Updated: Sep 2
Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers discusses sexual ethics when a reader asks how to raise sexually healthy kids in America today.
Letter from reader:
I wonder how we can have a healthy sexual society when we have such extremes of opinion, on both ends which tend to dominate our cultural discourse around this issue?
What would a healthy society look like?
In terms of incorporating a sexuality that allows for personal freedom, and freedom of choice, but also with responsibility and an understanding that some practices can negatively impact one’s self and/or the relationship they share with a partner?
What would a healthy sex education look like inside a truly Christian paradigm? How do we teach our kids about sexuality when we believe our bodies and our sexual desires are a gift from God?
I’ve noticed, in my years of clinical work, that there are few folks whose sexual understanding, sexual expression and sense of self as a sexual person hasn’t been marred by culture, religion, others’ opinions, and often even by themselves.
That’s why I appreciate receiving questions like these– and hear them often, especially from those who are exposed to conservative western religious ideas.
When the reader uses the phrase “we have such extremes of opinion, on both ends …” he is referring, in part, to the polar extremes ever-present in our culture.
On one side, we have the religious right that espouses abstinence only “education”(which in essence means no human sexuality education-- only a message of “no sex before marriage”). On the other side, we have the world’s largest grossing porn industry and perhaps one of the most promiscuous recreational sex cultures in the western world.
Ours is a confused sexual culture. One minute we say sex is a sacred act and the next minute we say for the right price, sex and people are for sale – no strings attached.
No wonder I hear so many people speak of feeling isolated when they are caught in between these extremes! They long to be deeply touched-- known.
Despite the bombardment of messages we receive from these influences, desire for intimacy and pleasure is as core to a person’s nature as their heartbeat is to their health. Our sexuality, our bodies, and our capacity to give and receive love is a healing, delicious gift.
More than chocolate, I desire to help others liberate from their sexual pain, to begin to live into this powerful and sacred gift!
When I ask the question, “How do we help people liberate themselves?” I feel ushered into another question: “What allows people to grow up in our American culture ‘sludge free’?”
(Or if that’s not possible...at least mostly ‘sludge-free’?)
The question from this reader and this line of thought led the following musings on the importance of constructing an intentional sexual ethic in America today.
The question I want to consider here is-- what could a healthy sexual paradigm look like for us?
While I don’t kid myself into believing that the majority of Americans want to confront the embedded lack of personal ethic in our economy that justifies using people (men, women and children, and their bodies) to sell products, I DO believe the majority of American’s want to feel good about their sexuality, an raise children who view themselves and their sexuality as valuable.
I also believe that very few people who grew up in America had parents who knew how to help them develop an understanding of sexuality that could serve them in building loving and lasting relationships. The majority of people were raised in silence, shame and ignorance around their sexuality-- the only readily available information was what the culture literally sold them
To design a healthy sexual paradigm is to decide on a core ethic to guide us. In fact I would say that there is, embedded in the absence of an overt and established ethic, an unintended teaching of ideas about sexuality to our children that most agree is NOT helpful to them.
***What is the ethic inside an education program that just provides anatomical information?
It is, “If you understand how your body works, you will know what to do.”
But do we? Does ‘knowing what to do’ translate into a fulfilling loving sexual relationship?
***What is the ethic inside an education program that says “Just say NO!”?
It is: “sex is dangerous, bad, or secret”?
But is it? And if I am raised to think sex is bad or dirty, how will that help me build a satisfying sexual relationship inside a committed partnership where sustaining a dynamic sexual connection can be challenging?
***What is the ethic inside an ‘education program’ where the media uses bodies, sex and people to sell goods and images?
It is: that “The end justifies the means”? Or “You have the right to get what you want even if you have to use someone to get it.”
But do we? And at what cost to us, to the ones we love, to our capacity for envisioning and developing skills to establish a deeply satisfying sexual relationship when the time comes … and over time?
You see, we need more guidance on how to understand and be in relationship with our sexual longing, desires, and arousal. We need an overt sexual ethic that can guide us in building a paradigm that provides the information – biopsychosocial and spiritual (biological, psychological, social and spiritual).
So, here are my initial thoughts.
A healthy sexual ethic would be built on these 12 beliefs –
1. You are a gift and your life is a gift – your body, mind, soul, and relationships are woven into the gift of the human experience.
2. You are God’s Beloved. All creation is a gift (each person and all the earth that holds us) – including each person you experience.
3. You have a responsibility to care for yourself and all creation in a way that honors and supports the fullest potential of every individual.
4. All children and adolescents have the right to learn in age appropriate integrated ways about life, relationships, responsibility and sexuality each year, throughout their education, by parents, teachers, extended family and family support educators.
5. There is a spiritual mystery in sexuality, in love and in the purest human encounters.
6. You are hard wired for intimacy (deep safe attachment) and pleasure.
7. Deep love, erotic experience, satiating sex … will require you ‘show up’ with your heart wide open, eyes and body fully present/in the moment and willing to penetrate and be penetrated by your lover. If the body shows up without the soul, eyes and heart, you may find yourself experiencing a kind of sex that leaves you wanting.
8. Love … the action and the feeling … can at times feel risky and vulnerable. It will require more courage than most encounters, yet be the most satisfying relational and sexual skill you acquire.
9. Real sexual freedom is found inside a loving safe partnership.
10. When loving is fun and easy … it is nourishment.
11. When loving is difficult – it is your teacher, your kiln, your crucible for becoming compassionate, wise, strong, centered and clear. It will grow you up.
12. On your death-bed you will count the ways you loved well as your most satisfying life measure.
What if we taught children … and if we guided ourselves … to make relationship decisions and later our sexual decisions through these 12 values?
Our inner wisdom would guide us.
We would become skilled in the gifts of caring, and we would become skilled at discerning if others are treating us well.
Yes, we would still make mistakes … but we would make less mistakes than we make now.
We would have a foundation with which to examine decisions and a template to learn from.
We would know more of the love, intimacy and blessing God desires to give us, His Beloved, through the gift of sexuality.
I'd love to hear your ideas! What would you include on your list?