Shuck and Jive

Friday, June 08, 2007

Sexual Ethics for the Rest of Us

In the 1990s, Marie Fortune wrote a book that introduced a number of important questions. It is entitled: Love Does No Harm: Sexual Ethics for the Rest of Us. The church has a tough time talking about sex, as does American society as a whole. We make rules regarding how people should live rather than discuss openly how people do live.

At my previous congregation, I did an on-line study via yahoo groups about sexual ethics with my congregation. I reprint that first lesson here:

Relationship Ethics: What makes our intimate relationships good, ethical and "pleasing to God?"

Who is this study for? Primarily, it is for members of my congregation (The First Presbyterian Church of Billings), but ultimately, it is for anyone who is dissatisfied with the "rules" about sexual expression in our church and society. It is for those who regardless of gender, sexual orientation, age, marital status, or religious belief are thirsting for something more substantial than what has been handed to us.

This series will discuss what makes our relationships (which includes but is not limited to sexual expression) ethical. A book that has influenced my thinking substantially on this matter is Love Does No Harm: Sexual Ethics for the Rest of Us by Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune (New York: Continuum), 1998. Her premise for relationships is "Do least harm." You would do well to purchase this book. This series is really a study guide or summary of her work.

Another important resource is "Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality,and Social Justice," The 203rd General Assembly Special Committee On Human Sexuality, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1991. While the General Assembly voted not to adopt either this report or the minority report as "official church dogma" or whatever, the G.A. did say it was good to use as a study document. This report suggested that the premise for our relationships should be "justice-love."

This course has a pastoral focus. This is for real people in real relationships (or still hoping!) who are making real decisions. There is no attempt to give a definitive answer nor is the goal to attain consensus. The purpose is for information, conversation and encouragement to forge guidelines that truly fit your values. Yes, we can talk about this!

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let's begin with some definitions. These definitions are explained more fully in the first chapter of Marie Fortune's book. I'll give a sketch here.

Rev. Fortune defines ethics as "...the process of considering a choice between right and wrong, a choice which then shapes behavior." (Love Does No Harm, p. 19)

1) Rule-Based Ethics: (LDNH p. 20-21)
These are rules that have been handed down to us. These rules are to be learned and obeyed. Some examples include:

Do not commit adultery, lie, steal, covet, murder etc.
Rest on the Sabbath day.
Sexual activity before marriage is wrong.
Masturbation is wrong.
Women should not work outside the home.
Remarriage after divorce is wrong.
Homosexuality is wrong.
Dating someone you are not planning to marry is wrong.
All sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is wrong.

The reasons given for these rules may be based on folklore, community norms, practicality, and if none of that works an appeal to an authority such as the Bible. "The Bible says so" or "God intends it that way" are attempts to settle the matter and silence the conversation.

Rule-based ethics are good in that they are easy to understand. They don't require much thought on behalf of the individual. The problem with Rule-Based Ethics is that these rules generally reflect unexamined community and societal norms and they often miss the point. For instance, what has been handed to us in regards to sexual ethics? The premise of the church is that sex is ethical (good, pleasing to God) if it is within the context of a civil contract (marriage) between a man and a woman and it is not ethical (good, pleasing to God) outside of that contract.

The quality of the relationship is of secondary importance to the contract. At the work place a behavior may be considered sexual misconduct, but what if that same behavior occurs in a marriage? Hey, he's got a license. Further, the marriage license is only for a man and a woman, leaving out the possibility that same gender relationships could ever be considered ethical as well as those relationships enjoyed by the wide variety of individuals who are lumped under the category "single" regardless of their age or situation in life.

2) Situation Ethics: (LDNH p. 21-22)
In response to the traditional rule-based ethic, situation ethics allows each individual to use one's best judgment to act according to the situation at hand. We might think of Jesus in the little known but freedom-giving question: "And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?" (Luke 12:57)

The benefit of situation ethics is that the individual has the responsibility to be a decision maker. To the wide variety of life situations in which rigid rule-based ethics do not apply, situation ethics came as a welcome relief to real people where they were. Situation ethics offered freedom from custom, from ignorance and from oppression by those who benefited from those rules.

The shortcoming with pure situation ethics is that there can be a lack of a bottom line or a set of givens. What are the guidelines or standards to prevent injustice or harm to self or others? Phrases such as "It's a free country", "Don't judge others" and "Live and let live" lack the teeth to withstand real evils such as sexual abuse and sexual misconduct.

Rev. Fortune points out: It is a paradox that during the so-called sexual revolution of the last twenty-five years, women won the right to say "yes" to sexual activity and have all but lost the right to say "no." (LDNH p. 68)

Is there a third way?

3) Jesus and the Love-Justice Ethic:
Jesus was my favorite rule-breaker. Healing people on the Sabbath was one of his most public acts of religious disobedience. Not only did he break the rules, he redefined them. "It has been said...but I say to you." He also summarized them. What is the greatest commandment (rule)? "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength....You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Mark 12:30-31)

Jesus articulates this ethic in Matthew 7:12: "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets."

Paul, in Romans 13:8-10, calls this ethic "Love." "Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, `Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."

Marie Fortune calls this third way "Ethics for the Rest of us: Doing least harm."

She also adds that in this third way individuals are "moral agents" (p. 25 ff) but are responsible to the larger community. Further, not every one is an equal moral agent. Moral agency requires power and resources. (more on this later)

Questions to ponder:

1) Think of some rules that you have found inadequate and have challenged. What was that experience like?

2) What is your initial reaction to "Doing least harm" as an ethical principal?

3) Apply the "love-justice" or "doing least harm" ethic to the rules given in the section rule-based ethics. What do you come up with?

Joke of the day: From comedian (and part-time ethicist) Emo Phillips:

"I was walking down fifth avenue today and I found a wallet, and I was gonna keep it, rather than return it, but I thought: well, if I lost a hundred and fifty dollars, how would I feel? And I realized I would want to be taught a lesson."


  1. One of the things I find interesting on the two issues that dominate the religious right -- homosexuality and abortion -- is that both ultimately involve sex. Either who one can have sex with, or deciding what happens as a consequence of sex. So I would say that as a whole, the issue of sex does dominate the conservative mindset somewhat disproportiantly.

    I also think that the abstintence only education, aside from being a failure and making the situation worse, has unrealistic expectations. Humans are flawed creatures; capable of great goodness but but also great immorality. We understand this in every other level of life, whether it comes to lust/hatred/revenge or those who actually murder or behave injustly. And that's for adults. Yet sex is treated as though it's as easy as just deciding not to have it. For some, it might be. For others, and especially teenagers, that really doesn't work.

    Yet abstinence only education expects that teenagers, or people in general, will be able to refrain from having sex until married. For teenagers, this is even more unrealistic, given how hormones operate. Sex education is a failsafe to prepare for what will be inevitable for many.

  2. Heather,

    I couldn't agree more! Thank you!

  3. polls have shown time and again that over the past 70 years there has been no change in the amount of premarital sex going on. That is to say it has ALWAYS been the norm that people engage in premarital sex. Different eras just make it more or less public.

  4. Thanks Aric,

    I didn't know that. I am curious. What examples have you or any of you seen, in the church (and I mean congregations) being good regarding sexual ethics education? Translate "good" as you wish.