The Sexual morality reference article from the English Wikipedia on 24-Jul-2004
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Sexual morality

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This page is primarily about religious attitudes to sexual morality. For a secular view, see sexual norm.

Sexual morality refers to the beliefs and practices by which a culture, group, faith, etc. regulates their members' behaviour in matter of sexual activities.


Many cultures and religions have a sexual morality that they would like to apply even to non-adherents; sometimes force has been used in spreading concepts of morality.

These rules sometimes distinguish between sexual activities that are practiced for biological reproduction (sometimes allowed only when in formal marital status and in fertile age) and other activities practiced for the pleasure of sex only (or mainly).

In this sense, a concept of sexual morality can be expressed in any of the possible directions, and groups exist that recommend restrictive behaviours as well as groups that recommend totally free self-determination, as well as a variety of intermediate positions.

The respective efficacy of these rules depends on the social position of the group that develops them, on its eventual political representativity, on its relationships with the laws of the related country.

Views on sexual morality have varied greatly over time and from culture to culture. Usually, they derive from religious beliefs, but some writers have pointed out that social and environmental conditions play a part in the development of a given society's views on sexual morality.

In Western pluralistic societies of the 20th and 21st centuries, there often exists debate on not only whether there is a common morality, but on whether it is right to expect such a common view. In most western societies, laws allowing a wide range of sexual relationships between consenting adults is the norm, although that legal range varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The debate thus often includes a sub-argument of what is legal vs. what is moral.

In previous centuries and in many non-western cultures of the 20th and 21st centuries, there has been less room for debate. This does not mean, however, that views on sexual morality have ever been homogenous.

For example, in Hellenic society, homosexual behavior was often encouraged and accepted as part of the socialization and upbringing of young men, especially those in the military. These relationships were in addition to heterosexual relationships entered into for the establishment of families and the production of progeny so that property would be inherited and kept within a larger kinship group. The importance of the kin-group and the maintenance of its property was such that, under certain circumstances, Athenian law allowed an uncle to marry his niece in order to keep family property together. It could be therefore argued that the needs of the family constituted a higher morality that helped to define the sexual mores of the society as a whole.

Another example is the contrast between traditional European and traditional Asian or African views of permitted familial relationships. British law and custom, for example, frequently forbade intermarriage between those related by marriage. However, in rural regions of India, Nepal, and surrounding nations, fraternal polyandry, in which two (or more) brothers marry the same woman, is culturally accepted. Likewise, European mores generally advocate monogamy strongly. However, polygamy is a much more common social pattern worldwide, with some 80 percent of world cultures considering it acceptable. Polygyny is widely practiced by many societies throughout Asia and Africa, and polyandry is the accepted norm in a few Indian and African societies.

In the United States, what many conservatives call "traditional morality" is held to prohibit all non-marital sex, because of the moral belief that sexual relations should occur only between husband and wife. This view of morality thus disapproves of some or all of the following--premarital, extramarital, and homosexual relations--whether consensual or not.

There are people who disagree with this traditional view. Generally they believe that sex is a natural behavior which should be only minimally restricted by legislation or other imposed moralities. Even among the most liberal views of sexual morality in the US, there is generally agreement that involving non-consenting partners (or those unable to give consent legally) in sexual relationships should be restricted and punishable under the law.

Spreading sexual morality to non-adherents

Many cultures intend to develop a regulation of individual behaviours, in the sense that if non-members too could be forced (or however convinced) to respect its "code", in many cases the culture-group-etc would have achieved its goal. The proposed regulation is usually declared in a universal form, as an absolute "law".

Like other types of behaviour, various religious and cultural groups attempt to persuade or force others to behave according to their view of sexual morality. Various groups amongst followers of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all do so. Most of the Islamic world has strict rules enforced with sometimes violent punishments to enforce their views on morality, including sexual morality on their citizens, and often attempt to impose it on non-Muslims living within their societies. The same was true of various European Christian kingdoms at some stages in history, and still many Christians attempt to resist laws guaranteeing sexual freedom (for instance, many US states retain laws against homosexuality despite the impossibility of prosecution), mostly unsuccessfully. Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel try to coerce their fellow Jews to follow the Jewish laws of sexuality. They don't literally force anyone to do this, and rather use words (newspapers, books, radio shows, websites, etc.) to promote their views.

Jewish views of sex and morality

In "A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice", Rabbi Isaac Klein writes a summation of Jewish views towards sex. "Modern man is heir to two conflicting traditions neither of which is Jewish: On the one hand, the rebirth of the old paganism which found its extreme expression in the sacred prostitutes of Canaan...and on the other hand, the Christian reaction to the excesses of became identified with original sin, and celibacy was regarded as the ideal form of life. Modern man, while opting for pagan libertinism, also suffers a guilty conscience because of his Christian heritage....Judaism is free of both extremes. It rejects the espousal of uncontrolled sexual expression that paganism preaches, and also Christianity's claim that all sexual activity is inherently evil. Jewish marriage is based on a healthy sexual viewpoint that rejects the two extremist principles, and so are the regulations governing the conjugal relations between husband and wife, taharat hamishpacha, the purity of family life."

The Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative Judaism) has published a pastoral letter on human sexuality, "This Is My Beloved, This Is My Friend: A Rabbinic Letter on Intimate Relations". Topics include sex within marriage; having children; infertility; divorce; adultery; incest; single parenthood; non-marital sex; contraception; homosexuality; and the laws of family purity (taharat hamishpacha).

Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of Jewish law are the laws related to toharat ha'mishpach (Hebrew: literally "family purity"). These rules inform us that a women enters a state of "tameh" when she is menstruating. During this time a couple must refrain from all physical contact, especially sexual relations. After the cessation of her menstrual flow, the women counts seven days before immersing herself in a mikva, at which time sexual relations between man and wife can then continue. The words "tahor" and "tameh" are often, but erroneously, translated as physically clean and unclean. However, these terms actually describe a state of ritual applicability in regards to fulfilling biblical commandments, such as those associated with the Temple in Jerusalem, the cultic function of Kohanim (priests), and sexual relations within in a Jewish marriage. Modern Jewish authors often translate tahor and tameh as "ritually pure" and "ritually impure".

Judaism has historically viewed homosexuality as a grave sin; in recent years some of the more liberal Jewish denominations have begun rethinking this understanding for various reasons; this topic is discussed separately in the entry on Jewish views of homosexuality.

For more details, see Rabbi Michael Gold's "Does God Belong in the Bedroom?" and Rabbi Shmuel Boteach's "Kosher Sex".

Christian views of sex and morality

The New Testament holds forth a number of discussions on sex and sexuality; these discussions are mainly by the apostle Paul. In these parts of the New Testament Paul informs Christians that celibacy is more desirable than entering into a sexual relationship - "It is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband." (Corinthians I, 7:1) The later Church Fathers took this teaching to heart and taught that chastity and celibacy were a better state than marriage.

Granting a concession to human weakness, Paul states that if a person is unable to maintain chastity, he or she should marry rather than fall into sin. "I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion." (Corinthians I, 7:8-9) Further, he states that husbands and wives should "Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control."

Paul holds marriage not to be the best situation, but rather a potential cause of distress and distraction from God. "Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy. I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you." (Corinthians I, 7:25-28) "I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord, but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife and his interest is divided...The unmarried woman cares for the affairs of the Lord, that she may be holy in body and spirit; but a married woman cares for worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord." (Corinthians I, 7:32,35)

In summary, Paul's teaching to the early Christian church includes encouragement to "...abide even as I"--unmarried. (Corinthians I, 7:8) However, this is spoken of as a preference Paul had--one which he notes as not being for every man (Corinthians I, 7:7)--in order that Christians "...may attend upon the Lord without distraction." (Corinthians I, 7:35) But, if the temptation of the flesh be too great, one should marry, "...and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned." (Corinthians I, 7:28)

It is worth noting that the early patriarchs of the Old Testament were not without wives. In fact the first book of the Bible reveals God noting that "...It is not good that man should be alone" (Genesis 2:18). Out of this God created Eve, a helper for Adam. The marriage relationship was created by God. But, perhaps the result from this union was what Paul was referring to when he wrote, "But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife." (Corinthians I, 7:33) Was Adam not pleasing Eve when he bit into the apple?--quite certainly the ultimate division between Adam and God.

(Sections need to be written on the modern day views of Catholic Christians, Orthodox Christians, Protestant Christians. It would be useful to trace how their views evolved.)

Muslim views of sex and morality

Islam forbids celibacy as a form of religious practice, and considers the natural state for humans to be married.

All forms of sex outside of a marriage between a man and a woman are considered a grave sin, the worst being intercourse, with severe punishment in this world as well in the hereafter. All the laws on sex applies to both men and women equally, apart from those concerning menstruation (see below).

Within marriage, sex is an enjoyable, pleasurable activity, a duty, and a necessity for procreation. It is even considered an activity that -- with the right intention -- be considered an act that liked by God.

Islamic law allows all forms of sexual relations between husband and wife, except when the wife is menstruating, and forbids anal sex as well (although the Shia sect allows it). This implies that oral sex, and other forms are not explicitly prohibited, and therefore permissible.

When the wife is menstruating, sexual contact is allowed, but not sexual intercourse, until a ritual purification is performed (taking a shower).

After intercourse, both husband and wife must take a ritual shower before they can touch the Quran, or perform prayers.

Marriage of cousins is permitted, whether paternal or maternal. Several relatives are considered forbidden (and therefore, such a relation would be incest), such as a man cannot marry his mother, grandmother, daughter, sister, niece, aunt, step mother, step daughter, or women who are already married to someone else.

Milk kinship is considered equivalent to blood kinship, that is, if a mother or wet nurse breast feeds both babies, they are considered siblings, and the above rules apply.

Temporary marriage (Mut'a, marriage for a preset period of time) is not allowed by the majority Sunni school, but is allowed by Shia, although it is rarely practiced.

Polygyny is allowed in Islam, but the practice is more cultural, and varies widely from one society to another.

A man having sex with his concubines is also permitted, and the children from such a relationship are recognized as legitimate and equal to ones form a marriage. The concubine gains freedom by bearing children to her master. Of course, this point is now only theoretical after slavery was abolished.

Masturbation by men is controvertial, and there is no clear Quranic verse or prophetic hadith specifically prohibiting it. Although most scholarly opinions lean towards it being prohibited, some of the most conservative schools of Islamic law have allowed it. Many view it as a lesser and sometimes necessary evil as opposed to adultery.

Divorce is allowed in Islam if there is a good reason for it. It is considered an act that is not very agreable to God though.

Homosexuality is strictly forbidden in Islam, although fringe group in the late 20th century started advocating this as an acceptable form of relationship. The vast majority of Muslims, and all Islamic law so far abhors this practice, and consider it punishable by Islamic law, as well as on the day of Judgement.

The above is a summary of what is considered acceptable from the Islamic law point of view. However, it should be noted that local cultural norms have an influence on what is acceptable and what is not, therefore, within Muslim societies, what can be acceptable in one society may not be so in another.

(New sections may be added here.)

See: Homosexuality and morality; Religion and homosexuality, Religion and heterosexuality, incest, sodomy law, sexual revolution, child sexuality, sexual abstinence, sexual misconduct, consensual crime

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