Posted by: dacalu | 17 March 2014

The Scope of Sexuality

This post continues a series on ethics (which began here). My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.

Lord God, you became fully human, that through you we might inherit divinity; grant that through your body here on earth, we may live into the fullness of our own bodies, being enlivened by your Holy Spirit. Amen.

What “Sexual” Means

As we start looking for ethical principles specific to “sexual” behavior, it will be important to ask exactly what we mean by sexual.  I’m not looking for a strict definition for what is and is not sexual. I know that there is a core constellation of ideas that relate to reproduction, marriage, and romance.  At the same time, issues of gender, orientation, clothing, affection, and language relate to the core ideas and may or may not be labelled as sexual.  This would not be a problem if there were not a taboo in “polite” society around public sexual activity.  Once behavior is labelled “sexual,” there are any number of associations and prohibitions. This becomes a particular problem when one person considers something “sexual” and another does not. It has practical implications for a number of contemporary issues, often due to shifting boundaries.


What constitutes appropriate attire?  A man without a shirt is considered acceptable in very informal and very warm parts of the country.  In a formal setting, a man without a shirt is considered to have broken a social rule, but not a sexual one.  A woman, on the other hand, who is topless is generally considered to have broken some form of sexual rule. [Note that there exists a gender specific word for this concept.] The direction of the bias is nearly universal, around the world, but the intensity is not. In Islamic literature, a woman showing bare ankles is considered sexually provocative, while in traditional Polynesian culture, no-one wore clothing above the waste.


What constitutes appropriate language? Most “sexual” terms are out of bounds in public. I can think of a number of words that I would not use in front of colleagues, parishioners, and children, because it would introduce an inappropriate sexual tone to the conversation. We can forget how much change there has been in the US in last 80 years.  Under the Hays Code (motion picture censorship rules, 1930):

“Many scenes cannot be presented without arousing dangerous emotions on the part of the immature, the young or the criminal classes. Even within the limits of pure love, certain facts have been universally regarded by lawmakers as outside the limits of safe presentation.”

For years, contraception, marital infidelity, homosexuality, inter-racial marriage, and a host of other sexual phenomena never appeared (explicitly) on the movie screen and were never spoken of (directly). Television started in the 1920s, but (in US television, at least) the first interracial kiss was in 1968 (Star Trek) and the first out gay character appeared in 1971 (All in the Family). [Curiously, All in the Family was also the first show to air the sound of a toilet flushing.] The first same-sex kiss was in 1991.


What could be less “sexual” than contracts, and yet we can also see changes in how the law is applied to sex related behaviors. Prostitution has long been illegal in the United States.  Bans against interracial marriage in the US were only ruled unconstitutional in 1967 (Loving v. Virginia). State constitutional amendments in Michigan and 15 states prohibit not only same-sex marriage but any other contract attempting to grant similar rights and privileges. I don’t think anyone doubts that these fall under the head of “sexual” ethics, despite the fact that opposite-sex couples are free to enter into marriage with no regard for whether they procreate or even have sex with one another. They are still prohibited from marrying, however, if they are closely related, presumably for fear that they would produce unhealthy offspring. Sex and marriage are irrevocably tied in the public imagination.


Placing a term, a behavior, or an identity in the category “sexual” has weight. Consider the terms “sexual misconduct,” “sex offender,” “sex worker,” and “sexual deviant.” All have significantly different meanings and emotional content than the same terms without the modifier. Simply assigning a something the category has implications for power dynamics and ethics. The entire category is often considered inappropriate for public discourse and inappropriate in the presence of children. Who want’s someone being sexual around their kids? Thus, labeling modes of dress and expression or categories of people as “sexual” has profound implications.

Offensive and inappropriate language exists, inappropriate clothing, inappropriate behavior.  I deny none of that.  I even think there are people who seem incapable of behaving appropriately.  We cannot, however, assume that sexual is equal to inappropriate; nor can we assume that appropriate sexuality is straightforward.  The standards have changed radically, just in the last 80 years.

This week, I challenge you to pay attention to what you consider “sexual” and why. What do you think of as “sexual,” and why?



  1. […] my last post, I explored the question of what “sexual” means in sexual ethics and highlighted how […]

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