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Sexual ethics is a sub-category of ethics that pertain to acts falling within the broad spectrum of human sexual behavior, sexual intercourse in particular. Broadly speaking questions of sexual ethics can be organized into issues related to consent, issues related to the institution of marriage such as marital fidelity and premarital and non-marital sex, issues related to sexuality, questions about how gender and power are expressed through sexual behavior, questions about how individuals relate to society, and questions about how individual behavior impacts public health concerns.
Ethical dilemmas which involve sex can often appear in situations where there is a significant power difference or where there is a pre-existing professional relationship between the participants, or where consent is partial or uncertain.
Consent is one of the key elements to understanding sexual ethics. At minimum almost all systems of ethics require that all parties consent to the sexual activity. Where questions arise about sexual ethics have to do with who is capable of giving consent and what sorts of acts can be consented to. In the west, the legal idea of Informed consent often sets public standards on this question. Some groups which have been held as not capable to give informed consent are children, the mentally handicapped, the mentally ill, animals, and sometimes persons under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Some acts that are illegal or often considered unethical relating to the absence of consent are:
- See also: Marriage
In some cultures, sexual intercourse is only acceptable within marriage. As the philosopher Michel Foucault has noted, such societies often create spaces or heterotopias outside of themselves where sex outside of marriage can be practiced. He reasoned that this was the reason for the often strange sexual ethics displayed by persons living in brothels, asylums, on board ships, or in prisons. Sexual expression was freed of social controls in such places whereas within society, sexuality has been controlled through the institution of marriage which socially sanctions the sex act. Many different types of marriage exist, but in most cultures that practice marriage, extramarital sex is often considered to be unethical. There are a number of complex issues that fall under the category of marriage.
Infidelity, for example, is an act that occurs when one member of a marital union has sexual intercourse with another person apart from the union. In some cultures this act may be considered ethical if the spouse consents, or acceptable as long as the sexual partner is not married, while other cultures might look more darkly on such arrangements.
Furthermore, the institution of marriage brings up the issue of premarital sex wherein young people who may choose to at some point in their lives marry, engage in sexual activity with partners who they may or may not marry. Different modern day cultures have different attitudes about the ethics of such behavior, some condemning it while others understanding that their young people will engage in it.
- See also: Homosexuality
In ancient Athens, sexual attraction between men was the norm with such writers as Plato and Aristophanes writing extensive treatises on the benefits of homosexual love. Not a few hundred miles away in the Levant, persons who committed homosexual acts were stoned to death at the same period in history that Socrates dallied with young Alcibiades. Most modern secular ethicists since the heyday of Utilitarianism, e.g. T.M. Scanlon and Bernard Williams, have constructed systems of ethics whereby homosexuality is a matter of individual choice and where ethical questions have been answered by an appeal to not interfering in activities involving consenting adults. However, Scanlon's system, notably, goes in a slightly different direction from this, and requires that no person who meets certain criteria could rationally reject a principle that either sanctions or condemns a certain act. Under Scanlon's system it is difficult to see how one would construct a principle condemning homosexuality outright, although certain acts, such as rape, would still be fairly straightforward cases of unethical behavior. The social status of homosexuality is still hotly contested in many parts of the world.
- See also: Sodomy
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Individuals and societies
Abuse of power
One relevant question is whether it is ethical for a person in a position of power, either socially or in the workplace, to engage in sexual activity with a subordinate. This is often considered unethical simply as a breach of trust, but also because subordinates are unable to fully give consent to the sexual act because they fear the repercussions. Child-parent incest can also be seen as an abuse of a position of trust and power, in addition to the initial inability of the child to give consent. Incest between adults does not involve this lack of consent, and is therefore less clearcut for most observers. It is noteworthy that many professional organizations have rules forbidding sexual activity between members and their clients. Examples in many countries include psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, doctors, and lawyers. In addition, laws exist in many places against this kind of abuse of power by priests, preachers, teachers, religious counselors, and coaches.
Manipulation and personal gain
Sex is 'valuable' (in the sense that it is a basic human drive - though it is not economically, socially or technologically productive in its own right), and because of this it can be used toward unethical ends. It can also be used as a means of direct economic exchange such as in various forms of sex work and pornography where sex is exchanged directly for currency in various marketplaces. The ethics of such markets existing have been questioned by many, particularly Feminists such as Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, and Naomi Wolf. Other sex positive feminists such as Wendy McElroy support the commercialization of sex as a means of empowering women. It is also the case that several religions within South Asia and the Middle East have their own viewpoints on pornography, even that type of pornography which would be viewed with triviality within most Western Nations.
Religious sexual ethics
- See also: Religion and sexuality and Islamic sexual jurisprudence
Many cultures consider ethics to be intertwined with religious faith and the problem of being ethical as a matter of following various religious dogma established by some religious authority. Along with all those activities listed above, some acts that might be considered unethical from a religious standpoint:
In countries where public health is considered a public concern, there is also the issue of how sex impacts the health of individuals. In such circumstances, where there are health impacts resulting from certain sexual activities, there is the question of whether individuals have an ethical responsibility to the public at large for their behavior. Such concerns might involve the disclosure of infection with Sexually Transmitted Diseases, whether promiscuous casual sex, leading to an increased level of unplanned pregnancies and unwanted children, is ethical, and just what amount of personal care an individual needs to take in order to meet his or her requisite contribution to the general health of a nations citizens.
It should be noted that there are laws within many nations, including the UK, concerning what dress codes and forms of wear constitute indecent codes of dress. The following link outlines those forms of behaviour that are either legal or illegal within the UK : 
- Anti-pornography movement
- Catholic teachings on sexual morality
- Covert incest
- Religion and sexuality
- Philosophy of sex
- Sexual abuse
- Sexual abstinence
- Sexual addiction
- Sexual harassment
- Sexual offenses
- Sexual orientation
- Sex role attitudes
- Sexual attitudes
- Chart showing position of some religions on sexuality issues
- Sexual Ethics in Islam and in the Western World
- Sexual Ethics in Psychology
- Buddhism and Sexual Ethics
- Liberated Christians website
- Toward a Taxonomy for Reform Jews to Evaluate Sexual Behavior
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