Towards a Sound Sexual Ethic

In several recent contributions to the Open Tabernacle comments threads, reader David Ludescher has made the very sound observation that if we reject the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics, what are we to put in its place?  I agreed with him that an alternative, positive view of sexuality is desperately overdue (several senior priests and theologians I know have told me precisely the same thing).  My own history has led me to discard the standard teaching piece by piece, forcing me (in the absence of useful guidance from the Church) to attempt to piece together an ethical framework for myself, based on my own reading, prayerful reflection and spiritual direction. I still have a long way to go, but I do have some sound principles that I work with.

For a long time I have been wanting to share with my readers some of the contributions that I have found useful elsewhere, but like many of the projects that I would like to tackle, this is one I have not yet  begun.  Now, goaded by David’s important observation on the importance of the task, I would like to make at least a start. This is in no way intended to be a formally reasoned exposition, but just a mere listing of some starting principles, together with some preliminary links to outside thoughts. A more coherent presentation will come later.

Given that it is just a set of initial thoughts, I would welcome similar contributions from others. If you disagree with my ideas, please say so – and add your own guiding principles. I do ask, though, that given the purpose of this exercise, you steer away from simply regurgitating the catechism.  For the purposes of this discussion, let us leave aside church teaching entirely, for better or for worse, and concentrate on identifying the moral guidelines for sexual life that you would accept and apply in your own life – not because the Church says so, but because reason or experience have convinced you.

Sexuality – what is it?

I want to begin by making it clear that by “sexuality” I do not mean merely a set of genital acts, with or without another person.  It is a far broader concept, including other forms of touching, non-tactile aspects of our relationships, and awareness of ourselves as bodily beings.  Most of the ethical issues meant by “sexuality”  area bout physical elements, but we should not forget that there are also other dimensions.

Sexuality is good.

Sexuality is given by God, and is inherently good.  In Genesis 2 (the earlier creation story), we read that God said it is not good for man to be alone, and so he created for him a companion. Science has shown that a sound sexual life contributes greatly to both physical and mental health. I take it as fundamental that sound, intimate relationships are given to us for our benefit, and should be seen as positive.  They should emphatically not be seen as somehow second best to a state of celibacy.

Sex is clearly about procreation.

Children and families are of great importance to us as a species, and to many of us individually.  It should not be necessary to say so, but as some people seem to think that progressive Catholics are somehow against the family, I set it down here purely for the record.

Sex is about relationships.

As we develop in relationship with another, there is a natural desire to express that.  Initially this could be simple touching, caresses and kissing, but often, it will naturally move to fuller genital expression as well. As it does so, the shared experience has clear emotional and even physical effects, with a lasting impact on the people and their relationship. In this way, sex is unitive, deepening and strengthening the bonds that already exist between lovers.  For me, it is significant that Jesus has virtually nothing to say about sexual matters in the Gospels – except in the context of relationships (as where they are damaged by adultery or divorce).

Sex  can also be about play.

The most extensive Biblical treatment of sex comes in the Song of Songs, which is a lyrical, frankly erotic hymn to the delight of two people in each other, and in their physical bodies. The two people who express their sexual joy in this book give no indication that they are married, or are aiming to produce children. This book can and should be read as an extended metaphor for God’s delight in us, and we in Him – but it can also be read quite simply as it stands:  a celebration of sheer, unadulterated joy in physical sex. (Note though, that “sex” here is clearly physical, but not necessarily genital.  Unless I’ve missed something in my own reading, this is not specifically about penetration).

Sexuality and spirituality are complementary.

Christianity is unique among major religions in having placed the two in opposition..  Fortunately, many writers are now recognising that sexuality need not impede spirituality, but can lead to it – and vice versa. Chris Glaser is just one writer who has presented this very clearly, in the introduction to his book, “Coming out to God”. (See “The intimate Dance of Sexuality and Spirituality“)

Sex is about mutuality and equality.

One of the failures of “Western” traditional sexuality is that it created and enforced a rigid separation of sexual roles, and then extended those into the wider society.  By focusing on sex only in terms of genital penetration, it has downgraded other forms of sexual expression (including foreplay and afterplay), and also became inextricably linked with ideas of automatic male dominance and female submission in the wider relationship.  One of the ways in which same- sex relationships can teach the wider population about healthy sexuality, is in the way that they move beyond this concentration on penetration alone, to alternative ways of giving each other sexual pleasure.

In physical actions, in emotional interactions, and in devising sensible household routines,  sexual relationships should be devised equally for the benefit of both parties, and developed by mutual agreement.

Good Sex is about giving.

The delight in sex is not simply about a self-indulgent pursuit of orgasm, but is about bringing pleasure, both physical and emotional, to another.

What about the dangers?

Sex is an emotional minefield.

In exactly the same way that it can deepen the bonds of love in an existing relationship, the physical, neural effects of orgasm are still present even if an emotional bond does not exist beforehand: there is a danger of creating an illusion of some deep emotional attachment, when all that ever existed beforehand was  physical lust. This is one of the reasons why intimate sexual expression for the young should be discouraged.

Another is the sheer power of the emotions unleashed.  Even where  there is some degree of love present, for young people who are scarcely able to deal with the emotional and hormonal turmoil of adolescence to start with, adding the complications of sexual emotional turmoil justs adds to the confusion and dangers.

Sexual obsession is destructive.

Sex resembles other appetites in that avoidance is or can be bad for health, balanced use is healthy and satisfying, but overindulgence is unhealthy and often destructive.  In the case of sex, this can take the form of obsession with sex to the exclusion of other parts of life, to sexual addictions in which there is an ever present search for “good” sex, which is never actually achieved.

Sex can become self-indulgent.

Whereas sex should be about giving, its ubiquity in modern popular culture all too easily leads us to see it as something to be pursued for ist own sake, for our own personal pleasure.  Where we allow this to happen, we can destroy rather than enhance the relationships that should underpin it.

Obvious physical dangers

Of unplanned pregnancy, or of sexually transmitted disease , are so well known, I need say no more.


Out of these general principles, what are my own specific “rules”?

  • Sex is about mutuality, and is best expressed in loving, committed relationships.
  • Within a relationship, there must be mutuality and agreement as to how that relationship is played out and expressed.
  • Sex is about much more than just genital contact (still less, just about penetration).
  • Life is about more than just sex, which must be controlled and disciplined.
  • Outside of  committed, long-term relationships, I am not against sex as sheer play, or as part of dating leading up to something stronger, but am wary of the dangers.  Those who do engage in recreational sex need to have a very clear idea of what they are doing, and not confuse it with anything more meaningful – nor let it become addictive.
  • For the young, sexual activity needs to be delayed until some degree of emotional maturity has been achieved.  This does not have to be until after marriage:  the traditional opposition to pre-marital sex was appropriate when girls married young and matured late, when reliable  contraception was not available and pregnancy outside marriage was a social and economic disaster. In the modern world, where young people are delaying marriage until much later but reaching physical maturity much earlier, the old rule is unnecessary and inappropriate. But there is still a critical need for the young, to approach sexual expression with the greatest of care, until they have the emotional capacity to deal with it.  This is prety much the advice I gave to my own daughter, and she came to me as a young student, asking for advice.)

Those are my initial thoughts.  What are yours?

The specific value of sex

Quite obviously, a major benefit to humans of sexual expression is simple procreation.


Recommended Books:

Sexual Ethics

Farley, Margaret: Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

McNeill, John: Sex as God Intended

Molvaer, Reidulf: Two Making One : Amor and Eros in Tandem

Salzman, Todd A. and Lawler, Michael G: The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions)


Sexual History

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century

Crompton, Louis: Homosexuality and Civilization

Greenberg, David F: The Construction of Homosexuality

Norton, Rictor: My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters Through the Centuries

Ridely, Matt: The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature

Ryan, Christopher:Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality

Related Articles


2 Responses to “Towards a Sound Sexual Ethic”

  1. Obie Holmen Says:


    David Ludescher and I are from the same small city in Minnesota, and he has been a frequent commenter on my own blog. We usually disagree, but I believe David was impressed by the overall scope and sound reasoning of the 32 page sexuality statement adopted by the ELCA last summer. Of course, the two pages about same gender relationships and the revised ministry policies allowing clergy in committed same gender relationships received all the media attention.

    I commend this document to you and our readers for consideration as we search for a “sound sexual ethic”. In many respects, the document mirrors your own thoughts expressed here.

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      Thanks, Obie. I do recall you writing about David when we first stared the Open Tabernacle together. I hope he doesn’t feel too much under attack, after the response he got. He makes some good points, which we need to take seriously. I do recognise that underneath the obvious places where we disagree, there also many points of agreement, which tend to get buried.

      Thanks for the link. I believe that we in the Catholic church have a lot to learn from the ECLA, about sounder sexual ethics, about decision making, and other issues.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: