Sexual ethics

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s one on sexual ethics.

Are sexual ethics changing? Are forms of behaviour that were frowned on in the past considered acceptable today?

Definitely. Some people have called it the ‘sexualization‘ of culture: the fact that there are changes in what forms of sexual behaviour are seen as acceptable, with a general trend towards more forms of behaviour being acceptable – or even desirable – and a lot more visible sexuality in the media, advertising, the music industry, and the like.

So sexual ethics are changing in the sense that there is more openness to people being sexual and to a variety of sexual practices. However, there is also a shift towards a pressure, or demand, on people to be sexual in certain ways. Now there is quite an expectation that people should want to be sexually desirable, and a sense that being ‘up for it’ is fun, pleasurable and empowering. The negative side of this is that many people are excluded who don’t fit the rather narrow definitions of what is sexually desirable, and others find it hard to tune in to what they want because they are under so much pressure or have picked up on fairly narrow ideas of what is pleasurable.

Changes in sexual attitudes may be considered a value-neutral development, but if they take on forms that are hurtful it’s different matter. Is that happening today?

I think so. I think that cultural attitudes towards sex are changing, but that there is actually very little focus on what we might call ‘sexual ethics’. There are changes in what behaviours are accepted or expected, but the ideal is still pretty narrow, and there is little appreciation of the diversity of sexual expressions and desires that exists.

A lot of this is very hurtful to people. For example, pressure on young women to be sexually desirable in certain ways – in order to keep a relationship – can mean that many are not in tune with their own sexual feelings and may feel that they have to have certain forms of sex. Similarly, pressures on men to perform sexually, to initiate sex, and to always be ‘up for it’ can make it very difficult to tune in to sexual desires or to be open about not wanting sex, or not wanting certain kinds of sex. People can become alienated from their bodies which don’t seem to match up to high social expectations of looking a certain way, achieving erections, orgasming on demand, etc.

If that’s the case, is one of the genders clearly the loser? 

It is always so hard to say that one gender is ‘the loser’ or ‘the winner’. I think that this situation is bad for everyone, and who it is ‘most bad’ for depends on all kinds of other things as well as gender (including sexuality, age, race, class, disability, body type, and so on).

That said, the pressure to be sexual in a variety of exciting ways in order to be a successful person, to have a good relationship, or to demonstrate your femininity or masculinity, is definitely risky. It is very hard to have ethical, consensual, sex under these conditions because it is very difficult to tune in to what you like sexually, and to communicate this confidently to another person. Particularly it can be difficult to say ‘no’, so there is the risk that sex becomes coercive rather than consensual.

What is the answer?

One answer, I think, is to put lots more emphasis on sexual ethics. We need to provide good sex education which gets people thinking about how to ensure that they – and their partners – can be engaging in sex consensually. We need to be aware of power imbalances (like those around gender, age, experience and all those other aspects I mentioned) which might make it difficult for a person to consent.

Additionally it’d be good to consider the representations of sex that we’re putting on there – in the media and so one – do they provide a restrictive view of what sex is? Do they model sexual consent and open communication? That is one reason why me and my colleagues created the Bad Sex Media Bingo card which calls out bad examples of sex in the media, and suggests alternative ways in which we might represent ethical, consensual, diverse forms of sexuality and sexual practice.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).