When it comes to sexual activity, what is moral and what is immoral? Where do we draw the boundaries? (We all draw the boundaries somewhere.) And, just as importantly, how do we decide? What are the principles that inform our sexual ethic?
The Cultural Sexual Ethic
While it would be nearly impossible to get everyone to agree on something, I think it’s realistic to speak generally about the sexual ethic of our non-religious culture. As I see it, there are four principles that inform the Cultural Sexual Ethic: Autonomy, Consent, Pleasure, and Justice. I’ll try to describe each of these briefly.
Autonomy is the belief that I have the right to make decisions for myself. My body belongs to me, and nobody can tell me what to do with it. I am, so to speak, my own master, free to do as I see fit.
Consent, when it comes to sexual activity, is the primary (only?) limiter of my autonomy. When others are involved in the sexual act, they must be willing participants. Sexual coercion is immoral because it violates the other’s autonomy. But as long as all parties are willing, anything goes.
The four principles that guide the Cultural Sexual Ethic are Autonomy, Consent, Pleasure, and Justice.
Pleasure, or enjoyment, is basic to the sex act because that is the primary intended result. All parties are seeking to derive some kind of pleasure from the activity, whether physical, emotional, or both. Sexual preference and taste are important factors in achieving a pleasurable experience.
Justice, in this case, is the pursuit of fairness in sexual activity, particularly for those whose preferences or tastes have been shamed or criminalized in the wider culture.
If I could articulate the Cultural Sexual Ethic, I would say it like this: All humans are in charge of their own bodies and therefore have the legal right to pursue sexual pleasure by whatever means they desire, without shame or discrimination, insofar as all partners are willing participants. I’ve tried to state this as clearly and fairly as I can. My hope is that those who generally take this stance would agree, at least in part, with my statement.