potential partner(s), and don’t be afraid to turn down potential partner(s) who can’t or won’t meet those needs.

4. The Meanings that You/Your Partner Attach to Sex

You may be reading this thinking that I’m totally against people waiting until marriage to have sex. Im’ really not. If your personal values surrounding sex or marriage have to do with waiting, then that is also a part of forming a holistic sexual ethic.

Everyone attaches some meaning to sex. Some people might see sex as a sacrament or an act of worship. Some might see it as a means of reproduction. Some might see it as an act of romance or an expression of love. Some might not even care for sex at all. We are complicated, diverse people and we are going to have complicated, diverse views of sex. Those views are important, and it’s important to consider those views and discuss them with our partner(s).

Our meanings surrounding sex might effect how we approach the other guidelines (some Catholic couples might only use Natural Family Planning when trying to prevent pregnancy, for example, because their meaning for sex involves more openness to reproduction). But as I’ve pointed out over and over, the meanings themselves are not sufficient for a holistic sexual ethic.

Neither is one specific meaning for sex the only meaning that constitutes ethical sex for everyone. I hear too often accusations that people who don’t wait until marriage don’t value sex. But different values does not mean no values. We need to remember this. Even among people who wait until marriage to have sex, the meanings people attach to sex are going to be different.

Our meanings for sex are important, and shape how we approach healthy sexual relationships. But without consent, respect for humanity, and consideration of emotional and health risks/needs, our sex lives aren’t going to be “ethical.” And with consent, respect for humanity, and consideration of emotional and health risks/needs, people with diverse meanings for sex can have ethical sex lives.

There are definitely some general, universal guidelines for what constitutes ethical sex. But a lot of the shaping of a sexual ethic involves being open and honest about your own needs, and listening to/respecting the needs of your partner(s). A lot of the details are going to look different from couple to couple.

Purity-culture Christians need to stop assuming that their way of going about it is the only way that truly values sex and the well-being of others, or that their way of going about it automatically values sex and the well-being of others at all.

Sexual ethics are for everybody. 

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  • TheodoreSeeber

    Next you need to tackle this potential accusation:

    That you don’t value marriage enough to understand the genetic need children have to know their biological parents.

    I say it is a potential accusation, because for all of your feminist political correctness and devaluing of the role of fatherhood so far in this series, I strongly doubt that you don’t value fathers and that you don’t look upon lifelong marriages with some envy.

    • sarahoverthemoon

      Yeah, I’m just really envious of anyone who plans on getting married. Feminists like me could never hope for such a thing. And because I assert that every couple is going to have different health needs and different feelings about the meaning of sex, I must hate fathers.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        More that you’ve implied that marriage is an utterly worthless situation- the same diatribe I’ve gotten from militant feminists all my life. For a very long time I internalized their hate for my gender- and supported it. After all, men created all the wars, all heterosexual sex is rape, all pregnancy is deadly illness, and all top executives in capitalist corporations are male, right? Or at least, that’s the message I got growing up in the 1970s, everything women do is right and everything that men do is wrong and destructive.

        I finally began to shake that off about 14 years ago. I actually got married, and am still with my wife. We try, been avoiding birth control for 14 years, but only one special needs child- not terribly handicapped, but enough for the overpopulation nuts to keep telling me my wife should have aborted him instead of having that emergency c-section at 31 weeks.

        So forgive me if I’m a bit suspicious of your motives in creating a secular sexual ethics. Because so far, the sexual revolution has been an utter disaster as near as I can tell.

        • sarahoverthemoon

          You do realize it’s a little strange that you’re accusing me both of not being able to be with someone without having ALL the sex all the time and accusing me of thinking all sex is rape, right?

          • TheodoreSeeber

            “all heterosexual sex is rape” is the trope I used to hear from the feminists all the time. Note, I never said you were of that type, and for all the writing about homosexuality you have done, it is quite possible to be having sex while rejecting heterosexuality.

          • http://www.allourlives.org/ TooManyJens

            You’re assuming an awful lot of false things about a person you know nothing about. It’s really hampering your ability to engage in a meaningful conversation.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            I don’t want to engage in “a meaningful conversation”, I want to point out logical holes in the system so that the system gets better.

          • http://www.allourlives.org/ TooManyJens

            The problem is, you think you’ve found all these logical holes because of your false assumptions, and you’re wrong.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            The assumptions are not about Sarah specifically; they are about a (hopefully outdated) political theory that her system thus far seems linked to. If her system is to be a success, it needs to be delinked from that political theory and made more holistic, more universal.

            And most of all, it will need to make sense from the male perspective, not just the female, and be closer joined to all of human experience in all cultures throughout history, not just 20th and 21st century American feminism and its built-in prejudice against a certain view of marriage.

            If one is to be truly multicultural, there can be no assumption about other people’s assumptions being false. In fact, the words “false” and “wrong” cannot be allowed to exist if one is to create a truly holistic ethic. There can be no wrong.

          • smrnda

            You point out some valid problems with second wave feminism, which was very gender-essentialist – these are the people who believed men were inherently violent and women were inherently nurturing and such. (I know, shoddy summary.)

            The problem is that’s a long time ago – you’re arguing against a simplistic take on gender that nobody really believes in these days. Part of the problem with the past beliefs here was that gender studies were still relatively new, and there wasn’t a lot of good sociological data, and people were relying on ‘just so stories,’ their own limited experiences, and even psychoanalytic theories. There also hadn’t been a lot of good experimental research done on sexuality either, and there still are a lot of gaps in that area. I doubt any contemporary feminist is really that linked to what you encountered years ago.

  • Tamara

    Finally. For all the discussion on Christian blogs these past months about needing to develop a better sexual ethic, this is the first I’ve seen of someone actually doing it. And you’ve managed to address the biggest hang up many christians have in developing one, i.e. the whole marriage thing. Marriage and commitment are wonderful, but aren’t necessarily the basis for healthy sex. Thank you so so much for writing this series.

  • Anthony Bulldis

    So I just read this and parts 1 and 2. You brought up some things that I never really thought of, particularly that healthy sex means a lot more than just waiting until marriage.

    I’m not married yet, so I’m particularly appreciative of anything that can correct any potentially damaging attitudes I might be carrying around without realizing it.


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