The Philosophy Of Sexuality

SexSexuality and Sexual Philosophy
A Comprehensive Thesis
Bryan Kissel
March 21, 2001

The philosophy of sexuality, like the philosophy of science, art or law, is the study of the concepts and propositions surrounding its central protagonist, in this case `sex’. Its practitioners focus on conceptual, metaphysical and normative questions.
Conceptual philosophy of sex analyses the notions of sexual desire, sexual activity and sexual pleasure. What makes a feeling a sexual sensation? Manipulation of and feelings in the genitals are not necessary, since other body parts yield sexual pleasure. What makes an act sexual? A touch on the arm might be a friendly pat, an assault, or sex; physical properties alone do not distinguish them. What is the conceptual link between sexual pleasure and sexual activity? Neither the intention to produce sexual pleasure nor the actual experience of pleasure seems necessary for an act to be sexual. Other conceptual questions have to do not with what makes an act sexual, but with what makes it the type of sexual act it is. How should `rape’ be defined? What the conceptual differences are, if any, between obtaining sex through physical force and obtaining it by offering money is an interesting and important issue.
Metaphysical philosophy of sex discusses ontological and epistemological matters: the place of sexuality in human nature; the relationships among sexuality, emotion and cognition; the meaning of sexuality for the person, the species, the cosmos. What is sex all about, anyway? That sexual desire is a hormone-driven instinct implanted by a god or nature acting in the service of the species, and that it has a profound spiritual dimension, are two — not necessarily incompatible — views. Perhaps the significance of sexuality is little different from that of eating, breathing and defecating; maybe, or in addition, sexuality is partially constitutive of moral personality.
Normative philosophy of sex explores the perennial questions of sexual ethics. In what circumstances is it morally permissible to engage in sexual activity or experience sexual pleasure? With whom? For what purpose? With which body parts? For how long? The historically central answers come from Thomist natural law, Kantian deontology, and utilitarianism. Normative philosophy of sex also addresses legal, social and political issues. Should society steer people in the direction of heterosexuality, marriage, family? May the law regulate sexual conduct by prohibiting prostitution or homosexuality? Normative philosophy of sex includes nonethical value questions as well. What is good sex? What is its contribution to the good life?
The breadth of the philosophy of sex is shown by the variety of topics it investigates: abortion, contraception, acquaintance rape, pornography, sexual harassment, and objectification, to name a few. The philosophy of sex begins with a picture of a privileged pattern of relationship, in which two adult heterosexuals love each other, are faithful to each other within a formal marriage, and look forward to procreation and family. Philosophy of sex, as the Socratic scrutiny of our sexual practices, beliefs and concepts, challenges this privileged pattern by exploring the virtues, and not only the vices, of adultery, prostitution, homosexuality, group sex, bestiality, masturbation, sadomasochism, incest, paedophilia and casual sex with anonymous strangers. Doing so provides the same illumination about sex that is provided when the philosophies of science, art and law probe the privileged pictures of their own domains.
The philosophy of sex investigates conceptual, metaphysical and normative questions, although the boundaries between these three are hardly firm. Metaphysical and normative philosophy of sex are well developed, stretching back to Plato and Augustine; sexual ethics has a famous history, and the contemplation of the place of sexuality in human nature is central to Christianity. The analysis of sexual concepts, by contrast, is in its infancy. The subjects of analysis are these core concepts and the logical relationships among them: sexual desire, sensation, pleasure, act, arousal and satisfaction. Derivative sexual concepts, which presuppose an understanding of the core concepts, are also the subject of analysis. Among these are rape, sexual harassment, sexual orientation, sexual perversion, prostitution and pornography.
Consider adultery. It can be defined as a sexual act that occurs between two persons, at least one of whom is married but not to the other. The definition should also mention, as a necessary condition, willing and knowledgeable consent. Suppose X coerces Y, who is married to Z, into coitus. Y did not commit adultery, because Y did not have the proper frame of mind; Y never intended to commit adultery or engage in intercourse at all. Or suppose X and Y engage in coitus, both believing, on the basis of good evidence (but falsely), that X’s spouse Z died years ago; or the unmarried X has good reason to think (but falsely, due to Y’s deception) that Y, too, is not married. Has X committed an adulterous sexual act, unwittingly and so, perhaps, not culpably; or is X’s lack of mens rea, X’s ignorance of the true state of affairs, incompatible with adultery?
We cannot fully understand the derivative sexual concept `adultery’ until we have defined `sexual act’. If X and Y send to each other sexually arousing messages through the Internet, have they engaged in a sexual act (`cybersex’)? Is their exchange of messages sexual enough, quantitatively or qualitatively, to be adulterous, if one of them is married? Here we can see the intertwining of conceptual and moral matters. A lack of clarity about `sexual act’ allows the exoneration of adultery by a convenient rediscription of what occurs between X and Y — it was only `fooling around’, not `real’ sex. Another, quite opposite, maneuver, is possible. Theologians often define adultery in the spirit of Matthew 5: 28, making a sexual fantasy sufficient, even in the absence of physical contact: X commits adultery if X thinks lustful thoughts about Y.
Our interest in defining `sexual act’ is not merely philosophical; it is also practical. Precise definitions of `sexual act’ are needed for social scientific studies of sexual behaviour and orientation (to be used in the consideration of questions about, for example, who engages in homosexual acts and whether this correlates with genetics, and how often people engage in sex) and for legislation in the areas of child abuse, rape, harassment and adultery.
Sexual acts might be defined as those involving sexual body parts. The sexual parts of the body are first catalogued; acts are sexual if and only if they involve contact with one of these parts. `Sexual act’, on this view, is logically dependent on `sexual part’. But do we clearly understand `sexual part’? Two people might shake hands briefly, without the act being sexual; they could, alternatively, warmly press their hands together and feel a surge of sexual pleasure. Sometimes, then, the hands are used nonsexually and sometimes they are used sexually. Are the hands a sexual part? Whether the hands are a sexual part depends on the activity in which they are engaged. Hence, instead of an act’s being sexual because it involves a sexual body part, a body part is sexual because of the sexual nature of the act in which it is used. We might say that a genital examination is not a sexual act even though the genitals are touched; hence contact with a sexual part is not sufficient for an act to be sexual. But we could also say that not even the genitals are sexual parts in the requisite sense; for in the medical context the genitals are not being treated as sexual parts.
The morality of sexuality has been understood by some in terms of its procreative function. Alternatively, the procreative nature of sexual activity might be employed analytically rather than normatively. Sexual acts, on this view, are those having procreative potential in virtue of their biological structure. The principal case of such an act is heterosexual intercourse. This analysis, then, is too narrow, if taken as stating a necessary condition. Here is a more plausible formulation: sexual acts are (1) acts that are procreative in structure and (2) any acts that are the physiological or psychological precursors or concomitants of acts that are sexual by (1). This version casts a wider net, but not wide enough. Masturbation, which is not a procreative act and not often a precursor or concomitant of coitus, turns out not to be a sexual act. Another emendation suggests itself: sexual acts are also (3) acts that bear a close physical resemblance to the acts judged sexual by (1) or (2). This vague condition does not save the proposed analysis. Some sexual perversions (such as fondling shoes) are sexual even though they bear no reasonable resemblance to coitus or its concomitants. This analysis also suggests that homosexual acts, all of which are nonprocreative, are sexual just because they sufficiently resemble heterosexual acts. That seems to be the wrong reason for the right conclusion.
Another view is that both homosexual and heterosexual acts are sexual in virtue of the type of pleasure or sensation they produce. Thus it seems reasonable to propose that sexual acts are those that produce sexual pleasure. But if pleasure is the criterion of the sexual, pleasure cannot be the gauge of the nonmoral quality of sex acts. The couple who have lost sexual interest in each other, and who engage in routine coitus from which they derive no pleasure, are still performing a sexual act. We are forbidden, by this analysis, from saying that they engage in sex but that it is (nonmorally) bad sex. Rather, we can say, at most, that they tried to engage in sex, and failed. Furthermore, in this analysis `sexual act’ is logically dependent on `sexual pleasure’, so we cannot say that sexual pleasure is the pleasure produced by sexual acts. Then how might we distinguish sexual pleasure or sensations from others? This problem also arises for a more complex analysis: sexual acts are those acts that tend to satisfy sexual desire, where sexual desire is taken to be the desire for the pleasure of physical contact. `Pleasures of physical contact’ might not specify sexual pleasure accurately enough. An additional complication is that a gender difference in the experience and conceptualization of sexual pleasure might exist. Additionally, someone might experience sexual desire yet have no idea what to do as a result of having it, no idea that physical contact, or what kind of physical contact, is the next, but hardly mandatory, step. Sexual desire might not be a desire for something or that something at all. What, then, are the features of a desire that make it sexual? Sexual desire is distinguished by being accompanied by sexual excitement and arousal. We can, in turn, ask what sexual excitement and arousal are, as opposed to other kinds of excitement and arousal. For Shaffer, sexual arousal is `directly sexual in that it involves the sexual parts, viz., the genital areas’. Have we gone full circle?
Finally, sexual acts might be understood as those involving a sexual intention. But an intention to produce or experience sexual pleasure, for example, might be neither necessary nor sufficient for an act to be sexual. A couple engaging in coitus, both parties intending only that fertilization occur and neither concerned with sexual pleasure, performs a sexual act. Maybe this is not the correct sexual intention. But the intention to procreate is not it: gays and lesbians experience desire and arousal and engage in sex without any procreative intent. Furthermore, intentions are arguably irrelevant in making sexual acts sexual. Rape can be sexual whether the rapist intends to get sexual pleasure from it, to humiliate his victim, or to assert his masculinity. From the fact that in some rapes, rapists intend to degrade their victims, to dominate and exert power over them, it does not follow that the act is not sexual. Indeed, the rapist might have chosen a sexual act quite on purpose as his method to humiliate and degrade. His victim is degraded exactly by the sexual nature of the act endured; the victim experiences a shame that accompanies a forced sexual act but would not accompany sexless assault.
What, then, are sexual acts? Maybe they have no transcultural or ahistorical essence, and the analytic project is doomed. Acts involving the same body parts are sometimes sexual, sometimes not. Some touches and movements are deemed sexual in one culture but not in others; the fragrances, mannerisms and costumes that are sexually arousing vary among places and times. No lowest common denominator exists that makes all sexual acts sexual. Bodily movements acquire meaning — as sexual, or as something else — by existing within a culture that attaches meaning to them. There are, then, only variable social definitions of the sexual.
Such is the view known as social constructionism (or anti-essentialism). As one proponent puts it, `the very meaning and content of sexual arousal’ varies so much among genders, classes, and cultures that `there is no abstract and universal category of “the erotic” or “the sexual” applicable without change to all societies’ (Padgug 1979: 54; original emphasis). Nancy Hartstock elaborates:
We should understand sexuality not as an essence or set of properties defining an individual, nor as a set of drives and needs (especially genital) of an individual. Rather, we should understand sexuality as culturally and historically defined and constructed. Anything can become eroticized.
(1983: 156)
Hartsock’s expression `anything can become eroticized’ must mean `anything can be linked to sexual arousal and pleasure’. That might be true; after all, unusual items bring paraphiliacs sexual joy. If so, however, there seems to be a common denominator after all, an essential even if narrow core to the sexual: an unchanging, culturally invariable subjective experience of sexual pleasure.
The history of sexuality is the history of our discourse about sex, as Michel Foucault might have put it. We create things by using words. There really is no such thing as masturbatory insanity or nymphomania no — medical condition, no psychological character trait, no underlying pathology. Well, there is, but only because we have picked out some behavioral patterns and made up a word to name them, not because masturbatory insanity and nymphomania have, like the moon, an existence independent of our words, our observations, and our evaluations of it. Social facts, such as the existence of `peasants’, `witches’ and `yuppies’, have an odd, plastic, fuzzy nature. Similar considerations apply to `perversion’, `philanderer’ and `homosexuality’. Thus the title of David Halperin’s social constructionist monograph, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990). It did not exist before the word `homosexual’ was coined by Karoly Maria Benkert in 1869.
In sex we are vulnerable to another’s enticing words and seductive touch. Our wills are weak, so we are dominated as much by our desires as by the other’s physical strength or alluring beauty. Engulfment or invasion of our bodies by the other’s gaze and flesh is hazardous. In exchange for exquisite pleasure, we make ourselves susceptible to embarrassment, anguish, betrayal. This psychology of sex provides reason for taking sex, and so sexual ethics, seriously. Its consequences — transmission of disease, the existence of a new human being — do so as well. If procreation is a couple’s contribution to God’s ongoing work of creation, if it is the sacred ground where humans and God engage in a shared project, then sexuality must be protected by stringent ethics. Or if sexual personality resides at the core of moral personality, if the training of sexuality impinges on developing character in such a way that the failure to learn to control the pursuit of sexual pleasure undermines the achievement of virtue, then the moral education of the body is crucial.
In light of sexuality’s intricate psychology and far-reaching consequences, sexual activity might be justifiable only by weighty nonsexual considerations. Consider the hostility of Christianity to sex, as in Augustine’s De nuptiis et concupiscentia (On marriage and Concupiscence), where we hear the strains of Plato’s Phaedrus:
A man turns to good use the evil of concupiscence … when he bridles and restrains its rage … and never relaxes his hold upon it except when intent on offspring, and then controls and applies it to the carnal generation of children … not to the subjection of the spirit to the flesh in a sordid servitude.
Neither is Immanuel Kant kind to sexuality: `Sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite …. Taken by itself it is a degradation of human nature’. If sexual desire objectifies, in virtue of pushing us to seek pleasure without regard for our partners, if sexual urges engender deception and manipulation, then sexuality is morally suspicious. Only special circumstances could make acting on these desires morally right. For these gloomy reasons, many conservative and religious thinkers, but also some feminists, believe that sexual activity is redeemed only by love or marriage.
In contrast, sexual liberals suppose that sexuality is a wholesome bonding mechanism that allows persons to overcome the psychological and moral tension between egoism and benevolence. Sexual activity involves pleasing the self and the other at the same time; these exchanges of pleasure generate gratitude and affection. Further, sexual pleasure is a valuable thing in its own right, the pursuit of which does not require external or nonsexual justification. And sexuality is a cardinal affirmation of the goodness of bodily existence. There is no contradiction in presuming that a virtuous person can lead a life in which sexual pleasure is sought for its own sake — in moderation, of course. Weak, not stringent, moral rules apply to sex.
The claim that sexual pleasure is valuable does not mean we should not condemn sexual misconduct. We often do, however, pardon sexually motivated misconduct when we would not excuse similar conduct motivated otherwise (see Pausanias in Plato’s Symposium 182e-183c), Does sex warrant this exculpation? If the most intense way we relate to another person is sexually, then maybe forgiveness for sexual offences should be graciously forthcoming. But sexuality is hardly unique in the depth of the personal relationship it elicits; think about mutual hatred. Nor is there much intensity in the dull coitus of a long-married couple. According to another line of thought, sexuality has a peculiar ability to thwart reason: sexual impulses make us temporarily deranged (recall the dark horse of Plato’s Phaedrus). We are to be excused because in sexual matters we cannot control ourselves. But the lures of politics, ambition and money are just as powerful and devilish as the anticipations of the flesh. In none of these respects does sexuality seem unique or significant enough to deserve special attention.
Perhaps sexual desire — as a component of love and as opposed to mere `horniness’ — latches on to particular objects (I want Jennifer), in a way hunger does not (I want a sausage, and any fat, juicy one will do). Genuine eros makes us desire a particular person; crude desire is satisfiable by fungible bodies. But the distinction between eros and lust is a fine one, and in many instances doubtful; we only deceive ourselves that this person is not replaceable by others in our affections. A metaphysical illusion resides in the heart of sexual desire. Sexual passion misleads us; it makes it appear that we are ontologically more than we are, transcendental selves rather than mere material beings.
Plato, in the Symposium, also issued a warning: what we think we are seeking is not really what we want; our eros for bodies is really eros for truth and beauty. Augustine similarly thought that the search for God was hidden beneath the search for sensual pleasure in another’s body. And for Arthur Schopenhauer, the beauty of the object of sexual desire was nature’s way of tricking us (men?) into thinking that the satisfaction of our erotic love for our beloveds is for our own individual good. To the contrary, sexual love benefits only the species, for the good of which nature makes mere use of us. This naturalist vision of sex is not far removed from Atkinson’s anti-essentialism; both see its purpose in terms of the species and not of the individual.
For Aquinas, sexual acts are morally wrong in two different ways (Summa theologiae IIaIIae.154.1). First, `when the act of its nature is incompatible with the purpose of the sex-act procreation. In so far as generation is blocked, we have unnatural vice, which is any complete sex-act from which of its nature generation cannot follow.’ Aquinas gives four examples (IIaIIae.154.11) of sexual acts that are unnatural vice because not procreative: `the sin of self-abuse’, `intercourse with a thing of another species’, acts `with a person of the same sex’, and acts in which `the natural style of intercourse is not observed, as regards the proper organ or according to other rather beastly and monstrous techniques’. Second, `the conflict with right reason may arise from the nature of the act with respect to the other party’, as in incest, rape, seduction and adultery.
Sexual sins in the first category are the worst: `unnatural vice flouts nature by transgressing its basic principles of sexuality, so it is in this matter the gravest of sins’ (IIaIIae.154.12). Aquinas is replying to an interlocutor who argues that unnatural vice is not the morally worst sex. `The more a sin is against charity’, says the interlocutor, `the worse it is. Now adultery and seduction and rape harms our neighbor, whereas unnatural lust injures nobody else, and accordingly is not the worst form of lust.’ Aquinas rejects this thinking. Seduction, rape and adultery violate only `the developed plan of living according to reason’ that derives from humans living in society, while `unnatural sins’, which violate the plan of creation, are an `affront to God’. If some sexual acts are unnatural, they are morally wrong, in Thomistic ethics, just for that reason. To the list of reasons sexual acts might be wrong — they are dishonest, cruel, unfair, manipulative, coercive, exploitative, selfish or negligently dangerous — a Thomist adds `unnatural’. Not so the sexual libertarian. Mutual consent is, in the absence of third-party harm, sufficient for the morality of sexual acts, and no law of God or nature need supplement this basic principle of proper relations among humans.
In arguing that sexual behaviour ought to conform to human nature within God’s plan, one must be able to justify particular conceptions of that nature and his intentions. Augustine and Aquinas knew, or thought they did, that God wanted sexuality to be the mechanism of procreation. Aquinas displays confidence in his account of human nature:
It is evident that the bringing up of a human child requires the care of a mother who nurses him, and much more the care of a father, under whose guidance and guardianship his earthly needs are supplied and his character developed. Therefore indiscriminate intercourse is against human nature. The union of one man with one woman is postulated, and with her he remains, not for a little while, but for a long period, or even for a whole lifetime.
(IIaIIae.154.2)
Christine Gudorf, however, argues for a new, non-Augustinian yet Christian understanding of the body. Basing her view in part on the existence of the clitoris, an organ that on her view has only a pleasure-producing function and no procreative function, Gudorf argues that God designed the human body foremost for sexual pleasure.
Although he appeals to biology and not the Lord’s plan, Michael Levin concludes, in agreement with Aquinas, that homosexual acts `involve the use of the genitals for what they aren’t for’. Homosexual anal intercourse is unnatural because being inside another man’s rectum is not what a man’s penis is `for’; it is for penetrating a woman’s vagina. This kind of Thomism is susceptible to mockery (Does a man’s masturbation misuse the penis, or the hand? Does heterosexual cunnilingus misuse the tongue?) but it has also received serious discussion. In deriving ethical judgments directly from nature, the problem is to come up with a coherent, plausible account of the `natural’. Whereas Aquinas claims that a man’s `indiscriminate intercourse is against human nature’, much recent biology claims that promiscuity in men is perfectly natural, the result of evolutionary mechanisms. In this way, science has the power to turn philosophical or theological reliance on nature on its head. Thus, if the current research suggesting that homosexual orientation has a substantial genetic basis is vindicated, the Western religions might have to concede that such sexual desires and behavior are, after all, part of the design of nature. Patricia Jung and Ralph Smith (1993) offer a Christian defense of loving, homosexual marriages, in part based on the idea that being homosexual is little different from being left-handed.
Most philosophers have had something to say about sex; with a little digging, one can uncover the unsystematic sexual thoughts of Aristotle, Descartes and Hume. Others — such as Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Sartre — took sexuality more seriously. And for some, most notably Plato and Freud, the sexual was nearly the heart and soul. But in Kant’s sexual philosophy, the conceptual, the metaphysical and the ethical are most provocatively combined; and in Kant, contemporary philosophical problems and disputes about sex can be glimpsed clearly.
Aquinas’ fame (or notoriety) rests with his natural law sexual ethics; Kant is important as the author of a sexual ethics of respect. For Kant, human sexual interaction involves one person’s merely using another for the sake of pleasure:
there is no way in which a human being can be made an Object of indulgence for another except through sexual impulse…. Sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite…. Sexual love… by itself and for itself… is nothing more than appetite…. As an Object of appetite for another a person becomes a thing and can be treated and used as such by every one. This is the only case in which a human being is designed by nature as the Object of another’s enjoyment.
(1780-81: 163)
If all sexual acts — not only rape, or those in which consent is absent — are objectifying and instrumental, is not celibacy required? Kant thinks not, Following Paul (‘The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife’, 1 Corinthians 7: 4), Kant lays down a stringent rule:
The sole condition on which we are free to make use of our sexual desire depends upon the right to dispose over the person as a whole…. If I have the right over the whole person, I have also the right … to use that person’s organa sexualia for the satisfaction of sexual desire. But how am I to obtain these rights over the whole person? Only by giving that person the same rights over the whole of myself. This happens only in marriage. Matrimony is an agreement between two persons by which they grant each other equal reciprocal rights, each of them undertaking to surrender the whole of their person to the other with a complete right of disposal over it …. If I yield myself completely to another and obtain the person of the other in return, I win myself back…. In this way the two persons become a unity of will…. Thus sexuality leads to a union of human beings, and in that union alone its exercise is possible.
(1780-81: 166-7)
Mary Ann Gardell, instead of sensing the Pauline `marriage debt’ in the Kantian exchange of rights, reads Kant as benignly claiming that `marriage transforms an otherwise manipulative masturbatory relationship into one that is essentially altruistic in character’. But Kant speaks of marriage as a contract, an exchange of rights of access to the body. So he might be claiming that the marital pledge, the voluntary assumption of the terms of an agreement, assures that the spouses are not treating each other only as means, but also as ends, in the marriage bed. Or Kant might be justifying marital sex by abolishing the mere possibility of instrumentality: after the ontological union of two persons into one by marriage, there cannot be any use of one person by another. This is why Kierkegaard found such views not benign but pernicious. All pleasure is selfish. The pleasure of the lover … is not selfish with respect to the loved one, but in union they are both absolutely selfish, inasmuch as in union and in love they constitute one self’.
Kant’s idea that marriage cleanses sex of instrumentality apparently implies that homosexual marriage would similarly cleanse same-sex sexuality. Kant sidesteps this conclusion, asserting that homosexuality is one of the crimina carnis contra naturam:
Onanism … is abuse of the sexual faculty…. By it man sets aside his person and degrades himself below the level of animals…. Intercourse between sexus homogenii… too is contrary to the ends of humanity; for the end of humanity in respect of sexuality is to preserve the species without debasing the person.
The homosexual `no longer deserves to be a person’. Kant, following Augustine and Aquinas, condemns nonprocreative sex as unnatural, even if it is, in his own sense, noninstrumental.
Kant’s notion of marriage, in which a person obtains rights over a person and their genitals, might itself reduce the spouses to sex objects, unless the voluntary agreement of the spouses to the arrangement is sufficient to eliminate mere use. But if we emphasize the voluntary nature of the exchange of rights that occurs in marriage, Kant’s contention that sex is permissible only in marriage is undermined, because two people — gay or straight — can grant each other reciprocal rights to dispose over their persons for a limited period of time (as in the casual sex of one evening). Nothing in the idea of an exchange of rights seems to entail that the exchange must be forever or exclusive. Is there something irreversible about this exchange of rights? If not, Kant’s defense of monogamous, lifelong marriage in terms of a `unity of will’ is no more convincing than Aquinas’ appeal to human nature.
PERSONAL CONCLUSION:
Among the many topics explored by the philosophy of sexuality are procreation, contraception, celibacy, marriage, adultery, casual sex, flirting, prostitution, homosexuality, masturbation, seduction, rape, sexual harassment, sadomasochism, pornography, bestiality, and pedophilia. What do all these things have in common? All are related in various ways to the vast domain of human sexuality. That is, they are related, on the one hand, to the human desires and activities that involve the search for and attainment of sexual pleasure or satisfaction and, on the other hand, to the human desires and activities that involve the creation of new human beings. For it is a natural feature of human beings that certain sorts of behaviors and certain bodily organs are and can be employed either for pleasure or for reproduction, or for both.
The philosophy of sexuality explores these topics both conceptually and normatively. Conceptual analysis is carried out in the philosophy of sexuality in order to clarify the fundamental notions of sexual desire and sexual activity. Conceptual analysis is also carried out in attempting to arrive at satisfactory definitions of adultery, prostitution, rape, pornography, and so forth. Conceptual analysis (for example: what are the distinctive features of a desire that make it sexual desire instead of something else? In what ways does seduction differ from nonviolent rape?) is often difficult and seemingly picky, but proves rewarding in unanticipated and surprising ways.
Normative philosophy of sexuality inquires about the value of sexual activity and sexual pleasure and of the various forms they take. Thus the philosophy of sexuality is concerned with the perennial questions of sexual morality and constitutes a large branch of applied ethics . Normative philosophy of sexuality investigates what contribution is made to the good or virtuous life by sexuality, and tries to determine what moral obligations we have to refrain from performing certain sexual acts and what moral permissions we have to engage in others.
Some philosophers of sexuality carry out conceptual analysis and the study of sexual ethics separately. They believe that it is one thing to define a sexual phenomenon (such as rape or adultery) and quite another thing to evaluate it. Other philosophers of sexuality believe that a robust distinction between defining a sexual phenomenon and arriving at moral evaluations of it cannot be made, that analyses of sexual concepts and moral evaluations of sexual acts influence each other. Whether there actually is a tidy distinction between values and morals, on the one hand, and natural, social, or conceptual facts, on the other hand, is one of those fascinating, endlessly debated issues in philosophy, and is not limited to the philosophy of sexuality.
The Metaphysics of Sexuality
Our moral evaluations of sexual activity are bound to be affected by what we view the nature of the sexual impulse, or of sexual desire, to be in human beings. In this regard there is a deep divide between those philosophers that we might call the metaphysical sexual optimists and those we might call the metaphysical sexual pessimists.
The pessimists in the philosophy of sexuality, such as St. Augustine , Immanuel Kant, and, sometimes, Sigmund Freud , perceive the sexual impulse and acting on it to be something nearly always, if not necessarily, unbefitting the dignity of the human person; they see the essence and the results of the drive to be incompatible with more significant and lofty goals and aspirations of human existence; they fear that the power and demands of the sexual impulse make it a danger to harmonious civilized life; and they find in sexuality a severe threat not only to our proper relations with, and our moral treatment of, other persons, but also equally a threat to our own humanity.
On the other side of the divide are the metaphysical sexual optimists (Plato, in some of his works, sometimes Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, and many contemporary philosophers) who perceive nothing especially obnoxious in the sexual impulse. They view human sexuality as just another and mostly innocuous dimension of our existence as embodied or animal-like creatures; they judge that sexuality, which in some measure has been given to us by evolution, cannot but be conducive to our well-being without detracting from our intellectual propensities; and they praise rather than fear the power of an impulse that can lift us to various high forms of happiness.
The particular sort of metaphysics of sex one believes will influence one’s subsequent judgments about the value and role of sexuality in the good or virtuous life and about what sexual activities are morally wrong and which ones are morally permissible. Let’s explore some of these implications.
Metaphysical Sexual Pessimism
An extended version of metaphysical pessimism might make the following claims: In virtue of the nature of sexual desire, a person who sexually desires another person objectifies that other person, both before and during sexual activity. Sex makes of the loved person an Object of appetite. Taken by itself it is a degradation of human nature. Certain types of manipulation and deception seem required prior to engaging in sex with another person, or are so common as to appear part of the nature of the sexual experience. Sexual interaction is essentially manipulative–physically, psychologically, emotionally, and even intellectually. We go out of our way, for example, to make ourselves look more attractive and desirable to the other person than we really are, and we go to great lengths to conceal our defects. And when one person sexually desires another, the other person’s body, his or her lips, thighs, toes, and buttocks are desired as the arousing parts they are, distinct from the person. The other’s genitals, too, are the object of our attention: sexuality is not an inclination which one human being has for another as such, but is an inclination for the sex of another. Only her sex is the object of his desires.
Further, the sexual act itself is peculiar, with its uncontrollable arousal, involuntary jerkings, and its yearning to master and consume the other person’s body. During the act, a person both loses control of himself and loses regard for the humanity of the other. Our sexuality is a threat to the other’s personhood; but the one who is in the grip of desire is also on the verge of losing his or her personhood. The one who desires depends on the whims of another person to gain satisfaction, and becomes as a result a jellyfish, susceptible to the demands and manipulations of the other: In desire you are compromised in the eyes of the object of desire, since you have displayed that you have designs which are vulnerable to his intentions. A person who proposes an irresistible sexual offer to another person may be exploiting someone made weak by sexual desire.
Moreover, a person who gives in to another’s sexual desire makes a tool of himself or herself. For the natural use that one sex makes of the other’s sexual organs is enjoyment, for which one gives oneself up to the other. In this act a human being makes himself into a thing, which conflicts with the right of humanity in his own person. Those engaged in sexual activity make themselves willingly into objects for each other merely for the sake of sexual pleasure. Hence both persons are reduced to the animal level. If a man wishes to satisfy his desire, and a woman hers, they stimulate each other’s desire; their inclinations meet, but their object is not human nature but sex, and each of them dishonors the human nature of the other. They make of humanity an instrument for the satisfaction of their lusts and inclinations, and dishonor it by placing it on a level with animal nature.
Finally, due to the insistent nature of the sexual impulse, once things get going it is often hard to stop them in their tracks, and as a result we often end up doing things sexually that we had never planned or wanted to do. Sexual desire is also powerfully inelastic, one of the passions most likely to challenge reason, compelling us to seek satisfaction even when doing so involves dark-alley gropings, microbiologically filthy acts, slinking around the White House, or getting married impetuously.
Given such a pessimistic metaphysics of human sexuality, one might well conclude that acting on the sexual impulse is always morally wrong. That might, indeed, be precisely the right conclusion to draw, even if it implies the end of Homo sapiens. (This doomsday result is also implied by St. Paul’s praising, in 1 Corinthians 7, sexual celibacy as the ideal spiritual state.) More frequently, however, the pessimistic metaphysicians of sexuality conclude that sexual activity is morally permissible only within marriage (of the lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual sort) and only for the purpose of procreation. Regarding the bodily activities that both lead to procreation and produce sexual pleasure, it is their procreative potential that is singularly significant and bestows value on these activities; seeking pleasure is an impediment to morally virtuous sexuality, and is something that should not be undertaken deliberately or for its own sake. Sexual pleasure at most has instrumental value, in inducing us to engage in an act that has procreation as its primary purpose. A man turns to good use the evil of concupiscence, and is not overcome by it, when he bridles and restrains its rage and never relaxes his hold upon it except when intent on offspring, and then controls and applies it to the carnal generation of children not to the subjection of the spirit to the flesh in a sordid servitude.
Metaphysical Sexual Optimism
Metaphysical sexual optimists suppose that sexuality is a bonding mechanism that naturally and happily joins people together both sexually and nonsexually. Sexual activity involves pleasing the self and the other at the same time, and these exchanges of pleasure generate both gratitude and affection, which in turn are bound to deepen human relationships and make them more emotionally substantial. Further, and this is the most important point, sexual pleasure is, for a metaphysical optimist, a valuable thing in its own right, something to be cherished and promoted because it has intrinsic and not merely instrumental value. Hence the pursuit of sexual pleasure does not require much intricate justification; sexual activity surely need not be confined to marriage or directed at procreation. The good and virtuous life, while including much else, can also include a wide variety and extent of sexual relations.
For though sexual interest resembles an appetite in some respects, it differs from hunger or thirst in being an interpersonal sensitivity, one that enables us to delight in the mind and character of other persons as well as in their flesh. Though at times people may be used as sexual objects and cast aside once their utility has been exhausted, this is not definitive of sexual desire. By awakening us to the living presence of someone else, sexuality can enable us to treat this other being as just the person he or she happens to be. There is nothing in the nature of sexuality as such that necessarily reduces persons to things. On the contrary, sex may be seen as an instinctual agency by which persons respond to one another through their bodies.
Sexuality in itself is neither good nor bad. There can be morally bad and morally good sexual activity, and corresponding distinction between “vulgar” eros and “heavenly” eros. A person who has vulgar eros is one who experiences promiscuous sexual desire, has a lust that can be satisfied by any partner, and selfishly seeks only for himself or herself the pleasures of sexual activity. By contrast, a person who has heavenly eros experiences a sexual desire that attaches to a particular person; he or she is as much interested in the other person’s personality and well-being as he or she is concerned to have physical contact with and sexual satisfaction by means of the other person. Animals have sex and human beings have eros, and no accurate science or philosophy is possible without making this distinction.
The divide between metaphysical optimists and metaphysical pessimists might, then, be put this way: metaphysical pessimists think that sexuality, unless it is rigorously constrained by social norms that have become internalized, will tend to be governed by vulgar eros, while metaphysical optimists think that sexuality, by itself, does not lead to or become vulgar, that by its nature it can easily be and often is heavenly.
Moral Evaluations
Of course, we can and often do evaluate sexual activity morally: we inquire whether a sexual act–either a particular occurrence of a sexual act (the act we are doing or want to do right now) or a type of sexual act (say, all instances of homosexual fellatio)–is morally good or morally bad. More specifically, we evaluate, or judge, sexual acts to be morally obligatory, morally permissible, morally supererogatory, or morally wrong. For example: a spouse might have a moral obligation to engage in sex with the other spouse; it might be morally permissible for married couples to employ contraception while engaging in coitus; one person’s agreeing to have sexual relations with another person when the former has no sexual desire of his or her own but does want to please the latter might be an act of supererogation; and rape and incest are commonly thought to be morally wrong.
Note that if a specific type of sexual act is morally wrong (say, homosexual fellatio), then every instance of that type of act will be morally wrong. However, from the fact that the particular sexual act we are now doing or contemplate doing is morally wrong, it does not follow that any specific type of act is morally wrong; the sexual act that we are contemplating might be wrong for lots of different reasons having nothing to do with the type of sexual act that it is. For example, suppose we are engaging in heterosexual coitus (or anything else), and that this particular act is wrong because it is adulterous. The wrongfulness of our sexual activity does not imply that heterosexual coitus in general (or anything else), as a type of sexual act, is morally wrong. In some cases, of course, a particular sexual act will be wrong for several reasons: not only is it wrong because it is of a specific type (say, it is an instance of homosexual fellatio), but it is also wrong because at least one of the participants is married to someone else (it is wrong also because it is adulterous).
Nonmoral Evaluations
We can also evaluate sexual activity (again, either a particular occurrence of a sexual act or a specific type of sexual activity) nonmorally: nonmorally “good” sex is sexual activity that provides pleasure to the participants or is physically or emotionally satisfying, while nonmorally “bad” sex is unexciting, tedious, boring, unenjoyable, or even unpleasant. An analogy will clarify the difference between morally evaluating something as good or bad and nonmorally evaluating it as good or bad. This radio on my desk is a good radio, in the nonmoral sense, because it does for me what I expect from a radio: it consistently provides clear tones. If, instead, the radio hissed and cackled most of the time, it would be a bad radio, nonmorally-speaking, and it would be senseless for me to blame the radio for its faults and threaten it with a trip to hell if it did not improve its behavior. Similarly, sexual activity can be nonmorally good if it provides for us what we expect sexual activity to provide, which is usually sexual pleasure, and this fact has no necessary moral implications.
It is not difficult to see that the fact that a sexual activity is perfectly nonmorally good, by abundantly satisfying both persons, does not mean by itself that the act is morally good: some adulterous sexual activity might well be very pleasing to the participants, yet be morally wrong. Further, the fact that a sexual activity is nonmorally bad, that is, does not produce pleasure for the persons engaged in it, does not by itself mean that the act is morally bad. Unpleasant sexual activity might occur between persons who have little experience engaging in sexual activity (they do not yet know how to do sexual things, or have not yet learned what their likes and dislikes are), but their failure to provide pleasure for each other does not mean by itself that they perform morally wrongful acts.
Thus the moral evaluation of sexual activity is a distinct enterprise from the nonmoral evaluation of sexual activity, even if there do remain important connections between them. For example, the fact that a sexual act provides pleasure to both participants, and is thereby nonmorally good, might be taken as a strong, but only prima facie good, reason for thinking that the act is morally good or at least has some degree of moral value. Indeed, the nonmoral goodness of sexual activity goes a long way toward justifying it. Another example: if one person never attempts to provide sexual pleasure to his or her partner, but selfishly insists on experiencing only his or her own pleasure, then that person’s contribution to their sexual activity is morally suspicious or objectionable. But that judgment rests not simply on the fact that he or she did not provide pleasure for the other person, that is, on the fact that the sexual activity was for the other person nonmorally bad. The moral judgment rests, more precisely, on his or her motives for not providing any pleasure, for not making the experience nonmorally good for the other person.
It is one thing to point out that as evaluative categories, moral goodness/badness is quite distinct from nonmoral goodness/badness. It is another thing to wonder, nonetheless, about the emotional or psychological connections between the moral quality of sexual activity and its nonmoral quality. Perhaps morally good sexual activity tends also to be the most satisfying sexual activity, in the nonmoral sense. Whether that is true likely depends on what we mean by “morally good” sexuality and on certain features of human moral psychology. What would our lives be like, if there were always a neat correspondence between the moral quality of a sexual act and its nonmoral quality? I am not sure what such a human sexual world would be like. But examples that violate such a neat correspondence are at the present time, in this world, easy to come by. A sexual act might be both morally and nonmorally good: consider the exciting and joyful sexual activity of a newly-married couple. But a sexual act might be morally good and nonmorally bad: consider the routine sexual acts of this couple after they have been married for ten years. A sexual act might be morally bad yet nonmorally good: one spouse in that couple, married for ten years, commits adultery with another married person and finds their sexual activity to be extraordinarily satisfying. And, finally, a sexual act might be both morally and nonmorally bad: the adulterous couple get tired of each other, eventually no longer experiencing the excitement they once knew. A world in which there was little or no discrepancy between the moral and the nonmoral quality of sexual activity might be a better world than ours, or it might be worse. I would refrain from making such a judgment unless I were pretty sure what the moral goodness and badness of sexual activity amounted to in the first place, and until I knew a lot more about human psychology. Sometimes that a sexual activity is acknowledged to be morally wrong contributes all by itself to its being nonmorally good.
The Dangers of Sex
Whether a particular sexual act or a specific type of sexual act provides sexual pleasure is not the only factor in judging its nonmoral quality: pragmatic and prudential considerations also figure into whether a sexual act, all things considered, has a preponderance of nonmoral goodness. Many sexual activities can be physically or psychologically risky, dangerous, or harmful. Anal coitus, for example, whether carried out by a heterosexual couple or by two gay males, can damage delicate tissues and is a mechanism for the potential transmission of various HIV viruses (as is heterosexual genital intercourse). Thus in evaluating whether a sexual act will be overall nonmorally good or bad, not only its anticipated pleasure or satisfaction must be counted, but also all sorts of negative (undesired) side effects: whether the sexual act is likely to damage the body, as in some sadomasochistic acts, or transmit any one of a number of venereal diseases, or result in an unwanted pregnancy, or even whether one might feel regret, anger, or guilt afterwards as a result of having engaged in a sexual act with this person, or in this location, or under these conditions, or of a specific type. Indeed, all these pragmatic and prudential factors also figure into the moral evaluation of sexual activity: intentionally causing unwanted pain or discomfort to one’s partner, or not taking adequate precautions against the possibility of pregnancy, or not informing one’s partner of a suspected case of genital infection, can be morally wrong. Thus, depending on what particular moral principles about sexuality one embraces, the various ingredients that constitute the nonmoral quality of sexual acts can influence one’s moral judgments.
Sexual Perversion
In addition to inquiring about the moral and nonmoral quality of a given sexual act or a type of sexual activity, we can also ask whether the act or type is natural or unnatural (that is, perverted). Natural sexual acts, to provide merely a broad definition, are those acts that either flow naturally from human sexual nature, or at least do not frustrate or counteract sexual tendencies that flow naturally from human sexual desire. An account of what is natural in human sexual desire and activity is part of a philosophical account of human nature in general, what we might call philosophical anthropology, which is a rather large undertaking.
Note that evaluating a particular sexual act or a specific type of sexual activity as being natural or unnatural can very well be distinct from evaluating the act or type either as being morally good or bad or as being nonmorally good or bad. Suppose we assume, for the sake of discussion only, that heterosexual coitus is a natural human sexual activity and that homosexual fellatio is unnatural, or a sexual perversion. Even so, it would not follow from these judgments alone that all heterosexual coitus is morally good (some of it might be adulterous, or rape) or that all homosexual fellatio is morally wrong (some of it, engaged in by consenting adults in the privacy of their homes, might be morally permissible). Further, from the fact that heterosexual coitus is natural, it does not follow that acts of heterosexual coitus will be nonmorally good, that is, pleasurable; nor does it follow from the fact that homosexual fellatio is perverted that it does not or cannot produce sexual pleasure for those people who engage in it. Of course, both natural and unnatural sexual acts can be medically or psychologically risky or dangerous. There is no reason to assume that natural sexual acts are in general more safe than unnatural sexual acts; for example, unprotected heterosexual intercourse is likely more dangerous, in several ways, than mutual homosexual masturbation.
Since there are no necessary connections between, on the one hand, evaluating a particular sexual act or a specific type of sexual activity as being natural or unnatural and, on the other hand, evaluating its moral and nonmoral quality, why would we wonder whether a sexual act or a type of sex was natural or perverted? One reason is simply that understanding what is natural and unnatural in human sexuality helps complete our picture of human nature in general, and allows us to understand our species more fully. With such deliberations, the self-reflection about humanity and the human condition that is the heart of philosophy becomes more complete. A second reason is that an account of the difference between the natural and the perverted in human sexuality might be useful for psychology, especially if we assume that a desire or tendency to engage in perverted sexual activities is a sign or symptom of an underlying mental or psychological pathology.
Sexual Perversion and Morality
Finally (a third reason), even though natural sexual activity is not on that score alone morally good and unnatural sexual activity is not necessarily morally wrong, it is still possible to argue that whether a particular sexual act or a specific type of sexuality is natural or unnatural does influence, to a greater or lesser extent, whether the act is morally good or morally bad. Just as whether a sexual act is nonmorally good, that is, produces pleasure for the participants, may be a factor, sometimes an important one, in our evaluating the act morally, whether a sexual act or type of sexual expression is natural or unnatural may also play a role, sometimes a large one, in deciding whether the act is morally good or bad.
What is unnatural in human sexuality is perverted, and that what is unnatural or perverted in human sexuality is simply that which does not conform with or is inconsistent with natural human sexuality. But beyond these general areas of agreement, there are deep differences.
Natural Law
Based upon a comparison of the sexuality of humans and the sexuality of lower animals (mammals, in particular), what is natural in human sexuality is the impulse to engage in heterosexual coitus. Heterosexual coitus is the mechanism designed by the Christian God to insure the preservation of animal species, including humans, and hence engaging in this activity is the primary natural expression of human sexual nature. Further, God designed each of the parts of the human body to carry out specific functions, and God designed the male penis to implant sperm into the female’s vagina for the purpose of effecting procreation. It follows, that depositing the sperm elsewhere than inside a human female’s vagina is unnatural: it is a violation of God’s design, contrary to the nature of things as established by God. For this reason alone, such activities are immoral, a grave offense to the sagacious plan of the Almighty.
Sexual intercourse with lower animals (bestiality), sexual activity with members of one’s own sex (homosexuality), and masturbation, are unnatural sexual acts and are immoral exactly for that reason. If they are committed intentionally, according to one’s will, they deliberately disrupt the natural order of the world as created by God and which God commanded to be respected. In none of these activities is there any possibility of procreation, and the sexual and other organs are used, or misused, for purposes other than that for which they were designed. Fellatio, even when engaged in by heterosexuals, is also perverted and morally wrong. At least in those cases in which orgasm occurs by means of this act, the sperm is not being placed where it should be placed and procreation is therefore not possible. If the penis entering the vagina is the paradigmatic natural act, then any other combination of anatomical connections will be unnatural and hence immoral; for example, the penis, mouth, or fingers entering the anus. The sexual act must be procreative in form, and hence must involve a penis inserted into a vagina. This makes no mention of human psychology, rather a line of thought yields an anatomical criterion of natural and perverted sex that refers only to bodily organs and what they might accomplish physiologically and to where they are, or are not, put in relation to each other.
Secular Philosophy
In order to discover what is natural in human sexuality we should emphasize what humans and lower animals have in common. Applying this formula, the purpose of sexual activity and the sexual organs in humans is procreation, as it is in the lower animals. Everything else follows more-or-less logically from this. To discover what is distinctive about the natural human sexuality, and hence derivatively what is unnatural or perverted, we should focus, instead, on what humans and lower animals do not have in common. We should emphasize the ways in which humans are different from animals, the ways in which humans and their sexuality are special. Thus, sexual perversion in humans should be understood as a psychological phenomenon rather than, in anatomical and physiological terms. For it is human psychology that makes us quite different from other animals, and hence an account of natural human sexuality must acknowledge the uniqueness of human psychology.
Sexual interactions in which each person responds with sexual arousal to noticing the sexual arousal of the other person exhibit the psychology that is natural to human sexuality. In such an encounter, each person becomes aware of himself or herself and the other person as both the subject and the object of their joint sexual experiences. Perverted sexual encounters or events would be those in which this mutual recognition of arousal is absent, and in which a person remains fully a subject of the sexual experience or fully an object. Perversion, then, is a departure from or a truncation of a psychologically “complete” pattern of arousal and consciousness. Nothing in this psychological account of the natural and the perverted refers to bodily organs or physiological processes. That is, for a sexual encounter to be natural, it need not be procreative in form, as long as the requisite psychology of mutual recognition is present. Whether a sexual activity is natural or perverted does not depend on what organs are used or where they are put, but only on the character of the psychology of the sexual encounter. Thus homosexual activities, as a specific type of sexual act, are not unnatural or perverted, for homosexual fellatio and anal intercourse may very well be accompanied by the mutual recognition of and response to the other’s sexual arousal.
Fetishism
It is illuminating to compare what the views of optimism and pessimism imply about fetishism, that is, the usually male practice of masturbating while fondling women’s shoes or undergarments. Optimists and pessimists agree that such activities are unnatural and perverted, but they disagree about the grounds of that evaluation. For pessimists, masturbating while fondling shoes or undergarments is unnatural because the sperm is not deposited where it should be, and the act thereby has no procreative potential. For optimists, masturbatory fetishism is perverted for a quite different reason: in this activity, there is no possibility of one persons’ noticing and being aroused by the arousal of another person. The arousal of the fetishist is, from the perspective of natural human psychology, defective. Note, in this example, one more difference between pessimists and optimists: pessimists would judge the sexual activity of the fetishist to be immoral precisely because it is perverted (it violates a natural pattern established by God), while optimists would not conclude that it must be morally wrong–after all, a fetishistic sexual act might be carried out quite harmlessly–even if it does indicate that something is suspicious about the fetishist’s psychology. The move historically and socially away from a Thomistic moralistic account of sexual perversion toward an amoral psychological account such as the optimists is representative of a more widespread trend: the gradual replacement of moral or religious judgments, about all sorts of deviant behavior, by medical or psychiatric judgments and interventions.
Female Sexuality and Natural Law
A different kind of disagreement with pessimism is registered by the study of human anatomy and physiology. If we take a careful look at the anatomy and physiology of the female sexual organs, and especially the clitoris, instead of focusing exclusively on the male’s penis, quite different conclusions about God’s plan and design emerge and hence Christian sexual ethics turns out to be less restrictive. In particular, the female’s clitoris is an organ whose only purpose is the production of sexual pleasure and, unlike the mixed or dual functionality of the penis, has no connection with procreation. The existence of the clitoris in the female body suggests that God intended that the purpose of sexual activity was as much for sexual pleasure for its own sake as it was for procreation. Therefore, pleasurable sexual activity apart from procreation does not violate God’s design, is not unnatural, and hence is not necessarily morally wrong, as long as it occurs in the context of a monogamous marriage. Today we are not as confident as Aquinas was that God’s plan can be discovered by a straightforward examination of human and animal bodies; but such healthy skepticism about our ability to discern the intentions of God from facts of the natural world would seem to apply as well.
Debates in Sexual Ethics
The ethics of sexual behavior, as a branch of applied ethics, is no more and no less contentious than the ethics of anything else that is usually included within the area of applied ethics. Think, for example, of the notorious debates over euthanasia, capital punishment, abortion, and our treatment of lower animals for food, clothing, entertainment, and in medical research. So it should come as no surprise than even though a discussion of sexual ethics might well result in the removal of some confusions and a clarification of the issues, no final answers to questions about the morality of sexual activity are likely to be forthcoming from the philosophy of sexuality. As far as I can tell by surveying the literature on sexual ethics, there are at least three major topics that have received much discussion by philosophers of sexuality and which provide arenas for continual debate.
Natural Law vs. Liberal Ethics
We have already encountered one debate: the dispute between a Thomistic Natural Law approach to sexual morality and a more liberal, se

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