Posted by: dacalu | 27 March 2014

The Scope of Sex

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.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

What is Sex?

In my last post, I explored the question of what “sexual” means in sexual ethics and highlighted how problematic it can be, particularly with regard to the concept of being “sexual” in public. Despite our intuition that the idea of sex is straightforward, it gets wrapped up in social conventions and squeamishness about the topic only leads to further confusion and squeamishness. I remain convinced that there is a solid Christian social witness about using our bodies in the service of God. If we are to be proactive in that, we will need to figure out what we are talking about.

It is common among Christians to speak out against “sex outside of marriage.” I want to explore here what we mean when we say that. What is sex? As an unmarried individual, I find the question significant. As a pastor, I want to be able to speak about this meaningfully. “Sex” is a real and meaningful concept, but also a complicated one. As we proceed, I hope you will ask yourself what you mean when you use the word, where and how you think moral rules apply.


As a biologist, the issue of sex is very straightforward. It’s the process of genetic recombination that mixes up the information content of parents and puts them together in a new individual – a descendent of both. The process involves recombination (scrambling each parent’s genes), meiosis (halving the genetic content of cells to form gametes – sperm and eggs), and fertilization (the fusing of sperm and egg to make a zygote, the first stage of an embryo).

According to the biological definition, sex can only occur with a fertile, two-sex couple. In many ways this biological sex concept forms the core of our understanding of sex in general. We must note, however, that it is both too broad and too narrow for daily use. It is too broad because it includes in vitro fertilization. It is too narrow because it does not include any activities by people before puberty, after fertility, or without a biologically compatible partner.


Some have argued that we should expand this definition to include intention to reproduce, or at least openness to the possibility of offspring. The latter, by the way, is how Roman Catholic Theologians can make reproduction a criterion for marriage that includes women past menopause, but not same-sex couples. What if we defined sex as those activities normally intended for reproduction?

This comes a closer to a common sense definition. For the sake of the author’s sensibilities (and the censors), I’m going to refer to this as PV insertion or just PV. [If you can’t figure that out, you don’t need to be reading this.] Historically, most people get excited about PV, particularly PV outside of marriage, because it can lead to children. It excludes in vitro fertilization and includes people who cannot or, through contraceptives, do not wish to reproduce. This sense is usually captured in the word “intercourse”, a word meaning communication, but a euphemism for PV for the last 200 years.

Intercourse comes much closer to being useful, but it still presents us with difficulties. We have returned to a behavioral definition (rather than an intentional one), one that leaves out the wide variety of physical intimacy usually associated with PV, not to mention anything done by a same-sex couple. I feel certain that if prohibitions against extramarital sex only extended to PV, it would be much less controversial. It seems that all PV is sex but not all sex is PV.

Everything Else

Humans are inventive. I would say that we can easily place PA, PO, and by extension OV insertion into the category of sex without doing any harm to our common sense understanding of the word. We might also add any type of physical contact between two people with the intention of producing an orgasm.

Intention will cause us trouble, of course. What are we to make of children and poorly educated adults who may be aware of something as pleasurable, but not conscious of the biology involved? How much knowledge is necessary? I think it is important not to stigmatize children for activities and questions they do not yet understand; at the same time I think it is terribly important to educate kids as they go through puberty in a way that allows them to make responsible decisions. Both of those represent real and common dilemmas for modern sexual ethics. How to you enforce sexual rules in children and at what age do you start talking to them about the details of sex? And now the whole issue of publicly talking to kids about sex arises again.

Even among well-educated adults, we will need to be more specific about “everything else.” What are we to make of activities meant to arouse, but not bring orgasm? Or what about pornography aimed at causing orgasm in a visual or verbal way? It seems ridiculous to class all communication aimed at arousal as sex. What would become of commercials?

Further, we need to deal with the changing dynamics of social convention. What are we to make of kissing? In the US, kissing is almost universally considered a sexual act when performed by adults. It’s considered okay to kiss your children, but not on the mouth. In Europe, on the other hand, kisses on the cheek are much more common among adults, but far more common among women than men. Perhaps 100 years ago a kiss on the hand was a rather forward but acceptable way for a man to show his attraction to a woman. 2000 years ago Christian men were kissing each other (on the mouth) as a sign of Christ-like love (Acts 20:37; Romans 16:16; I Corinthians 16:20; II Corinthians 13:12; I Thessalonians 5:26; I Peter 5:14). Those aren’t just examples of kissing, but positive statements that all Christians should kiss one another in greeting. I list all these examples because I fear people will not believe me. Just to be certain, here are the friendly kisses from the Old Testament as well (Genesis 29:13, 33:4, 45:15; Exodus 4:27, 18:7; Ruth 1:14; I Samuel 10:1; II Samuel 15:5, 19:39, 20:9; Proverbs 24:26, 27:6; Tobit 7:6).

There does not appear to be a clear and constant line between sexual contact and friendly contact. This is one of the reasons that moral purists so often argue for absolute segregation between men and women. It is also one reason they are so troubled by gays and lesbians. They want to keep the lines clearly drawn so that all social contact is free from the possibility of sex. Alas, even if we considered this kind of segregation and denial to be vaguely moral (it is not), it never seems to work. People are quite efficient in getting around the system.


I hope I have convinced you that sexual norms must be more than a set of “thou shalt not” actions. Such divisions fail both logically and practically. Instead, we need to think about what sex is about, how we use it, and what it takes to use it compassionately. If you do believe in a simple rule like “no sex outside of marriage,” then I would ask you to think closely about what you mean by that. And, whatever you think of that particular rule, I hope you will see the need for a more comprehensive set of ethical principles, of which rules can only be a narrow application.


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