Sexual Ethics
Part II
The Basic Types of Sexual Interactions
External Factors Complicating Sexual Relationships
The Law of Correct Sexual Behavior
By Keith Allen

In Association with

Sexual Ethics
Part II
The Basic Types of Sexual Interactions, External Factors Complicating Sexual Relationships, and The Law of Correct Sexual Behavior
23 March, 2008

The Basic Types of Sexual Interactions
Now that I have laid out a framework for my ethics, I can apply this framework to human sexuality.

When determining whether a given sexual action is ethical or not, I must first look at whether it involves one person alone or more than one person. If it involves a single person, then, because the determination of whether an act is ethical can only be made when an action involves or affects another person, the act is outside the scope of ethics. It cannot be ethical or unethical. Since every person is autonomous and every person's desires have conferred worth, it follows that a person has every right to engage in whatever solitary sexual acts he desires. To put it bluntly, if a person wants to masturbate, then he has every right to do so. The person is simply doing what he desires to do, and his actions do not harm anyone. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is unethical to condemn a person for masturbating. When someone is attacked or shamed for such actions, the intent of the person so condemning the actions is clearly to make the masturbator feel guilty for fulfilling his desires. The condemning person is thus impinging upon the desires of the person condemned by ignoring that person's desires to experience pleasure, to have self-respect, to enjoy privacy, and so on.

Having so freed the great bulk of human sexual activity from the onus of being unethical, let me now turn to the remainder of human sexual activities, namely, those activities that involve two or more persons. It is, of course, with regard to these that questions of ethics are relevant. Now, to determine whether any given act is ethical or not, the criteria given in the preceding section need to be applied to the actions of the persons involved. Once this has been done, it is possible to decide whether a particular act is praiseworthy, morally neutral, or unethical.

Of course, life is complicated, and a great many factors have to be taken into account in virtually any situation. These factors can, after all, greatly change the propriety of any action. Consequently, whenever a person acts, he has to look at every factor that bears upon the situation, at least to the best of his ability at the time. We are not omniscient, however, and we often must act without sufficient information. It is, nonetheless, still incumbent upon us to act in as informed a way as is possible. Inevitably, we will find ourselves in very complex situations, sometimes without clear answers presenting themselves. We even, on occasion, just have to guess what the best course of action will be, and, at times, we find that every possible course of action mingles the ethical with the unethical.

Since the world is so complicated, it would, perhaps, be best to simplify things so that we can have a basis on which to develop a more intricate system. To do this, to make things simpler, I'll posit a hypothetical situation in which no extraneous factors are present.

Let's imagine that on a deserted island somewhere two human beings spring spontaneously into existence as intelligent, knowledgeable adults. Let's call them Frank and Sally. These two look at each other and interact, with the result that each forms opinions about and feelings for the other. With regard to their sexual desires, there are three possibilities. First, each person desires the other. Second, one of them desires the second, but the second does not desire the first. Third, neither desires the other. The last of these scenarios can be ignored since no sexual interaction will take place. So let's look at the interactions that could occur with the first two possibilities.

If both of these individuals desire one another, then, insofar as each person is acting to fulfill his or her own desire without impinging upon the desires of the other, each is acting ethically when engaging in some sort of sexual activity with the other. Even if one of these individual is acting without intending to fulfill the desire of the other, that person is still engaging in a morally neutral act, since he or she is not impinging upon the desire of the other. Thus, although Sally is so excited that all she cares about is satisfying her urges, and isn't concerned with satisfying Frank's urges, since Frank also desires sex, she is not behaving wrongly. However, if either one of these two is motivated by a desire to fulfill the desire of the other, then that person is engaging in a praiseworthy act. Should Sally, though desiring to have sex herself, also have the desire to satisfy Frank's desire, then, insofar as she is acting to accordance with the second of the motivations, she is engaging in a praiseworthy act.

The situations become more complex when only one of the two persons desires the other. If the person feeling desire refrains from engaging in sexual activity with the second person because he acknowledges the desires of this second person, then he is acting ethically. If he attempts to compel the other person to engage in sexual activity with him, then, by impinging upon the desires of the second person, he acts unethically. As for the person who does not feel desire, if this individual refuses to engage in sexual activity with the first person, then such an action is morally neutral, because it is performed by a free agent and neither fulfills nor impinges upon the desires of the second person. The situation now gets even more complicated. Let's imagine that Frank is the person without desire for sex and that Sally is the person with such desire. Frank sees how Sally suffers because of her inability to fulfill her desire for sex and feels compassion for her. In such a case, Frank, though without desire for sex, might still choose to have sexual relations with Sally in order to fulfill her desires. In this case, Frank's actions are praiseworthy. Sally's actions will, however, need to be examined a little more carefully. If Sally, who desires to have sex with Frank, simply responds to Frank's actions, without realizing Frank's conflicted desires, then, because she is acting in accordance with Frank's expressed desires, her actions are not unethical. Actually, for Sally, the situation would be the same as that when Frank actually desired her. If she responds only in order to fulfill her own desires, then her actions are morally neutral. It is even possible that, believing she is fulfilling Frank's desires, she is acting in a praiseworthy manner. If, however, Sally, the individual with desire, is able to discern Frank's desires, it is incumbent upon her to take them into account. If she determines that there are two conflicting desires present in Frank's mind, namely, the desire to gratify Sally's sexual desires and the desire not to have sex with her, then she must examine the relative strengths of these. After all, when Sally fulfills one of these desires she will, inevitably, be thwarting the other. If Frank's desires seem to be of roughly equal or even of indeterminate intensity, then, as the praiseworthy action is negated by the unethical and the unethical by the praiseworthy, Sally may take her own desires into account. She may have sex with Frank and be confident that her actions are morally neutral. If she determines that one of Frank's desires is of greater intensity, then her own desires become irrelevant. She must do the minimum harm and the maximum good to the other person. Thus, if Sally honestly feels that Frank's desire to do her good, by having sex with her, is greater than his desire not to have sex with her, she should have sex with him. Moreover, while she does, she can put aside any concerns about thwarting his lesser desire and know that she has acted properly. If, however, Sally determines that the opposite is the case, that Frank has a strong desire not to have sex with her and a weak desire to satisfy her desire, then she should not have sex with Frank. In this case, if she does have sex with him, she would then be acting unethically. In both these situations, an action can be both ethical and unethical. To decide what course of action we ought to take in such cases, we must weigh the desires of individuals affected by our actions as best we can. Inevitably, we will make mistakes, but we must still try.

I am reminded of an ancient story from India that illustrates this point quite nicely. In it, the protagonist happens upon a departed soul who is being punished by some particularly gruesome sort of torture for a sin he committed in life. The hero asks this individual what he did to be so tormented, and the soul tells his story. He relates how, in his last life, he had been a holy man who never lied and was always charitable. Then, one day, a man came running to his home in terror and begged to be hidden. The holy man told this person to enter his house and hide there. A few minutes later, a gang of ruffians carrying weapons and clearly desiring to kill the person who had been fleeing ahead of them arrived at the house. They asked the holy man if he knew where their prey had fled. Since he never lied, he told them the man was in the house. The ruffians entered it and killed their victim. Later, when he died, the holy man found out that he was as guilty of the murder of the man who had hidden in his house as were the ruffians who had been chasing him. In his blindness, the holy man had chosen to avoid a minor transgression, lying, but had, by doing so, caused the death of another human, which is hardly a minor transgression. The lesson here is clear. Sometimes, performing a good act entails committing an evil act. Should we fail to weigh the relative merits of these, we are not just demonstrating a lack of discernment. We can be acting immorally.

External Factors Complicating Sexual Relationships
The story of the holy man related above makes it clear that deciding on a proper course of action can require some reflection, and that the relative merit and demerit of different actions must be examined. A person cannot simply take into account the expressed desires of another individual. Thus, when the holy man in this tale decided to speak honestly about the presence of the man in his house, he ought to have considered the consequences the violent intentions of the ruffians would have on the man they sought. He ought to have realized that their desires would impinge upon the desire of the man hiding, but he did not. He reacted to their expressed desire to know the location of this individual, but he completely forgot about his obligations to other persons, specifically his obligation to the man who would be killed as a result of his truth telling.

Obviously, a person making an decision needs to weigh factors other than the desires of the persons directly affected by his action (such as the desire of the members of a band of murderous ruffians to hear the truth about the location of their prey). There are, in reality, various factors that can alter the dynamics of a situation. To be specific, these factors are any condition, action, or fact that must be taken into account along with the desires of the other party because these might 1) limit the freedom of one party to engage in an action since the performance of that action would involve doing something unethical to a third person, 2) incline one person not desiring to engage in an activity, here a sexual act, to do so by producing in that person a new desire, usually a desire to avoid pain, or 3) affect the ability of one party to make rational, ethical decisions.

In making ethical decisions, we must consider how these factors bear on the act we are thinking of performing. After all, there are obligations one person has to another - whether these are promises voluntarily made to another or the universal duty to consider the desires of others - which have ethical consequences for that person's interactions with a third individual. Additionally, when one person, whether intentionally or not, produces in a second person a desire to avoid pain that is so intense that the second person has two competing desires - one to avoid the pain and the other not to have sex - then, because he is infringing upon the second person's autonomy by creating such a desire and exploiting it to impel the person to have sex with him, he is behaving in a way that ignores the other's worth. There are even influences that, by reducing a person's capacity to make judgments and to behave ethically, nullify another individual's right to acknowledge all of the first person's desires. All of these factors must be considered when making ethical decisions about how any other individual should be treated. When these factors come into play, the simple guidelines just given are not sufficient to determine the propriety of a given action. Though a person should still apply these guidelines when making an ethical decision, he should do so with an awareness that additional factors could be complicating the situation.

Admittedly, not all human interactions are complicated by outside factors. There are many occasions when two or more people, both or all of whom are free agents and acting according to their desires, choose to engage in sexual relations. In such cases, their actions are completely ethical, just as those who do not engage in sexual relations because they do not desire to do so are acting ethically. Sometimes, conflicting desires in a person must be weighed against one another, and an action's being ethical or not will depend upon a person's acting in accordance with that determination.

However, it is not uncommon for outside factors to affect human interactions. Because such factors affect what our moral judgments will be, we must be aware of these factors, and we must take them into account. To do so, however, we must be aware of what such factors could be.

Coercion, for example, could be employed by one person on another in order to induce that other into engaging in sexual relations.

I do not here mean simple crude physical force, since physical assault is not really an outside factor as these have been defined. It is simply a series of actions performed by an agent that ignore the desires of another person. By means of physical assault, one individual overpowers another and prevents that other from refusing to have sexual relations with him. When saying that physical attacks are not an external factor, I am not, however, saying that physical attacks are anything but immoral. They are undoubtedly immoral. Because acts of physical compulsion directly impinge upon the desire of the person against whom they are directed, they automatically make any sexual act performed as a result of that compulsion immoral.

The threat of actual physical attack is, however, an extraneous factor as I have defined it, and, I might add, such a threat is as much coercion as is a physical attack. Allow me to explain. Clearly, it is possible for one person to employ some means of creating a sense of danger, physical intimidation, for instance, to produce in a person, the victim of the threat, a desire to avoid what is being threatened. This desire might even be strong enough to outweigh the victim's desire not to engage in sex with the person doing the threatening. If this is the case, the threat can impel the victim into consenting to having sex. Obviously, whenever one person threatens to physically harm another if that other will not engage in a sexual act with the first, that first person is behaving unethically. I hardly even need to argue this point. It should, I hope, be apparent to anyone that the person doing the threatening is impinging upon the desires of his victim by bringing into their interactions an additional factor, namely, the threat.

There are, however, any number of other kinds of coercion that can be just as effective as are any threats of physical harm.

It is quite possible for one person to threaten another with economic ruin, personal humiliation, or some other sort of non-physical injury in order to induce that person to have sex with him. Because, in every one of these instances, the person being induced to have sex does not desire to have sex and is consenting to have sex only in order to avoid an injury that is deemed to be worse than having sex with an individual who is not desired as a sexual partner, the individual threatening the other is behaving unethically.

Coercion does not, however, require the use of violence or threats. Coercion, after all, is simply causing a person to do something although that person has not expressed a desire to do it. When the person cannot make a decision to do something, then causing him to do it is, inevitably, coercion. Consequently, if a given individual is incompetent to consent to a sexual act, and another individual, one who is not incompetent, still engages in some sexual activity with the incompetent person, then the competent person is effectively coercing the incompetent person.

There are, moreover, an almost infinite number of reasons why a person might not be competent to make the decision to consent to a sexual act. Such an individual could be unconscious, intoxicated, very young, disturbed by extreme emotions, severely mentally ill or handicapped, or afflicted by any number of other conditions. Although it is not always possible to determine if a given individual is incompetent for one of these reasons, it is incumbent upon the competent person to attempt to make that determination. If he does, then, even should be incorrect, he will know that his actions were not improper. If he does not, then he is guilty of coercing another person into having sex with him and has so behaved unethically. For example, a man might meet a woman who displays certain eccentricities. These strike him as possible indicators of mental illness. He then should make a genuine effort to discover if the woman is competent to make the decision to engage in sexual relations with him. If he does so and honestly concludes that she is sane enough to make this decision, then he is behaving ethically if he has sex with her, even if he later learns that he was incorrect in his assessment. If he ignores the signs of possible illness and proceeds to have sex with the woman, he has behaved unethically, even if he later discovers that the woman is perfectly sane.

Admittedly, every person, being autonomous, has the right to make his own decisions. Nevertheless, experience demonstrates that all persons are not equally capable of making decisions. In most instances, we just have to accept others' judgments, since, though they might be unwise, or even destructive, they are, nonetheless, made by a person who is simply relatively less capable than another. In other instances, however, a person, because of a particular mental state, simply cannot be trusted with making decisions. That person, because of this impaired mental state, is observed to be incapable either of seeing the consequences of his actions or of making decisions at all. This individual, consequently, is likely to make decisions that will be harmful to himself or others. When this is judged to be the case, other people have a moral obligation to prevent this individual from acting upon his decisions. Once again, I am not talking about those who are unwise or who have opinions judged different from my own. I am talking about those whose mental functioning is demonstrably impaired.

Even should such a person express consent to performing a sexual act, this does not relieve the mentally competent individual who proceeds to have sexual relations with this person of the guilt of having engaged in an unethical action. Expressions of consent by a person incapable of giving consent do not constitute consent. Because this is the case, I condemn the actions of the man who would convince a severely mentally ill individual to have sex with him, as well as those of the man who has sex with someone who, having had too much to drink, has passed out, and those of the man who, finding some person distraught over the loss of a loved one, sees an opportunity to exploit that individual's severely impaired reasoning for his own gratification.

The actions of the person who is impaired are, however, generally outside the scope of ethics. Since such an individual has a limited or non-existent capacity for discerning right from wrong, he is incapable of making ethical decisions. This is why the intoxicated person who has sex with a willing sober partner has done nothing wrong. It is the sober individual who has sex with this person who has done something improper. It follows from this that when two persons who are intoxicated have sexual relations, neither is doing anything wrong. Neither is capable of making rational judgments, and both are acting in accord with the expressed desire of the other. The situation does become more complicated when an intoxicated person has sex with another person who, whether intoxicated or not, does not wish to have sex with him. In such cases, though the intoxicated person is incompetent to make the decision to have sex, he was competent to make the decision to drink and so render himself incompetent. He is, then, guilty of unethical behavior. When a person is not competent to make a decision as a result of some condition over which he has no control, and this person compels another to have sex, the situation is different again. In such instances, it must be admitted that the individual has not behaved unethically, because he is incapable of making a rational decision. Nonetheless, because the individual could be judged to be dangerous, it would be foolish not to confine him. If, for example, a mentally ill man rapes a woman, that man ought to be institutionalized. His freedom is not, however, being restricted because he has acted unethically, but because he is dangerous.

There are, unfortunately, even more ways that one individual can coerce another into engaging in sexual activities.

In this complex and unequal world in which we live, a person might be compelled to engage in a sexual act with another person simply because the first of these individuals is in a position that is subordinate to the other. When one person, the superior, has such a relationship with another person, the subordinate, then the interactions of these two are inevitably tinged with potential threat to the well-being of the latter. In hierarchical relationships, any interactions the superior has with the subordinate can, as a result, be colored by the latter's feelings of fear. Consequently, should the superior desire to have sexual relations with the subordinate, the subordinate's consent could well be given simply out of a fear of retribution. The threat of such retribution need not even be overtly stated. The subordinate need merely know that if the wishes of the superior are not fulfilled, there could be consequences, and this knowledge comes simply from knowing the nature of the relationship.

Because there is always, in such relationships, the potential for feelings of fear, there is no way that the superior can be certain that the subordinate is consenting to sex because of a desire for sex. It is always possible that the subordinate is agreeing to have sex simply because of fear. As a result, even if the superior does not intend to use his position to threaten the subordinate, he cannot rule out the possibility of coercion. Relationships between individuals one of whom has authority over the other are, therefore, almost invariably improper. Thus, teachers should not have sex with their students, employers should not have sex with their employees, military officers should not have sex with enlisted personnel, and so on and so on.

Similar issues arise whenever two individuals who are of radically different economic or social backgrounds interact. Because the person of the less privileged social class might be fearful of retribution if he rejects sexual advances made by a person who is of a more privileged social class, and so has, or is perceived to have, power to do the former harm, this latter person will be acting improperly whenever he fails to take such feelings into account. If a rich man has sex with a poor woman, it is quite likely that she is consenting to the act not because she desires to have sex with the man but because she fears that he might be able to do harm to her or to those she cares about. It is also possible that, because of received attitudes about persons of certain more privileged social classes, that the less privileged individual could be overawed by the other and agree to the performance of a sexual act simply as a result of being dazzled by the presence of one perceived to be somehow prestigious. Unfortunately, there are numerous examples of people who will have sexual relations with another because they are so awed. Just look at the number of women who will throw themselves at celebrities in the hope of gracing their hero's beg for a night. While there are certainly examples of women doing this with a clear mind, I cannot but imagine that a fairly high percentage of such women are simply so awed, so overcome by emotion, that, being virtually drunk, they are not thinking clearly. Those of the more powerful class who engage in sexual relationships with persons of a less privileged class are, for both of the reasons given, behaving unethically.

The last means of coercion is simple deception. When one individual convinces another to have sex with him by misleading the other, then he is acting unethically. If the deceiver is providing information to the other, the deceived, that is not true, in order that the deceived person will make a decision based on this false information, then, although the deceived is acting upon his own desires, those desires are not based on the actual situation. Were the truth known to the deceived person, it is possible his desires would have been different. Even if they would not have been, because the deceiver is manipulating the deceived in order to produce desires favorable to himself, rather than to the deceived, and because he is preventing the deceived from forming desires based on facts, the deceiver's actions are, in effect, coercing the desires of the deceived. The deceiver's actions are, consequently, improper. When, for example, a man tells a woman he loves her, though he does not, because he realizes that she will be willing to have sex with a person she believes loves her, he is acting unethically. The woman, being deceived, engages in an activity she would not have engaged in had she not been deceived.

Before concluding this discussion, I want to emphasize a point already made, namely, that it is possible that an individual might coerce another into having sex without being aware that he is coercing this other. Is he, then, behaving unethically? Unfortunately, the answer to this, like many answers, is not simple. If the person unintentionally coercing another does so by not being aware of the other's feelings, situation, mental state, or whatever when he could have been so aware, then he, by not respecting the other's autonomy, is behaving unethically. Being negligent might not be as bad as being deliberately hurtful, but it is still not right. We have an obligation to try to know what others feel, and if we make no effort to find out, we are responsible for our failings. That said, if there truly is no way for a person to know that he is coercing another, if, for example, that person is wealthy and the other, though poor, is pretending to be wealthy, then the person unintentionally coercing the other will have done nothing wrong.

The final factor that can come into play in the interactions of potential sexual partners, and that can make one or more of those persons' sexual actions unethical, is some contractual obligation. If a given individual has entered into an agreement with a second individual not to engage in particular sexual activities, and yet that person does so, then, because he is deceiving the second person and reneging on obligations he took upon himself, he is behaving unethically. When, for example, a man marries some woman and promises to remain monogamous for the duration of that marriage, any time he engages in sexual activity with a third person, he is behaving unethically.

Though we must always consider a person's desires, we must look at them while being aware that there are other factors that can complicate a given situation. Sometimes, these factors limit one person's ability to make decisions. Sometimes, these produce, often very forcefully, new desires, such as the desire to avoid being harmed, which are contrary to a person's other desires and so impinge upon the autonomy of the individual in which they are created. Sometimes, these are obligations that one person has taken upon himself and which limit, or should limit, his ability to act upon his desires..

The Law of Correct Sexual Behavior
In summary, any sexual act must be admitted as being moral when it is performed by two or more free, uncommitted, competent, and roughly equal partners who both or all have consented to that act. To be more specific, any sexual act is moral as long as none of three prohibitive conditions is present. These prohibitive conditions are: 1) that one partner has entered into an agreement with a third person not to engage in the act in question, 2) that one partner is intentionally coercing the other into performing the sexual act, and 3) that, if coercion occurs but is unintentional, the person who is so unintentionally coercing the other can reasonably be expected to be aware that he or she could be coercing that second person. Possible forms of coercion include: 1) one person physically constraining the other and thereby compelling the other to engage in a sexual act, 2) one person threatening the other with harm, whether that harm is physical, emotional, economic, or something else, 3) one person's having a position of authority over the other so that the second person's ability to choose whether or not to engage in sexual activities may be compromised by a fear of retribution, in the case of the second person's decision not being in accord with the desires of the person who has authority over him or her, 4) one person's inability to consent to the sexual relationship, whether as a consequence of extreme youth, mental illness, brain damage, intoxication, unconsciousness, or something else, 5) one person's convincing the other to engage in a sexual act by means of deception, or 6) an extreme disparity in the social or economic conditions of the persons involved, which disparity could prevent one person from making a rational decision about whether or not to accept the first as a sexual partner. If none of the three conditions mentioned above is present, a sexual act performed between two or more persons cannot be immoral.

By Keith Allen

Sexual Ethics, Part 3
Sexual Ethics, Part 1 / Sexual Ethics, Part 4

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