Guidelines for a holistic sexual ethic, part 2

Guidelines for a holistic sexual ethic, part 2 June 25, 2013

The other day, I talked about how I’ve noticed over the past few months many Christians talking about “sexual ethics.” I mentioned that, even Christians trying to move away from shaming and purity culture often fall into this dichotomy of “marital sex as ethical” vs. “premarital sex as dangerous, objectifying, and trying to avoid consequences.”

I think sexual ethics are important. I also think they look a little different from person to person. And Idefinitelythink that views which dichotomize marital and premarital sex as “ethical vs. unethical” are bullshit, and can even be harmful.

So, I want to present four general guidelines that I think can help further conversations about healthy “sexual ethics.” 1. Consent. 2. Respect and affirmation of the humanity of self and others. 3. Emotional and health risks, and how to approach them. 4. The meanings that you and your partner attach to sex.

I want to talk about each of these in a little more detail. I’ll talk about points 1 and 2 today, and points 3 and 4 either tomorrow or later this week.

I want to start with consent, because when you’re talking about sex, ALWAYS START WITH CONSENT.

Click for source

1. Consent:

Several feminists whose work I really appreciate, like Dianna Anderson and Libby Anne, have written about how a sexual ethic needs to start with consent. I fully agree. But I’ve seen responses to these bloggers that accuse them of saying that consent is the only factor one must consider when it comes to sex.

But…that’s not what these women are saying.

That’s not what any feminists that I know of are saying. We rally against media that treats women as sex objects. We fight for reproductive justice. It should be obvious that we’re not going around pretending that as long as people value consent that we don’t have to ever talk about anything related to sex again.

The reason we stress the importance of consent is because, first of all, it is FOUNDATIONAL. Without consent, we’re not talking about sex at all. We’re talking about assault or rape.

Secondly, we stress the importance of consent because NO ONE ELSE DOES. Okay, maybe not no one, but there are not nearly enough people in this world talking about consent, and often it feels that way. In Christian purity culture, it’s “you get to say NO before marriage, or you’re damaged goods,” or “you get to say YES after marriage, or you’re a selfish spouse.” In broader culture, there are so many tropes, that are considered romantic, about men grabbing unsuspecting women to kiss them. This shit is everywhere.

“Just wait until marriage” doesn’t fulfill the requirement of  consent. Marriage is not an all-time consent to sex, and non-consensual “sex” within marriage is still rape. Rape that happens within marriage is just as devastating and traumatizing. As I’ve mentioned above, purity culture tries to tell people (especially women) that refusing to have sex with their husbands is a sin. This is spiritual and sexual manipulation and a violation of this guideline for ethical sex.

So, no, consent is not the end of a discussion on sexual ethics, but it is a very important beginning. If it seems like we’re overemphasizing consent, it’s because we live in a world that is constantly ignoring it.

2. Respect and Affirmation of the Humanity of Self/Others

This issue is really tied in with consent. Studies show that those who dehumanize others are more likely to be perpetrators of sexual assault. So, there’s the basis of this guideline. Don’t treat others as animals or objects.

Realize that people have emotions, opinions, boundaries, and autonomy over their bodies. They are not objects that you can do whatever you want with. I don’t care if you’re sleeping with your spouse (I don’t care what I Corinthians 7 says, you do not own your spouse) or with a sex worker (when you pay for sex, you are hiring someone to do a service for you. You are not buying the right to a person’s body).

Also, realize that YOU are a human, too, and you are allowed to draw and enforce boundaries. You are allowed to communicate your feelings about sex with your partner(s).

While there are definitely some general ways to affirm everyone’s humanity, realize that when it comes to specific sexual situations, how you respect people’s humanity is going to look different from person to person. Some people may love certain sex acts that others find degrading. I often hear Christians denounce certain consensual sex acts as dehumanizing, and say that other sex acts (usually penis-in-vagina intercourse) are always life-affirming, but this is something that can’t be universalized. People need to work it out with their partners.

A holistic sexual ethic can’t just assume, “I waited until marriage. Therefore I am treating my sex partner as a human, not a commodity.” How many times have you heard abstinence promoting messages that compare human beings to cars, cows, trophies, presents, bubblegum, etc.? While your convictions/opinions on abstinence may influence how you would like to be treated as a human (and it’s OKAY to express that to your partners, by the way), just because someone is abstinent or waited until marriage doesn’t mean they’ve already considered this point. 

I’ll discuss the other two guidelines for sexual ethics later. Until then, what are some of your thoughts? How can we better ensure that we’re treating our sex partners as humans? How can we affirm our own humanity?



"Two family members abused me, one I have totally reconciled with, the other, not. One ..."

When my abuser is welcome at ..."
"I want to share this article on FB, but totally don't want the image of ..."

Liberating Liturgies: Why Mother Bear?
"Mate of course a Sarah is being a condescending cow mate good luck in hell"

Telling My Own Story: A Perspective ..."
"We finished the actual conference, not just reading the book, and I would highly encourage ..."

Complementarians are trying to scam us.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Marta L.

    I’m sure there are many people who need to be reminded that the conversation about sex must must MUST include consent. That really needs to be emphasized. But for some reason, the next question seems much more difficult to ask: what counts as consent, or perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t count as consent? I know that conversation can be touchy because carried out the wrong way it can contribute to rape culture. But I suspect there are a heck of a lot more people out there who say of course consent is key without thinking about the situations where you don’t have real consent or where the consent is somehow coerced and what that means. So I’d say on that issue, at least, finding out a way to have a frank discussion on this point is really central to developing a good sexual ethic.

    • The fact that so many people are confused about what consent looks like or how to ask for/receive consent is why we all must keep talking about it. I even wrote a how-to guide on it back in May. 😉 I agree with you 100% that too many people only talk about it vaguely without thinking about what consent really means, and that is a huge problem in our society. Of course, an even bigger problem are the people who say consent “ruins the mood” or isn’t “sexy.” Gargh.

      • Marta L.

        I’m lucky. I grew up Christian Protestant but not fundamentalist. So I always heard consent was key, and while I was encouraged to wait until I was older that was so I could not get pregnant and finish school and because teenage boys were kind of immature anyway, not because virginity was my only source of value as a person. So I think I may not have the challenges some people do in this area, the baggage. But even I struggle with just what consent means in different situations and feel the need to dig a bit deeper. That need doesn’t negate the need for “Consent *totally* matters” messaging at a more basic level. They’re both needed, IMO.

        Thank God I never met anyone like those you mention. I do believe I might have kicked a groin or two in that situation, and I hear the law tends to frown on that reaction. 🙂

  • I grew up homeschooled in the church and in the purity culture and heard *zero* about the importance of consent until I was almost 21. It is absolutely an overlooked concept in that culture. Thank goodness I didn’t have any romantic relationships before that point – I have no idea what they would have looked like with that skewed viewpoint.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    The difference between Catholic abstinence and Purity culture was once best summed up by a priest I know. He was counseling a couple that was living together before marriage, and trying to get them to stop having sex and start concentrating on their *relationship* first. So he brought up the excellent point to the young man: If she was in a car accident tomorrow that made sex impossible for the rest of your lives together- would you stay with her and take care of her?

    The answer to that question, is the true answer to a holistic sexual ethic. True love not only waits for now- true love is promising to be sacrificial for the future.

    And if you can’t be in the same bed as the other person without having sex, you have no business either having sex with that person *or* getting married, because eventually, consent will be withdrawn, if not temporarily, then permanently.

    • sarahoverthemoon

      So, who says unmarried couples can’t be in the same bed without having sex?

      • TheodoreSeeber

        You seem to. You keep implying that abstinence is not a reasonable solution- when it has worked for many, many different cultures (ever hear of bundling?)

        • sarahoverthemoon

          I’ve said several times that it is a reasonable solution. That doesn’t mean it’s the only reasonable solution.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Chastity is, however, by far the cheapest solution; all others requiring some level of manufacturing.