Building Sex-Positive Sexual Ethics

This post first appeared on the Good Vibrations magazine.


I ran across a link to a really post on Scarleteen, which is a fantastic sex ed for youth website. Much of the site is in the Q&A format, and this page was no different. The question came from a young woman who is considering becoming a Christian and had concerns about how her sexuality would connect to it.

While I wish that the answer had mentioned that there are lots of different versions of Christianity, with some diversity in how they approach sex, I was really impressed with this:

Let me suggest that God cares more about the content of our sexuality than he does about its form. Traditional Christian sexual ethics are often discussed in the context of what Christians can and can’t do. Some Christians will often say things like “the only form of genital contact sanctioned by God is that which happens in a marriage between one husband and one wife.” The implication is clear: if you get the “form” (heterosexual marriage) right, then the sex that follows is okay. If you haven’t got the form right, then you’ve “fallen short of the mark.”

But “form-based” sexual ethics clearly have their problems.

For example, it ignores entirely the great likelihood that coercion, disrespect, and force can take place within marriage. The Churches did not start condemning marital rape — or even acknowledging that such a concept was possible — until the second half of the twentieth century. Is a situation in which a husband demands sex from his wife against her will somehow more in keeping with the spirit of Christ than a situation in which two unmarried people make love with mutual enthusiasm? If you’re a stickler for “form-based ethics”, you bet. For the most traditional of theologians, marital rape is less of a serious sin than homosexuality or pre-marital sex, because form matters more than content.

“Content” based sexual ethics are concerned with the way in which people, in the process of being sexual, value themselves and their partners. Content-based ethics are deeply concerned with mutuality, with pleasure, and with the willingness of each partner to take responsibility for the physical, spiritual, and emotional consequences of what is done. Form-based ethics teach the Christian to ask the question “Am I allowed to do this?” Content-based ethics teach the Christian to ask “Am I truly loving — in every sense of the word — the person or persons with whom I am doing this, including myself?”


I understand why legalistic traditions, including (but not limited to) many within modern Christianity, tend to focus on the form over the content. It’s much easier to declare that something is right or wrong when you can base that decision on an easily-visible marker. In some ways, this is reinforced by the desire to find consistency or fairness: if two people do the same thing, then the decision regarding whether it was ethical or legal to do should be the same, right?

Form-based rules are also a lot easier to teach. Do this. Don’t do that. It’s a much simpler way to transmit social structure, as long as nobody starts asking why some things are in one category or another.

But when it comes down to it, form-based rules don’t work as well as some might like, especially when it comes to sex. If you happen to have sexual desires that fit within the “these are OK” list, you’re doing fine. But many people fall outside that fairly narrow range, either over the short term or for a considerable part of their lives. Some of them can squeeze themselves into the imposed limits, perhaps by ignoring or denying their other desires. Other people will do the things that they are drawn to, but with a level of risk, fear and/or secrecy that colors their experiences with guilt and shame, not because the act is harmful and shameful, in and of itself, but because the awareness that one is breaking the rules can result in those emotions.


Let me say that again- the shame comes from the breaking of the rules, not from the sexual act itself. People who simply can’t fit within the form-based rules are caught within the dilemma of denying part of themselves or lying about their actions. Those who speak out against the rules put themselves at significant risk, and these are the people that we owe our sexual freedoms to.

So what would a content-based sex of sexual ethics look like?

I think that the most important piece is that it would be based on the health, well-being, pleasure, and consent of the people involved. Rather than basing it on the specific sexual activities that someone might or might not want to do, we would start by asking if these four components were taken into account.

Given that we each have our individual sexual desires, pleasures and squicks, we would need to respect the autonomy of the person answering that question. Even if we feel disturbed or disgusted by something that somebody does, we would need to recognize that the source of those feelings come from within ourselves and that it is our job to manage that, rather than trying to keep people from doing things that “gross us out.”


In support of that, I would suggest that we need to change our language from “that grosses me out” to “I feel disgust/shame/anger/etc when I see that.” It seems to me that a content-based ethical system will work better when we can take responsibility for our reactions rather than blaming them on someone else. That’s easier to do when we can use language that reflects that understanding. Right speech doesn’t mean that we don’t have reactions or strong emotions. It simply means that we speak in ways that avoid harm. In my experience, blaming others for our emotions causes harm, both because it accuses someone of something that they didn’t do and because it takes away our power by claiming that someone else is responsible for our feelings.

However, one of the challenges of a content-based system of sexual ethics is that it lacks easy answers because sexual desires and preference vary tremendously. But if we come back to the quote above, if we ask ourselves “Am I truly loving — in every sense of the word — the person or persons with whom I am doing this, including myself?”, then we have that diversity woven into the structure. After all, the ways in which we each ask for and provide respect, care, and love vary just as much as the ways in which we might be sexual. So although a content-based system is impossible to define in advance, it contains the process by which we can develop it in each moment. Perhaps one way to look at it is that the content-based system is a process for creation rather than a pre-determined set of limits.

It seems to me that the biggest challenge to creating a content-based set of sexual ethics is that it requires each person to be able and willing to engage in the process of evaluating each situation and applying a set of principles to decide the best way to proceed. That’s a challenging set of skills to learn, especially in comparison to memorizing a list or asking the authority what to do.


Bloom’s Taxonomy charts the different ways of learning and their relative complexity. In a nutshell, the further up the pyramid, the more complex the task . Over the 50 years since Bloom first published it, there’s been a lot of research on the topic, and the terms have changed (and been reordered a bit). Click on the image or the link for more info about this.

Remembering a rule is down there at the bottom of the list because it’s the easiest to do. That’s what makes a form-based ethical system so simple to implement. But a content-based system requires the ability to engage with all six levels of the pyramid. That takes a lot of practice, no matter what the topic happens to be. And when it comes to sex it’s even more challenging, for a variety of reasons. But ultimately, if we’re going to develop a sex-positive set of ethics, we need to overcome those hurdles.

There are a lot of ways to do that and there are lots of folks and groups working to make it happen. My hope is that, one day, people will look back at us and wonder why we were so caught up in complying with rules that don’t work. And in the meantime, I invite you to engage in the practice of creating your own sexual ethics, with the recognition that they may change from day to day or over your lifetime. As part of that, let me pose some question to sit with. Feel free to respond in the comments, if you like.

  • How do you know when you have acted in a way that supports your sexual health and well-being? What about your partner(s)?
  • What challenges do you face when it comes to asking for or giving consent?
  • How did you discover what brought you pleasure? What do you currently do to explore and discover new ways to experience it?
  • How do you respond when you discover that your sexual desires have changed?
  • What do you do when conflicts, misunderstandings, and missteps happen? How do you react? And how do you manage those reactions?
  • Are there ways in which you make assumptions or judgments about people whose sexual practices are different from yours?
  • What would you do if you discovered that someone you were attracted to enjoys a type of sex that you’ve never done before? that you dislike? that you have negative feelings about? that you’ve never heard of?

and lastly:

  • What other questions do you think would help you or someone else develop a sex-positive set of ethics?
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2 Responses so far.

  1. […] Giving up our power to another in these ways is very different from the negotiated and consensual forms of submission common in BDSM, primarily because kinky submission is (ideally, at least) based on the conviction of a strong “yes.” This is a distinction that is often lost on people who only see the surface of the submission, without understanding the deeper layers of communication and consent. Or to put it another way, it’s misunderstood by people who only see the form-based sexual ethics, rather than the content-based ethics. […]

  2. Playa Blanca says:

    Kudos from one brainiac to another. 🙂

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