Sexual Ethics


Christian views on sexual ethics

Biblical teachings on sexual ethics


In 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, St Paul condemns “sodomites” as unrighteous and sinners.

In Romans, Paul is describing godless and wicked people who became idolators when he says this:

“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” Romans 1:26-27.

“If a man lies with a man as he does with a woman, both have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death, their blood is upon them”. Leviticus 20:13.

Same sex marriages:

When discussing marriage, Jesus claims it is between a man and a woman. When combined with the claim that sex should be confined to marriage, that suggests homosexual sex is wrong:“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Matthew 19:4-6.

The Bible on Pre/extra-marital sex

The message of the Bible seems to be that humans have temptation to have sex. We are born with original sin and this causes us to desire all sorts of sinful action, including sinful sexual action.

“Each of you must learn to control his own body, as something holy and held in honour, not yielding to the promptings of passion, as the heathen do in their ignorance of God.” 1 Thessalonians 4

Galatians 5 calls sexual immorality “the works of the flesh”, indicating that it is the sinful state of our human bodily existence that causes our sinful desires.

The Bible is very clear that God has commanded that sex should be confined to within a marriage:

“Thou shalt not commit adultery” (10 commandments) Exodus 20:14.

1 Corinthians 7 claims that because we have a ‘temptation to sexual immorality’ people should pair off into husband and wife and satisfy each other ‘so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control’.

In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes as far as claiming that even having sexually impure thoughts/desires is wrong:

“everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” – Matthew 5:28

Liberal Christianity. During the enlightenment period, scientific, historical and literary methods of analysis were greatly improved and applied to the Bible itself. This led to evidence of scientific inaccuracies, historical inaccuracies, and literary evidence such as that the writers of the Bible had different styles which seemed to depend on their nationality, culture and age. They narrated the same events differently, appeared to have made efforts to gather information, and made grammatical mistakes. None of this looks like the words of an omniscient being. It became difficult to ignore the human influence in the scriptures. This suggests that the scriptures were written by witnesses of God’s divine events in history like the incarnation, or times when God communicated or revealed himself. What came to be written down as a result however was merely what those people took away from such events, or from hearing about such events from the testimony of those who witnessed them. The words of the Bible are therefore just human interpretations of what the authors felt and understood of God’s revelation. The Bible thus reflects the cultural and historical context of its human authors and requires continual re-interpretation to ensure its relevance.

Passages which seem to reflect the discriminatory, violent or barbaric culture of the time can therefore be ignored. Liberal Christians tend to be accepting of homosexuality, even gay marriage, and place less emphasis on the need for sex to be confined within marriage.

Liberal inspiration leads to a crisis of authority. The problem with liberal views of inspiration is that it’s difficult to see how it could grant authority to the Bible if it derives from human minds. Furthermore, it opens up the Bible to interpretation and every person will have their own interpretation. This cannot provide the kind of stable consistent theology that a religion needs for it to persist. This is why traditional Christians criticise liberal Christianity for allowing people too much freedom to believe whatever feels right to them and their opinion, which results in the disunified chaos of everyone believing in their own God and the interpretation of the Bible which suits them.

The Bible on contraception

The Bible on childlessness.

“Be fruitful and multiply”

St Augustine on sexual desire and original sin

Augustine references Genesis, where after disobeying God Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness and covered up out of shame. Augustine claims it is ‘just’ that we feel shame about our naked bodies, since it is just that we feel shame over having lust because it being beyond our control is the result of our fallen state. Augustine argues this is universal – people of all cultures cover up their genitals, and sex is done in private, which Augustine suggests is due to the shame associated with it. Augustine concludes that humanity is the ‘massa damnata’ – the mass of the damned.

Freud & the secular liberal approach to sex. Freud himself was quite conservative regarding sex in many ways, but nonetheless he was very influential on secular liberal views on sex. He thought that traditional Christian attitudes towards sex resulted in a feeling of shame about sexual desire which led to repression which was a cause of mental illness.

The liberal secular attitude towards sex is influenced by Freud. It claims that sex is a natural biological desire which shouldn’t be a source of shame but of well-being. Augustine’s insistence that there is something shameful about lust is absurd and pointless once you understand it is the result of evolution, not original sin. Conservative religious attitudes towards sex are therefore unnecessarily repressive and puritanical. They become an unhealthy and pointless obsession with self-control borne from insecurity over a mythical fall from grace.

Arguably Christianity’s repression of sexual desire made more sense in ancient times when humans were more animalistic, less socialised, less domesticated. Strict laws and harsh penalties might have been needed then, because humans were less self-controlled and thus needed greater external pressures to keep them behaving adequately. However today, arguably humans have developed to the point where they can be trusted with more freedom. This suggests that our nature is not cursed with original sin such that we need draconian sexual norms and legislation. Traditionalists always fought against the sexual liberalisation of society, concerned it would harm social order, and yet society seems fine if not better.

Secular society is oversexualised. Catholics/natural law would argue that God designed human life to be lived a certain way, and if you upset that balance you cause social problems. 21st century youth culture is sexualised to a degree many Christians find concerning. Hook-up culture influences young people to regard sex as an opportunity for higher social status. Devaluing a personal intimate act into a superficial sign of social status harms people psychologically. Sex is commodified and people feel pressured into it. They obsess unhealthily about their physical appearance. This is harmful, and makes creating meaningful relationships difficult.

Bishop Barron develops this point, arguing that secular culture’s attitude towards sex is that there is an ‘almost complete lack’ of reference to the moral and ethical setting for sex, the purpose and meaning of sex or religious context for sexuality. This encourages a self-interested ego disconnected from external objective good which thereby turns inward and cares only about itself in a self-absorbed and finally destructive way. Barron argues this is the reason for the ‘deep sadness’ that comes out of the hook-up culture.

Stephen Fry, a gay writer and broadcaster, argues that the paedophile priest scandal can be explained by the Church’s repressive attitude towards sex, pointing to “the twisted, neurotic and hysterical way that [the Church] leaders are chosen; the celibacy, the nuns, the monks the priesthood. This is not natural and normal.”

Fry is suggesting that the unhealthy sexual repressiveness of Church teachings causes its priests to become sexually perverted. Fry is applying the theory of Freud and Nietzsche – that repression of desires can be unhealthy as they can erupt out in negative ways.

Fry then responds to the Church’s claim that they are not repressed but that modern secular society is simply oversexualised:

“They will say we with our permissive society and rude jokes are obsessed [with sex]. No, we have a healthy attitude. We like it, it’s fun, it’s jolly. Because it’s a primary impulse it can be dangerous and dark and difficult. It’s a bit like food in that respect only even more exciting. The only people who are obsessed with food are anorexics and the morbidly obese, and that in erotic terms is the catholic Church in a nutshell.”

Fry is claiming that secular attitudes towards sex are not perfect but are still healthier than religious attitudes.

It might be tempting to try and argue that we could have a healthy balance, but where in history has that healthy balance been achieved? Maybe human nature really is black and white like traditional Christians suggest – we either control ourselves or we slip into selfishness with sin. Human nature is sinful and needs restriction and control – and if we lift those controls a little bit we will keep sliding down the slope towards oversexualisataion.

Situation ethics on sexual ethics

Situation ethics holds that an action is good if it leads to the most loving outcome possible. This will depend on the situation. So, if acts involving homosexuality or pre/extra marital sex involve consent and those involved are happy, it seems that the outcome is loving and therefore those acts would be morally good. However, if manipulation was involved in persuading people into such acts, then the outcome would not be loving, and it would be wrong.

Fletcher points to the example of adultery, often thought absolutely wrong. He explains the case of a mother trapped in a prison work camp during a war. The only conditions of release are either disease or pregnancy, so she asked a guard to impregnate her, thus committing adultery. She was released, her family ‘thoroughly approved’ of her action and loved the resulting child as their own. The implication is that wrongness is not absolute, it depends on the situation.

Another of Fletcher’s illustration is from Nash’s play ‘The Rainmaker’ – the rainmaker has (pre-marital) sex with a spinster (unmarried woman) to save her from becoming spinsterised (a bit of an outdated sexist term!). Her brother is morally outraged and wants to shoot the rainmaker, but her father stops him, saying to his outraged son “you are so full of what’s right that you can’t see what’s good”.

Standard criticisms of situation ethics apply, including:

Love is subjective. Situation ethics claims that love is the basis for ethical judgement. However, it is subjective, meaning a matter of opinion. Someone might find it loving to try and prevent their homosexual child from expressing or acting on their homosexuality. Someone might find it loving to manipulate/pressure someone into or out of pre/extra marital sex.

Barclay: situation ethics grants people a dangerous amount of freedom. People are not perfectly loving so if given the power to judge what is good or bad, people will do selfish or even cruel things. People’s loving nature can be corrupted by power.

Situation ethics ignores most of the commands in the Bible. The Bible is clearly against homosexuality and pre/extra-marital sex, so Fletcher’s theory is not being true to Christian ethics.

Natural law on sexual ethics

Natural law theory is based on the idea that God created all things, including us, with the potential to flourish if we live according to the natural law. The telos of human life is achieving ultimate happiness through glorifying God by following the natural moral law. Going against God’s natural law is not just wrong because it is a sin, it is also bad for our own happiness and well-being. This type of argument has led to critiques of sex outside marriage as detrimental to happiness.

Natural law on homosexuality

The focus of Natural law is not merely on following God’s commands in the Bible (the divine law) but also on comprehending and maintaining the purpose (telos) of our natural desires as part of the natural law. Aquinas regarded homosexuality as unnatural because it required a divergence from what he thought was the natural mode of sex. This means the homosexual orientation, though feeling natural to homosexuals, cannot be so. Aquinas thought that not all inclinations were natural in the sense that they were part of God’s natural law.

The catechism of the catholic church claims that homosexuality is against the natural law as it divorces sex from the gift of life and is thus against God’s design.

Pope Benedict XVI (Ratzinger) argued that “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.

Stephen Fry (secular) responded to Ratzinger that religion is repressive of homosexual feelings: “It’s hard for me to be told that I’m evil, because I think of myself as someone who is filled with love … with 6% of all teenage suicides being gay teenage suicides, we certainly don’t need the stigmatization, the victimization that leads to the playground bullying when people say you’re a disordered morally evil individual.”

Augustine said ‘Love the sinner hate the sin’. Many Christians claim only to be against homosexual acts, since that is all the bible mentions, not the homosexual orientation. So Christians respond that they don’t claim Fry is evil only that his homosexual actions are evil.

Bishop Barron argued that if the first and only message gay people hear is that they are ‘intrinsically disordered’ then the Church has a serious problem. The first message is that gay people are a ‘beloved child of God … invited to a full share in the divine life’

Christopher Hitchens (secular) rejects the kind of arguments Augustine and Barron make as ‘revolting casuistry’ and claimed that this supposed separation of sinner from sin was absurd in the case of homosexuality since their homosexual actions come from their nature. He claimed that homosexuals are not condemned by the Church for what they do but for what they are and that the Church have no moral standing to criticise the sexual behaviour of others because of its complicity in the paedophile priest scandal. Hitchens denounces the homophobia of the Catholic Church:

“This is disgraceful. It’s inhuman. It’s obscene, and it comes from a clutch of hysterical, sinister virgins who’ve already betrayed their charge in the children of their own Church. For Shame.”

Bishop Barron would respond that all humans have desires which God’s law prohibits. Homosexuals are not unusually singled out in that regard for being told to control their desires.

However, when the entire object of someone’s natural sexual orientation is defined as sinful it seems homosexuals are especially condemned.

Natural law on pre/extra-marital sex

The focus of Natural law is not merely on following God’s commands in the Bible (the divine law) but also on comprehending and maintaining the purpose (telos) of our natural desires. Aquinas thinks we have a natural desire to reproduce, educate, protect and preserve human life and live in an orderly society. All of these primary precepts are threatened by sexual immorality. The only way for children to be provided for such that they can receive education is if they are born to married parents. So, Aquinas thinks that to follow the primary precepts requires confining all sexual behaviour to marriage – so pre/extra marital sex is wrong.

In Aquinas’ time sex usually led to children which without married parents usually led to being underprovided for and probably death since society was in a more economically deprived state. However, today we have contraception which disconnects sex from pregnancy and our society has more resources for helping single parents. So, it looks like we no longer need to confine sex to marriage in order to enable the education of children.

            Catholics are against contraception however.

However, that’s also outdated. In ancient times childhood mortality was high so you had to have lots of kids, but it no longer is.

Standard criticisms of Natural moral law apply, including:

Fletcher’s critique that there is no natural law, or our minds are unable to know it, as shown by cross-cultural moral disagreement.

Natural law on contraception

Contraception interferes with God’s design/plan for sex. It also conflicts with the primary precept to reproduce. So it’s wrong.

Some catholic theologians recently have thought that contraception could be allowed in some cases through the double effect. In countries that have a serious AIDS problem, the church had traditionally advised against contraception even though it could have slowed the spread of AIDS. However recently some have argued that as long as contraception is used with the intention of preventing the spread of AIDS and the inhibition of procreation was the unintended effect then that could be justified.

Secular views on sexual ethics

Utilitarianism on sexual ethics

Act Utilitarianism would judge an action based on whether it produced the most amount of pleasure compared to other actions. If a sexual act, whether it is homosexual or pre/extra marital sex, maximised pleasure compared to the other option of not doing or allowing them, then it would be good to do/allow them.

           Standard criticisms of Utilitarianism applies, including:

            Issues with calculation and measuring pleasure

            Issues with liberty/rights & justifying bad actions

Utilitarianism on private vs public.

J.S. Mill, a secular liberal, argues that trying to make things illegal because they go against religious morality must be rejected because it has been the foundation of all religious persecution. He discusses what for most Christians is considered immoral extra-marital sex – polygamy, which is allowed in the Mormon faith, but his views on it could be applied to all issues in sexual ethics.

Mill argues that even if some genuinely suffer due to their sexual practices, as long as there is consent amongst all those involved, so long as those who suffer due to the practices do not seek aid from other communities and are allowed ‘perfect departure’ from their community, then:

‘I cannot admit that persons entirely unconnected with them ought to step in and require that a condition of things with which all who are directly interested appear to be satisfied should be put an end to because it is a scandal to persons some thousands of miles distant who have no part or concern in it.”

Mill advocates the harm principle: that people should be free to do as they like as long as they do not harm others. This includes consensual sexual behaviours which are private. However people are also free in public to attempt to persuade others of which sexual norms to follow, though that persuasion can only take the form of argument, never force nor legislation. Mill’s conception of society is of individuals each pursuing what seems good to them, their only universal bond being the wrongness or illegality of harming others.

“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest”.

Devlin: invisible bonds of common thought. Devlin argued that society has the right to protect itself; the purpose of the law is to guard against threats to the existence of the society. A society cannot survive without some moral standards of the sort which are imposed on all. He claims ‘history shows’ that loosening moral bonds is ‘often the first stage of disintegration’. A society is not held together ‘physically; it is held by the invisible bonds of common thought’. Since a society has a right to continue existing it must therefore have a right to impose some moral standards by law. If the feelings of an ordinary average person towards homosexuality are of ‘intolerance, indignation and disgust’ then that is an indication of potential danger to the social fabric should those feelings not be backed by law. Devlin claimed that society has the ‘right to eradicate’ vices so ‘abominable’ that their ‘mere presence is an offense’.

Mill thought his harm principle was required to prevent the dissolution of society, so arguably Mill and Devlin only disagree about which common morality is required for society to exist, not whether one is required.

Mill is not impressed with the appeal to the disgust of the masses. He claims that humans have a tendency to increasingly encroach on the freedom of the individual and will appeal to the disgust of the majority to justify that. Mill points out that such a principle would justify (in his time) forbidding non-Muslims to eat pork in Islamic countries, since it genuinely disgusts the majority of those populations, or the example of the Spanish Catholicism persecuting Protestantism, since Spaniards found the protestant practices in Europe of allowing clergy to marry disgusting. Mill’s point is that the only the harm principle can adequately draw the line between an individual’s private life and public norms/legislation in a way which prevents persecution and enables individual flourishing.

“unless we are willing to adopt the logic of persecutors, and to say that we may persecute others because we are right, and that they must not persecute us because they are wrong, we must beware of admitting a principle of which we should resent as a gross injustice the application to ourselves.”

Lord Devlin: private affects the public. Devlin argues that the private and public spheres influence each other too greatly for Mill’s liberalism to work. A majority has a right to defend it social environment from change it opposes. If homosexuality or pre/extra marital sex were not subject to public norms or legislation, the social environment, especially the nature of the family, would change in ways difficult to foresee. The environment in which people live and raise their children is affected by the behaviours and models of relationships that other people engage with in their private life. The private therefore affects the public, which gives grounds for subjecting private life to public norms or legislation if the private practice sufficiently threatens a public good for which it is worth the cost to human freedom to protect. The implication is that the traditional family may be such a public good.

Homosexuality has not harmed society. Legalising and normatively accepting homosexuality arguably has not caused the damage to the family that secular thinkers like Devlin and some religious leaders like Archbishop J Welby worried that it would. There is no evidence that children raised by homosexual parents are worse off, for example.

Furthermore, communities can change and indeed should progress. Devlin’s argument seems to make that difficult in any area, not only homosexuality. While community is dependent on shared bonds, Mill’s view that they can be freely chosen or not by different individuals is arguably sufficient for cohesion and clearly allows for change.

Mill accepts that a person’s actions in their private life could still harm society. However, Mill claims that this harm is “one which society can afford to bear, for the sake of the greater good of human freedom.” Although the private sphere does affect the public sphere, it is still for the greater good to allow people freedom in their private life so long as they are not harming others. People do have the right to defend their culture from change they oppose, but only through rational argument and persuasion – not the coercion of public morality or law.