A trolley is rumbling down the tracks, about to barrel into a crowd of people. You hesitate, hand on a lever which will divert the trolley onto a track with a single person. As the train looms closer, you oscillate between action and inaction, between utilitarianism and deontology, between macabre fascination and bored annoyance at reading this absurd hypothetical that you will never encounter in your life. But wait! Surveying the scene again, you realize that the people on the tracks aren’t random strangers, but your friends and family! And the trolley is not a trolley, but the swift-moving juggernaut of your sexuality. Hand still on the lever, you break a sweat as you realize this is not an absurd hypothetical, but a very real situation you face every day. The track doesn’t just branch in two, but into countless spurs, side tracks, and roundabouts. When to have sex, with whom to have sex, how to have sex, whether to have sex at all?
“Sexual” and “ethics” are two words that seem to make strange bedfellows. For some, it stinks of prudish moralizing, for others it’s a befuddling obfuscation of terms. Some blush at the thought of debating the ethics of different types of intercourse, while others think it silly to introduce needless complexity into the realm of sex. Sexual ethics does not fit neatly into any political box; liberals and conservatives alike squirm at it. Yet sexual ethics is not only worth talking about, but essential. The ethics of sexuality is distinct in several ways: 1) It is distinctly sensitive, 2) It is privatized and made inaccessible, and 3) It is uniquely important.
You no doubt have a friend who is into ethics. Ethical dilemmas fascinate him, especially ones involving dynamite, drowning, and babies. Your friend relishes the arguments that ensue over dinners and car rides. Unlike your ethicist friend’s opinions about the trolley problem, however, which flit around so openly in just a single late night conversation, his sexual views are held closer to his heart. A remote hypothetical gives us freedom to voice our strangest theories and listen to other people rationalize endlessly about killing and letting die. Yet people hesitate to discuss things as personal as sex.
This is understandable, because conversations about sexual ethics can get awkward fast, and those who are most passionate about the topic are often the most tactless. Even with the best intentions, it is all too easy to blur the line between making value judgments on an action and making judgments on a person. Saying “I can’t believe you would push someone in front of the trolley! How horrible!” seems like much less of a personal attack than saying “I can’t believe you would engage in premarital sex! How horrible!” (Even though only one of these is an accusation of murder!) Discussing sexual ethics has a high likelihood of hitting a nerve or creating feelings of stigma and judgment. Yet in its ideal form, sexual ethics implies a systematized framework: civility, respect, and the clash of ideas rather than people. It demands that people back up their claims with evidence and reasoning, and does not accommodate biases and unwarranted assumptions.
One must be sensitive to the personal nature of these discussions, but this must be balanced against the trend to overly personalize and privatize any discussion involving sexuality. Sexual ethics is singled out for relegation to the sacrosanct sphere of the private conscience, at the expense of healthy debate and dialogue. This operates with regard both to the reception of values and to the transmission of values.
In order to become good at chemistry, one had better study the work of previous scientists, spend years in graduate school, and experience (ad nauseam) the process of formulating hypotheses and having them proven or disproved. In order to become good at a sport, one must train for years and learn about strategy and technique and be receptive to criticism. Every discipline has its own particular track towards proficiency, and while having advanced degrees is hardly necessary for having a well-developed opinion on ethical issues, basic premises are important: the exchange of opinions, openness to criticism and being disproved, and an unwillingness to fit the data to the desired conclusions.
Most people wouldn’t think to consult books or mentors about the ethics of sexuality. The answers to these questions, for the most part, stem from personal feelings, desires, intuitions; internal rather than external moral frameworks. When challenged on a belief about sexuality, the reaction of “that’s my opinion, which I am entitled to” is at least as common as engaging in debate. While intuitive, there is a flawed assumption at play that something as private as sex can not benefit from recourse to rigorous analysis and frameworks developed by others. To naïvely follow our first impulse in matters like this does a disservice to intellectual honesty – we need to admit that sexual ethics, just like any branch of ethics or philosophy, can produce counterintuitive and difficult results that we owe our consideration to. Our first impulse, for all we know, could easily be a product of our culture, upbringing, or personal biases. Even more than academics or athletics, sexual ethics is something we all have a stake in. In this way, the privatization of sexual ethics blocks off the reception of values from the outside and exacerbates the problem of confirmation bias. On the flip side, there are huge numbers of people who have strong opinions about sexuality, but who would be loath to share these opinions in any way that would be seen as “enforcing one’s views onto someone else”. Perhaps this is because they are not aware of any other way to share their opinions. In this way, the transmission of values, even between close friends and family, is either lackluster or unnecessarily fraught with tension.
We have established how sexual ethics is distinctively sensitive, so to take a step further, let us answer the question: what if sexuality is just so sensitive that open discussion about it is just not feasible? Let’s take another ethical dilemma, one not at all hypothetical – the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I have sat in a room many times listening to people defend the bombing of civilians – something I personally consider an atrocity. As someone of Japanese descent, I have listened to friends and acquaintances turn the lives of Japanese women, children, and noncombatants into instruments towards an end. As uncomfortable and upset as this has made me, it would be inconsistent of me to only value ethical discussions in the safe context of remote hypotheticals. I see that there is value in meeting people with very different and even strongly disagreeable ethical worldviews in conversation, and that achieving this might require me to step outside of my comfort zone and opening up my personal conscience to the opinions of others.
There are many points of contention in sexual ethics and much room for new minds bringing their ideas and perspectives to the table – not just ethicists but philosophers, neuroscientists, artists, historians, psychologists, and more. In just the last several years, issues have come up that have divided opinion greatly, from the Obergefell decision to the transgender bathroom debate. Other topics, such as modern society’s vast pornography addiction and its harms, merit widespread and more productive attention. As college students, we also have a special duty to confront particular points like sexual assault, hook-up culture, and the intersection of sex and alcohol. The ethical implications of these are many, complicated, and pressing.
The more an ethical dilemma touches our lives, the less it is possible to be neutral or noncommittal. Consciously or not, every day we speak to our internal sexual ethics by our actions. Sexuality is also particularly weighty because it alone creates the potential for new lives; as an emotional and physical act, sex has a distinct ability to bring either great joy or great pain. Because of this, having a well-thought-out answer to questions in sexual ethics is arguably much more important and pressing than many other ethical scenarios. Sexual ethics means taking control of the decisions in our lives. The way we live today is practice for the way we will live the rest of our lives.
If you are not convinced that sexual ethics is important by the above arguments, I do not blame you. People are rarely convinced by arguments; they are convinced by people. Good and valuable opinions expressed without compassion understandably fall on deaf ears. The burden is on me not just to convince you to learn more about sexual ethics, but to convince you to care about sexual ethics. There are students both at Princeton and on many other campuses who are involved in promoting discussions of sexual ethics. I encourage them to lead by example, to show authenticity, confidence, and understanding for different points of view.
What is our motivation for caring about sexual ethics? Philosophers and ethicists from ancient times have drawn links between sex and love, from Plato in his Symposium to Elizabeth Anscombe. But these issues were never meant to be confined to the purely academic realm. Love is a topic that is central to the identities, dreams, and motivations of the vast majority of ordinary people. Rather than belonging to a musty, boring world of legalistic and abstruse reasoning, sexual ethics should deal directly with the problems and hopes of our lives. It should speak not only to the philosopher’s definitions of love, but should deal with love in the colloquial usage of the word, the sense alluded to by the college student “looking for love.” It should deal with the struggles of broken hearts and crushes, happily-ever-afters and unrequited loves. Sexual ethics has failed itself if it never goes beyond the abstract, if it never helps anyone sort out their confusion and pain.
If sex is meaningless without love, then it is important that we discuss the ethics of sexuality, and that we do so with a proper understanding that we do it in order to love more perfectly. At the end of the day, words on paper only do so much. The true test lies in the conversations, and in the actions that show we put weight behind those words.
Thomas Clark is a junior from London, England, majoring in the Computer Science department. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.