Sexual Ethics Research Paper

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There can be no doubt that sexuality is one of the most powerful forces operative in human experience. While sex facilitates the process of reproduction, in human existence sex has developed into considerably more than this. Sex also represents one of the fundamental drives that constitute human behavior. In as far as ethics is the outcome of reflection on the rightness or wrongness and goodness or badness of all human behavior, sex has since the earliest origins of our culture been a theme of consistent moral deliberation, regulation, and even legislation. This entry firstly outlines aspects of the history of reflection on sexual matters. The approach in terms of natural law (also inspired by religious concerns) is discussed, leading up to the approaches of St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century and Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century, as well as the Victorian guilt morality that dominated the nineteenth and the earlier twentieth centuries. Following this, the liberalized understanding of and reflection on sex, mainly precipitated in the second half of the twentieth century in the aftermath of the Second World War, receive attention. In the third section of the entry, a brief conceptual clarification of the term “sexual activity” is offered in light of the conceptual difficulties that a proper understanding of this term has yielded. The final part of the entry explores the way in which the understanding and practice of, as well as the reflection on, human sexuality have changed. The differences between St. Thomas Aquinas’s and Thomas Nagel’s notions of “sexual perversion” serve as the point of departure. The entry concludes with an emphasis on the role of sex in the understanding and practice of intimate human relationships.


There can be no doubt that sexuality is one of the most powerful forces operative in human experience generally. The reason for this has, in all probability, fundamentally to do with the function of sexuality in human procreation. People (and most, though not all, animals) procreate on the basis of sexual intercourse – a process that directly facilitates the fertilization of female zygotes (eggs) by male zygotes (sperm), resulting in embryos from which all humans develop to maturity. Nowadays we know (as will also be argued later in this contribution) that sex in human inter action (particularly in human intimate relation-ships) plays a more extended and complicated role than that of merely facilitating reproduction. No single reason fully explains the force and prominence of the sexual impulse in human relationships. What cannot be doubted, however, is that in as far as ethics is the outcome of reflection on the rightness or wrongness and goodness or badness of all human behavior, sex has since the earliest origins of our culture been a consistent theme of moral deliberation, regulation, and even legislation – for a long time indeed the most important or prominent such theme.

There was a time when ordinary, nonintellectual people’s understanding of and association with the term “ethics” was fundamentally informed by one or more aspects of the phenomenon of sex. The immense influence of Judaism and Christianity in Western societies (and Islam in Mideastern culture) had the effect that sex out of wedlock, i.e., sexual activity that occurs outside the confines of a societally and publicly recognized marriage relationship between one man and one woman (sometimes, indeed, more than one woman), generally became acknowledged as the prototype of all “sin” (i.e., behavior contrary to God’s will for humanity).

This idea was broadly reinforced by the ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Plato, whose ideas had a profound influence on some of the most influential early Christian thinkers, particularly St. Augustine. Plato, in the well-known speech of Pausanias in The Symposium, argues that sex is “in itself neither good nor bad” and can indeed be a good thing in the context of “heavenly love” (as opposed to “common love”). In this speech, Pausanias rejects the morality of the widespread custom in Athens for mature men to have sexual relationships with young boys. His plea is that men should rather wait until they are able to “form a lasting attachment and a partnership for life” with an adult (Plato 1951, 182a). However, Plato’s general disparagement of the body and the desires of the flesh vis-á-vis the powers of the intellect (Plato 1961, 44d–47d) reinforced Christianity’s traditional rejection of the moral value of sex (Freeman 2002, pp. 277–312).

Irrespective of the moral status (or lack thereof) that sexual relations have always had in human culture, the phenomenon of sex and its impact on human behavior, particularly during and in the aftermath of puberty, acknowledge and demonstrate the extent to which our lives and self-understanding as human beings are conditioned by our bodiliness or corporeality. We are what we are on the basis of our bodies. There is no coherent idea or representation of human identity independent from the reality of the human body.

The French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues persuasively in his well-known book Phenomenology of Perception (Merleau-Ponty 1962) that our bodies, even though they are chemically constituted by the same elements that occur elsewhere in the universe and are subject to the same laws of nature, are never merely “things among other things.” Our bodies are “lived-through”; they are centers with reference to which we perceive and experience whatever the world has to offer. As such, they are centers of the constitution of meaning. All meaningful experience is related to the perception of the body. The world unfolds as a meaningful, orientated space around the body as meaning constituting point of reference. Whatever we perceive, we perceive as “bigger” or “smaller,” “nearer” or “further,” and “higher” or “lower,” and all of these dimensions – so fundamental to making sense of the perceived world – only attain meaning with reference to the situatedness and spatial orientation of the human body.

Merleau-Ponty strikingly points out how we attain a pre-theoretical familiarity with the world – a familiarity that we are not (yet) able to understand and describe in theoretical terms – purely on the basis of being bodies in the world. We even attain some forms of knowledge (like the ability to balance ourselves on a narrow ledge, or to drive a car, or to play a musical instrument) in such a way that what we do when engaging in these activities is no more than the expression of pure bodily prowess (the “thinking,” “knowing,” and “doing” body) and not the outcome of intellectual, theoretical knowledge acquisition, deliberation, or formulation.

One of the aspects of this pre-theoretical bodily experience (or “practico-gnosis,” as MerleauPonty calls it) is to become aware of our sexuality – normally (and gradually) at the age of puberty, although the phenomenon of child sexuality also occurs. Then – often as an unforeseen surprise – the world starts attaining a “sexual ambience”; we start recognizing people primarily in terms of their sex; we become much more aware of our own and other people’s bodies, we start experiencing sexual desire, we seek and cherish friendships on the basis of sexual attraction, and the like. The remarkable aspect of this phenomenon is, again, that it is not the outcome of conscious decisions; it is simply a new experiential orientation brought about by our bodily existence, without us deciding for it to happen or making any conscious choices that precipitate the experience. The world starts attaining a “sexual meaning” simply because, and on the basis of, the fact that our bodies constitute the mode by means of which we are what we are (MerleauPonty 1962).

In the rest of this entry, attention will firstly be paid to aspects of the history of reflection on sexual matters. The approach in terms of natural law (also inspired by religious concerns) will be discussed, leading up to the approaches of St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century and Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century, as well as the Victorian guilt morality that dominated the nineteenth and the earlier twentieth centuries. Following this, the liberalized understanding of and reflection on sex, mainly precipitated in the second half of the twentieth century in the aftermath of the Second World War, will receive attention.

In the third section of the entry, a brief conceptual clarification of the term “sexual activity” will be offered in light of the conceptual difficulties that a proper understanding of this term has yielded.

In the final part of the entry, the way in which the understanding and practice of as well as the reflection on human sexuality have changed will be discussed. The differences between St. Thomas Aquinas’s and Thomas Nagel’s notions of “sexual perversion” will here serve as the point of departure. The entry will be completed with a conclusion that will stress the role of sex in the understanding and practice of intimate human relationships.

The History And Development Of Reflection On Sexual Ethics

Alan Soble (n.d.) remarks that the history of reflection on sexual ethics has, broadly speaking, been characterized by positions of “metaphysical pessimism” which, only relatively recently, have been succeeded by positions of “metaphysical optimism.” This distinction tries to capture the general measure of appreciation and moral commendation that sexual activities attained in the work of the most influential theorists in this field over the past two millennia.

The metaphysical pessimists about sex are the thinkers who, in one way or another, are in agreement that the phenomenon of sexual interaction somehow does not befit the dignity of the human person. These thinkers do, of course, realize that sexual intercourse is (or, at least until about 30 years ago, used to be) a necessary condition for human procreation. Sex ought, however, only to be morally tolerated because of this eventuality. The only context within which sexual activity (where the latter is only to be understood as heterosexual vaginal intercourse) is morally acceptable is within the institution of marriage. Marriage, in addition, is understood as the publicly recognized, ecclesiastically sanctioned, and unbreakable bond between one man and one woman. This is believed in spite of the Christian tradition’s reverence for the Bible – a document that in its first part (the Old Testament) harbors (apparently without any moral indignation) a number of stories in which the central characters (Abraham, David, and Solomon) are involved in polygamous marriages.

Christianity, as we know, was the dominating influence in the societal structuration and ideological orientation of the Middle Ages and has maintained much of this influence until well into the advent of the modern world since the seventeenth century. Until recently, Christianity was also the dominant exponent of the pessimism about sex that Soble (n.d.) writes about. No thinker was more influential in this regard than St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 AD). His ideas emanate from a deep pessimism about the human condition in its natural state. That condition is fundamentally characterized by “original sin” – the destructive consequence of the catastrophic act of disobedience to God of the first humans in Paradise and the consequent metaphysical curse on all their descendants (i.e., humanity in its entirety). This doctrine was originally construed by St. Augustine and became commonplace in the Christian tradition of the Middle Ages and thereafter.

St. Augustine regards sexual awareness as one of the first consequences of sin, hence Adam and Eve’s immediate covering of their genitals after the fall from grace. St. Augustine also suggests that the curse of original sin is carried forward through all the generations by the very act of sexual intercourse (Augustine 2009). Without liberation from an external source, humankind is eternally damned. Our only hope of liberation and eventual salvation is through divine intervention as it occurs in the redemptive incarnation of God in the historical figure of Jesus Christ (God become human), manifested in his death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave.

Apart from this metaphysical theory which has lost most of its credibility in our time, there have been a number of other reasons for the pessimism about sex. It is often argued that sex objectifies people; the sexual act essentially consists of using another person for the sake of attaining sexual gratification. This is particularly taboo, not only in the Christian tradition but also for important thinkers of the Enlightenment such as Immanuel Kant. One of the best known formulations of his “categorical imperative” is “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end” (Kant 1948, p. 96). The objection coming from Kantian ranks is that sex causes people to take an interest in other people mainly for the sake of the pleasure that they might yield and not for the sake of relating to the other person as a person.

As is now apparent with reference to Kant, the pessimistic view of sex is not confined to thinkers who associate with the religious sentiments of traditional Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (this entry does not have space to discuss the sentiments of the latter two traditions – sentiments that are by and large similar, if not more conservative and pessimistic, than those of Christianity). Another argument against the moral acceptability of sex has to do with the way in which sexual activity seemingly blurs the alleged boundaries between human and animal identity. Roger Scruton argues that, when partaking in sex, humans seem to lose control over themselves. That constitutes a threat to the integrity of personhood. In the sexual act a person yields to the desires, whims, and preferences of another and thus becomes subservient to what another person wants, even sometimes at the cost of yielding one’s basic human dignity. Says Scruton: “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” (Scruton 1986, p. 82).

The pessimistic view therefore suggests that sex is a threat to the maintenance of human reason in behavior. It therefore only has a place in marriage, and there it ought to mainly function for the sake of procreation. As a general trend this attitude toward sex prevailed in intellectual circles up to the middle of the twentieth century, although exceptions certainly occurred. The nineteenth century, in particular, is remembered and often referred to as the high noon of conservative sexual bigotry and is often referred to as the epoch that embodied “Victorian” morality. The name is derived from the famous British queen whose moral disposition in this regard consisted of an unusual mix of deep conservatism and marked naivety. The story is told that, when homosexuality was statutorily outlawed in her time and she was requested to sign the bill, she initially refused because of the fact that lesbianism was included in the proposed law, and she obstinately refused to believe that a practice such as lesbian sex did or could exist! Victorian morality is characterized by a pronounced public rejection of promiscuous, out-of-wedlock sex in public, but a widespread participation (mainly by men) in covert sexual indulgences.

The aftermath of the Second World War since 1945 represents the time when the metaphysical pessimism of the tradition was for the first time comprehensively challenged and in many respects significantly transcended. The rise of the women’s liberation movement which insisted on women’s autonomy over their bodies and their right to enjoy sex as much as men played a role in this development as did the rapidly growing acknowledgment and institutionalization of human and civil rights and the almost universal rejection of censorship in liberal and social democracies. Pornography became publicly available and commercially accessible for the first time, as did displays of not only nudity but of simulated and actual sexual activities in the sphere of films, theater, and other forms of public entertainment. An entirely new sexual morality came about which could be called a “sport and pleasure morality” in contradistinction to the “guilt and secretive morality” of earlier times.

In this newer, “optimistic” morality, the positive value of sexual activity in human relations as well as its functionality in providing pleasure for its own sake is increasingly acknowledged. Sex is seen as a bonding mechanism, something that contributes directly to the quality of intimate relationships. This is a cultural environment where the idea that pleasure is intrinsically good is recognized and propagated. Pleasure – particularly the kind of pleasure that sex causes – does not only have instrumental value, i.e., the value of facilitating human procreation. Liberated from the metaphysics of both the religious and the natural law interpretations of the nature and purpose of sexuality, the necessary link between sex and marriage is increasingly questioned and denied. Irving Singer in this respect points out that sex is indeed a drive, but then a drive distinctly different from the other drives which we share with the animals. It is much rather an “interpersonal sensitivity”; it is not that which degrades us to the level of animal behavior, but exactly that which elevates our experience of intimacy to a level that no animal could ever experience. Singer writes: “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” (Singer 1984, p. 382).

The spin-off of these developments and ideas is a much more relaxed and tolerant attitude toward sex in general in our current-day culture, although there are countries in the world (e.g., countries under the strong influence of traditional Islam, such as Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia) where traditional sexual mores still prevail. The “new morality” also had the effect that some activities which traditionally were regarded as “sexual perversions,” such as homosexuality, are much more widely tolerated and accepted in contemporary society (and decriminalized in most countries in the West), whereas there is much more sympathy for the practice of prostitution, even though it has only been legalized in a few countries or states. It will be noted later on what developments some of the ongoing debates about aspects of human sexuality have undergone.

Conceptual Analysis

The term “sex” is a multifaceted term which refers to many things. When used on its own, it could refer to the fact that most living organisms have an engendered existence which plays a central role in organic procreation. One can talk of “the sex” of an organism, thereby referring to whether a particular specimen of a species is male or female. The expression to “have sex” normally refers to the act of having sexual intercourse or interaction, either with a member (or members) of the opposite sex (heterosexual sex) or with a member(s) of the same sex (homosexual sex, sometime also referred to as gay and/or lesbian sex). The unqualified use of the term “sex” (as in questions and sentences such as “What do you think about sex?” or “Sex is what they live for”) refers to the widespread practice of sexual engagement and activities, ranging from hetero and homosexual intercourse to masturbation and fetishism.

The rest of this section will be focused on a single conceptual issue that tends to obfuscate clarity when sex is the topic of conversation or reflection. This is the issue of what exactly is meant by a “sexual activity.” This discussion will partly draw on an analysis originally offered by Alan Soble.

What exactly does it mean to “have sex” or to engage in activities that actually count as “sexual activities”? Penile-vaginal penetration might be an uncontroversial case in point. But what about “heavy petting” that might not entail such penetration but might include activities such as fondling breasts or “deep kissing” or even mutual masturbation? Do all of these count as “having sex”? In 1999, Stephanie Sanders and June Reinisch published the results of a survey that they conducted among undergraduate college students to establish these young people’s perceptions of which of these kind of activities actually constitute “having sex” in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association). The results were quite surprising. While there was broad consensus about the sexual nature of penile-vaginal penetration, it was particularly surprising to learn that “only 40% indicated that they would say that they had ‘had sex’ if oral-genital contact was the most intimate behavior in which they engaged (60 % would not)” (Sanders and Reinisch 1999, p. 276).

Soble (n.d.) interprets this finding sympathetically. He argues that it shows that the notion of “sexual activity” is, for many people, a quite technical notion, whereas “having sex” is an “ordinary language concept, which refers primarily to heterosexual intercourse.” This can also be gleaned from the racist prohibition of “sex across the color line” that occurred in one of the most notorious discriminatory laws in apartheid South Africa, viz., Article 16 of the so-called Immorality Act (happily repealed in the mid-1980s). The question that this grossly racist law raised, among others, was “when is interaction between people an instance of ‘having sex’”? (The issue of when/ whether the “color line” was breached was fortuitously dealt with by recourse to the similarly notorious “Population Registration Act”). This did not deter apartheid’s legislators. The act went on to describe in tasteless detail exactly when that eventuality obtains (nowadays people mockingly recall that this research paper in the law contained the only instance of legal pornography that, at that time, was available in South Africa).

Maybe the safest way to try and understand the notion of “sexual activity” is to claim that the notion is defined by any activity from which sexual pleasure is derived (Gray 1997, p. 61). This idea would cover “normal” acts of heterosexual and homosexual intercourse, as well as masturbation and fetishism. The problem with such a definition is that it would then exclude activities that are sexual in intention, but, to use a phrase of Soble (n.d.), are “unsuccessful in a non-moral sense.” Take rape as an example. While the perpetrator of a rape might derive some sexual pleasure from it (there are strong theories that rape is not so much a sex act but an act of violence), the victim does not. Are we then justified to deny that rape is, at least from the perspective of the victim, a “sexual act”? Less controversial might be the example of sex between hetero or homosexual partners of long standing who have actually lost sexual interest in each other and simply engage in intercourse routinely without deriving any pleasure from it. When Gray’s definition is applied to this last case, the intercourse between these partners does not count as a “sexual act” because no pleasure is derived from it. The most we could say is that these individuals tried to engage in a sexual act but were unsuccessful. I agree, in conclusion, with Soble: “It may be a sad fact about our sexual world that we can engage in sexual activity and not derive any or much pleasure from it, but that fact should not give us reason to not call these unsatisfactory events ‘sexual’” (Soble n.d.). A more successful definition of “sexual act” than that of Gray would therefore be a sexual act is an act from which sexual pleasure is normally derived with the consent of the participant(s) or that consists of efforts at or imitations of the latter, even if pleasure is not forthcoming from such efforts or imitations.

Sex And Ethics

This final section of the entry deals with broad developments that can be observed in the more recent history of moral reflection on human sexuality. It has already been shown that sex, to a significant extent, constituted a kind of prototype or most visual instance of human sin and corruption. This particularly comes to the fore in the debate about sexual perversion, i.e., the issue as to whether sex functions in its “proper place” in human society or whether it is perverted for purposes that it was not meant for originally. This debate also provides a neat demonstration of key aspects in the understanding of human sexuality that have undergone significant changes over recent times.

The ethics of St. Thomas Aquinas, the influential medieval philosopher of thirteenth-century scholasticism, is a key point of reference in this debate. His is one of the most impressive (and later on, most controversial) efforts to understand sexual perversion in terms of natural law. The natural purpose of sexual activity for Aquinas is human procreation. In this respect, sex serves the same purpose for humans that it serves for the rest of the animal kingdom. That procreation is the aim of sex and the origin of the sexual impulse can best be motivated by noting the shape and working of the genitals. The penis and the vagina are shaped in the form that they have in order to optimally facilitate the process by which male sperm is deposited in the body of the woman, where it (via processes quite unknown to Aquinas) develops into a fully fledged human being. Sperm may not be deposited anywhere else; if so, it would be “unnatural” in the sense of being irreconcilable with God’s plan or design. It is interesting to note that Aquinas, unlike St. Augustine and the church fathers, does not have much of a problem with the fact that coitus is accompanied by pleasure, as long as the pleasurable act of coitus occurs only between husband and wife and for the sole purpose of bringing about new life.

Sexual perversion, in terms of this view, occurs whenever sexual activities violate this single purpose. Masturbation, homosexual sex, fellatio, anal sex, and the like – acts which result in sperm emissions outside of the vagina – are all regarded as perversions of sex and therefore morally wrong. Premarital sex and prostitution, where coitus in its seemingly “natural” form does occur, are nevertheless similarly viewed as perversions because they are acts occurring between people that are not married. What is important is that Aquinas derives his notion of “natural sex” entirely from the form and shape of the human (or animal) genitals. The nature of the psychological relationship that normally accompanies sexual relationships is seemingly of no relevance to him. He accepts what Soble (n.d.) calls a purely “anatomical” criterion of natural and perverted sex. Additionally, it should be noted that perverted sex for Aquinas is necessarily also immoral sex, since it forfeits that “natural order of the world” that God has created and intended for humanity.

The notion of “perverted” sex – even if its “perversion” is not necessarily regarded as morally wrong – reappears in the reflections of contemporary thinkers like Thomas Nagel (1979). What is interesting is that while St. Thomas’ notion of sexual perversion stems from his observation of the common, universal, “natural” shape and function of the genitals that we share with the rest of the animals, Nagel develops a notion of sexual perversion that stems not from what we have in common with other animals but from an essential aspect in which we are different from these other creatures. This unique characteristic of humans has nothing to do with the nature or form of (any aspect of) their anatomy, but has everything to do with their ability to foster intersubjective relationships at the psychological level.

Nagel draws on ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre to develop his position. Sartre talks of sex as a “double reciprocal incarnation.” This occurs in a caress in the following way: “I make myself flesh in order to impel the Other to realize for herself and for me her own flesh, and my caresses cause my flesh to be born for me in so far as it is for the Other flesh causing her to be born as flesh” (Sartre 1969, p. 391). Sexual interactions for Nagel are the result of a complex process in which two people (it need not be a man and a woman; they could be of the same sex) recognize (not necessarily simultaneously, but eventually in the course of a sexual encounter) that they each, individually, desire the other and that they each, individually, are the object of the other’s bodily desire.

Nagel’s argument consequently is that perverted sexual encounters or events would be those in which this mutual recognition of arousal is absent. These would be situations where one of the partners would remain either fully subject or fully object, and the “double reciprocal incarnation” would be absent. The pattern of arousal and sexual consciousness is “incomplete.” What must be noted is that in this representation of sexual perversion, there is no reference to sex organs. It is also not important whether the sexual encounter has as its intention, or results in, human procreation. This implies that, for Nagel, it is not essential that the nature of this encounter be limited to heterosexual contact; this mutual arousal can certainly occur in homosexual and lesbian relationships. Penile-vaginal coitus is also not necessary for this experience; fellatio, cunnilingus, and anal intercourse could as well express this experience. It does, however, imply that activities such as prostitution, fetishism, pedophilia, and necrophilia must be regarded as perversions in terms of Nagel’s position.

We live in a time where the approach and sentiments of a position such as that of Nagel have largely won the day, over and against the metaphysical naturalism of Aquinas (although not everyone who defends a more liberal view of sexual morality will necessarily agree with all the details of Nagel’s argument). The Roman Catholic Church (which has, at one point in its history, recognized the work of St. Thomas Aquinas as its “official philosophy”) has a membership of 1.2 billion people all over the world, of which 40 % reside in South America. This church’s position on heterosexual marriage as the exclusive condition for morally legitimate sexual activity, its insistence that sex is primarily meant for human procreation, and its consequent opposition to artificial measures of birth control such as condoms and oral contraceptives (as is argued in papal encyclicals such as Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae in 1968) remain unchanged. However, it is unlikely that the majority of Catholic members adhere to these prescriptions.

The Catholic Church has, in addition, been severely criticized for its opposition to condom use, particularly in view of the devastating scope and consequences of the HIV/Aids pandemic for which condom use remains, to this day, generally accepted as the most reliable protection. (Abstinence, which the church recommends, is, of course, de facto more reliable, but it is unrealistic to expect that abstinence can be effectively maintained in hetero and homosexual relationships, let alone casual, sexually charged encounters.) In most other churches the idea that heterosexual sex primarily serves as a source of relaxation and pleasure seeking in human relationships, and only secondarily as the mechanism for procreation, has largely won the day (few churches have the same position with reference to homosexual and lesbian sex). In the Muslim world strictly conservative views on legitimate sex also obtain, particularly as far as women are concerned. In Islam, polygamous marriages (i.e., situations wherein men can have several wives, but not the other way round) are, however, allowed. In general, there has been a trend, particularly in Western Europe, North America, and most countries that are liberal or social democracies toward secularization, with the effect that the hold of ecclesiastical or religious mores on people has tended to weaken or diminish in our time.

The normative view that is seemingly gaining significant ground in our time is the belief that, ideally, human sexuality is much more than the primal mechanism for human procreation. One of the hallmarks of the psychological makeup of human beings is the need for intimate relationships with other humans. These “others” may be of the opposite or the same sex, and the relationships could be monogamous or polygamous. (Choices between the latter are mostly culturally influenced or determined.) Sex is a pivotal aspect of these relationships because it provides or embodies the most pronounced expression of intimacy that humans are capable of.

It is widely accepted that responsible (interpreted to the point of declaring it legal) indulgence in sexual activities requires a certain level of psychological development or maturity. Hence, all cultures frown on the idea that children (defined as people under the age of 16 or sometimes 18) engage in sex, and there is global consensus on the need for significant social and legal penalties for anyone who commits pedophilia.

There are still reservations about homosexual or lesbian sex in most cultures, but these reservations are notably less pronounced or public. The view that sexual orientation is probably physiologically determined, and that even if it is not, adults still have the right to choose sexual partners on the basis of mutual consent, is winning the day all over the world. In a number of liberal or social democracies, homosexual and lesbian sex has therefore been legitimized, and in some countries same-sex marriages, or prenuptial contracts between same-sex partners that bestow similar protections on partners to those of heterosexual agreements or marriages, are nowadays allowed and recognized.


Although there is no necessary conceptual or moral link between sex and love, most people tend to link these notions in their understanding of erotic love and in their practice of sex. As previously mentioned, sex is the ultimate expression of intimacy in human relationships. Most people do not simply indulge in sexual activity with other people purely for the sake of attaining orgasm. The sexual interaction itself is experienced as the most private, but therefore also the most revealing and endearing expression of sustained commitment to another human being. If this was not the case, it is unclear why people so universally still insist on either marriage or long-term cohabitation and not simply revert to masturbation (i.e., sexual self-stimulation to the point of orgasm). Masturbation, in turn, was for a long time (and in some circles still is) a sexual taboo, although studies have shown that it is much more widely practiced than realized earlier. Yet, with obvious exceptions, masturbation, for most people, is not enough. Sex seems, for most people, to only attain its force as the deepest and most sincere expression of intimacy, properly or adequately experienced in the context of longer-term relationships between adults who prefer to engage in mutual commitments.

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