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Sexual ethics (also referred to as sexual morality) refers to those aspects of ethics that deal with issues arising from all aspects of sexuality and human sexual behavior. Broadly speaking, sexual ethics relates to community and personal standards relating to the conduct of interpersonal relationships, and deals with issues of consent, sexual relations before marriage and/or while married, including issues of marital fidelity and premarital and non-marital sex, issues related to sexuality, questions about how gender and power are expressed through sexual behavior, questions about how individuals relate to society, and questions about how individual behavior impacts public health concerns.

Ethical dilemmas which involve sex can often appear in situations where there is a significant power difference or where there is a pre-existing professional relationship between the participants, or where consent is partial or uncertain.

Sexual ethics can also include the ethics of procreation: "is it ethical to create a child in an overpopulated world?", "Is it ethical to have children if they would be born into poverty?" etc.


Flirting is an expression of sexuality and a common form of social interaction whereby one person obliquely indicates a romantic and/or sexual interest towards another. However, flirting undertaken for amusement, with no intention of developing any further relationship, poses ethical dilemmas and sometimes faces disapproval from others, either because it can be misinterpreted as more serious, or it may be viewed as "cheating" if the person flirting is already in a romantic relationship with someone else; or if the person to whom flirting is directed is in an exclusive or a serious relationship.


Consent is a key issue in sexual ethics. Almost all systems of ethics insist, as a minimum, that all participants consent to a sexual activity. Sexual ethics (which is reflected in laws) also considers whether a person is capable of giving consent and the sort of acts they can consent to. In western countries, the legal concept of "informed consent" often sets the public standards on this issue. Children, the mentally handicapped, the mentally ill, animals, and sometimes people under the influence of drugs or alcohol are typically considered in certain situations as lacking an ability to give an informed consent.

Sexual acts which are illegal, and often considered unethical, because of the absence of consent include rape and molestation.

Enthusiastic consent is typically the focus of liberal sexual ethics, rather than marriage.[1][2][3]

Premarital sex

Premarital sex is an area which to some people object on religious or moral grounds. It usually involves young people who are presumably of marriageable age, or who will one day be married, but who are engaging in sexual activity prior to their marriage.



In all cultures, consensual sexual intercourse is acceptable and virtuous within marriage; however some cultures do exist in which sexual intercourse is controversial, if not totally unacceptable outside of marriage.

As the philosopher Michel Foucault has noted, such societies often create spaces or heterotopias outside of themselves where sex outside of marriage can be practiced. He reasoned that this was the reason for the often unusual sexual ethics displayed by persons living in brothels, asylums, onboard ships, or in prisons. Sexual expression was freed of social controls in such places whereas within society, sexuality has been controlled through the institution of marriage which socially sanctions the sex act. Many different types of marriage exist, but in most cultures that practice marriage, extramarital sex without the approval of the partner is often considered to be unethical. There are a number of complex issues that fall under the category of marriage.

When one member of a marital union has sexual intercourse with another person apart from the union without their consent, it may be considered to be infidelity. In some cultures this act may be considered ethical if the spouse consents, or acceptable as long as the partner is not married, while other cultures might view any sexual intercourse outside of marriage as unethical, with or without consent.

Furthermore, the institution of marriage brings up the issue of premarital sex wherein people who may choose to at some point in their lives marry, engage in sexual activity with partners who they may or may not marry. Various cultures have different attitudes about the ethics of such behavior, some condemning it while others view it to be normal and acceptable.

Extramarital sex

Extramarital sex occurs when a married person engages in sexual activity with someone other than their marriage partner. Many people and religions raise profound moral as well as religious objections to sexual relationships by a married person outside of the marriage, which they regard as adultery. Others may regard it as infidelity or as cheating.

In contrast, there are some cultures where extramarital sex is an accepted norm. In modern western cultures some practice "polyamory", otherwise known as responsible non-monogamy, or open-marriage. The ethical practice requires honest dialogue, and, consent of those involved—including spouse(s).

Individuals and societies

Abuse of power


Most societies disapprove of a person in a position of power to engage in sexual activity with a subordinate. This is often considered unethical simply as a breach of trust. When the person takes advantage of a position of power in the workplace, this may constitute sexual harassment, because subordinates may be unable to give proper consent to a sexual advance because of a fear of repercussions.

Child-parent incest is also usually seen as an abuse of a position of trust and power, in addition to the inability of a child to give consent. Incest between adults may not involve this lack of consent, and is therefore less clearcut for most observers. Many professional organizations have rules forbidding sexual relations between members and their clients. Examples in many countries include psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, doctors, and lawyers. In addition, laws exist in many places against this kind of abuse of power by priests, preachers, teachers, religious counselors, and coaches.

Manipulation and personal gain

Sex is 'valuable' (in the sense that it is a basic human drive - though it is not technologically productive in its own right), and because of this it can be used toward unethical ends. It can also be used as a means of direct economic exchange such as in various forms of sex work and pornography where sex is exchanged directly for currency in various marketplaces. The ethics of such markets existing have been questioned by many, particularly feminists such as Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, and Naomi Wolf. Radical feminists argue that the sex industry exploits women, contributes to sexism, and is a way of maintaining patriarchy; that prostitution is a form of male domination and oppression of women, and, as a result of such views on prostitution, Sweden, Norway and Iceland have enacted laws which outlaw the buying, but not the selling of sexual services (the client commits a crime, but not the prostitute). Other sex positive feminists such as Wendy McElroy support the commercialization of sex as a means of empowering women. It is also the case that several religions within South Asia and the Middle East have their own viewpoints on pornography, even the type of pornography which would be viewed with triviality within most Western Nations.

Religious sexual ethics

Many cultures consider ethics to be intertwined with religious faith and the problem of being ethical as a matter of following various religious dogma established by some religious authority. Along with all those activities listed above, some acts that might be considered unethical from a religious standpoint:



In ancient Athens, sexual attraction between men was the norm with writers as Plato and Aristophanes writing extensive treatises on the benefits of homosexual love. Not a few hundred miles away in the Levant, persons who committed homosexual acts were stoned to death at the same period in history that Socrates dallied with young Alcibiades. As presented by Plato in his Symposium, Socrates did not "dally" with young Alcibiades, and instead treated him as his father or brother would when they spent the night sharing a blanket. And in Xenophon's Symposium Socrates strongly speaks against men kissing each other, saying that doing so will make them slavish, i.e., risk something that seems akin to an addiction to homosexual acts.

Most modern secular ethicists since the heyday of Utilitarianism, e.g. T.M. Scanlon and Bernard Williams, have constructed systems of ethics whereby homosexuality is a matter of individual choice and where ethical questions have been answered by an appeal to non-interference in activities involving consenting adults. However, Scanlon's system, notably, goes in a slightly different direction from this, and requires that no person who meets certain criteria could rationally reject a principle that either sanctions or condemns a certain act. Under Scanlon's system it is difficult to see how one would construct a principle condemning homosexuality outright, although certain acts, such as rape, would still be fairly straightforward cases of unethical behavior.

The human rights of homosexuals are still contested in most parts of the world.


Public health

In countries where public health is considered a public concern, there is also the issue of how sex impacts the health of individuals. In such circumstances, where there are health impacts resulting from certain sexual activities, there is the question of whether individuals have an ethical responsibility to the public at large for their behavior. Such concerns might involve the regular periodic testing for sexually transmitted diseases, disclosure of infection with sexually transmitted diseases, responsibility for taking safer sex precautions, ethics of sex without using contraception, leading to an increased level of unplanned pregnancies and unwanted children, and just what amount of personal care an individual needs to take in order to meet his or her requisite contribution to the general health of a nations citizens.

Public decency

Legal and social dress codes are often related to sexuality. See also decency.

See also


  1. Friedman, Jaclyn; Jessica Valenti (2008). Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. Seal Press. ISBN 1580052576.
  2. Corinna, Heather. "What Is Feminist Sex Education?". Scarleteen. Retrieved October 3, 2010.
  3. Corinna, Heather (2010-05-11). "How Can Sex Ed Prevent Rape?". Scarleteen. Retrieved October 3, 2010.

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