Sexual Ethics

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Insofar as bioethics is concerned with human bodily health, it has an interest in the way health is influenced by and contributes to sexual functioning. There is a sense, then, in which bioethics includes sexual ethics, or at least some of the key questions of sexual ethics, such as the meaning of human sexuality and the causes and effects of sexual attitudes, orientations, and activities. Concepts of the human person—of desire and obligation, disease and dysfunction, even of justice and purity—can be found overlapping in various bioethical and sexual ethical theories. Like bioethics generally, sexual ethics considers standards for intervention in physical processes, rights of individuals to self-determination, ideals for human flourishing, and the importance of social context for the interpretation and regulation of sexual behavior. Bioethics specifically incorporates issues surrounding contraception and abortion, artificial reproduction, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual paraphilias, gendered roles and sexual conduct of the medical professionals, and sex research, counseling, and therapy. All of these issues are importantly shaped by moral traditions, so that health professionals frequently find themselves called upon to deal with questions of sexual ethics.

Historically, medicine has interacted with philosophy and religion in shaping and rationalizing the sexual ethical norms of a given culture. Medical opinion often simply reflects and conserves the accepted beliefs and mores of a society, but sometimes it is also a force for change. In either case, its influence can be powerful. For example, from the Hippocratic corpus in ancient Greece to the writings of the physician Galen in the second century c.e., medical recommendations regarding sexual discipline echoed and reinforced the ambivalence of Greek and Roman philosophers regarding human sexual activity. Galen's theories retained considerable power all the way into the European Renaissance. The interpretation of syphilis as a disease rather than a divine punishment came in the fifteenth century as the result of medical writings in response to a high incidence of the disease among the socially powerful. In nineteenth century western Europe and North America, medical writers were enormously influential in shaping norms regarding such matters as masturbation (physicians believed it would lead to insanity), homosexuality (newly identified with perversions that medicine must diagnose and treat), contraception (considered unhealthy because it fostered sexual excess and loss of physical power), and gender roles (promoted on the basis of medical assessments of women's capacity for sexual desire). Today sex counseling and therapy communicate, however implicitly, normative ethical assumptions. Indeed, so great has been the influence of the medical profession on moral attitudes toward sexual options that critics warn of the "tyranny of experts," referring not to moral philosophers or religious teachers but to scientists and physicians.

The history of sexual ethics provides a helpful perspective for understanding current ethical questions regarding human sexuality. This article focuses on Western philosophical, scientific-medical, and religious traditions of sexual ethics and on the contemporary issues that trouble the heirs of these traditions. A historical overview of sexual ethics is not without its difficulties, however, as critical studies have shown (Brown; Foucault, 1978; Fout; Plaskow).

First of all, while it is possible to find a recorded history of laws, codes, and other guides to moral action regarding sexual behavior, it is almost impossible to determine what real people actually believed and did in the distant past. Or at least the historical research has barely begun. Second, ethical theory regarding sex (e.g., what is to be valued, what goals are worth pursuing, what reasons justify certain sexual attitudes, activities, and relationships) is predominantly theory formulated by an elite group of men. Women's experiences, beliefs, and values are largely unrecorded and, until recently, have been almost wholly inaccessible. The same is true of men who do not belong to a dominant class. Third, what we do find through historical research is necessarily subject to interpretation. It makes a difference, for example, whether one is looking for historical evaluations of human sexual desire or historical silences about sexual abuse of women. Finally, if one takes seriously the social construction of gender and sexuality, it is not clear that any kind of coherent historical narrative is possible. All of these difficulties notwithstanding, it is possible to survey (with appropriate caution) a Western normative and theoretical history regarding sex and to gain from the richness of varying contemporary interpretations. Central strands of this history can be traced to classical Greek and Roman antiquity, Judaism, and early and later developments in Christianity.

Ancient Greece and Rome

GENERAL ATTITUDES AND PRACTICE. Ancient Greece and Rome shared a general acceptance of sex as a natural part of life. Both were permissive regarding the sexual behavior of men. In Athens, for example, the only clear proscriptions applicable to citizen-class men were in incest, bigamy, and adultery (insofar as it violated the property of another man). The focus of sexual concern in the two cultures was significantly different, however. For the Greeks, adult male love of adolescent boys occupied a great deal of public attention, whereas the Romans focused public concern on heterosexual marriage as the foundation of social life.

Marriage for both Greeks and Romans was monogamous. In Greece, however, no sexual ethic confined sex to marriage. Marriage as the expected pattern for citizen-class individuals was based not on the affective bond between husband and wife but on what were considered natural gender roles regarding procreation and service to the city. Male human nature was generally assumed to be bisexual, and the polyerotic needs of men were taken for granted. Concubinage, male and female prostitution, and the sexual use of slaves were commonly accepted. In practice, much of this was true in ancient Rome as well, even though ideals of marital fidelity became much more important. The development of marriage as a social institution was, however, considered a central achievement of Roman civilization. This included a growing appreciation of the importance of affective ties between wives and husbands.

Greece and Rome were male-dominated societies, and for citizens a gendered double standard prevailed in regard to sexual morality. Both Greek and Roman brides, but not bridegrooms, were expected to be virgins. In Greece, the only women who were given some equal status with men were a special class of artistically and educationally sophisticated prostitutes, the hetaerae. Generally women were considered intellectually inferior to men. In addition, Greek husbands and wives were unequal in age (wives were much younger) and in education. Wives had no public life, though they were given the power and responsibility of managing the home. In the Roman household, on the contrary, the husband retained power and could rule with an entirely free hand. Here the ideal of the patria potestas reached fulfillment. Mutual fidelity was much praised, but in fact absolute fidelity was required of wives while husbands could consort freely with slaves or prostitutes. Although by the first century c.e., women in Rome had achieved considerable economic and political freedom, they could not practice the sexual freedom traditionally granted to men.

Homosexuality was accepted in both Greek and Roman antiquity. Especially for the Greeks, however, it was less a matter of some men being sexually attracted only to men (or, more likely, boys) than a matter of men generally being attracted to beautiful individuals, whether male or female. Desire was of greater interest, as both possibility and problem, than its object; and desire was not essentially differentiated according to the gender of its object. Greek men were expected to marry, in order to produce an heir. Yet love and friendship, and sometimes sex, between men could be of a higher order than anything possible within marriage (for gender equality obtained between men, despite differences in age). Same-sex relations were not thereby wholly unproblematic, however, as cultural cautions against male passivity attested. Moreover, the ethos tended not to support a positive evaluation of sexual relationships between women. Lesbian relations were often judged negatively because they counted as adultery (since women belonged to their husbands) or because a cultural preoccupation with male sexual desire made sex between women appear unnatural.

In both Greece and Rome, abortion and infanticide were common. Concern about the need to limit population influenced Greek sexual practices at various times, whereas efforts to improve a low birthrate in imperial Rome led to legal incentives to marry and to procreate. Divorce was more readily available in ancient Greece than in Rome, but eventually both cultures provided for it and for the resulting economic needs of divorced women; in Greece, husbands continued to administer their former wives' dowries, while in Rome a woman took her dowry with her.

Scholars today tend to dispute the belief that the last years of the Roman Empire saw a great weakening of sexual norms, a sexual dissipation at the heart of a general moral decline. The favored historical reading is now the opposite: that general suspicion of sexuality grew, and normative restrictions of sexual activity increased. In part, this was the result of the gradual influence of philosophical theories that questioned the value of sexual activity and emphasized the dangers in its consequences.

GREEK AND ROMAN PHILOSOPHICAL APPRAISALS. Michel Foucault's influential history of Graeco-Roman theory regarding sex identifies two problems that preoccupied philosophers: the natural force of sexual desire, with its consequent tendency to excess, and the power relations involved in the seemingly necessary active/passive roles in sexual activity (Foucault, 1986, 1988). The first problem contributed to the formulation of an ideal of self-mastery within an aesthetics of existence. Self-mastery could be achieved through a regimen that included diet, exercise, and various practices of self-discipline. The second problem yielded criteria for love and sex between men and boys. Active and passive roles were not a problem in adult male relations with women or with slaves, for the inferior passive role was considered natural to women, including wives, and to servants or slaves. This was a problem, however, for citizen-class boys, who must come to be equal with men. The solution, according to some philosophers (e.g., Demosthenes), was to regulate the age of boy lovers and the circumstances and goals of their liaisons with men. Others(e.g., Plato) preferred transcending and eliminating physical sex in erotic relations between men and boys.

The aspects of Greek and Roman thought about sex that were to have the most influence on subsequent Western theory included a distrust of sexual desire and a judgment of the inferior status of sexual pleasure, along with the inferior status of the body in relation to the soul. While sex was not considered evil, it was considered dangerous—not only in its excess but also in its natural violence (orgasm was sometimes described as a form of epileptic seizure); in its expenditure of virile energy (it was thought to have a weakening effect); and in its association with death (nature's provision for immortality through procreation made sex a reminder of mortality) (Foucault, 1986).

The Pythagoreans in the sixth century b.c.e. advocated purity of the body for the sake of cultivating the soul. The force of their position was felt in the later thinking of Socrates and Plato. Although Plato moved away from a general hostility to bodily pleasure, he made a careful distinction between lower and higher pleasures (in, for example, the Republic, Phaedo, Symposium, and Philebus): Sexual pleasure was a lower form of pleasure, and self-mastery required domination over its demands. Plato advocated unleashing, not restraining, the power of eros for the sake of uniting the human spirit with the highest truth, goodness, and beauty. Insofar as bodily pleasures could be taken into this pursuit, there was no objection to them. But Plato thought that sexual intercourse diminished the power of eros for the contemplation and love of higher realities and that it even compromised the possibility of tenderness and respect in individual relationships of love (Phaedrus).

Aristotle, too, distinguished lower and higher pleasures, placing pleasures of touch at the bottom of the scale, characteristic as they are of the animal part of human nature (Nicomachean Ethics). Aristotle, more this-worldly than Plato, advocated moderation rather than transcendence. However, for Aristotle the highest forms of friendship and love, and of happiness in the contemplation of the life of one's friend, seemed to have no room for the incorporation of sexual activity or even for Platonic eros. Aristotle never conceived of the possibility of equality or mutuality in relationships between women and men, and he opposed the design for this that Plato had offered in the Republic and Laws.

Of all Graeco-Roman philosophies, Stoicism probably had the greatest impact on later developments in Western thought about sex. Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, for example, taught strong doctrines of the power of the human will to regulate emotion and of the desirability of such regulation for the sake of inner peace. Sexual desire, like the passions of fear and anger, was in itself irrational, disruptive, liable to excess. It needed to be moderated if not eliminated. It ought never to be indulged in for its own sake but only insofar as it served a rational purpose. Procreation was that purpose. Hence, even in marriage sexual intercourse was considered morally good only when engaged in for the sake of procreation.

With the later Stoics came what Foucault calls the "conjugalization" of sexual relations (1988, p. 166). That is, the norm governing sexual activity was now "no sex outside of marriage," derived from what others have called the "procreative" norm. Marriage was considered a natural duty, excused only in special circumstances such as when an individual undertook the responsibilities of life as a philosopher. The good effects of marriage included progeny and the companionship of husband and wife. It became the context for self-control and the fashioning of the virtuous life. Plutarch (in Dialogue on Love) took the position that marriage, not homosexual relationships, was the primary locus for erotic love and for friendship.

Overall, the Graeco-Roman legacy to Western sexual ethics holds little of the sexual permissiveness that characterized ancient Greece. The dominant themes carried through to later traditions were skepticism and control. This may have been due to the failure of almost all Greek and Roman thinkers to integrate sexuality into their best insights into human relationships. Whether such an integration is possible in principle has been at least a tacit question for other traditions.

The Jewish Tradition

Earliest Jewish moral codes were simple and without systematic theological underpinnings. Like other ancient Near Eastern legislation, they prescribed marriage laws and prohibited rape, adultery, and certain forms of prostitution. In contrast with neighboring religions, the Jews believed in a God who is beyond sexuality but whose plan for creation makes marriage and fertility holy and the subject of a religious duty (Gen. 2:24). At the heart of Judaism's tradition of sexual morality is a religious injunction to marry. The command to marry holds within it a command to procreate, and it assumes a patriarchal model for marriage and family. These two aspects of the tradition—the duty to procreate and its patriarchal context—account for many of its specific sexual regulations.

While the core of the imperative to marry is the command to procreate, marriage was considered a duty also because it conduced to the holiness of the partners. Holiness referred to more than the channeling of sexual desire, though it meant that also; it included the companionship and mutual fulfillment of spouses. In fact, monogamous lifelong marriage was considered the ideal context for sexuality, and in time it became the custom and not only an ideal. Yet the command to procreate historically stood in tension with the value given to the marriage relationship. Thus while the laws of onah, of marital rights and duties, aimed to make sex a nurturant of love (Lamm), polygamy, concubinage, and divorce and remarriage were long accepted as solutions to a childless marriage. Only in the eleventh century c.e. was polygamy finally banned (much later in the East), and it was only in the twelfth century that Maimonides explicitly condemned concubinage (Novak, 1992).

Judaism has traditionally shown a concern for the "improper emission of seed" (appealing to interpretations of Gen. 38:9). Included in this concern have been proscriptions of masturbation and homosexual acts. The latter in particular have been considered unnatural (Lev. 18:22, 20:13), failing in responsibility for procreation, beneath the dignity of humanly meaningful sexual intercourse, indicative of uncontrolled (and hence morally evil) sexual desire, and a threat to the stability of heterosexual marriage and the patriarchal family. Lesbian relations were not regulated by biblical law, and in rabbinic literature were treated far less seriously than male homosexuality.

Throughout the Jewish tradition there has been a marked difference in the treatment of women's and men's sexuality (Plaskow). In part, this was because of women's subordinate role in the family and in society. The regulation and control of women's sexuality was considered necessary to the stability and the continuity of the family. Premarital sex, extramarital sex, and even rape were legally different for women than for men. In the biblical period, husbands but not wives could initiate divorce (Deut. 24:1–4), although later rabbinic law made it possible for either to do so. Adultery was understood as violating the property rights of a husband and could be punished by the death of both parties. Women's actions and dress were regulated in order to restrict their potential for luring men into illicit sex. The laws of onah required men to respect the sexual needs of their wives; but the laws of niddah (menstrual purity) had the symbolic consequence, however unintended, of associating women with defilement.

The perspective on sex, in all the branches of Judaism, has been an enduringly positive one, yet not without ambivalence. The sexual instinct was considered a gift from God, but it could still be called by the rabbis the "evil impulse" (yetzer hara) (Plaskow). The tradition was not immune from the suspicion regarding sex that, with the rise of Stoic philosophies and the advent of certain religious movements from the East, permeated all Middle Eastern cultures. Interpretations of the relation between sexuality and the sacred have not been univocal, as evidenced in differences between mainstream Jewish thinking and kabbalistic mysticism. Hence, some issues of sexual ethics have not been resolved once and for all. Contemporary developments in the Jewish tradition include growing pluralism regarding questions of premarital sex, contraception, abortion, gender equality, and homosexuality (Borowitz; Feldman; Plaskow; Biale; Posner). Current conflicts involve the interpretation of traditional values, the analysis of contemporary situations, and the incorporation of hitherto unrepresented perspectives, in particular those of heterosexual women and of gays and lesbians.

Christian Traditions

Like other religious and cultural traditions, the teachings of Christianity regarding sex are complex and subject to multiple influences, and they have changed and developed through succeeding generations. Christianity does not begin with a systematic code of ethics. The teachings of Jesus and his followers, as recorded in the New Testament, provide a central focus for the moral life of Christians in the command to love God and neighbor. Beyond that, the New Testament offers grounds for a sexual ethic that (1) values marriage and procreation on the one hand, and singleness and celibacy on the other; (2) gives as much or more importance to internal attitudes and thoughts as to external actions; and (3) affirms a sacred symbolic meaning for sexual intercourse, yet both subordinates it to other human values and finds in it a possibility for evil. As for unanimity on more specific sexual rules, this is difficult to find in the beginnings of a religion whose founder taught as an itinerant prophet and whose sacred texts were formulated in "the more tense world" of particular disciples, a group of wandering preachers (Brown, pp. 42–43).

EARLY INFLUENCES ON CHRISTIAN UNDERSTANDINGS OF SEX. Christianity emerged in the late Hellenistic age, when even Judaism was influenced by the dualistic anthropologies of Stoic philosophy and Gnostic religions. Unlike the Greek and Roman philosophies of the time, Christianity's main concern was not the art of self-mastery and not the preservation of the city or the empire. Unlike major strands of Judaism at the time, its focus was less on the solidarity and continuity of life in this world than on the continuity between this world and a life to come. Yet early Christian writers were profoundly influenced both by Judaism and by Graeco-Roman philosophy. With Judaism they shared a theistic approach to morality, an affirmation of creation as the context of marriage and procreation, and an ideal of single-hearted love. With the Stoics they shared a suspicion of bodily passion and a respect for reason as a guide to the moral life. With the Greeks, Romans, and Jews, Christian thinkers assumed and reinforced views of women as inferior to men (despite some signs of commitment to gender equality in the beginnings of Christianity as a movement). As Christianity struggled for its own identity, issues of sexual conduct were important, but there was no immediate agreement on how they should be resolved.

Gnosticism was a series of religious movements that deeply affected formulations of Christian sexual ethics for the first three centuries c.e. (Noonan). For example, some Gnostics taught that marriage was evil or at least useless, primarily because the procreation of children was a vehicle for forces of evil. This belief led to two extreme positions—one in opposition to all sexual intercourse, and hence in favor of celibacy, and the other in favor of any form of sexual intercourse so long as it was not procreative. Neither of these positions prevailed in what became orthodox Christianity.

What did prevail in Christian moral teaching was a doctrine that incorporated an affirmation of sex as good (because part of creation) but seriously flawed (because the force of sexual passion as such cannot be controlled by reason). The Stoic position that sexual intercourse can be brought under the rule of reason not by subduing it but by giving it a rational purpose (procreation) made great sense to early Christian thinkers. The connection made between sexual intercourse and procreation was not the same as the Jewish affirmation of the importance of fecundity, but it was in harmony with it. Christian teaching could thus both affirm procreation as the central rationale for sexual union and advocate celibacy as a praiseworthy option (indeed, the ideal) for Christians who could choose it.

With the adoption of the Stoic norm for sexual inter-course, the direction of Christian sexual ethics was set for centuries to come. A sexual ethic that concerned itself primarily with affirming the good of procreation, and thereby the good of otherwise evil tendencies, was reinforced by the continued appearance of antagonists who played the same role the Gnostics had played. No sooner had Gnosticism begun to wane than, in the third century, Manichaeanism emerged. It was largely in response to Manichaeanism that Saint Augustine formulated his sexual ethic, an ethic that continued and went beyond the Stoic elements incorporated by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Ambrose, and Jerome.

THE SEXUAL ETHICS OF SAINT AUGUSTINE AND ITS LEGACY. Against the Manichaeans Augustine argued in favor of the goodness of marriage and procreation, though he shared with them a negative view of sexual desire as in itself an evil passion. Because evil was for Augustine, however, a privation of right order (something missing in what was otherwise basically good), he thought at first that it was possible to reorder sexual desire according to right reason, to integrate its meaning into a right and whole love of God and neighbor. This reordering could be done only when sexual intercourse was within heterosexual marriage and for the purpose of procreation (On the Good of Marriage, 6). Inter-course within marriage but without a procreative purpose was, according to Augustine, sinful, though not necessarily mortally so. Marriage, on the other hand, had a threefold purpose: not only the good of children but also the goods of fidelity between spouses (as opposed to adultery) and the indissolubility of the union (as opposed to divorce).

In his later writings against the Pelagians (Marriage and Concupiscence), Augustine tried to clarify the place of disordered sexual desire in a theology of original sin. Although for Augustine the original sin of Adam and Eve was a sin of the spirit (a sin of prideful disobedience), its effects were most acutely present in the conflict between sexual desire and reasoned love of higher goods. Moreover, this loss of integrity in affectivity was passed from one generation to another through the mode of procreation—sexual intercourse. In this debate Augustine argued that there is some evil in all sexual intercourse, even when it is within marriage and for the sake of procreation. Most of those who followed Augustine disagreed with this, but his basic formulation of a procreative ethic held sway in Christian moral teaching for centuries.

Some early Christian writers (e.g., John Chrysostom) emphasized the Pauline purpose for marriage—marriage as a remedy for incontinence. Such a position hardly served to foster a more optimistic view of sex, but it did offer a possibility for moral goodness in sexual intercourse without a direct relation to procreation. However, from the sixth to the eleventh century, it was Augustine's rationale that was codified in penitentials (manuals for confessors, providing lists of sins and their prescribed penances) with detailed prohibitions against adultery, fornication, oral and anal sex, contraception, and even certain positions for sexual inter-course if they were thought to be departures from the procreative norm. Gratian's great collection of canon law in the twelfth century contained rigorous regulations based on the principle that all sexual activity is evil unless it is between husband and wife and for the sake of procreation. A few voices (e.g., Abelard and John Damascene) maintained that concupiscence (sexual passionate desire) does not make sexual pleasure evil in itself, and that intercourse in marriage can be justified by the simple intention to avoid fornication.

Overall, the Christian tradition in the first half of its history developed a consistently negative view of sex, despite the fact that Augustine and most of those who followed him were neither anti-body nor anti-marriage. The statement that this tradition was negative must be a qualified claim, of course, for it was silent or vacillating on many questions of sexuality (e.g., on the question of homosexuality); and there is little evidence that Christians in general were influenced by the more severe sexual attitudes of their leaders (Boswell). The direction and tone that the early centuries gave to the tradition's future, however, were unmistakable. What these leaders were concerned about was freedom from bondage to desires that seemingly could not in themselves lead to God. In a quest for transformation of the body along with the spirit, even procreation did not appear very important. Hence, regulation of sexual activity and even the importance of the family were often overshadowed by the ideal of celibacy. As Peter Brown's 1988 massive study has shown, sexual renunciation served both eros and unselfish love, and it suited a worldview that broke boundaries with this world without rejecting it as evil.

THE TEACHING OF AQUINAS. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the thirteenth century, when rigorism already prevailed in Christian teaching and church discipline. His remarkable synthesis of Christian theology did not offer much that was innovative in the area of sexual ethics. Yet the clarity of what he brought forward made his contribution significant for the generations that followed. He taught that sexual desire is not intrinsically evil, since no spontaneous bodily or emotional inclination is evil in itself; only when there is an evil moral choice is an action morally evil. Consequent upon original sin, however, there is in human nature a certain loss of order among natural human inclinations. Sexual passion is marked by this disorder, but it is not morally evil except insofar as its disorder is freely chosen.

Aquinas offered two rationales for the procreative norm the tradition had so far affirmed. One was the Augustinian argument that sexual pleasure, in the fallen human person, hinders the best working of the mind. It must be brought into some accord with reason by having an overriding value as its goal. No less an end than procreation can justify it (Summa theologiae, I-II.34.1, ad 1). But second, reason does not merely provide a good purpose for sexual pleasure. It discovers this purpose through the anatomy and biological function of sexual organs (Summa theologiae II-II.154.11; Summa contra Gentiles III.122.4, 5). Hence, the norm of reason in sexual behavior requires not only the conscious intention to procreate but also the accurate and unimpeded(i.e., noncontraceptive) physical process whereby procreation is possible.

From the procreative norm there followed other specific moral rules. Many of them were aimed at the well-being of offspring that could result from sexual intercourse. For example, Aquinas argued against fornication, adultery, and divorce on the grounds that children would be deprived of a good context for their rearing. He considered sexual acts other than heterosexual intercourse to be immoral because they could not be procreative. Aquinas's treatment of marriage contained only hints of new insight regarding the relation of sexual intercourse to marital love. He offered a theory of love that had room for a positive incorporation of sexual union (Summa theologiae II-II.26.11), and he suggested that marriage might be the basis of a maximum form of friendship (Summa contra Gentiles III.123).

Though what had crystallized in the Middle Ages canonically and theologically would continue to influence Christian moral teaching into the indefinite future, the fifteenth century marked the beginning of significant change. Finding some grounds for opposing the prevailing Augustinian sexual ethic in both Albert the Great and in the general (if not the specifically sexual) ethics of Aquinas, writers (e.g., Denis the Carthusian and Martin LeMaistre) began to talk of the integration of spiritual love and sexual pleasure, and the intrinsic good of sexual pleasure as the opposite of the pain of its lack. This did not reverse the Augustinian tradition, but it weakened it. The effects of these new theories were felt in the controversies of the Reformation.

PROTESTANT TEACHINGS ON SEX. Questions of sexual behavior played an important role in the Protestant Reformation beginning in the sixteenth century. Clerical celibacy, for example, was challenged not just in its scandalous nonobservance but also as a Christian ideal. Marriage and family replaced it among the reformers as the center of sexual gravity in the Christian life. Martin Luther and John Calvin were both deeply influenced by the Augustinian tradition regarding original sin and its consequences for human sexuality. Yet both developed a position on marriage that was not dependent on a procreative ethic. Like most of the Christian tradition, they affirmed marriage and human sexuality as part of the divine plan for creation, and therefore good. But they shared Augustine's pessimistic view of fallen human nature and its disordered sex drive. Luther was convinced, however, that the necessary remedy for disordered desire was marriage (On the Estate of Marriage). And so the issue was joined over a key element in Christian sexual ethics. Luther, of course, was not the first to advocate marriage as the cure for unruly sexual desire, but he took on the whole of the tradition in a way that no one else had. He challenged theory and practice, offering not only an alternative justification for marriage but also a view of the human person that demanded marriage for almost all Christians.

According to Luther, sexual pleasure itself in one sense needed no justification. The desire for it was simply a fact of life. It remained, like all the givens in creation, a good so long as it was channeled through marriage into the meaningful whole of life, which included the good of offspring. What there was in sex that detracted from the knowledge and worship of God was sinful, but it had simply to be forgiven, as did the inevitable sinful elements in all human activity. After 1523, Luther shifted his emphasis from marriage as a "hospital for the incurables" to marriage as a school for character. It was within the secular, nonsacramental institution of marriage and family that individuals learned obedience to God and developed the important human virtues. The structure of the family was hierarchical, husband having authority over wife, parents over children.

Calvin, too, saw marriage as a corrective to otherwise disordered desires. He expanded the notion of marriage as the context for human flourishing by maintaining that the greatest good of marriage and sex was the society that is formed between husband and wife (Commentary on Genesis). Calvin was more optimistic than Luther about the possibility of controlling sexual desire, though he, too, believed that whatever fault remained in it was "covered over" by marriage and forgiven by God (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.8.44). Like earlier writers, he worried that marriage as a remedy for incontinence could nonetheless in itself offer provocation to uncontrolled passion.

As part of their teaching on marriage, Luther and Calvin opposed premarital and extramarital sex and homosexual relations. So concerned was Luther to provide some institutionally tempering form to sexual desire that he once voiced an opinion favoring bigamy over adultery. Both Luther and Calvin were opposed to divorce, though its possibility was admitted in a situation of adultery or impotence.

MODERN ROMAN CATHOLIC DEVELOPMENTS. During and after the Roman Catholic Counterreformation, from the late sixteenth century on, new developments alternated with the reassertion of the Augustinian ethic. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) was the first ecumenical council to address the role of love in marriage, but it also reaffirmed the primacy of procreation and reemphasized the superiority of celibacy. In the seventeenth century, Jansenism, a morally austere and ultimately heretical movement, reacted against what it considered a dangerous lowering of sexual standards and brought back the Augustinian connection between sex, concupiscence, and original sin. Alphonsus Liguori in the eighteenth century gave impetus to a manualist tradition (the development and proliferation of moral manuals designed primarily to assist confessors) that attempted to integrate the Pauline purpose of marriage (as a remedy for incontinence) with the procreative purpose. Nineteenth-century moral manuals focused on "sins of impurity," choices of any sexual pleasure apart from procreative marital intercourse. Then came the twentieth century, with the rise of Catholic theological interest in personalism and the move by the Protestant churches to accept birth control.

In 1930, Pope Pius XI responded to the Anglican approval of contraception by reaffirming the procreative ethic (Casti connubii). But he also gave approval to the use of the rhythm method for restricting procreation. Moral theologians began to move cautiously in the direction of allowing sexual intercourse in marriage without a procreative intent and for the purpose of fostering marital union. The change in Roman Catholic moral theology from the 1950s to the 1970s was dramatic. The wedge introduced between procreation and sexual intercourse by the acceptance of the rhythm method joined with new understandings of the totality of the human person to support a radically new concern for sex as an expression and cause of married love. The effects of this theological reflection were striking in the 1965 Second Vatican Council teaching that the love essential to marriage is uniquely expressed and perfected in the act of sexual intercourse (Gaudium et spes, 49). Although the Council still held that marriage is by its very nature ordered to the procreation of children, it no longer ranked what the tradition considered the basic ends of marriage, offspring and spousal union, as primary and secondary.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI insisted that contraception is immoral (Humanae vitae). Rather than settling the issue for Roman Catholics, however, this occasioned intense conflict. The majority of moral theologians disagreed with the papal teaching, even though a distinction between nonprocreative and antiprocreative behavior mediated the dispute for some. Since then, many of the specific moral rules governing sexuality in the Catholic tradition have come under serious question. Official teachings have sustained past injunctions, though some modifications have been made in order to accommodate pastoral responses to second marriages, homosexual orientation (but not sexual activity), and individual conscience decisions regarding contraception. Among moral theologians there has been serious debate (and by the 1990s, marked pluralism) regarding premarital sex, homosexual acts, remarriage after divorce, infertility therapies, gender roles, and clerical celibacy (Curran and McCormick).

POST-REFORMATION PROTESTANTISM. Twentieth-century Protestant sexual ethics developed even more dramatically than Roman Catholic sexual ethics. After the Reformation, Protestant theologians and church leaders continued to affirm heterosexual marriage as the only acceptable context for sexual activity. Except for the differences regarding celibacy and divorce, sexual norms in Protestantism looked much the same as those in the Catholic tradition. Nineteenth-century Protestantism shared and contributed to the cultural pressures of Victorianism. But in the twentieth century, Protestant thinking was deeply affected by biblical and historical studies that questioned the foundations of Christian sexual ethics, by psychological theories that challenged traditional views, and by the voiced experience of church members.

It is difficult to trace one clear line of development in twentieth-century Protestant sexual ethics, or even as clear a dialectic as may be found in Roman Catholicism. The fact that Protestantism in general was from the beginning less dependent on a procreative ethic allowed it almost unanimously to accept contraception as a means to responsible parenting. Overall, Protestant sexual ethics has moved to integrate an understanding of the human person, male and female, into a theology of marriage that no longer deprecates sexual desire as self-centered and dangerous. It continues to struggle with issues of gendered hierarchy in the family, and with what are often called "alternative lifestyles," such as the cohabitation of unmarried heterosexuals and the sexual partnerships of gays and lesbians. For the most part, the ideal context for sexual intercourse is still seen to be heterosexual marriage, but many Protestant theologians accept premarital sex and homosexual partnerships with general norms of noncoercion, basic equality, and so on. Every mainline Protestant church in the 1990s has task forces working particularly on questions of homosexuality, professional (including clergy) sexual ethics, and sex education. Traditional positions have either changed or are open and conflicted.

Modern Sexology: Philosophical, Medical, Social Scientific

The contemporary shaking of the foundations of Western sexual ethics, religious and secular, is traceable to many factors. These quite obviously include the rapid development of reproductive technologies, none more important than the many forms of contraception. But there have been other factors as well, such as changes in economic structures under capitalism and in social structures following major shifts of population to urban centers. Of important influence, too, has been the rise of the modern women's movement and of movements for gay and lesbian civil rights. Along with these developments, as both cause and effect, there have been significant contributions from disciplines such as history, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and medicine. Philosophy has generally followed these changes, though in the late twentieth century it, too, has contributed to cultural alterations in perspectives on sex.

PHILOSOPHICAL DEVELOPMENTS. As surveyors of the history of philosophy note, philosophers have not paid much attention to sex. They have written a great deal on love but have left sexual behavior largely to religion, poetry, medicine, or the law (Baker and Elliston; Soble). After the Greeks and Romans, and medieval thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas whose work is philosophical as well as theological, there is not much to be found in the field regarding sexuality until the twentieth century. Some exceptions to this are the sparse eighteenth-century writings on sex and gender by David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and the nineteenth-century writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, John Stuart Mill, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Most of these writers reinforced the norm of heterosexual procreative sex within marriage. Hume, for example, in his "Of Polygamy and Divorce" (1742), insisted that all arguments finally lead to a recommendation of "our present European practices with regard to marriage." Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) deplored the faults of conventional marriage but strongly opposed divorce and marital infidelity. Kant defended traditional sexual mores, although in his Lectures on Ethics (1781) he introduced a justification for marriage not in terms of procreation but of altruistic love, arguing that only a mutual commitment in marriage can save sexual desire from making a sexual partner into a mere means to one's own pleasure. Schopenhauer viewed sexual love as subjectively for pleasure, though objectively for procreation; his strong naturalism paved the way for a more radical theory of sex as an instinct without ethical norms (The Metaphysics of Sexual Love, 1844).

Philosophers in these centuries came down on both sides of the question of gender equality. Fichte, for example, asserted an essentially passive nature for women, who, if they were to be equal with men, would have to renounce their femininity (The Science of Rights, 1796). But Mary Wollstonecraft in her "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" (1792), and Mill in his "The Subjection of Women"(1869), offered strong challenges to the traditional inequality of gender roles in society. Marx and Engels critiqued bourgeois marriage as a relationship of economic domination (e.g., in their The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, first published by Engels in 1884). Schopenhauer, reacting to feminist agendas, advocated polygamy on the basis of a theory of male needs and female instrumental response (On Women, 1848). Nietzsche, like Schopenhauer, moved away from traditional ethical norms but also reinforced a view of the solely procreative value of women (Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1892).

Twentieth-century European philosophers attempted to construct new meanings for human sexuality in the light of new philosophical theories of freedom and interpersonal love. Jean-Paul Sartre analyzed sexuality as an ontological paradigm for human conflict (Being and Nothingness, 1943); Maurice Merleau-Ponty tried to challenge this and to go beyond it (The Phenomenology of Perception, 1945); Simone de Beauvoir fueled a feminist movement with a stark and revealing analysis of sexism and its influence on the meaning of both gender and sex (The Second Sex, 1949). With the exception of Bertrand Russell (Marriage and Morals, 1929), it was not until the late 1960s that British and American philosophers began to turn their attention to sexual ethics. Then, however, key essays by analytic philosophers began to appear on issues such as sexual desire, gender, marriage, adultery, homosexuality, abortion, sexual perversion, rape, pornography, and sexual abuse (Baker and Elliston; Shelp; Soble). All of these efforts were profoundly influenced by nineteenth-and twentieth-century contributions from other disciplines.

FREUD AND PSYCHOANALYSIS. The emergence of psychoanalytic theory brought with it new perceptions of the meaning and role of sexuality in the life of individuals. Whatever the final validity of Sigmund Freud's insights, they burst upon the world with a force that all but swept away the foundations of traditional sexual morality. Augustine's and Luther's assertions about the indomitability of sexual desire found support in Freud's theory, but now the power of sexual need was not the result of sin but a natural drive, centrally constitutive of the human personality (Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1905). Past efforts to order sexuality according to rational purposes could now be understood as repression. After Freud, when sex went awry, it was a matter of psychological illness, not moral evil. Taboos needed demythologizing, and freedom might be attained not through forgiveness but through medical treatment.

Yet psychoanalytic theory raised as many questions as it answered. Freud argued for liberation from sexual taboos and from the hypocrisy and sickness they caused, but he nonetheless maintained the need for sexual restraint. His theory of sublimation called for a discipline and channeling of the sexual instinct if the individual and society were to progress (Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930). The concern for sexual norms therefore remained, and Freud's own recommendations were in many ways quite traditional. But new work had clearly been cut out for thinkers in both secular and religious traditions.

SCIENCE, SOCIAL SCIENCE, AND MEDICINE. Freud was not the only force in nineteenth-and twentieth-century scientific and social thought that shaped changes in Western sexual mores. Biological studies of the human reproductive process offered new perspectives on male and female roles in sex and procreation. Animal research showed that higher forms of animals masturbate, perform sexual acts with members of the same sex, and generally engage in many sexual behaviors that were previously assumed to be unnatural for humans because they were unnatural for animals. Anthropologists found significant variations in the sexual behavior of human cultural groups, so that traditional notions of human nature seemed even more questionable. Surveys of sexual activities in Western society revealed massive discrepancies between accepted sexual norms and actual behavior, undercutting consequential arguments for some of the norms (e.g., the fact that 95% of the male population in the United States engaged in autoerotic acts made it difficult to support a prohibition against masturbation on grounds that it leads to insanity).

Modern sexology, then, has incorporated the work not only of sexual psychology but also of biology, anthropology, ethnology, and sociology—the research and the theories of individuals like Richard von KrafftEbing, Havelock Ellis, Magnus Hirschfield, Alfred Kinsey, Margaret Mead, William Masters, and Virginia Johnson. The results have not all been toward greater liberty in sexual behavior, but they have shared a tendency to secularize and medicalize human sexuality. In theory, sex has become less an ethical or even an aesthetic problem than a health problem. In practice, experts of all kinds—physicians, counselors, psychiatrists, social workers, teachers—provide guidance; and the guidance can at least appear to carry moral weight. An example of the intertwining of science, the medical professions, and morality is clear in the long efforts to define and identify sexual deviance or perversion—from Krafft-Ebing in the nineteenth century to the debates in the American Psychiatric Association in the 1970s and 1980s over the classification of homosexuality as a disease.

LESSONS OF HISTORY. Historians, too, have played an important role in the weakening of traditional sexual ethical norms. The very disclosure that sexual prescriptions have a history has revealed the contingency of their sources and foundations. To see, for example, that a procreative ethic rose as much from Stoic philosophies as from the Bible has allowed many Christians to question its validity. Feminist retrievals of elements in the Western tradition have led to critiques of taboo moralities and a consequent need for reconstruction. In an effort to make sense of present beliefs, historians have searched for the roots and developments of these beliefs, and the result has seldom been a reinforcement of the original rationales (Foucault, 1978; Boswell).

But it is not only the history of ideas that has had an impact on contemporary sexual ethics. It is also the historical excavation of the moral attitudes and actual practices of peoples of the past, and an identification of the shifting centers of influence on the sexual mores of different times and places (D'Emilio and Freedman; Peiss and Simmons; Fout). Sometimes referred to as a history of sexuality rather than a history of theories about sexuality or of institutionalized norms for sexuality, this is a task that is barely under way, and it has strong critics. Yet it has already had an impact on, for example, understandings of homosexuality and what can be called the politics of sex. This kind of history also attempts to provide narratives, describing shifts like the one in the United States from family-centered procreative sexual mores to romantic notions of emotional intimacy to a commercialization of sex and its idealization as the central source of human happiness (D'Emilio and Freedman). The history of sexuality and of sexual ethics, no less than the analysis of contemporary sexual norms, thus becomes subject to interpretation.

Interpretive Theories: Sex, Morality, and History

No one may have been more influential in determining current questions about the history of sexuality and sexual ethics than the French philosopher Michel Foucault. His ideas permeate much of the work of other sexual historians as well as philosophers and theologians. Yet his is not the only formative study in the history of sexual ethics, and his conclusions have provoked both positive and negative responses.

MICHEL FOUCAULT: A HISTORY OF DESIRE. Foucault originally planned to write a history of what he called "the experience of sexuality" in modern Western culture. In the course of his work, he became convinced that what was needed was a history of desire, or of the desiring subject. At the heart of this conviction was the premise that sexuality is not an ahistorical constant. Neither is sex a natural given, a biological referent that simply expresses itself in different experiences of sexuality shaped historically by changing moral norms. Sexuality is, rather, a transfer point for relations of power—between women and men, parents and children, teachers and students, clergy and laity, and so forth. Power in this sense is diffused through a field of multiple "force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate" (Foucault, 1978, p. 92). In other words, sex is not a "stubborn drive" that requires the control of power. Power produces and constitutes sexual desire much more than it ever represses it. Power determines, shapes, and deploys sexuality, and sexuality determines the meaning of sex (Foucault, 1978).

Foucault denied, then, the "repressive hypothesis" as an explanation of the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Western experience of sexuality. That is, he denied that the Victorian era had been an era of sexual repression and socially enforced silence about sex. He argued, rather, that it had been a time of an expanding deployment of sexuality and a veritable explosion of discourse about sexuality. The questions that interested him were not "Why are we repressed?" but "Why do we say that we are repressed?" and within this, not "Why was sex associated with sin for such a long time?" but "Why do we burden ourselves today with so much guilt for having made sex a sin?" (Foucault, 1978, pp. 8–9). Since the key to these questions was, Foucault thought, to be found in a study of discourse, he began with an examination of what he considered a Western impulse to discover the "truth" about sex. This, in his view, included a striking Western compulsion to self-examination and self-reporting regarding sexual experience, whether in the discourses of religion, medicine, psychiatry, or criminal justice.

To make sense of the connections between power, sexuality, and truth in the modern period, Foucault revised his project to include a study of the variations on sexual themes in other historical periods. His move to the past began with his thesis that a forerunner of modern discourse on sex was the seventeenth-century Christian ecclesiastical emphasis on confession. To put this in perspective, he undertook studies of pagan antiquity and of Christianity prior to the seventeenth century. Thus, volumes 2 and 3 of his History of Sexuality address the sexual mores of the fourth-century b.c.e. Greeks and the first-and second-century c.e. Romans (1990 and 1988, respectively). His unpublished fourth volume (The Confessions of the Flesh) examine developments within Christianity. The contrasts (and, as it turned out, the continuities) between the different historical periods shed some light on each period and on the overall Western pursuit of the kind of knowledge that promised power in relation to sex, what Foucault called the scientia sexualis.

Foucault came to the conclusion that the sexual morality of the Greeks and Romans did not differ essentially from Christian sexual morality in terms of specific prescriptions. He rejected the commonly held view that the essential contrast between sexual ethics in antiquity and in early Christianity lies in the permissiveness of Graeco-Roman societies as distinguished from the strict sexual rules of the Christians, or in an ancient positive attitude toward sex as distinguished from a negative Christian assessment. Both traditions, he argued, contained prohibitions against incest, a preference for marital fidelity, a model of male superiority, caution regarding same-sex relations, respect for austerity, a positive regard for sexual abstinence, fears of male loss of strength through sexual activity, and hopes of access to special truths through sexual discipline. Nor were these basic prescriptions very different from what could be found in post-seventeenth-century Western society.

Yet there were clear discontinuities, even ruptures, between these historical periods. The reasons for moral solicitude regarding sexuality were different. In Foucault's reading, the ancients were concerned with health, beauty, and freedom, while Christians sought purity of heart before God, and bourgeois moderns aimed at their own self-idealization. The Greeks valued self-mastery; Christians struggled for self-understanding; and modern Western individuals scrutinized their feelings in order to secure compliance with standards of normality. Eroticism was channeled toward boys for the Greeks, women for the Christians, and a centrifugal movement in many directions for the Victorian and post-Victorian middle class. The Greeks feared the enslavement of the mind by the body; Christians dreaded the chaotic power of corrupted passion; post-nineteenth century persons feared deviance and its consequent shame. Sexual morality was an aesthetic ideal, a personal choice, for an elite in antiquity; it became a universal ethical obligation under Christianity; and it was exacted as a social requirement under the power of the family and the management of the modern professional.

Foucault's study of the history of sexuality left open a question with which he had become preoccupied: How did contemporary Western culture come to believe that sexuality was the key to individual identity? How did sex become more important than love, and almost more important than life? He exposed the lack of freedom in past constructs of sexuality, and he critiqued past formulations of sexual prescriptions. But his presentation of current strategies for sexual liberation yielded no less skeptical a judgment. It suggested, rather, that however historically relative sexual ethics may be, moral solicitude regarding sexuality is not entirely a mistake.

CATHARINE MACKINNON: A HISTORY OF GENDERED VIOLENCE. Many Western feminists have shared Foucault's convictions that sexuality is socially constructed and the body is a site of power. Like Foucault, they have exposed continuing roles of medicine, education, and psychology in determining post-eighteenth-century sexual mores. With Foucault, they have emphasized discourse as a key to identifying underlying forces that link power, sexuality, and identity. But feminists fault Foucault for not extending his analytics of power to gender. Legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon, for example, opposes a Foucaultian history of desire on the grounds that the unacknowledged desiring subject is male. A history of sexuality that emphasizes sexual desire and change misses the enduring aspects of history—the unrelenting sexual abuse of women. History, then, remains silent regarding sexual exploitation, harassment, battery, and rape. Without attention to these unchanging experiences of women, MacKinnon argues, there can be no accurate analysis of sex and power.

A feminist theory of sexuality, according to MacKinnon, "locates sexuality within a theory of gender inequality" (1989, p. 127). It is a mistake, therefore, to adopt the stance that what sex needs is socially constructed freedom, that all sex can be good—healthy, appropriate, pleasurable, to be approved and expressed—if only it is liberated from ideologies of allowed/not allowed. Since sexuality is socially constructed not by a diffuse multiplicity of powers (in Foucault's sense) but by hegemonic male power, it is culturally determined as violent toward women. Pornography is a means through which this social construction is achieved.

Although not all feminists share MacKinnon's radical critique of historical and contemporary sexual understandings and practices, there is significant agreement that sexuality needs norms, and that past and present norms require gender analysis and critique. From this standpoint, a Foucaultian treatment of male discourse regarding sexuality perpetuates a view of sexuality as eroticized dominance and submission; it fails to expose this conflict as gendered.

EVOLUTIONARY INTERPRETATIONS. Foucault and MacKinnon represent interpretations of the history of sexuality and sexual ethics that deny any progress. They refuse to applaud advances in understandings of sexuality or to sanctify the present as enlightened and free. To some extent, they even reject notions of change in history—Foucault arguing for different, but not causally connected, historical perspectives; and MacKinnon focusing on similarities across time and cultures—indeed, a failure to change. Others, however, have charted an evolutionary process across the Western history of ideas about sex and the moral norms that should govern it. Those who believe that contemporary sexual revolutions have liberated persons and their sexual possibilities belong in this category. So do those who acknowledge the significance of advances in biology and psychology and call for appropriate adjustments in philosophical and theological ethics. Thoughtful commentators do not necessarily conclude that there has been real progress, though they identify evolutionary changes (Green; Shelp; Soble).

Richard Posner belongs to this latter group, offering what he calls an "economic theory of sexuality." That is, he relies heavily on economic analysis both to describe the practice of sex and to evaluate legal and ethical norms in its regard. There are, he argues, three stages in the evolution of sexual morality. These stages correlate with the status of women in a given society (Posner). In the first stage, women's occupation is that of "simple breeder." When this is the case, companionate marriage is an unlikely possibility, and practices that are considered "immoral" are likely to flourish (e.g., prostitution, adultery, homosexual liaisons).

The second stage begins when women's occupations expand to include "child rearer and husband's companion." Here, companionate marriage is a possibility, and because of this, "immoral" practices that endanger it are vehemently condemned. When companionate marriage is idealized as the only possibility for everyone, societies become puritanical in their efforts to promote and protect it. In the third stage, women's roles are enlarged to include "market employment." Marriages will be fewer, but where they exist, they will be companionate. Other forms of sexual relationship, previously considered immoral, no longer appear to be either immoral or abnormal. This stage characterizes some Western societies more than others—notably, according to Posner, contemporary Sweden.

A very different kind of evolutionary theory can be found in the philosopher Paul Ricoeur's 1967 analysis of the symbolism of evil in Western history. In this analysis, the Greco-Hebraic history of the consciousness of evil has three moments or stages: defilement, sin, and guilt. The sense of defilement is a pre-ethical, irrational, quasi-material sense of something that infects by contact. Sin is a sense of betrayal, of rupture in a relationship. And guilt is the subjective side of sin, a consciousness that the breakdown of a relationship is the result of an evil use of freedom. According to Ricoeur, sexual morality has appeared historically paradigmatic of the experience of defilement. This association has not been left behind; there remains in the implicit consciousness of the West an inarticulable but persistent connection between sexuality and evil. The result is that ethical wisdom regarding sexuality has remained far behind other developments in Western ethics, even though there has been a significant demythologizing of sex.

Contemporary Ethical Reconstruction

The turn to history may have relativized much of traditional sexual ethics, but the motivation for the turn is more complicated. Given all the factors that have helped to weaken traditional sexual norms, ethical reflection has been left with very little anchorage. Science and medicine help, but they sometimes add to human suffering experienced in relation to sex. Philosophy and religion find their traditions struggling for relevance, for clarity, for reasonable guidance and more than reasoned inspiration. The turn to history has been an effort to find a truth that continues to be elusive. And history, like other disciplinary efforts, has probably both helped and heightened the need for the quest.

Contemporary efforts in sexual ethics recognize multiple meanings for human sexuality—pleasure, reproduction, communication, love, conflict, social stability, and so on. Most of those who labor at sexual ethics recognize the need to guide sexual behavior in ways that preserve its potential for good and restrict its potential for evil. Safety, nonviolence, equality, autonomy, mutuality, and truthfulness are generally acknowledged as required for minimal human justice in sexual relationships. Many think that care, responsibility, commitment, love, and fidelity are also required, or at least included as goals. With social construction no longer ignored, the politics of sex has become an ethical matter for persons and societies, institutions and professions. New questions press regarding the ways in which humanity is to reproduce itself and the responsibilities it has for its offspring. In all of this, sexual ethics asks, How is it appropriate—helpful and not harmful, creative and not destructive—to live and to relate to one another as sexual beings?

margaret a. farley (1995)

bibliography revised

SEE ALSO: Autonomy; Body; Care; Coercion; Compassionate Love; Confidentiality; Emotions; Epidemics; Eugenics; Feminism; Freedom and Free Will; Homosexuality; Natural Law; Sexual Ethics; Sexual Ethics and Professional Standards; Sexual Identity; Sexuality, Legal Approaches to


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