Sexual Morality FAQ

Sex is a more contentious topic than ever. The view easiest to articulate in the language of public discussion today is that the only appropriate public standards are that it should be consensual and precautions should be taken to avoid disease and unwanted pregnancy; everything else is a matter of individual choice that others should respect. Since the world seems more complex than that, and many hold a different view, I thought I could contribute to the discussion by setting that view forth as clearly as I could.

These questions and answers present a defense of traditional sexual morality that emphasizes the good of man in society and thus the usefulness of that morality. There are of course other defenses, including natural teleology, personal integrity, honest interpersonal relations, and the need to make sense of sex as part of human life generally. I only touch on such arguments briefly, even though I find them the most compelling, because public discussion today is mostly utilitarian so the arguments relating to social benefits may be more quickly accessible. I also include a collection of references and links to sources and further readings (not altogether up-to-date).

For a spoken introduction to the issues raised on this page (requiring RealPlayer) click here. The issues presented here can be discussed in our forum. Your participation is welcome. You can also add a comment at the foot of this page. The FAQ is also available in Polish.


  1. Why should anyone care what consenting adults do in private?
  2. What is a “public standard”?
  3. How are public standards enforced?
  4. If there are “public standards” on sex won’t there be discrimination?
  5. Who are other people to say what sexual conduct is right for me?
  6. What’s so bad about the sexual conduct traditionally viewed with disfavor?
  7. Why believe that looser sexual standards have the bad consequences you suggest?
  8. Why blame sex for all bad social trends of the past 40 years?
  9. I still don’t see what effect the things I do in bed have on the rest of the world as long as I take the obvious precautions.
  10. How do you know that the particular standard you like is the one everyone should comply with?
  11. Why wouldn’t it be enough if people took responsibility for their actions and lived up to their commitments?
  12. Doesn’t the success of a relationship have more to do with honesty, mutual respect and communication than following somebody’s rules?
  13. Doesn’t the imposition of external rules destroy love, intimacy and individuality?
  14. If stable relationships are so great, why not support gay marriage?
  15. Why can’t people with differing standards just live side by side?
  16. Isn’t traditional sexual morality oppressive and discriminatory against women?
  17. What about feminism?
  18. What about gays, women caught in loveless marriages, and others for whom traditional sexual morality doesn’t work?
  19. Why not recognize that so-called traditional sexual morality has become a private prejudice rather than a public standard?
  20. Isn’t the nuclear family a figment of Western bourgeois patriarchal second-stage society that necessarily will give way to something entirely different?
  21. What is the relation of sexual morality to politics?
  22. You’ve said that traditional sexual morals benefit society. What about the individual?
  23. You and your friends have your system of sexual morality and I and my friends have ours. They’re different. What now?
  24. Do you really believe people will ever go back to the old ways?


  1. Why should anyone care what consenting adults do in private?

    Private conduct doesn’t stay private, especially when it involves something as basic to human life as sex. Among other things, private consensual sex gives rise to babies, family life, knife fights, betrayal, self-sacrificing devotion, and STDs. All these things are of concern to persons other than those immediately involved, so public standards regarding the conduct that leads to them can be a good thing if they help promote some and reduce others.

  2. What is a “public standard”?

    A reasonably coherent common understanding of what behavior is right and wrong. Examples include rules of politeness and everyday moral standards (honesty, trustworthiness and so on). Such standards aren’t perfectly fixed and in most ways aren’t legally enforceable, but in any society that is not in crisis they are definite enough to be used in judging conduct and firm enough to make it awkward to flout them.

  3. How are public standards enforced?

    Talk of “enforcement” can be misleading, since the word suggests that public standards are imposed on everyday life from outside. In fact, as a day-to-day matter they are mostly a matter of common understandings and practices that don’t need specific enforcement. We grow up viewing them as part of what defines what we are and the world around us is. They tell us what acts are and what they mean, and we mostly choose accordingly.

    Even so, violations can become an issue. When that happens consequences depend on circumstances and how serious the violation is. Most often sanctions are not consciously planned but arise directly out of the reactions of those around us. People may look the other way, act embarrassed, make critical comments, refuse to cooperate, shun violators, and so on. Thus, sexual standards, like ordinary standards of honesty and politeness, are enforced in the first instance very informally and by friends and family members.

    Nonetheless, attitudes of broader and more formal communities are important as well, and people rightly expect the actions of public authorities to uphold the accepted public standards by which the world runs. How public authorities do that varies greatly depending on any number of things—it’s not the same for the standards of politeness and the standards that condemn murder, and it differs from one political regime to another depending on the degree of government involvement in various aspects of social life. As a result, what sexual conduct should be considered wrong and what acts should be penalized, when and how are different questions. To avoid issues of political theory and social morality that have no special connection with sex only the first is considered in these questions and answers.

  4. If there are “public standards” on sex won’t there be discrimination?

    Certainly. People who act in ways others consider antisocial and wrong do get treated differently. Otherwise society could not exist, and as a practical matter moral education would be impossible. There’s nothing special about sex in that regard. People who think racism is bad don’t always treat racists the way they treat other people. Liars don’t get the same respect as honest men, and sometimes get called hard names, and in special circumstances even get tossed in jail. Of course it’s true that differential treatment can go too far. Theft is wrong, but the common-law penalty for stealing goods worth twelvepence (hanging) was too severe. Still, life must go on, and we must recognize and respond to wrong in ways that keep alive our sense of its wrongfulness even though sometimes responses have gone too far.

  5. Who are other people to say what sexual conduct is right for me?

    Who are other people to say what is polite, what honesty requires, what constitutes slander, harassment or betrayal of trust, or how much you should pay to support government operations? Views differ on all issues that have to do with human relations. Nonetheless, distinctions must be made and some distinctions must be made socially rather than individually. Sexuality touches us at the heart of what we are. It is intertwined with our most basic connections to others. It is the root of procreation, the family and the rearing of children, and thus of continued social existence and well-being. Standards that determine what sex is and what it is for are therefore fundamental rules for how we live together that can no more be viewed as a matter of individual choice than the standards of ordinary honesty or the rules of property. We need such standards to define our common moral world so we can agree where we are and what we have a right to expect from each other. Would it really make life better, for example, if husbands and wives had no social support whatever for expectations about their relationship and each other’s sexual conduct?

  6. What’s so bad about the sexual conduct traditionally viewed with disfavor?

    There are lots of problems with it, personal, interpersonal and social. I’ll concentrate on the social issues because they’re probably the most obvious.

    Socially, the most evident problem with sexual conduct that violates traditional standards is that accepting it transforms the setting in which men and women deal with each other in a way that radically weakens family life. How we act depends on what we think things are, and what things are for us depends on the idea of them we share with other people and see followed in daily life. What men and women think sex is affects the nature and stability of their relationships. It matters whether they believe it has to do with love, marriage and children, and so is something that by its nature is serious and must be respected, or as a feature their bodies happen to have that they can do with as they please.

    To accept as legitimate traditionally proscribed conduct, such as fornication, adultery and homosexuality, is to deny that sex has a specific nature and function that commands respect. If sex has only the significance the parties give it then it is right for men and women to deal with each other in such matters with no preconceptions except that each wishes to find a pattern that satisfies whatever inclinations and impulses he may have from time to time. No one has a right to expect anything particular from anyone else, so trial, error and change are only to be expected. While people’s feelings may lead them to make private commitments to each other, feelings change, and the commitments are unlikely to outlast them. There’s not much basis for others to take an interest in something so subjective.

    Governing sexual life by private impulse and judgment rather than common understandings and standards as to what it is and ought to be makes fidelity and trust far less likely. It destroys the common moral world within which such things can exist and make sense. Lack of fidelity and trust destroys both individual happiness and the conditions that make successful rearing of children possible, which are absolutely necessary for any tolerable society. Stable and functional unions between men and women for raising children are too important to leave to chance and idiosyncrasy. Public moral standards and attitudes must therefore create a setting that fosters and protects them by making reliance prudent. A moral view that brings sexual relations into a publicly recognized order that supports such unions by defining what sex is, and which sexual acts and relationships are legitimate, is thus a necessity.

  7. Why believe that looser sexual standards have the bad consequences you suggest?

    For one thing, it’s believable that people who think sex has to do with fidelity and having children will act differently in the ways described than people who think it has to do with satisfying idiosyncratic feelings and purposes. Where stability of relationships is the issue, it is believable that objective public standards can help deal with something as wandering and persuasive as sexual impulse. For another thing, experience indicates that looser standards indeed have those consequences. Trends regarding family structure and the well-being of children since the sexual revolution of the 1960s are very much in point.

    To give a few numbers, in 1960 5.3% of all births in America were illegitimate; in 1999, 33.0%. For blacks the figures were 23% and 68.9%. From 1960 to 2000, the number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried women age 15-plus declined from 73.5 to 46.5, the number of divorces per 1,000 married women age 15-plus rose from 9.2 to 18.9, and the number of couples cohabiting without marriage increased about elevenfold. Not surprisingly, the proportion of children living with both parents plunged from 85% in 1970 to 69% in 1995, and the percentage living with their mother only grew from 11% to 23%.

    At the same time the world became far worse for children. The percentage of children living in poverty in America grew by a third from 1970 to 1990, largely as a direct result of illegitimacy and divorce. The evidence for causality in the case of other problems such as juvenile delinquency and suicide is more inferential, but the far greater frequency of such problems among young people from broken families and the huge growth of such problems during the years in which family structure was loosening (and during which spending on education and social welfare increased enormously) are certainly suggestive. It is suggestive, for example, that three out of four teenage suicides occur in a household where a parent is absent and that 5 out of 6 adolescents caught up in the criminal justice system come from such households. Psychological studies of emotional and behavioral problems and anecdotal and impressionistic accounts confirm the conclusion that the family instability associated with looser sexual morals has been catastrophic for children.

    Anecdote and impression are also suggestive regarding the relations between the sexes; along with marriage and divorce rates they suggest that those relations are far worse than what they have been and should be. It appears that men and women are different enough to have trouble establishing solid long-term relations if there are no settled standards defining the meaning of sexual connections and what can be expected from them, and they must instead base their relations solely on individual negotiations leading to deals that are likely to last only until one party changes his mind. The sexual revolution, disastrous for children, hasn’t made their elders happy either.

  8. Why blame sex for all bad social trends of the past 40 years?

    There’s no need to claim sex is the cause of everything; changes regarding sex haven’t taken place in a vacuum. The relation between men and women is fundamental to social order, though. Why expect order anywhere if something so basic is disordered? It seems clear that changes in sexual attitudes are functionally connected to bad trends in a way that makes a reversion to more traditional attitudes a necessary part of reversing the trends. If it’s something other than sex that’s the real problem then fixing that other thing will involve fixing sex.

    It is plain that current social problems are not caused by poverty, repression, insufficient formal education, unequal opportunity, or too few social programs. Otherwise it would be impossible to explain why internationally they have grown so much during a period in which prosperity, formal education, and social programs and protections expanded so greatly. Each country has its own story, but the pattern is clear. From 1960 to 1990 throughout the West a decline in marriage rates was accompanied by a much sharper rise in divorce rates (which typically more than doubled) and illegitimacy (which typically rose 4-6 times). At the same time crime rates, welfare costs, and other indicia of social disorder, especially those relating to young people, increased dramatically; crime rates, for example, increased 6 to 7-fold in most Western European countries between 1955 and 1990, while social spending rose enough to cause very large budget deficits in spite of increased revenues and attempts to contain costs.

    These changes appear historically unprecedented. English statistics, which are comprehensive and readily available, show an illegitimacy rate that did not deviate much from 5 percent between 1800 and 1960 but by the end of 1992 had shot up to more than 32 percent; the rise in the crime rate has been similarly unprecedented and even steeper. All this has occurred during a period marked on the whole by great advances in prosperity, social protections, and what is considered enlightenment.

    It thus appears that family disorder and general social disorder have been closely connected in both timing and degree. Both appear to be linked not to the material circumstances commonly blamed but to a decline in the degree to which people feel that their ties to others are important, binding and reliable. Such connections are what bring people to be responsible and lead stable and orderly lives, and give them something other than the state to fall back on in times of trouble.

    The decline can be attributed to a variety of causes, including general conditions of modern life that make people economically less dependent on each other. However, economic and similar conditions may affect but do not determine culture. One of the main functions of morals has always been to counteract bad effects nonmoral circumstances would otherwise have. Accordingly, we have a special need today for moral ideals and standards that promote close and durable connections among particular individuals. Traditional sexual morality and the ideals associated with it promote such connections because they foster the traditional family. It is hard to think of anything that could substitute for them.

  9. I still don’t see what effect the things I do in bed have on the rest of the world as long as I take the obvious precautions.

    An act can be wrong not only because of its specific consequences but also because of the consequences of general acceptance of acts of the same kind. Since man is social and rational, to act by a principle is in effect to legislate that principle as legitimate. For example, it would cause no discernible injury to anyone if I counterfeited enough money to live on, at least if the counterfeiting were skillful enough to avoid detection. It would nonetheless be wrong for me to do so because if counterfeiting were accepted as OK the financial system would come to an end. A similar line of thought applies to acts that people find tempting but if commonly accepted destroy a generally beneficial system of sexual attitudes and customs. The question in each case is what the world would be like if the moral system that the act expresses were universally accepted: in other words, what moral attitudes the actor is enacting and the general consequences of such attitudes.

  10. There have been many different systems of sexual morality. How do you know that the particular standard you like is the one everyone should comply with?

    It’s notoriously difficult to get universal agreement on any moral claim, so the question has no specific connection with sex. The same question could be asked about standards regarding theft or assault and battery. The Vikings didn’t have the same standards as your great aunt. A practical response is that a self-governing society must be based on reasonably coherent common moral understandings. The members of a society should therefore in general be loyal to the standards that have made the society what it is, and they can legitimately apply those understandings to other members, in sexual matters as in others. The need for coherence makes respect for moral tradition a general obligation.

    The claims of tradition are particularly persuasive in the case of sex. Sex is too fundamental, and its effects on our lives are too complex, subtle and powerful, for us to be able to derive a workable sexual morality by reason alone. The best approach is therefore to model ourselves on others like ourselves whose way of life has been successful. That modeling normally takes place as the transmission of a tradition. The presumptive standard for sexual morality is therefore to be found in the traditions of one’s own people. Long-established standards may change over time, but the presumption is necessarily in their favor. That’s especially true if the standards (e.g., disfavoring adultery, premarital sex and homosexuality) are rationally defensible, are broadly similar to those independently developed by other major civilized peoples, most idiosyncrasies (e.g., the Western proscription of polygamy) seem explicable on some acceptable ground, and attempts at modification or rejection have evidently worked badly.

  11. Why wouldn’t it be enough if people took responsibility for their actions and lived up to their commitments?

    Such principles work well as a basis for morality in commerce and other settings in which people typically deal at arm’s length, the matters at issue can be clearly defined in advance, and disputes can be satisfactorily dealt with through contract and tort liability because money is an adequate remedy and fault and damages can be assessed by third parties.

    Sex and having children aren’t like that. You never know what you’re getting into and it’s hard for other people to know what’s going on, whether it’s consistent with the original understandings of the parties, or how to put things right when they’ve gone awry. Some parties to the transactions—the children—have no choice at all regarding their participation. Also, in commerce risky transactions can be left to specialists and there are well-developed ways of limiting risk. Not so in the case of marrying and having children, activities in which most people inevitably engage and the major risks of which cannot be avoided without destroying the point of the relationship. The responsibilities of family life are pervasive and last a very long time, and people who enter into them are usually young and inexperienced and can’t possibly know how they will feel throughout the long decades ahead. So if standards for relations between the sexes are necessary, commercial principles aren’t going to do the job because they are designed to deal with wholly different circumstances.

  12. Doesn’t the success of a relationship have more to do with honesty, mutual respect and communication than following somebody’s rules?

    What’s wrong with having both if both are helpful? The issue is whether social acceptance of concrete rules that people can rely on and that define their situation and its significance promotes successful relationships, not whether something else is also a good thing that contributes to the same goal.

  13. Doesn’t the imposition of external rules destroy love, intimacy and individuality?

    Some rules might do that, others are necessary to make such things possible. Nothing is more featureless, loveless and impersonal than chaos.

    Pursuits as varied as economic life and poetry can be injured by too many rules; nonetheless, some objective rules (the rules of property and contract; standard commercial practices; conventions of versification; the grammatical and other rules that constitute a language) are needed for them to thrive. The proof of the pudding is in the eating: Are individuals stronger now than in the past? Have relations between the sexes improved in the past 40 years? Is family life better? Are children better off?

  14. If stable relationships are so great, why not support gay marriage?

    Social institutions that relate to fundamental things like sex succeed in channelling impulse reliably by integrating culture and nature, and can’t be defined arbitrarily. They must be based on basic realities that don’t change. The sexual bond between a man and a woman naturally gives rise to children, and therefore to a long-term connection that links the generations and transcends the immediate desires and interests of the parties. The institution of marriage strengthens, orders, and further defines that natural connection. It has accordingly been a fundamental social institution in all times and places, unlike “gay marriage,” a modern eccentricity.

    It follows that there is no reason at all to expect “gay marriage” to have anything like the institutional strength of normal marriage. Further, much of the strength of marriage has been its specificity, and its position in a network of related practices and understandings that define what sex is, what its place and importance in human life are, what men and women are, and what they owe each other. Recognition of “gay marriage” would separate marriage completely from such things, and so seriously weaken it as an institution while doing very little for homosexuals.

  15. Why can’t people with differing standards just live side by side?

    Sometimes they can, sometimes there are problems. For example, if one standard (e.g., avoidance of promiscuity, illegitimacy, and divorce) prevents costs then those who adhere to it won’t want to pay the costs created by those who reject it. Some costs, like higher criminality rates among teenage sons of single mothers, are very hard to avoid when people live side by side. Others, like AIDS, can be avoided by turning your back on your dying neighbor, but that’s not a solution everyone likes to live with.

    In addition, people find it easiest to live with those who hold compatible views about basic patterns of human relations. For example, those who think racial equality is important are often uncomfortable in the company of people who make racist jokes, to the extent that they would not want to live in a society in which such conduct was generally practiced and approved. Those who think a certain pattern of dealing between the sexes is important have analogous feelings.

    Moral standards that relate to basic aspects of human life are necessarily social as well as individual because they establish understandings and coordinate actions in ways needed for certain goods to be achieved. If a man thinks relations between men and women should follow a certain pattern, he’s going to find it much harder to live that way if that’s not the pattern the women he meets expect and think they can count on. He’s going to find it difficult to maintain the pattern in his household if the people his family meet, the TV shows they watch, and his children’s teachers tell them it’s stupid. That’s true whether the pattern is “men and women are equals”, “personal choice should be respected”, or “virginity before marriage is good.”

    People act less in accordance with the formal rules they say they accept than their understanding of what things are. That is especially true where strong emotions and impulses are involved. What something is for us as a moral matter is not something we can just make up. It normally depends on the whole network of attitudes and habits with which we have grown up and find ourselves surrounded, and that defines the world for us. If all our lives people have treated sex as whatever you make of it then that will affect how we act in stressful situations regardless of our intentions in cooler moments. In contrast, if people uniformly treat sex as something important tied to an objective order of things that promotes stable personal and family life, and if those who reject that understanding are scorned (as those called racists, and those who accept the understanding of sex presented on this page are now scorned), then that is very likely to be what sex is for us and we will be much more likely to act accordingly.

  16. Isn’t traditional sexual morality oppressive and discriminatory against women?

    The claim that traditional sexual morality discriminates against women, if true, makes it hard to understand why they have always been its most vigorous proponents and why its weakening and the consequent growth of marital instability and illegitimacy have so extensively feminized poverty. On the face of it, the “one man/one woman” rule is most burdensome to socially and materially successful men who like variety and are in a position to get what they want, rather than to women, who are less likely than men to view sex as a consumer good.

    The fact of the matter is that the decline of traditional sexual morals has led to vastly increased victimization of women and children. The pattern is clear and pervasive. Married women living with their husbands are the least likely of all women to be victims of violence. Much “teen-age sex” is in fact statutory rape of young girls by adult men. The great majority of child abuse cases involve children living in a household without the father present. And since child sexual abuse is typically a crime of stepfathers and mothers’ boyfriends, fatherlessness greatly increases its risk. Nor are the effects of disorderly sexual lives limited to a single household or generation—boys who grow up without fathers are far more likely to engage in violent behavior than those who grow up in two-parent homes, and the children of divorce are likely to form unstable sexual connections themselves.

  17. What about feminism?

    Feminists often reject traditional sexual morality as part of traditional relations between men and women. The reaction reflects ideology more than a practical concern for women’s well-being. If sex is simply a matter of personal choice it’s not likely to give rise to obligations that can be relied on. The disappearance of enduring obligations regarding sex burdens women far more than men for reasons that are both emotional—women are more concerned with commitment—and practical—reduced reliability is much more troubling if you’re the one with the baby. A feminism that truly favored women would recognize women’s real needs, and favor traditional morality.

  18. What about gays, women caught in loveless marriages, and others for whom traditional sexual morality doesn’t work?

    What about those for whom any system of things doesn’t work? What about large muscular men with vehement appetites, minimal intelligence, and violent tempers who find the restraints imposed by modern criminal law unbearable and would have been happier as Visigoths? What about people with an intense psychological need for uniformity, stability and discipline who find that for them the multicultural capitalist consumer society doesn’t work? Such people don’t write books that get favorable reviews in mainstream publications, but they exist and suffer.

    As discussed, the pattern is clear that sexual immorality leads to violence and abuse. Nonetheless, some people don’t like its restraints. All social institutions that deal with fundamental matters seem oppressive to those who for whatever reason have come to think they shouldn’t have to comply with them. The economic system requires us on pain of poverty to get up and go to work every day, sacrificing the best hours of our lives to the requirements of other people. The legal system demands that we deny what seems our own nature by restraining our impulses, and the political system can require us to sacrifice our very lives in its defense. Since we are social beings, the normal response to such necessities is to bring children up to accept the demands that must be met, to view meeting them as part of what it is to be a good person, and to show only very limited tolerance toward those who refuse to comply. It’s unclear why the response in the case of sex should be different. No system pleases everyone; the point is to have a system that works tolerably well as a general thing, and in particular one that deals adequately with such utterly fundamental issues as the relation between the sexes and the care and education of children. Once such a system exists it may be possible to find piecemeal ways of mitigating burdens in special situations, but it’s absurd to make such things the center of attention.

  19. Why not recognize that so-called traditional sexual morality has become a private prejudice rather than a public standard?

    The changes are well-accepted only in particular circles. Those social circles include the elites now dominant, but the debate continues in the society at large. So far it has been as one-sided as the debate on government intervention in the economy during most of the last century, in part for a similar reason—the changes promote a transfer of power from informal, local and traditional institutions to formal and centralized ones, and so favor the interests and outlook of those in a position to dominate the discussion. So far those favoring the changes have had their way on the whole, but the visible results of their success have made their position far harder to defend, and the debate is therefore far from over.

  20. Isn’t the nuclear family a figment of Western bourgeois patriarchal second-stage society that necessarily will give way to something entirely different?

    People are fond of saying such things. On the other hand, the bond between mother and child is assuredly universal. As to that between man and woman, Mencius says that “a man and woman living together is the most important of human relations” (Bk. v, p. A, 2); Genesis says “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother; and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh” (2:24); the Iliad is the story of a war fought to undo an adulterous elopement and the Odyssey that of a man’s struggle to return to his wife and son, a son’s search for his father, and a woman’s loyalty to her husband; and the Ramayana is the romance of Rama and Sita, husband and wife. Examples could be multiplied. So the view that there is something special and basic about the group consisting of a man and a woman with their children, about fidelity and loyalty and trust within that group, and about the social conventions and standards that support those things doesn’t seem to be an invention of the American ’50s or the English Victorian Age.

  21. What is the relation of sexual morality to politics?

    Too complicated to treat exhaustively. In general, though, getting rid of traditional sexual morality greatly weakens family life, and tends to make the market and the bureaucratic state the only serious principles of social order. People who believe in the rationality and comprehensive competence of the market or state (i.e., libertarians and socialists) often favor sexual freedom, because it undermines competing institutions like family and kinship. So do people (experts, academics, lawyers, judges, functionaries, media and advertising people) whose position is enhanced by making everything a matter of money, politics and formal rulemaking carried on by professionals.

    A basic political question regarding the abolition of traditional sexual morality, therefore, is whether a tolerable society is possible in which market and state are the only authoritative institutions. One problem with such a state of affairs is that radical weakening of family connections has bad cultural consequences that spill over into all aspects of social life. A more specific problem is that experience shows that reliance on the state to deal comprehensively with welfare needs becomes insupportably expensive. Nor are commercial relationships adequate to such needs. Small children aren’t able to take care of themselves by participating in the market, and commercial insurance can’t cover all personal misfortunes because doing so would be the equivalent of establishing a comprehensive welfare system with all the inefficiencies and moral risks that would entail.

    In order to live a tolerable life people need to be able to rely on each other as well as on money and the state, and in a modern nontribal society that requires strong families as a practical matter. Intelligent libertarians and socialists should realize that their favored institutions—markets and state bureaucracies—are not the answer to all problems, and that they will not be able to realize the good things they hope from them unless room is made for family life and social standards that support it and make it authoritative. An intelligent libertarians and socialists would therefore be a sexual right-wingers.

  22. You’ve said that traditional sexual morals benefit society. What about the individual?

    The individual is a member of society, so the conflict can be overstated. Man is a social animal, and his connections to others are part of what makes him what he is. It follows that his duties to society are not external impositions but are basic to his humanity and personal integrity. Acceptance of traditional sexual morality is loyalty to a way of life that makes possible trust and loyalty between the sexes and generations and so a life worthy of a human being. In a world that dissolves human connections to the extent our present one does, it is hard to see how such a life is possible without something very like traditional sexual morality. Rejecting that morality is therefore a rejection of humanity.

    Rejecting traditional sexual morality puts one at odds with humanity in other ways as well. Sex is fundamental to the human personality and physical constitution. It has a natural function just as hunger and the digestive system do. That function has to do with reproduction, the rearing of children, and enduring ties between men and women. Despite modern fantasies, human life can not be reconfigured at pleasure. The fully human life—that which is best for man—must respect natural human functioning in fundamental matters that affect the whole of life. A good life therefore uses sex in ways connected with its natural ends. To do otherwise attacks the order of human life and turns it into a chaos of conflicting and misdirected impulse and feeling.

    To move from the natural to the spiritual, sexual experience suggests something timeless and absolute. It dissolves personal boundaries and makes people defenseless against each other. It’s far too expressive to be understood as a free exchange of pleasures at arm’s length. To engage in it without seeing it as part of a union extending far beyond the act itself and the particular desires and intentions of the parties is to fail to mean by it what it cannot help but mean. It is to turn something that touches our inmost being into a lie, to pretend to give ourselves while doing nothing of the kind, to betray the other person and dishonor oneself. Such an act cannot be part of a life worth choosing. Slang expressions for sexual acts are routinely used to mean “make useless,” “abuse and disorder grossly,” and the like. Such expressions warn us of dangers inherent in sex.

    One of the things that makes human life human is that it is a system of meanings and symbols. Since sex is basic to human life it is basic to that system. In every culture gods are male or female, and even impersonal understandings of reality include masculine and feminine elements such as the Yang and Yin of the Far East. Even grammatical gender is a sign of the pervasiveness of sex in our understanding of things. To treat sex as lacking intrinsic meaning, as a purely technical and individualistic matter that can rightfully be used simply as one pleases, is to disrupt and flatten the shared understandings of man and the world that are necessary for a truly human life. It is an expression of nihilism: if something that affects us as deeply as sex has no intrinsic meaning, what does?

  23. You and your friends have your system of sexual morality and I and my friends have ours. They’re different. What now?

    As in the case of any moral clash, we can try to persuade each other. Differing attitudes toward sex have to do with differing understandings of the world and human nature. Those can and do change, and changes can have an enormous influence on conduct. Modern attitudes toward sex are based on a combination of atomic individualism and technocratic faith that has long ceased to be plausible, and as public understandings evolve they are likely to seem less attractive. So there is some prospect for successful discussion.

    If persuasion doesn’t work then accommodation may be possible, although to the extent the clash relates to things that are fundamental to social life separation may become necessary. Public standards sometimes accommodate difficulties of compliance by maintaining the standards when violations become an issue but not prying too vigorously into what’s out of sight. To the extent people think social separation called for (some people might not want to live with the medical consequences of promiscuity or the social consequences of high illegitimacy and divorce rates, while others might not want to live with what they see as puritanical morality), it could be realized within a loose federal system that permits states and localities to act in accordance with their own moral standards and eliminates cross-community transfer payments, such as public education, social security and welfare, that have the effect of forcing one lifestyle to subsidize another.

    A final possibility is overriding your views or mine by force. Current examples of the use of force include public school curricula that oppose traditional moral views (the compulsion lies in compulsory tax support and compulsory attendance laws) and laws against discrimination on the basis of marital status and sexual orientation.

  24. Do you really believe people will ever go back to the old ways?

    We shall see. What people find natural depends on the social institutions among which they grow up and that surround them, and social institutions are very flexible over time and tend to evolve to provide what’s needed. If sexual freedom causes serious enough problems in individual and social life it won’t last. If it means that people and societies don’t reproduce it will certainly disappear. How the necessary restraints will be inculcated and reinforced under circumstances of open and instantaneous worldwide communication is of course an interesting question. Presumably the great flexibility of modern social networks will be adequate to the task if it has to be done. People are very inventive in configuring their dealings with each other to do what is needed.

    Some initial steps are obvious, such as doing away with the social standards that have grown up in favor of unrestricted sexual liberty (e.g., certain antidiscrimination rules and the prejudice against criticizing people in such matters). Possibly the ease under modern circumstances of voluntary self-segregation by lifestyle and the difficulty in fluid modern economies of maintaining state responsibility for individual welfare will also play a role. If people can no longer depend on the state for education and support in misfortune and old age then family ties and the sexual ideals and standards that support them will tend to grow in importance. We live in very interesting times, unfortunately.

Sources of Statistics:

Other Print Materials

Related Web Resources


Sex and Family Life

Sex Education and Children

Religious Perspectives



Personal Reflections

Spreading the Word

  • RSVPAmerica. Alerting parents to the fraudulent Kinsey model of human sexuality and to training them to detect the inaccurate Kinsey philosophy in their own children’s school sex education curricula.
  • A project of Morality in Media.
  • Abstinence Clearing House. Clearinghouse for abstinence information.
  • Sexual Purity. Questions, answers and info for those who want to know about pre-marital abstinence.
  • Wahre Liebe Wartet—“True Love Waits” (in German).

9 thoughts on “Sexual Morality FAQ”

  1. Answer 15#: Where in the

    Answer 15#: Where in the HELL are you getting your resources? i’m not at all trying to seem insulting, but you are living in june cleaver’s fantasy land. i cannot stand it when people blame the victimization of women and/or children soley on men. a) all materialistically succesful people that are used to getting what they want are not gonna have that mentality bleed into their sex-lives. b) even if that IS the case, women are known to be just as prone to stray in a relationship or have multiple partners outside of one as men are.
    I mean, really, this is bordering on disgusting. women have been raped and both women AND childern beaten since the beginning of recorded history. in fact, the further back in history we go, the more OKAY it was for a husband to beat his wife because women were SUPPOSED to be subservient to men. it was in politics as well. it took centuries for women to be able to vote, for it to be acceptable for women to work, for women to be taken seriously when holding their own against a man. to have it your way, if a child is being beaten by his father, the little lady should just deal with it until she can find herself another man to do all the heavy lifting. but then, of course, the stepfather would probably molest the child, since that’s statistically what they do and all. what a horrid generalization. that stepfather’s and mother’s boyfriends “typically” sexually abuse children. YOUR STATISTICS ARE ABSOLUTE LIES. They may be what YOU believe, or what you may WANT other people to believe in order for them to convert to your way of thinking, but you should present them as the opinions that they are and NOT as fact. If people would spend less time judging other people’s ways of life there may less polarization, seperatism, and divisional hate. this is NOT the 1930’s, man. your view of sexual morality (and it is just that — YOUR VIEW) is judgemental, accusatory, blaming, groundless, damaging, filled with assumptions, and colored with biased. and i only say that when the thoughts on this page are presented as fact. be yourself, by all means, and live your life the way you want to, as long as you’re not hurting anyone, but i would suggest you go back somewhere and note that this page is all your opinion of what sexual morality should be before you contribute to someone being much more seriously hurt than you think your ways might allow.

  2. Very interesting discussion. Your answers

    Very interesting discussion. Your answers are quite articulate, and, most importantly, they just make sense. But I have a question: I know the purpose of marriage is procreative, but what about married couples who are older, infertile, or who just don’t want children? Won’t gay couples, technically, be equivalent to these kinds of relationships?

  3. To Beatrice:

    That’s a good question

    To Beatrice:

    That’s a good question that brings out the difficulty of thinking about sex if we believe that what an act is and whether it is rational depends wholly on how well it achieves some end. The problem is that sex is part of what makes each of us what he is. While it can’t be divorced from its natural procreative function without changing what it is, it also can’t be reduced to a pure matter of means and ends since “what we are” is not simply a matter of means and ends. So to think sensibly about it we have to have a broader understanding than technical efficiency of what things are and what makes sense.

    To be male or female is to have a body that naturally functions sexually in a way that has a particular relation to procreation, just as to have teeth, a stomach etc. is to have something that naturally functions in a way that has a particular relation to nutrition. There seems to be something bad about doing something with regard to food that’s radically at odds with the natural function of eating (e.g., intentionally vomiting after a meal). The same doesn’t seem to apply when we eat or drink something that doesn’t happen to nourish us because of the particular situation — for example, when we drink a cup of black coffee to be sociable and because it’s pleasant even though we don’t need the liquid and it’ll just pass through us.

    That’s the closest analogy I can think of offhand to the difference between doing something sexual (e.g., sodomy) that defeats the primary natural function of sex and doing something that will in fact fail to achieve the function for some reason other than the nature of the act itself (e.g., engaging in sexual intercourse outside the period of fertility). One seems to violate the integrity of what the act naturally is in a way the other doesn’t. Since sex is such an important part of what we are — emotionally, spiritually, and in our connections to others — to violate the integrity of our sexual actions is to violate what we are in a basic way.

    All of which is rather abstract and at odds with modern ways of thinking that emphasize technical rationality more than notions like the integrity of acts. So maybe another line of thought would help. As I suggest in item 20 (, sex seems to dissolve personal boundaries and aim at something timeless and unlimited. People say “this is bigger than we are.” How do you act with integrity in such a situation, in a way than enables you to make sense of the act in relation to your life overall and to mean by it what it can’t help but express to the other person? In what setting can self-abandonment be reasonable and right?

    The answer given by traditional sexual morality is that the act must be a constituent part of a permanent connection with the other that goes beyond personal interests and in principle connects the parties to the world throughout time. It does that if it’s within marriage and has an essential connection to procreation. On the other hand, the act can’t be narrowly intended to achieve a particular concrete goal (like a baby).

    If it were it would lose the aspect of self-abandonment and openness to something unlimited that we do not control. The resolution is to say that marital acts are OK if they would naturally produce offspring under the right conditions but not require that each act do so. For the parties to give themselves to each other and to the future, without holding back or hedging their bets, it is enough that the act be of a kind that naturally produces offspring and that the parties not interfere with that. There doesn’t have to be assurance that offspring will actually be produced. So on that view the fact of infertility at the time of the act shouldn’t be a problem.

    I think that most of the objections to the foregoing have to do with whether there’s such a thing as “the nature of an act” apart from the effects the particular act will actually have. My response is that it’s impossible to think sensibly about ourselves and our lives if there’s no such thing, if cause and effect is all there is. If acts don’t have an identity apart from their actual effects, do we? And can we understand anything about ourselves if all we are is our actual effect on things, and all the things are is their effect on other things?

    To chris:

    I got the stats etc. from the sources listed at the end of the FAQ.

    I don’t blame everything on men, I just say, in response to claims that traditional sexual morality oppresses women, that it’s obviously to their benefit and its demands are most burdensome to successful and powerful men.

    Your “subservient to men” theory is one-dimensional and inadequate to human life. Among other things, it suggests that order and violence are really the same since both involve power differentials and the possibility that someone will be forced to do something.

    The question is how people can live well with others. Name-calling will not help decide that question.

    To Linda:

    Why do you do it? What effect do you think it has? What kind of connection to men are you looking for?

  4. I dont, agree or accept

    I dont, agree or accept homesexuality. And, no I’m not religious. it is unnatural. I enjoyed you answers to all the questions. People are still going to live and think what they want. They are selfish, self-centered and only thinking of their own personal pleasures. Not, society in in whole.

    • Homosexuality also repulses me personally, but that is not to say that i object to ‘homosexuals’ – just ‘homosexuality’.

      By that i mean – i do not wish to see or experience a sexual act not within my sexual disposition.

      This is one thing i abhore in feminist thinking (with their marches & parades) – where i NEED TO HAVE MY HOMOSEXUALITY CONSCIOUSNESS RAISED. Why? Acceptance yes – but to constantly subject me to it knowing that its not my lifestyle (& how i feel about it) is selfish.

      Any sexual act should be ‘behind closed doors’ – regaurdless of sexuality.



      • And also…
        Feminists banter on about how marriage is ‘opressive’ to women.

        Yes, marriage was a construct by men – but FOR WOMEN & CHILDREN.
        It benefits women & children FAR more than men.

        Men’s natural tendancy was to father many children through multiple women – so it was a way for the male ‘to stay’ & protect, shelter & care for the wife & children.


        After all, it’s called ‘HOLY MATRIMONY’ – NOT ‘Holy Patrimony’.
        End of discussion.



  5. Nice try
    You seem to be overlooking the fact that “traditionally” men marry a woman and have sex with several more. This has always been and will always be the case in EVERY PATRIARCHAL CULTURE!

    If certain nutjobs would accept that *this* is real life, and not the Donna Reed show, we could deal with the reality of our behavior. Instead, we (you) deny the facts and preach your ivory towers to the masses of eager fools.

    • Why believe it?
      Where do you get what you’re calling a fact? Sounds more like fantasy. Statistics are hard to come by, for obvious reasons, but here’s an attempt to estimate the frequency of something of the type you’re talking about: Strom Thurmond Really Was Exceptional! (the relevant part is toward the end).


      Are there any non-patriarchal societies you have in mind?

      Why does your (apparent) objection to conduct violating no-sex-outside-marriage sexual morality constitute an objection to no-sex-outside-marriage sexual morality?

      And where did all the women come from, so the average man could have a wife and several other women?

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  6. Freedom of Speech Sexuality Editorials
    It seems there are pleanty of people speaking out about their sexuality. However, there seems to be an uneven representation of sexual morality on some popular websites. Sex Editorials has a lack of moderate and conservative views on sexuality even though they allow all points of view on their site. I wish I could see a more balanced representation on the Internet.

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