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Chapter Six: A Moral Code

Section 6: Sex: a broad spectrum

For sex to be moral, do what you will as long as nobody comes to harm.

pic: getty images

We have seen that sex is complex. We could write a book - several books, dozens, hundreds, thousands of books have already been written - on moral sexual behaviour. We don't have the space or time to do that here. But we can cover the basic issues - adultery, age of consent, birth control, disease, fetishes etc, incest, multiple partners, pornography, same-sex activity.

It's quite simple, actually. All you have to remember is the basic commandment - do no harm - and you have a good idea of sexual morality for every occasion.

6.6a What is sex?

A bit late in the day to ask this question? Perhaps. But let's define sex as any physical activity involving at least two people where at least one of person has a sexual response.

That means not just penetration of the usual orifices, but non-penetrative acts as well. And climax isn't always essential, for either partner. (If you need an example, think of the man who does nothing more than worship his mistress's feet.)

So, listen carefully when errant preachers and others use the the excuse that their behaviour "wasn't sex". Yes, it was, Mr President, it was indeed sex.

6.6b Adultery

We covered this in the previous section but let's repeat the point here. Because adultery almost always involves harming a third person, it is almost always immoral. Only on the rare occasions when all parties involved freely give their consent - "of course, I am pleased if you have sex with my wife" - can it be considered moral.

6.6c Age of consent

Sex with pre-pubescent children is out. Always. No exceptions. Ever.

Why? Because before puberty children are neither physically nor mentally prepared for sex. Any sexual activity with an older child or an adult will almost certainly cause physical and / or mental harm.

Some pre-pubescent children are precocious and invite sexual activity. You still don't go there - it's a sign of a personality that has already been damaged.

Teenagers are a grey area. The completion of puberty - menstruation and development of breasts in girls; descended testicles in boys; pubic hair in both sexes - is nature's way of telling us that they are ready for sex.

But in today's world, physical maturity does not guarantee mental maturity. Age of consent laws are essential to protect the vulnerable. This website cannot determine an appropriate age of consent but we can recognise any of consent law will be arbitrary - it will always protect some who do not need protection and leave vulnerable others who do need it.

The law can only go so far. Sex education is an essential element in protecting children and young people from harm and preparing them for adulthood - we'll examine that issue further in the next section.

6.6d Birth control

Practise it, always, on every occasion that a pregnancy may result, unless you are fully prepared both to spend a lifetime caring for the child you will parent and to allow and insist that your co-parent does the same. Otherwise you are harming the life of the human being you are about to create.

It's that simple. But still men unintentionally become fathers and women unintentionally become mothers - or become mothers intentionally and deny their child the right to know and bond with their father. It may not be immoral behaviour, but it's certainly amoral...

6.6e Disease

Wear a condom, always (I know, this advice makes the last two paragraphs redundant, but we're talking principles as much as practice). Knowingly passing on a disease - or unknowingly doing so because you are too lazy or selfish to use a condom - is harming another human being. It's immoral.

"But what if they want to take the risk?"
pic: source to be confirmed
HIV cell emerging from a lymphocyte
It's still immoral; the fact that someone wants to harm themselves does not give you the right to harm them. (You're right - there's a point here about sado-masochism - which happens to be our next topic.)

6.6f Fetishes and ...

Most fetishes are harmless. You want to wear a diaper? Cover yourself in leather? What's hell for others may be heaven for you. Go ahead. Enjoy yourself - as long as your partner benefits too.

And sado-masochism? Ah, we're moving into another grey area. Most S&M does no lasting damage and both partners enjoy the experience. Masochists see some forms of pain as pleasure - it promotes their wellbeing. Which means that those who give them the pain that makes them happy are acting morally.

But the extreme edges of S&M involve permanent physical - and perhaps mental - harm. Are such acts moral? Don't expect a simple answer here; each case is individual and what would be folly for me might be sanity for you.

6.6g Incest

No easy answer. All incest is out when one partner is under the age of puberty. It's rape and child abuse. But if both partners are adults?

The fact that adult incest appears so rare suggests that strong reasons lie buried deep in our subconscious or genes preventing most of us from taking this step. But for those who do, and who ensure that pregnancy can never result from their actions and that no third party is harmed, it may be - and we can only say "may" - that there is nothing immoral in two related adults having fully consensual sex .

6.6h Multiple partners

Everyone's fantasy - as long as they are the central figure. Not immoral if everyone is of age and freely consents and the usual protection against disease and pregnancy applies.

6.6i Pornography

Nothing wrong with visual pornography if the participants consent, is there? (We're talking photographs and film, not comics or books.) In theory, no, but look at more closely at the question of consent. Did all those being photographed or filmed know that their pictures would be used by others? If not, there is harm and therefore immorality.

And - a question often forgotten in freedom of speech debates - how freely was the consent given? Yes, the woman doing "double anal" and the heterosexual man raped by another man may have signed the paper that gives the producer the right to film these acts in return for sums of money. But does that make the acts immoral? Have the woman and the man freely given their consent? Or are they being exploited for their financial need? And did they fully understand what they were letting themselves in for?

In other words, we are in another grey area. IF - and it's an uncertain if - those who are filmed and photographed freely consent to whatever act they perform, or allow to be performed, then that's fine. Go ahead, do it. Exhibitionists of the world, we need you!

But if - and it's a big IF - those who are filmed and photographed are coerced by money, by insecurity, by lies, by friends, by whatever or whoever, into acts that they would rather not perform or in front of cameras when they would rather be private, then that pornography is both harmful and immoral - to watch as well as to make.

6.6j Same-sex activity

We don't need to say much here, do we? We know that a significant minority of the population are sexually attracted to the same sex. We know that forcing them into celibacy or opposite-sex relationships is harmful to their well-being. We know that heterosexuals cannot be "seduced" into homosexuality or vice versa.

In sum, we know that consenting adult same-sex relationships benefit not only the partners but those around them. What is there to object to? Nothing.

Okay, for readers who can't get away from the mistaken belief that (male) homosexuality = HIV and who believe that homosexuality is itself immoral, here's a brief analysis of the situation.

Firstly, HIV and other diseases spread irrespective of the sex of one's partner. If men have a lot of male partners, the epidemic appears more in the homosexual population. That's what happens in North America and Europe. But if men have a lot of female partners, the epidemic appears more in the heterosexual population. That's the situation in sub-Saharan Africa. That doesn't mean that the average North American male is gay and the average African isn't - it only means that the average North American woman chooses to have fewer sexual partners and the virus doesn't have an opportunity to spread through the heterosexual population. In Africa, social values and poverty encourage (if that's the right word...) women to have several male partners, which allows HIV and other viruses to spread.

Secondly, the evidence is overwhelming both that same-sex behaviour is common in nature and that an individual's homo- or heterosexuality are determined before they are born. It's a facet of personality not a lifestyle choice. For more on this point, click here.

Thirdly, sex between two men or two women is merely another sexual act. In itself, it is morally neutral, like sex between a man and a woman. But if both partners gain pleasure from the act and no harm results - no disease is passed, no pregnancy results and no third party is concerned - then the act is moral, irrespective of the sex of the partners.

6.6k Too much sex?

It's all harmless fun, isn't it? Stay away from children, protect yourself and your partner from disease and pregnancy and you can have as much sex as you like. It's completely moral.

Well, yes and no. Sex is like any other human activity - taken to extremes it usually loses its point. Too much sex deadens the sensation - it reduces oneself and one's partner to physical objects, and reduced sex to nothing more than mechanical rubbing of different parts of different bodies.

Nobody can say when someone else has too much sex with one partner or with many; we only know that we have gone too far when sex is less joy than routine, when our partner is more important to us as an orifice or an organ than as a person. We may even reach the point of addiction if our interest in sex becomes an obsession.

The important thing to remember is that for sex to be moral, do what you will as long as nobody - yourself included - comes to harm.

Chapter Six: Section 7
Sex: telling the children

Are atheists immoral?

Religion makes a strong claim to morality - only God and faith, apparently, keep us moral.

It's a nice idea, but it's false. Religious morality is frequently harmful; only humanist values guarantee a truly ethical approach to life.

6.1: Defining morality
What's good for us?

6.2: God's morals
... leave much to be desired

6.3: Morals and ethics
From the abstract to the actual

6.4: Sex: what is it good for?
Whatever you want it to be

6.5: God and sex
Confusion and control

6.6: Sex: a broad spectrum
Tastes vary

6.7: Sex: Tell the children
Educate and protect

6.8: Abortion
An ethical approach

6.9: Humane justice
The death penalty is immoral

6.10: Suicide and euthanasia
Dying with dignity

6.11: Recreational drugs
A moral issue?

6.12: Do good...
... for goodness' sake

6.13: Summary
Chapter 7

How do you live when you realize that religion is false?

Do you descend into despair? Lead a life of crime and depravity?

The opposite, actually. Atheists appear more likely to live moral, happy lives than those who are stuck in superstition.

Beyond Religion