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[Content note: this post discusses, without explicit detail, many forms of unethical sex, including rape, sexual harassment, and child molestation.]

A reader commissioned me to write a blog post about the book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, by Margaret Farley, a Catholic nun and former professor at Yale University Divinity School. (It’s “Just Love” as in “love that follows principles of justice,” not as in “only love.”) Just Love was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church for endorsing masturbation, gay marriage, gay sex, divorce in some situations, and remarriage after divorce.

I will begin by discussing why we should have sexual ethics other than “don’t rape people” at all, then explain Farley’s view of sexual ethics, then I will critique each of her proposed norms in turn. I have a lot to say about this book, so I’m splitting the post up over several days in order to save everyone from having to read a ten-thousand-word monstrosity.

A Justification of Sexual Ethics Beyond Rape

Many people adopt what I consider to be an extraordinarily deontologist view of sex. They consider sexual ethics to consist solely of not having sex with people without their consent. Everything else is strictly supererogatory. You might decide to care about your partner’s sexual pleasure, or indulge your partners’ fetishes, or avoid sex that makes you feel sick and empty and degraded inside, but these are all personal choices with no moral valence. The actual ethics is in the consent.

I admit this is a model I am continuously tempted to use. It is so simple and so elegant. A free agent in the sphere of sexuality and romance can set their boundaries and express their needs to other people. They search until they find a partner who has a compatible set of needs and boundaries. Throughout the relationship, they renegotiate as their boundaries and needs change; when their boundaries and needs no longer mesh, the relationship ends. No set of needs and boundaries is “wrong”, although with certain sets of needs and boundaries it may be hard to find a compatible partner. The only unethical action is violating someone else’s boundaries.

But it is unsatisfying in many ways. It is all very well for deontologists to have a model where as long as you follow the rules you’re okay. But utilitarians ought to object that there are many instances of consensual sex which do not produce the greatest good for the greatest number. Egoists should remark that there is no reason to assume that all consensual sex is pursuing the individual’s enlightened self-interest. Virtue ethicists might point out that it would be very odd if sex were the only sphere of human interaction in which we cannot cultivate wisdom, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Even many formulations of deontology object: sex can be consensual and still involve treating a person as a thing or following a rule that you would not will everyone else abide by.

The “only nonconsensual sex is unethical” is equally odd from the perspective of intuitive morality. Sometimes consensual sex is disloyal, harmful, or unfair. Certainly it would be very strange if sex were the only area of human life in which the sum and total of ethical human behavior is “don’t commit literal felonies.”

I think how unsatisfying the only-nonconsensual-sex-is-bad ethic is can be shown through how many other aspects of sexual morality people insist on attempting to smuggle into it. For instance, some people argue that cheating is wrong because it violates your spouse’s consent. It seems extraordinarily puzzling to me that people get to consent to sex that they are not involved in and may not even be aware of, and very unprincipled that only spouses have this capacity. (Why can’t parents revoke consent for their teenagers to have sex? Why can’t governments revoke consent for sodomy to happen between its borders?) You might argue that the difference is that you have sex with your spouse and you do not generally have sex with your government. But in that case a spouse would have no room to object if their partner had sex with someone else and then conscientiously never had sex with them again. Most people, I believe, would consider the latter decision to compound the harm, not to erase it.

I think the only logical conclusion is that the harm from cheating has nothing to do with consent; instead, the harm from cheating comes from breaking a promise. It is possible for sex to be completely and 100% consensual and also be wrong.

A lot of people have a flinch reaction to that conclusion, which makes sense. As completely reasonable sentences that are usually followed by horrible bullshit go, “it is possible for sex to be completely consensual and also be wrong” is right up there with “I’m not racist” and “think of the children.” Traditionally, of course, “it is possible for sex to be completely consensual and also be wrong” is followed with some thoughts on the evils of premarital sex, pornography, homosexuality, polyamory, birth control, feminism, sex toys, oral sex, sex outside of the missionary position, and literally everything else that’s fun. In our more modern era, it is also used by various Tumblr users who want you to know that BDSM is violence and violence is still wrong when everyone is consenting, which is presumably why they make a habit of protesting boxing matches and karate dojos.

That is what you might call act-based sexual morality. In addition to sex without consent being wrong, people put certain sexual acts on the “no” list, because those acts are considered to be inherently violent or misogynistic, objectifying or going against God’s will, disrespectful or a violation of the proper end of the human body, regardless of context or how the participants feel about it.

I think that consent-only sexual morality is right but doesn’t go far enough. However, act-based sexual morality is totally and completely wrong. After a great deal of thought, I have not been able to identify a single sex act qua act that I would consider conclusively wrong in all circumstances. (As opposed to, say, choice of sexual partner, where there are a number of choices that are wrong in all circumstances– children, your students, people who are in a monogamous relationship with someone else, etc.) Unprotected PIV is wrong if you picked up a stranger at a bar, but beautiful if you’re conceiving a loved and desperately wanted child. Calling your partner a disgusting whore is cruel if you mean it, but extremely hot for some people in a negotiated D/s dynamic. Certain forms of dangerous edgeplay are far too risky for most people, but can be valuable for certain people who are aware of and have accepted the risks.

(Sex in public where people might see is the closest I can get to an “always wrong in all circumstances” thing, but even then if there were enough sex-in-public enthusiasts that they convinced the city to allow them to cordon off a few streets every so often for the purpose, and there were bouncers checking IDs and making sure everyone knew what they were in for, I think that sex in public would be absolutely wonderful.)

The fallacy of act-based sexual morality makes sense once you try to apply it to any other subject. Is it inherently wrong to punch someone? Depends on whether they’re assaulting someone else at the time. Is it inherently wrong to play at a rock concert? Depends on whether you’re doing it in my backyard without my consent. Is it inherently wrong to give away a million dollars? Depends on whether you’re giving it away to the Nazi party. You can’t judge any action outside of its context, so why do people think this is a reasonable way to judge sexual ethics?

Three final notes: First, while I do think sexual ethics should consider issues other than consent, I do not think any form of consensual sex should be illegal. It is wrong to cheat on your partner, but that does not mean that you should go to prison for cheating on your partner.

Second, no person is perfectly ethical. This is true for every area of ethics. It is wrong to yell at your children, but nearly all parents yell sometimes. It is wrong to go on expensive vacations instead of giving that money to the poor, but most people who can afford to go on expensive vacations have gone on at least one. It is wrong to eat products that come from chickens, but I still eat the occasional cookie without inquiring too closely about whether there are eggs in it. Similarly, we would expect all people to have unethical sex sometimes. The question is whether you are doing the best you can, not whether you have reached some unattainable standard of goodness.

In particular, it is very very common for people to do wrong things because they have no other choice: for example, people eat eggs because they’re depressed and if they didn’t eat eggs they wouldn’t eat at all. It is not ever wrong to take care of yourself first. Ethical actions should be healthy, happy, and sustainable.

Third, when I say that sexual ethics must go beyond consent, I don’t mean to imply that consent is not important. In fact, consent is the bedrock of all sexual morality. Unfortunately, our society has caused many people to internalize the idea that you shouldn’t say no to sex if you have a certain relationship with someone, or if they really really want it, or if you don’t have a good reason. All sexual ethics has to come from the fundamental, baseline position that you can always refuse sex with someone for any reason or no reason at all. Even if your reason is really really stupid, you have a right to say no to sex for stupid reasons. Even if they paid for dinner, or you’re married, or it’s the third date, or you’re a man and you think men always want it you have a right to say no to sex. You should absolutely say no to any sex that makes you feel sick or gross or sad or violated.

Farley’s Framework

Farley argues that justice involves treating other humans with respect for who they are as humans: a unique person with a body and a soul, needs for food and clothing and shelter, the capacity for free choice and thoughts and feelings, a history, a social and political and cultural and economic context, a relationship to various systems and institutions, a potential for growth and flourishing, a vulnerability to diminishment and despair, interpersonal needs and capacities, and emotions. Of particular relevance to sexual ethics are a person’s ability to make free choices (autonomy) and their ability to have relationships with other people (relationality).

Farley presents a seven-item framework for sexual ethics. The first two are grounded in human autonomy, while the second five are grounded in relationality.

  1. Do no unjust harm

While this is a general principle of ethics, avoidance of harm is particularly important for sexual ethics. Violations of this principle include rape, domestic violence, enslavement, sexual exploitation, unsafe sex, deceit, betrayal, sexual unfulfillment, emotional manipulation, and so on and so forth.

2. Free consent

Free consent is the right of each individual person to determine their own sexual actions and relationships. Violations of this principle include rape, violence, coercion, sex with people who do not have the capacity to give informed consent, sexual harassment, and child molestation. Norms derivative from this norm of free consent include privacy (the right of an individual to keep information about their sex life confidential), telling the truth, and keeping promises.

3. Mutuality

Mutuality is mutual participation in the sexual act. Sex is not a thing that one person does to another person; instead, it is a relationship in which everyone involved is both active and receptive and both gives and receives pleasure. This does not necessarily imply that it is morally wrong to be, for example, a pillow princess or an exclusive top: as just one example, a pillow princess may actively participate through their obvious enjoyment of the sex.

4. Equality

While no two individuals are perfectly equal in power, Farley argues that individuals participating in ethical sex must be sufficiently equal. Severe inequalities, such as when one person is very emotionally immature or those produced by certain patriarchal cultures, may result in one person being vulnerable and dependent and having limited options. Violations of the norm of equality include sexual harassment, emotional and physical abuse, some forms of sex work for some people, and giving up your entire sense of self for the person you love.

5. Commitment

In general, Farley argues, ethical sex requires some form of commitment to your partner, although not necessarily a lifelong marriage.

6. Fruitfulness

The most obvious kind of fruitfulness is procreation. Procreative sex must be conducted in a context that ensures the responsible care of offspring, the creation of a family, and participation in the great project of building the human community. However, for many people, sex is not procreative: they might be gay, infertile, childfree, or simply not ready to have children. However, they can still have fruitful sex. Ethical sex opens you to the wider community. It is not self-involved. Good sex can strengthen you, which lets you move beyond yourself in many ways: you can nourish your other relationships, make art, help people, provide goods and services to others through work, or raise your own or help raise other people’s children.

7. Social justice

Please note that this is “social justice” in the Catholic sense of the term, not in the modern-day sense of the term.

Social justice is an umbrella term covering many different kinds of sexual ethics. It is not sexual ethics construed narrowly, as in whether or not you should have particular kinds of sex; it is sexual ethics construed broadly, as in all the ethical problems which are affected by our sexualities. All people have a right to “freedom from unjust harm, equal protection under the law, an equitable share in the goods and services available to others, and freedom of choice in their sexual lives– within the limits of not harming or infringing on the just claims of… others” (Farley pg. 228); unfortunately, some people are denied these rights due to their sexualities or in the sphere of sexuality.

In a narrow sense, social justice requires that we take responsibility for the effects our actions may have on others, such as public health concerns, procreation, broken promises, and so on. In a broader sense, social justice implies a concern for the many ways in which people are harmed based on sexuality: a brief and incomplete list would include sexism, sexual and domestic violence, racism, global poverty, oppressive religious and cultural traditions, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, lack of contraceptive access, and the harmful use of new reproductive technologies.

Unjust Harm

In general, I endorse Farley’s reasoning. If you are the sort of person who reads a long post about sexual ethics, you probably already know that you should not rape people or sexually harass them or enslave them. It is in general wrong to have sex with people if you know it will cause them more distress than pleasure.

Many utilitarians may object that “no unjust harm” pretty much covers all of sexual ethics and we don’t need any additional sexual ethics. Be that as it may, I think it’s useful to have guidelines about how you can avoid harming people, particularly for those of us who have already mastered “slavery: probably a bad idea.” These sexual ethics I will discuss in the next post.