Have you ever wondered how to live a life that is both sexually ethical and free of outdated notions about sex? I find the topic quite interesting: it comes up quite often in my psychotherapy office as I help my clients – both single and coupled – explore their ever-evolving sexual desires and the best ways to realize them.
For all our alleged openness about sex, it’s still rare to discuss these issues in a conscious, respectful way. This column is about that dance of sexual freedom and ethics.
Sexual ethics is such a rich and complex topic that many enormous and complicated books are written about it. For now, let’s look at just a few important questions:
· How honest should I be with my sexual partner(s)?
To me, it depends on what you want from your partners. Intimacy depends on vulnerability, but vulnerability is scary. Whether you’re hooking up with someone once or you’re dating someone with long-term potential, what do you want them to know about you? What you want from your sexual experiences usually dictates how open you are with your partners.
· What is being unfaithful? In person? On the internet?
Many of my clients are unclear on what it means to “cheat” on your partner. As technology changes, our sexual experiences have new forms of expression. Each person defines monogamy their own way: e.g., on-line chatting is okay but on-line masturbation isn’t.
· What unexamined stories am I still holding about sex? What do I consider bad/sick/weird/immoral?
Am I still playing out my parents’ ideas about sex? Have I considered questioning if the stories I tell myself (about men/women/sex) are still true? If I am living in a box that I’ve created, what would it take to break out of that box to discover my sexual self and what truly brings me pleasure?
· How do I figure out my ethics regarding sex?
Ideally, my sexual ethics reflect who I want to be as a person. Do these values match how I actually live? Am I proud of my sexual life or is it a source of shame? If I Iie to my friends about what I do sexually or make up stuff to seem “hotter” than I am, what does that tell me?
· Am I living in ethical integrity with my body?
Am I respecting my body and its needs and the bodies of my sexual partners? As I age, how can I help my body continue to enjoy sex?
· How much energy and time do I want to give to sex? Where does it rank in my priorities?
Most of us – over time – shift our life priorities. Sex may be more important when we’re young and single than when we’re older and coupled. Or not. Libidos rise and fall over time: how do we gracefully go with the flow?
· How do I talk about this stuff with my partner(s)?
Open communication is a key to sexual integrity: if you can’t say it out loud, you probably shouldn’t do it. Secrets are destructive. I’m not saying you have to tell every partner everything about yourself, but why not talk about this stuff with the person/people you have sex with?
I don’t think that exploring our sexual ethics ever ends (nor should it). As we grow and change – and the world of technology evolves – we are presented with new forms of sexual expression on a regular basis.
I’d like to open up the idea of sexual ethics to include questions about how gender and power are expressed through sexual behavior and how individual behavior impacts public health concerns. And what about differences between definitions of what constitutes ethical male and female sexual behavior? Is there still a double standard?
Considerable controversy continues over which system of ethics or morality best promotes human happiness, and which, if any, is inherently right. And I think that this is a good thing. Ideally, talking about sexual ethics is an ongoing, life-long conversation.
To me, sexual ethics is about sexual expression rooted in freedom, mutuality, meaningful consent, responsibility and pleasure for all the participating parties. That’s just my definition, I encourage you to create your own.