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We need a new, freer moral framework for thinking about sex

Rite & Reason: The body, and joys than can ensue from it, are to be celebrated — not imprisoned in a musty religiosity

Many older people will say that standards of sexual behaviour have dropped, that there must be barriers to certain types of sexual activity, that the family of man, woman and children is being weakened, and that the traditional Christian sex ethic is being ignored.

They are right on at least one thing, the way we have dealt with sex, love, pleasure, reproduction, and the ethics surrounding these, has certainly altered. So it is, perhaps, time for bravery, to seriously debate how we can develop an updated moral paradigm for how we go about sexual activity.

Many of us were brought up to believe that sexual pleasure was only allowed in marriage, and that one loved and married an opposite gender partner, only then could the couple set about the fun of making children and they would be together until death did them part.

Mary Oliver in Wild Geese also puts pleasure on a heavenly plain. She suggests that we must treat the ‘soft animal’ of our bodies with kindness

But much of that scenario is crumbling. We are all much less likely to stay in intolerable relationships, there is divorce and gay marriage. And substantial numbers of couples live unwed. Sexual pleasure is now regarded as every man and woman’s entitlement, mirrored in John O’Donohue’s spiritual perspective that “your senses link you intimately with the Divine within you and around you”.

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Mary Oliver in Wild Geese also puts pleasure on a heavenly plain. She suggests that we must treat the “soft animal” of our bodies with kindness. We should allow ourselves to love what we love. Luther believed that lovemaking was not only sacred but also delightful. The best place to be at Christ’s second coming, he said, was to be united in the act of making love.

So, the body itself and the joys that can ensue from it, are to be celebrated, not imprisoned in a musty religiosity, which is not to suggest that the “soft animal” within us should have carte blanche to run wild. But where might we find a new framework for sexual activity?

One lead could be from the young who it is often suggested have indelibly decoupled love and sex. It is not now as often expected that, like a horse and carriage, love and sex needs must go together. For many young people, says Richard Holloway, sex is an appetite to be satisfied with no necessary connection to any kind of relationship. Recreational sex, he uses another word, is purely functional, pleasurable, and done for its own sake.

And, if it leads to sexual love and the development of a sexual relationship, a different ethic comes into play, requiring exclusivity, as well as honesty about other sexual encounters. But with recreational sex, he says, there is no relationship to be broken.

While the idea of recreational sex may be displeasing, we ought to be careful about dismissing it as immoral

Many may doubt this, but Holloway directs us towards John Harris, who wrote Wonderwoman and Superman. Harris says that “for a moral judgment to be respectable it must have something to say about just why a supposed wrong action is wrongful. If it fails to meet this test it is a preference and not a moral judgement”. And Holloway adds that while the idea of recreational sex may be displeasing, we ought to be careful about dismissing it as immoral.

Another aspect of sex that needs more public understanding and an ethical basis, is sexual fluidity, how the sexual orientation of men and women can change. Such changes are a “common thread” in many people’s lives, says Sabra L. Katz-Wise. For AARP, (American Association of Retired Persons) a major US organisation for people of 50 and older, sexual orientation is “not carved in stone”.

A great sadness in life is how, through inertia, cultural background, age, or society’s disapproval, many people are denied an intimate partner who would fulfil many of their needs. They lose this opportunity because while a potential relationship may be loving in the widest sense, it would not be seen as what we traditionally regard as “love”.

Should we not be discussing whether sex is a value, needing boundaries, of course, but an activity which can stand alone with minimal relationship requirements?

So, perhaps as an antidote to loneliness, if nothing else, should we not encourage meaningful coupledom among men and women (men/men, women/women) even if Cupid misses the ultimate target of love? Should we not take into our ethical paradigm that sexual orientations are not immutable and that love, the ideal of course, and intimate alliances may (to misquote a bit) “alter when they alteration find”?

Indeed, should we not be discussing whether sex is a value, needing boundaries, of course, but an activity which can stand alone with minimal relationship requirements? Should we not open our minds to less understood modes of sexuality, and meld them within our ethical thinking?

Ralph Helverson (Living in the Question) says “we all have settled opinions that new ideas must confront”. Some of these settled opinions are about sex ethics. It is perhaps time for fresh thinking, for inclusion in a revamped framework, recreational sex, the separation of love and sexual activity, and fluidity.

  • Paul Murray is a member of the Dublin Unitarian Church at St Stephen’s Green. This is an amended version of an address he delivered there.