What makes for good sex?

A farewell to easy answers

by Mary E. Hunt

Most of my ethical reflection has been done in a North American context, with significant time spent in Latin America and Europe, and important visits to Australia and New Zealand. But in a globalized, religiously pluralistic society, that is no longer enough.

There is one thing I know for sure about sexual ethics: There are no easy answers. There are not even any easy questions anymore as categories and concepts evaporate like dew in bright sunshine. This will comfort few people. But such a frank admission may pave the way for new discussion in a field where old ways have been tried and found wanting, both by those who seek inclusivity and those who would circle the religious wagons ever more tightly. Indeed the stakes are higher than ever – same-sex marriage, HIV/AIDS, late term-abortions, to mention only the most obvious – demanding of Christian feminist liberationists the most ruthlessly honest analysis we can muster.

Of course there never were any easy answers in the highly charged environment where so many religious battles are fought today. But I, like most people in the fray, was more sure of how to frame the questions last century than I now think warranted. I was more persuaded by my own answers in the 1990s than I am now. This is not to signal any lack of analytic rigor, nor is it to indicate any failure of ethical nerve. To the contrary, it is a public acknowledgement that this is not your mother’s playing field, and an equally candid assessment that new data make for new questions.

Good sex in a global, pluralistic world

Most of my ethical reflection has been done in a North American context, with significant time spent in Latin America and Europe, and important visits to Australia and New Zealand. But in a globalized, religiously pluralistic society, that is no longer enough. Parochial views and ways of formulating ethical questions simply will not yield the necessary insight to handle what are now global, plural problems. It was not until I embarked on the Good Sex Project that I appreciated the importance of a new way of working. Under the aegis of the Milwaukee-based Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics, I joined ethicist Patricia Beattie Jung (Loyola University, Chicago) and economist Radhika Balakrishnan (Marymount Manhattan College) in conceptualizing a feminist team approach.

With generous funding from the Ford Foundation, we gathered 13 women scholars/activists from eight countries (Brazil, China, England, India, Nigeria, Thailand, Turkey, the U.S.) and six religious traditions (Buddhism, Chinese religions, Christianity both Catholic and Protestant, Islam and, the common faith, Capitalism). Our two four-day meetings, in 1997 in Philadelphia and in 1998 in Amsterdam, and our rich communication since then, were opportunities to lay out basic assumptions and discuss myriad aspects of what might constitute good sex if women’s religious wisdom were taken seriously within and among our respective traditions.

Far from being a how-to guide for bedrooms around the globe, our conversations quickly focused on good sex as an indication of women’s well being. Well-being was more obvious in its absence – rape, female clitoral excision, restrictions on reproductive options, trafficking in women and girls, prostitution, prohibitions on pleasure, lesbian hating, honor killings and the like – than in its presence. Our initial focus on sex qua sex was hard to keep because it was economic, political and religious matters that framed the issues.

We engaged in a wide-reaching conversation in which we sought neither common assumptions nor least common denominators. Ambiguity was honored and differences were explained, not explained away. We reached no firm conclusions except our commitment to promote women’s safety and well-being. We spoke and wrote out of our own starting points and according to the priorities of our local settings, all the while becoming increasingly mindful of the global gestalt that was emerging in all of its horrifying specificity. This method stood us in good stead especially when we disagreed or had to stretch to understand how definitions of even common words like "good" and "sex" could be so varied. Several examples of the contentions will illustrate just how broadly based the conversations were – and how different and innovative the approaches.

Sex and motherhood, enlightenment, profits

Brazilian Lutheran pastor and seminary professor Wanda Deifelt looked at compulsory motherhood in Brazil, standard fare for those of us who cut our feminist teeth on Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. But Deifelt couched her argument not simply in terms of poor women in her country who are kept from contraceptive and abortive options by religiously influenced laws. Rather, she included wealthy women in Brazil who are now steered toward in vitro fertilization, a growing industry in a poor country. Wildly disproportionate resources are spent for some women to conceive while poor women go from pregnancy to pregnancy, their children often dying for lack of prenatal care or malnutrition.

The same could be said for many developed countries. The point is that compulsory motherhood has a new, additional face, not the one that most of us in the affluent West are used to seeing. Indeed, if we take globalization seriously, it may be our faces in the mirror along with wealthy Brazilians.

Suwanna Satha-Anand, a philosopher from Thailand, argued in an equally forceful way that a Buddhist position on women’s sexuality needs to be evaluated in terms of the more encompassing relationship between sexuality and enlightenment. For Buddhists, she claimed, reproduction represents the ensnaring power and danger of pleasure, permitted for lay people but something that serious truth-seekers eventually renounce. An enlightened being is well beyond all worldly attachments including sexual entanglements. In this view, the best sex is no sex at all, a hard sell for many western feminists who have made sexual freedom and sexual pleasure an important sign of liberation. Still, we heard her point and want it to be part of the mix when international decisions are made such as went on at U.N. meetings in Cairo and Beijing in the last decade.

Philosopher of religion Grace Jantzen, a Quaker working in England, makes a major point of Christianity’s complicity in the capitalist instrumentalization of sex. As arguably the most effective colonizing force in modern life, Christianity, even with its sometimes-ambivalent view of pleasure, has contributed to sex’s becoming one more commodity for sale at the highest price the market will bear. Feminist, including Christian feminist, emphasis on pleasure without reference to the larger justice agenda can, however unintentionally, contribute to this problem.

Muslim scholars Pinar Ikkaracan (Turkey) and Ayesha M. Imam (Nigeria) prevented the team from making easy assumptions about Islam and schooled us in the cultural nuances that result in some women’s living and others’ dying. We were disabused of any latent prejudices that we might have harbored against a tradition that in many ways is no more (though surely no less) oppressive of women than many others. That in itself was a useful challenge.

Indian economist Radhika Balakrishnan laid out the contradictory complexities of capitalism with her vignettes of women working in factories in India. They experience both oppression and liberation in producing the products that poor women in the U.S. buy – oppression in the working conditions, pay and, for some, the demands of prostitution; liberation in that they have their own source of income and the dignity of a job.

Meanwhile, poor women in the U.S. experience the same contradictory complexities. Since they cannot afford large purchases, they sometimes feel pleasure in being able to buy a small item, new underwear for example. The fact that they have a choice among brands and styles of underwear makes them feel good as consumers in an economy they see booming for some. But are they buying their pleasure at the expense of their cousins abroad whose exploited work produced the cheap goods?

'Just' good sex as a human right?

It is not easy to parse such situations into ethically discreet parts. But it is clear that sex and pleasure are not primarily bedroom issues, but public, interstructured and often vexing matters. To speak of good sex is to speak of a range of moral goods that go well beyond, though of course include, the genitally sexual. It is to forsake the ethical microscope, at least for now, in favor of a wide-angle lens.

I proposed that we strive for just good sex, as a human right, with "just" being shorthand for justice-seeking. That way we could tie the struggle for economic and social justice to the equally important quest for sexual pleasure and safety. The suggestion evoked consideration, but human rights language is seen by some as excessively individualistic, by others as far too anthropocentric, lacking concern for animals and the earth. Nonetheless, we tried it on for size, and discovered that one size does not fit all in sexual ethics.

Such complexities abound in the sexual arena narrowly defined. U.S. Rabbi Rebecca Alpert pushed the sexual envelope another inch when she laid out guilty pleasures, the claim that sex can be good because it is bad. Religious taboos and prohibitions, she argued, sometimes enhance the pleasure of certain practices with no real harm done. Lots to explore here since virtually all of our traditions have strong taboos in certain areas, e.g., incest, that would need to be evaluated very carefully lest such a potentially useful strategy be misapplied and cause harm.

Catholic ethicist Patricia Beattie Jung made another provocative claim. She suggested that in her tradition it would make more sense to say that sin was involved any time a woman lacked pleasure in a sexual encounter rather than the classic Catholic approach that engenders guilt when there is pleasure. A person who did not help her/his partner to experience sexual delight would be engaging in sinful behavior. Imagine the Vatican theologians pronouncing that in grave terms and sonorous tones to a waiting world!

What these and countless other ideas evoked in the team was a deep sense of how much work we have to do on sexual ethics and public policy. Moreover, we all came away from the experience changed in profound ways. We acknowledged the privileged nature of the scholarly experience we had. Nonetheless, we called it a necessary luxury, since adequate sexual ethics and social policy for a globalized and religiously pluralistic world will not emerge simply from our local efforts. Rather, such globalized conversations make our respective in-house differences pale before the stark reality of danger, disease and demand that circumscribe sex for millions of women, especially young women, worldwide. Nonetheless, we went home committed to our local efforts.

Developments in the U.S.

In my local efforts since the Good Sex project, I have come to realize that "act locally, think globally" translates to "make love locally, have implications globally." U.S. sexual discourse is complicated in ways that it was not 40 years ago when the so-called sexual revolution was in full swing, nor even 30 years ago when the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered movements got their impetus. But here on the U.S. scene, several important givens have changed. Unfortunately, many religious conversations are still being carried out as if fundamental changes had not really happened.

The first change is rather basic. We used to talk about men and women, males and females, with fair assurance that we knew what we meant. This is simply no longer the case. Sex and gender are deeply contested terrain in postmodern life, with young people far more fluid in their self-understandings than previous generations.

The first transgendered person I met more than 20 years ago was a Catholic male priest who had married a woman and then become one. She decided that she was heterosexual, so she lived happily ever after, as far as I know, with a man. "You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek" never sounded so sweet.

Gender bending and sex changes are increasingly common. Martine Rothblatt, a male to female transsexual, describes the apartheid of sex that prevents some people from living out the identity they feel most authentically theirs. Despite problems of essentializing gender stereotypes, life is short and a fit between one’s body and one’s spirit does not seem a lot to ask. Some people now claim to be bi-gendered, that is, to live in a both/and way as a woman by night and as a man by day, for example. Still others are starting to talk, as Virginia Ramey Mollenkott has suggested, about being omnigendered, encompassing many options in one full life. Much remains to be explored. No easy answers here, nor even any easy questions. But the power of U.S. media assures that such issues have global reach.

The fallout of some courageous people’s efforts in this regard is the increasing elasticity of gender categories, greater tolerance for difference, diversity training, and other signs of acceptance of a range of human experiences. Of course, hate crimes and prejudice are part of the same U.S. landscape, and human cruelty is legend. But I imagine that the next census form will need to have a few additional boxes to check, as the binaries of male/female simply do not exhaust the possibilities.

Expanding ‘queerness’

A second change that colors the sexual ethical scene is the increasing diversity not only of sex and gender but also of sexual identities, orientations, and options. We are still not sure how to talk about it, but just as male/female no longer covers the waterfront, neither does the binary of homosexual/heterosexual do justice to the forms of love among us.

Right when a critical mass of ever so respectable, job-holding, mortgage-paying, monogamous-acting lesbian and gay people was making inroads into a previously closed society, the plot thickened. Bisexual people were first on the scene, claiming that their experiences were passed over. Transgendered people named their particularity and claimed their rightful place in the historic movements for change. Queer became a kind of umbrella category for all such people, despite a lack of consensus about its meaning.

Of course this change upset the apple cart of some lesbian and gay people who were in the vanguard of those being accepted, especially if they were white and wealthy. Might our sexual orientation be less than solidly lesbian/gay? Might we, too, be queer? Might our inclusion be slowed because of perceived connection with those people?

Yes answers (some enthusiastic, some tentative) to all of the above questions were the news of the 1990s for progressives. We were required to retool our sense of ourselves and our efforts in light of new data. Nonetheless, some church discussions are still being carried out as if bisexual and transgendered people do not exist. Once more, the Spirit shows us that it is all of us or none of us.

Decoupling sex and procreation

A third clear change in U.S. culture is the decoupling of hetero sex with the process of procreation. This has been a long time in the works, but it is increasingly the case that we do not assume that heterosexual intercourse should or will eventuate in a new life, nor that all new life will come from heterosexual sex. Birth control is widespread although not used as effectively as it could be. Abortion is a contested given, at least until the next Supreme Court decision on late-term abortions. Poor and young women still need more help, not just in these areas but also in education, jobs and housing, so that they can make real choices. But for the majority of U.S. people who engage in heterosexual sex, doing so with the intention to procreate is an increasingly rare experience, while enjoying it for pleasure and companionship is the norm.

Infertility wrote the book in the 1990s. In vitro and other techniques are now well accepted, if still very expensive. But infertility is a misnomer for same-sex couples who wish to have children, as they may well be fertile but not socially paired in such a way as to prove it. The "gayby" boom continues to grow, with some lesbian women doing it the old way, others using in vitro techniques at home or in a clinic. Adoption is on the rise among same-sex couples, and of course many raise children from previous heterosexual partnering. In all, the human race is running right along even though we have grown beyond the man-plus-woman-equals-baby stage.

Hints for Christian communities

These changes in the U.S. scene are part of the global conversation. They are also the stuff of Christian denominational struggles that shape contemporary church life. There are no easy answers. But I think it useful to acknowledge that Christianity has relatively little wisdom on sexuality, especially when the ground has shifted beneath its biblical feet. For a tradition whose text was written when we still knew what a man and a woman were, it is asking a lot to provide ethical insight on bisexuality and same-sex parenting. Or is it?

One strategy is simply for Christian ethicists to remain humbly silent and let the scientists do the heavy lifting. That would seem inviting except that we bring expertise that scientists do not share, namely, practice at problematizing the meaning and value of things, and commitment to bringing about love and justice. This is an expertise in short supply and high demand as the human genome is being mapped and mined and parts of the human community are being ravaged by the increasing gap between those with resources and those without. To all of these situations we bring the weight of our traditional concern with equality, our perennial struggle to be faithful to the gift of creation. After all, the Bible is not a ready reference book, but tangible proof that people over thousands of years have sought to live in cooperation with the divine.

Ethicists will find our role, but the real drama is on the pastoral front, where ministers meet the young man who wants to be a woman, the bisexual baby boomer, the two men who want to raise a child. Their racial/ethnic background, their economic status, and their family/friendship circle of support will determine a lot about their successful survival, much less their living out their dreams. Without selling the Christian ministry short, it is obvious that few pastoral people have the training to be fully helpful. Even the most welcoming and well intentioned need to refer, confer and learn about issues for which their seminary training was simply too early to provide.

What we can offer as Christian communities is a place where people feel free and invited to be themselves. After all, we claim to be more than the workplace, though some workplaces are more welcoming than some churches. We can be value-attentive schools where new issues are debated and discussed with the best scientific information available. Our historical values include a preferential option for those who are marginalized, and a commitment to changing structures so that the margins become the center. Perhaps most uniquely, we can be groups with warm hearts and fervent prayers for guidance into the unknown. Only then will we live faithfully in a globalized, religiously pluralistic world without easy answers. l

Feminist theologian Mary E. Hunt is co-director of WATER, the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, based in Silver Spring, Md., <mhunt@hers.com>