Sexual ethics

Citation: Flood, M. (2005) Sexual Ethics. Vincent Fairfax Fellowship Symposium 2005, Sydney, 22-24 July.

State of the sexual nation

How healthy is sexuality in Australia? I propose that we can assess this using three criteria: consent, pleasure, and safety. In effect, these are three crucial criteria for ‘good’ sex – good in a moral or ethical sense.

First, good sex is based on consent, on the voluntary agreement of the participants to the activity in question. Second, good sex is based on pleasure. Good sex depends on feeling sexually aroused, being physically comfortable, and having one’s sexual needs met. Third, good sex involves safety. Participants are not risking their own sexual and reproductive health or that of their partners, whether through unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.

So, how are we doing in Australia?


There is growing community recognition of the issue of sexual violence. The women’s movement in particular has broadened our understanding of the many forms of violence that women experience, named forms of coercion and assault in ‘normal’ heterosexual relationships, and identified the violence also experienced by males.

Still, sexual violence remains a serious and pervasive problem. One in five Australian women (21 per cent) has been forced or frightened into doing something sexually that they did not want to do (96). The same is true of one in twenty men (five per cent) (Richters and Rissel 2005, p. 96). Half of victims were 16 or younger the first time this happened, and only a third had talked to anyone about their experience. These experiences have caused long-term harm to these women’s and men’s physical, emotional, and sexual well being.

Most men do not use violence, and most respect their sexual partners’ wishes. Yet a significant minority of Australian males agree with violence-supportive beliefs and myths, and males continue to show more violence-supportive attitudes than females. For example, a recent national survey of 5000 young people aged 12 to 20 found that 14 to 15 percent of males agreed with the statements that “It’s okay for a boy to make a girl have sex with him if she has flirted with him or led him on” (National Crime Prevention 2001, pp. 64-70).

We need much more work in Australia to challenge violence-supportive attitudes and replace them with norms of consent and respect, particularly among young men, and to change the gender inequalities which underpin sexual violence.

We must also undermine constructions of sexuality and gender in Australian society which fuel sexual violence. One is the notion that male sexuality is an uncontrollable force, such that it is up to women not to ‘provoke’ men, to ‘lead them on’, as men cannot be held responsible for their actions (Richardson 1997, p. 161). Another is the sexual double standard, in which girls and women who are sexually active or seen to be so gain negative sexual reputations as “sluts” (or any of a wide variety of other terms), while males are given such positive labels as “studs”, “legends” and so on. More widely, women’s sexual behaviour is highly controlled and harshly judged, while men’s sexual behaviour is freer of social constraint. The sexual double standard controls young women’s social and sexual relations, limits their power and sexual autonomy, and is used to excuse or legitimate sexual violence.


The second principle of good sex is pleasure. From a national survey of 20,000 Australian adults aged 16 to 59 years, the evidence is that most people enjoy the sex they have. But there is a gender gap when it comes to pleasure in sex. Ninety per cent of men, and 79 per cent of women, report that the sex in their regular relationship is ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ pleasurable (Richters and Rissel 2005, p. 62). Five per cent of women say that the sex is slightly or not at all pleasurable, compared to one per cent of men.

Over a third of women worry during sex about whether their body looks attractive. Twenty-nine per cent of women, but only six per cent of men, have had difficulty reaching orgasm. Perhaps what is most troubling is that more than a quarter of women (27 per cent) said that they did not find sex pleasurable (as did six per cent of men). This suggests that many women are having sex that they do not like or really want (Richters and Rissel 2005, p. 90, quoting).

Pleasurable sex depends on a wide range of factors, including the knowledge of how to give pleasure, participants’ willingness to give as well as receive, definitions of ‘sex’ which go beyond penis-vagina intercourse, body-positivity and sex-positivity rather than shame, guilt, and sex-negativity, and such qualities as playfulness, creativity, and joy.

Feminism and the women’s movements have made important contributions to sexual relations when it comes to pleasure. They have encouraged acceptance of the notion that women have a right to sexual pleasure. They have created better knowledge of what makes that pleasure more likely, such as the recognition that penis-in-vagina intercourse is not necessarily the most pleasurable sexual act for women and that women’s clitorises are an important site of erotic pleasure. The women’s movement has opened up increased space for women’s sexual desire or lust, allowing women to be sexually desiring, active rather than passive, and to take the initiative in finding sexual partners and during sex itself.

There are signs of a growing assertion of sexual desire and sexual agency by young women. Some young women challenge the imperatives of heterosexual femininity by divorcing sex from love, expressing sexual desire and agency, making lusty demands for sexual pleasure, and pursuing one-night stands, casual sex, older male partners, and non-monogamous relationships (Stewart, Mischewski and Smith 2000, pp. 413-416). And gay men have developed highly complex and diverse forms of male-male eroticism.

Yet, there is much more to do. Women’s sexual lives are limited by the persistent notion that women are passive objects of sexuality, rather than desiring subjects, and by cultural taboos on the expression of girls’ and women’s sexual desire, pleasure, and sexual entitlement. Men are encouraged to be in control of sex, to control what happens during sexual episodes, and to be knowledgeable experts about sex. Women on the other hand are expected to be controlled, to be the objects of men’s masterful and skilled seduction, and to be ignorant about sexual matters.

In addition, common constructions of heterosexual sex centre on men’s sexual needs and men’s sexual pleasure. ‘Real’ sex is defined as penis-in-vagina intercourse, many men learn to focus all their sexual pleasure on the penis, and men learn to associate sexual experence and sexual conquests with masculine status.

Such norms of gender and sexuality limit men and women alike.

Finally, if we were really concerned about improving the sex lives of heterosexual couples, we would be spending less time marketing drugs to give men harder erections and more time teaching them about the role of the clitoris in sexual pleasure, the joys of cunnilingus, and the importance of consent and respect.


The third principle of good sex is safety. Focusing on young people, it is clear that, as Levine (2002, p. xxxiii) notes, “Sex among [Australia’s] youths, like sex among its adults, is too often neither gender-egalitarian, nor pleasurable, nor safe.” Australia has the third highest rate of teenage abortions among OECD countries and the sixth highest teenage pregnancy rate. Young people aged 13 to 19 are at higher risk than older people of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and many youth have poor knowledge of STIs and blood-borne viruses. Nearly half of sexually active teenagers do not use condoms consistently. And younger women are more at risk of physical and sexual violence than older women.

To improve sexual safety, one of the key strategies is sexuality education. Part of raising healthy youth and building healthy communities is providing quality information on sexuality and sexual health. Fostering young people’s sexual understanding enhances their well-being, maturity and decision-making skills. Sexuality education also benefits the community, through fewer unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and sexuality-related health problems, lower health costs, less personal depression and less sexual violence.

Some parents and teachers are concerned about sexuality education leading to earlier or increased sexual activity. But recent and comprehensive literature reviews find instead that youth given sexuality education are more likely to delay having sex, have fewer sexual partners, and are more likely to practise safe sex if they are already sexually active. Making condoms available in high schools does not increase sexual activity among students, but does raise their use by those already sexually active.

When it comes to young people, it may be tempting to advocate abstinence and to support abstinence-only sex education. Yet this approach doesn’t work. It is no coincidence that the USA, in which a majority of states are required only to provide abstinence-only sex education, also has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the Western world. Of course abstinence is a valid choice for young people, but it should be only one element in a comprehensive sexuality education program which supports a range of safe and responsible options. In Australia, family-planning and sexual health agencies have developed excellent resources for young people and the adults who work with them. Youth need the facts, but also stories of consent, love, romance and desire. But few schools have adopted comprehensive sexual health education programs, and sexuality education has come under attack from conservative politicians and evangelical Christian groups.

Protecting youth from sexual harm doesn’t mean protecting youth from sexuality. In fact, maintaining children’s and adolescents’ sexual ignorance fosters sexual abuse. Young people who know their sexual rights and responsibilities are more likely to speak up when they are being forced into sex, and they are less likely to abuse others.

Our notions of ‘safe sex’ can be broadened, beyond protection from infection with HIV or another sexually transmitted infection or unwanted pregnancy, to include safety also from violence, humiliation, or embarassment. In this regard, we must also tackle homophobia and heterosexism. Homophobia, fear and hatred of homosexuality, and heterosexism, the routine privileging of heterosexuality in social and political life, are deeply harmful to the well being of gay men, lesbians, and others who fall outside dominant heterosexual norms.

Again, common norms of gendered sexuality limit women’s and men’s access to sexual safety. Feminists have criticised the ways in which women are placed in the role of ‘gatekeeper’, with responsibility for both their own and men’s sexual behaviour. While women are positioned as moral guardians, masculinity is associated with risk-taking, and constructed as stoic, self-reliant, tough, brave, and aggressive.

Developing a wider framework for an ethical sexuality

I have argued that there are three crucial criteria for ethical sex: consent, pleasure, and safety. But in a conference focused on ethics, I’m conscious that one could say much more about an ethical sexuality.

Perhaps the two most common frameworks for an ethical sexuality are the Christian framework and a secular, libertarian framework. In two minutes, I will note that we need to go beyond both.

The libertarian framework

The libertarian framework focuses simply on consent. Sex is morally acceptable if the participants have consented, mutually and voluntarily. The problem is that consent does not guarantee moral acceptability. The libertarian framework

wrongly ignores numerous moral distortions that occur in the realm of contract: widely unequal bargaining power, prominent differences in psychological vulnerability, oppressive background circumstances, and impermissible commodification of constitutive human attributes. (Belliotti 1994, p. 86)

People may consent to sex in the context of unequal power relations, limited alternatives, or dire needs, and may be manipulated, deceived, or coerced into consent. People may consent to sexual activities which harm them. They may consent to sexual relations which have third party effects involving unjustified harm to others in the presence of these sexual relations (Belliotti 1994, pp. 206-208). And they may consent to acts which reflect and reinforce oppressive social roles (Belliotti 1994, p. 208). In short, consent is not enough, and its presence may not render sex ethical.

The traditional Christian framework

The most powerful framework for evaluating sexuality continues to be a traditional Christian one. The Christian church, and particularly Roman Catholicism, has long taught that sex is valuable only for unifying man and woman in marriage, and for procreation (Belliotti 1994, p. 44). Sex is morally permissible only if it is heterosexual, within marriage, limited to intercourse, and not deliberately made incompatible with reproduction (Ellison 2001, p. 4; Belliotti 1994, p. 42).

However, the philosophical bases for these principles are open to question. Traditional Christian teachings appeal to tradition, but there is the problem of selective and diverse interpretations of Scripture (Belliotti 1994, pp. 46-47). They appeal to nature. Yet ‘natural’ doesn’t mean ‘common’, as most people’s sexual lives differ from traditional Christian teaching. If ‘natural’ means ‘morally sound’, then this is simply tautology. And claims of an unchanging human essence or nature either can’t be substantiated, or are impossible to prove or disprove (Belliotti 1994, p. 53). The Church appeals to its own authority, but there is the problem of its pretensions to ‘infallibility’ (Belliotti 1994, p. 47).

Moreover, traditional Christian moralism has contributed directly to sexual oppression and gender injustice. The Christian moral tradition “has long encouraged control and denial of the body, devalued and discounted women, and shown nothing but contempt or pity for homoeroticism and other non-normative sexualities” (Ellison 2003, p. 3). Sexual fundamentalism, the notion of a singular, ideal sexuality, has been based in fear, suspicious toward sex and pleasure, focused on conformity and taboos rather than ethical reflection and decision-making, and aimed at control (Ellison 2001, p. 9).

Various people, including Christian theologians and others, have been developing a “progressive sex ethic that is sex-positive, respectful of sexual diversity, and responsive to sexual abuse and exploitation” (Ellison 2001, p. 3). We do need a truly ethical eroticism, one which (1) affirms the goodness of sexuality, embodiment, and sexual pleasure; (2) honours sexual diversity and promotes respect for sexual minorities; and (3) attends to the personal and sociopolitical dimensions of sexual injustice, abuse, and exploitation (Ellison 2001, p. 7).

So, I have moved from a simple framework of ‘consent, pleasure, safety’, to a more profound call for an ethical eroticism. I look forward to your thoughts.