The world is all abuzz about 50 Shades of Gray, the trilogy and now, the movie. Whether you’re interested in seeing the movie, or not, it’s raised many questions under the broad umbrella of human sexuality. These questions have lived long-term in society around sexuality, attraction, chemistry, conventional boundaries, and what one is taught is right or wrong when it comes to relating sexually with another.
Human sexuality has been studied and analyzed cross-culturally by researchers, scientists and psychologists for decades, in fact for centuries. From a psychological perspective, one’s family, culture, religious and societal conditioning make a huge impact on how we perceive relationships, sexuality and attraction. This investigation of the personal, cultural, religious and broad view of sexuality is known as sexual ethics; how we conduct ourselves in relation to others when it comes to sexuality, and the moral principles we follow (or reject).
Ethical dilemmas appear in sexual conduct when someone is perceived as being threatened, either mildly or intensely. Common dilemmas put forth in sexual ethical dilemmas are huge power differentials between partners, a large age difference between partners, a question of consent, addictive or compulsive behavior, public health threat, or a pre-existing professional relationship. For individuals, while they may not be overtly threatening anyone but themselves, they may recognize an ethical dilemma within themselves if they are compulsively spending money for sexual fulfillment, or notice an addictive or secretive quality with their sexual behavior that isn’t truly intimate.
History offers an extensive array of cultures, sub-cultures, and their development and orientation to sexuality, dating, desire, mating, commitment, romantic love and the ethics of them all. The range of what is acceptable, what makes a “right” person, what is “wrong” and unacceptable, how people should act in order to have a happy life, what is considered normal or abnormal, has a far wider range than we sometimes realize.
In Today's World
So how does the individual sort out what feels healthy and normal for themselves, and find balance in the variety lived within our world when it comes to sexuality? How has it come about that rules, structure, morality, laws and religious views play such a big part in sexual conduct in many cultures?
The answer lies not only in seeing what is considered threatening by groups or individuals, but in studying historically how specific cultures and sub-cultures developed their attitudes and beliefs about sexuality, and why. Additionally, openness to conversation, interaction and discussion about the matters of sexual ethics appears to generate more clarity, understanding and connection overall.
In fact, according to a study done on married couples, when the couples were given activities such as watching a movie with relationship issues in it, and then discussing their thoughts about destructive or constructive behavior they observed, spending at least 90 minutes a week in honest conversation, the intimacy level was raised dramatically.
As we look at cultural attitudes and systems of sexual ethics, according to philosophical works on sexuality, there are two camps of analysis and contemplation. The first is a pessimistic view about sexual behavior and impulse, the second holds an attitude of optimism. Some of those who have influenced the world in the pessimistic camp go all the way back to St. Augustine, who lived in the 4th century AD, Immanuel Kant 18th Century German philosopher, and often Sigmund Freud himself, the famous father of psychoanalysis who became fascinated with patients with aberrant or unusual sexual urges and behavior.
St. Augustine in his Confessions wrote with extreme regret about his own sinful and immoral life before he converted to Christianity. He was initially more positive, but overall became very pessimistic about human morality on all counts. He spoke at length of the importance of maintaining a sexually moral code of conduct. Kant and Freud, although writing centuries later, also shared in Augustine’s philosophy that the sexual urge constituted a lack of dignity….even a threat to higher ideals in life, and a threat to reason.
Views on Sexuality
Those in the positive camp, alternatively, view sexuality as part of a natural experience, a biology inherent in us as humans and required for our evolution. Their philosophies hold that the sexual experience brings us happiness and pleasure, and these are worthy and wonderful in a healthy human life. Plato is considered to have written with this in mind long ago, but the vast majority of positive sexual ethics has been produced in the past several decades. The range is equally wide in the approach to sexuality as a basically positive and pleasurable experience as the philosophers who hold sexuality cautiously, or with negativity.
The most liberal orientation to human sexuality is called the sex positive movement. The discussion of sexual ethics in this camp centers on freedom and embracing the entire range of human sexual activity. In general, the sex positive culture advocates consent and safety, and holds a philosophy of sexual expression being a creative, rather than destructive force, but from there accepts anything.
Influential authors, sociologists and philosophers on modern human sexuality and health are Esther Perel author of Mating of Captivity, David Schnarch, world renowned sex therapist, and institutions such as the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality which offers graduate education in human sexuality and ethics, which opened in 1976 and the Kinsey Institute founded in 1947 and committed to exploring sex, gender and reproduction.
Once someone explores their deeper view of sexuality and the sexual experience and its purpose and meaning, then there are a myriad of additional questions around sexual behavior and circumstances involving sex that rise to the surface. Exploring these in depth through conversation, research, analysis and therapy can offer great insight.
There are many situations to explore and investigate, and respectfully determine where one stands as an individual. These topics are at the forefront of sexual ethical debates and discussions. There are a myriad of written materials, papers, articles and analyses on all these topics, and considering them can offer fascinating discussions, especially keeping in mind a respect for all opinions and orientations.
- whether an activity or behavior is moral
- evaluations of good/bad around sexual experience (that have nothing to do with a moral judgment of right or wrong)
- the question of consent and how it’s made or received
- discussion of coercion
- whether or not a sexual act is unnatural or natural and who gets to decide
- procreation and whether pregnancy is wanted or unwanted
- sex with or without love (and consideration of what “love” is)
- force, harm or violence associated with sex that potentially brings damage to the physical body or personal safety
The analysis and debates around all of these topics are great, and as you might imagine, arrive at no absolute conclusion or answers. In fact, sexuality in most human’s lives offers a process of change, development, learning and expanding views and awareness of human sexual behavior over time.
What Can We Learn?
Human sexual behavior is a broad topic of immense interest in both academic and social science fields, as well as personal interest for many people as they explore their own lives, preferences, and health. Human sexuality is offered as a course in master’s level psychology and counseling programs. Sexual ethics examines key questions within this topic of human sexuality, full of an intricate web of history, religious views, family views, social influence, and personal experience.
Research and reflection around human sexuality can be very educational for balancing one’s own happiness and peace and respectfully considering others’ views, and the health of the overall society or sub-culture as a whole. To contemplate and accept the variety, the serious issues, the places where harm or difficulty exists, is a profound and ongoing conversation.
Understanding one’s individual urges, interests, and sexual attraction or behavior is a path of human development and maturity. Where we find something of concern, or imbalance, is an invitation to learn, inquire, study and reflect on our own sexual impulses and how they are influenced and developed.
The Analytic Categories of the Philosophy of Sex by Alan Soble
William O. Stephens, Stoic Ethics, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://www.iep.utm.edu/stoiceth/
Janice Moulton, Journal of Philosophy, Journal of Phil #16 (1976)
Judith Plaskow, The Coming of Lilith, Essays on Feminism, Judaism, and Sexual Ethics (1972-2003)
Edward Stein, The Mismeasure of Desire—The Science, Theory, and Ethics of Sexual Orientation (1999)
Melanie Tannenbaum, Scientific American, PsySociety and Human Sexuality “How To Make The Most of Your Valentine’s Day” February 2015
Finkel, E. J., Slotter, E. B., Luchies, L. B., Walton, G. M., & Gross, J. J. (2013). A brief intervention to promote conflict-reappraisal preserves marital quality over time. Psychological Science, 24, 1595–1601.
Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. (2000). Couple’s shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273–283.