Conversations about sexual ethics often are had without reference to assumed/unstated/unconsidered ideas about:
- (in particular) goals for human(e) sexual acts – ‘what is the telos (end, goal, purpose) of human sexuality?’ (i.e. ‘what is sex for?’)
- and (in general) the relationship between sexual acts and being a human – ‘what is the relationship between sexual actions and human identity?’ (i.e. ‘how dependent is human identity on sexual actions?’)
(Warning: some of the following may offend some – read at own risk) Some sexual actions would be met with a near-universal judgement of ‘wrong’ with little actual consideration of why they are thought to be so. Beastiality, for example, would be considered ‘wrong’ by many people (certainly myself!), but many would struggle to provide actual reasons why it is so. We tend to defer to popular opinion or typical reaction – namely: ‘with a cow!? sick!’
The above points should be brought to bear on things. For example, if the guiding telos/goal of sexual action is enjoyment, then cow-intercourse could be perfectly consistent with that goal, if, of course, the human and the cow were into that kind of thing. If the guiding goal of sex is procreation, however, the cow-intercourse would be (unless I’m very uninformed about sexual reproduction?) quite inconsistent with that goal.
Other sex-acts could be considered. Consensual paedophilia (which, of course, I’m not hesitant to be ‘against’ even if I didn’t have good reasons for it – which I happen to have) would be consistent with a goal of maximum exposure of humans to sexual experience, but inconsistent with a goal of protection of children from various kinds of harm (albeit, ‘harm’ can be a very tricky thing to nail down – and this is in no way hinting that paedophilia in any form could ever be OK).
Enough examples, you get the drift. The other point (relationship of sexual acts to human identity) is also key. For example, does celibacy affect a person’s identity as a human being in any way? Do other sex-acts? Much of western culture presents a view that sex (and lots of it) is what humans do – but what about who humans are?
Other human goals are also relevant to whatever one’s understanding is of the goal of human sexuality. For example, the goal of strong, monogamous marriages/all-of-life-partnerships/’joinings’ (which all really mean the same thing) would clearly contrast with an understanding in which maximum enjoyment was the guiding goal for human sexuality.
An over-arching goal contrary to a lesser goal can override it. Also, an equal goal contrary to another goal can be in conflict with it. The over-arching goal for humanity for the apostle Paul was, in a word, freedom. Full, unadulterated, unhindered, genuine humanness. For all kinds of ethical areas he advised in, the goal could usually/always be seen in terms of not being ruled, controlled, mastered or enslaved by anything, but instead to stand firm in freedom.
Under this overriding goal, were other goals, such as an acknowledgement and appreciation of the basic human goal to ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Though, of course, for Paul, singleness came with its own benefits, which equally – or even better – served other goals, so marriage was not a central or definitive thing to being a genuine human.
But the over-arching goal of freedom shaped all subsequent goals. The goal of human freedom shaped Paul’s understanding of sexual freedom (quite distinct from modern/western connotations of that phrase). For Paul, no sexual desire was to control or enslave humans. This is not, of course, suppressionism, but a humane ethic of (with patient discipline) sharpening, shaping, directing and moulding desires such that they serve the human rather than the other way around – blunted, distorted, undirected and unmoulded (indeed suppressed and ignored!) desires that make the human their servant.