Sexuality is one of the most influential aspects of our lives as human beings. Sex is a primal instinct for procreation and continuation of the species. Yet why is there such a distinction between sexual instincts and other primeval instincts such as eating, drinking, sleeping and breathing? All are natural bodily functions! Sexuality directs our behaviour whether we are aware of it or not. If the desire for sexual pleasure is similar to the desire for food, should sexual behaviour be hindered by moral principles? Can we use the same moral codes of behaviour when discussing sex? Sexual attraction can be one of the main reasons for a couple forming a relationship.
The ongoing sexual relationship of a couple has the capability of nourishing love, expressing affection, eliciting honesty and trust and can bind a couple more closely together. Ultimately it has the potential for new life. When we consider these elements of sexuality we have reason to believe that sexual ethics are important and we do need moral principles to guide our behaviour. Sex has the ability to be damaging, not only in personal matters but also to society. With acceptance boundaries altering our perception of sex has changed.
There are new issues that need to be considered with sexuality becoming more diverse. We need to explore cohabitation, contraception, casual sex, abortion, cyber-sex, rape, marriage, divorce, homosexuality and masturbation, in order to understand which direction we need to take with sexual ethics. Ethical theories can be used to direct sexuality on the right course. They allow us to take into consideration moral issues surrounding sexuality. Yet many theories are controversial, with aspects which may be considered dated or be misinterpreted. Therefore I will examine the main ethical theories, which are applicable to sexual ethics.
It is impossible to examine Sexual Ethics without looking at Religion. Much of the debate about sexual ethics is related to and informed by religion. Introduced by St Paul, celibacy was primarily considered the highest ideal and marriage was necessary if sexual desires were too strong. Such views influenced later thinkers in the Christian tradition. The Christian attitude to sex is mainly founded on the teachings of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas.
Their influence can be seen to be incredibly damning to Western perceptions of sex as they are strictly focused on marriage as the necessary place for procreation and any sexual activity which inhibits procreation is considered immoral. Yet their ideas were exactly what the Church was looking for in an attempt to control people in their sexual activity. St Augustine recognised that sex could undermine a man’s rationality. Women were seen to inspire desires in men, where even the most powerful of men may find himself subject to sexual desires that he could not control.1 He believed sexual activity was sinful and intercourse should only take place within marriage for the purpose of procreation; sex was a ‘regretful task’ and men should descend to it ‘with a certain sadness.’
Natural Law, developed by St Thomas Aquinas, is the theory of human purpose. It is the concept that there is a moral code within the purpose of nature and therefore human nature also. Natural Law from Aquinas’s perception interprets the telos of sex as procreation. Anything that hinders the procreation of children is condemned as unnatural, for example, contraception, oral and anal sex, masturbation and homosexuality. Contraception was considered morally wrong as it prevented conception and also like the other examples involves using the sexual organs in an inappropriate manner undermining their purpose.
Yet is the telos of sex always procreation? There seems to be confusion here between what is the case and what ought to be the case. What about sexual intercourse as an expression of love between a couple or as something enjoyable? We are naturally sexual creatures and this does not seem to be merely for the reason of procreation but also for the tenderness and affection that sexual activity can provoke between a couple.
Another ethical theory, which sustains the conservative approach of sex exclusively for marriage, is Kantian ethics. Yet his conclusion for matrimony is not deduced for the same reasons as Natural Law. Kant’s deontological ethics focuses mainly on his famous categorical imperative; it is always wrong to treat another person as merely a means to an end, rather than as an end-in-itself. This principle for Kant was one of rationality; our ability to reason which differentiates us from other species enabling us to act autonomously avoiding inclinations of human desire. For Kant sexual acts are wrong in themselves because they invariably involve the manipulation of one’s partner for one’s own pleasure, thus violating the categorical imperative.
He feared sexuality, as it was the prime disturber of reason, sexual urges were so strong that they could undermine a man’s rationality and degrade him no better than a non-rational animal. Marriage for Kant was a mutual agreement to degrade each other, to treat each other as the property of the other – to use each other. While they are still placed on the level of non-rational creatures, for a temporary time, it is permissible because it is done in the broader context of two rational agents freely engaging in a cooperative lifelong contractual venture. They are not using each other merely as a means to an end, but are doing so in a broader context of overall respect.
The Libertarian approach views sexual desire as not being intrinsically sinful or selfish but as a form of pleasure which should not be restrained by conservative ethics. The sexual liberal emphasizes autonomous choice, self-determination and freedom. Liberal philosophers argue that there is nothing about a virtuous life lived well that excludes seeking sexual pleasure for its own sake. Utilitarianism devised by Jeremy Bentham, follows the principle that an action is right if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number. Bentham recognised that human beings were motivated by pleasure and pain. “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.”