Sexual Ethics for All of Us

First Unitarian Church of Des Moines, Iowa

One of the questions that came up recently in the high school ethics class was “What is the relationship between spirituality and sexuality?” This question wasn’t the first one that challenged me in that class… I thought that all of us might benefit from giving that question some thought:

Sexuality without spirituality pervades our culture: ethics, right/ mutual relation, deep commitment and the natural joy of connectedness are not part of the sexuality that comes through in advertisements, movies, popular songs… Ethical concerns including equality and mutuality have certainly not been considered in the exploitation of women army trainees at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

To include spirituality in the discussion of the sexuality is to claim our wholeness: our bodies are not separated from personal maturity, from meaningful commitments, from fears and friendships and from our interdependence with the rest of the natural world’s web. I want to initiate this conversation with you because we must try to imagine sexuality more holistically and to speak more clearly with one another in order to mature as individuals and to move toward a culture of healthy sexuality.

Let’s think of sexuality in a broad way – like Audre Lorde presented it in the opening words – the entire range of feelings and behaviors that we human beings – beings with bodies – the entire range of feelings and behaviors that we use to express relationship/ connection with ourselves and one another. Sexuality is not divine nor demonic but human. It is the expression of human being in relationship to all of Life; sexuality is the expression of human being in that deep place where bonds between people are formed.

Let’s use Joan Timmerman’s definition of Spirituality as “the ongoing conversation with what is Unknown – with what we human beings reach for – in music, art, love, sport, work – when we aim for more.” (Timmerman, 8) Today, we will use understandings of developmental stages, questions from ethical thinkers, and images from the natural world to add a spiritual dimension to this conversation about sexuality.

If you are like me, sexuality was not a topic of conversation when I was growing up – certainly not in church. Our young people challenge and invite us into this opportunity for growth: A spiritual guide, trained in the tradition of Hatha Yoga, was asked: “How can we recognize when there is an opportunity for growth? Surely if we knew about it, we would seize it, whatever it would take. ” The spiritual guide’s answer disappointed some because it took away the hope for a specialized mysticism and restored the discussion to real life. The answer: “Wherever there is anxiety and guilt, whenever there is depression, sorrow, and loss, where ever a person is taken by surprise, there is opportunity for growth.” (Timmerman, 117)

Joseph Campbell retells a parable on maturity that was originally from the existentialist philosopher Nietzsche:

“In the early years of life one is like a camel who lies down to have great burdens loaded upon its back. The heavier the load it learns to carry, the greater will be its power later. In the prime of life, a person is like a lion who goes into the desert to kill the dragon. But the dragon is a specific dragon, on each of whose scales is written “Thou shalt!” Only when the dragon of “Thou Shalt” has been overcome, can the person go on to the next stage of growth, that in which a child emerges, a child which is like a wheel, “rolling out of its own center.” (93)

Since our services are for all ages, we must begin with some ethical questions and some rules for those among us without enough life experience to “roll out of their own centers”. I also believe there are many of us older than 20 whose lives have not been perfectly safe, as in the reading by Neal, and we have moved slowly through our stages of sexual and spiritual development. Perhaps no one ever gave us suggested questions to ask ourselves before engaging in sex. Its never too late.

The first principle of Unitarian Universalism is to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person – this is foundational for ethics when we interpret it to begin with self-awareness and responsibility.

A young person begins to develop a healthy sexual life by developing a strong sense of self-worth. Ethicist Joan Timmerman says the first stage of sexual/spiritual development is sexual unfolding/ spiritual awakening:

Sexual unfolding/spiritual awakening involves adapting to the bodily changes of puberty – with serene self-acceptance and also curiously and adventure. Learning that feelings of arousal can be known but not acted upon … is an awakening to moral agency – the capacity to decide for one’s self.

1. Sexual unfolding/ spiritual awakening involves overcoming guilt, shame, fear and childhood inhibitions about sex. Self-pleasuring is a precursor to sharing sexual pleasure with another person and should not be promoted nor prohibited.

2. In this stage, we shift primary emotional attachment from parents to peers…

3. We learn to communicate questions and feelings about sexual orientation. No one should be pressured to premature categorization of oneself:

What if being homosexual or heterosexual are much too narrow categories for sexuality. What if we were “panerotic” and had the capacity to connect erotically with the whole world, as Audre Lorde’s opening words suggest. (58)

4. In this first stage of sexual unfolding/ spiritual awakening, we learn and begin to communicate what we like and dislike -expressing preferences freely and calmly.

Our 2nd principle – promoting “justice, equity and compassion in human relations” becomes relevant when we move into the stage of sexual self-transcendence – “when maturing free people, who have gradually worked up to sexual engagement as an appropriate symbol of their relationship, have asked for and received each other’s consent at crucial points, and are centered, loving and tender with one another, there may be a time when they choose to have first intercourse – which can be a profound experience of self-transcendence.” (60) How do we maintain our own inherent worth and also move into an equitable sexual relationship? Timmerman offers Some Steps for Practical sexual decision-making:

1) Be clear on who you are and what you choose to become. Integrity is to choose action continuous with one’s dynamic center.

2) Consult all the sources of wisdom which are available to you. Imagine these as consultants around a table and attend to them all.

3 ) Ask What are the alternatives to the action presenting itself? Positive choices have alternatives: Do you feel like this is an ultimatum or some form of emotional blackmail?

4 ) What are the consequences for the primary participants; what are the consequences for your wider network of relations? For society as a whole?

5) What choice, given the self-understanding, data, and evaluation of consequences, will I make?

6 ) Am I at peace with this decision?

As all of us ethicists know, every decision affects more than just you and more than just you and your sexual partner. Young Unitarian Universalists are people who not only have strong self-esteem and healthy attitudes about their own sexuality, but Unitarian Universalists also learn to look beyond themselves and to make decisions that are good and wholesome and positive/ life-affirming for their partner and for everyone whose lives they touch. As we mature spiritually, our circle of caring becomes wider and wider; sexual decisions involve all of those in an you expanding circle of caring.

Our 4th principle – affirming and promoting a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, considers later stages of sexual and spiritual development: We learn about commitments: about saying “yes” and “no” from the center of our being, about trusting, and about finding ways to accept Life when commitments are broken. When one makes a long-term commitment/ a marriage or sexual partnership, one learns about the rhythms of sexuality – the natural movement between involvement and detachment. Then meaning is found in some kind of generativity – whether its parenting or some other involvement beyond the couple. There comes to be awareness of the many little deaths and re-births in life. Paul Tillich defines love as the reunion of the separated. The process of reunion includes and transcends loss and loneliness. (77)

Timmerman’s final stage of sexual/spiritual development involves turning inward while valuing relatedness, accepting bodiliness, including body changes once again and thereby accepting ambiguity in larger things. More options can be imagined in all parts of life.

Before we leave our “search for meaning” principle, let’s look at sexual fears and the transforming power of erotic friendship:

Fear has been the traditional basis of sexual ethics. We are afraid because we think we are alone. Some people have suggested that different fears are built into the different natures of our physical bodies:

The female body leaves her open to ” fear of forced entry, of sexual violation based on superior strength or economic usefulness.” The male biological basis for fear is loss of autonomy, of being reabsorbed into a woman’s womb…” (La Chappele, ) Whether these physical images of fear work for you or not, most of us who have moved into a self-transcendent or commitment stage of spiritual/sexual development know that vulnerability/ risk of loss of self is part of sexual engagement – fear is real, but should not be the basis for ethics.

Heyward suggests that the courage to be vulnerable comes from virtues – from reaching into one’s compassion, and the capacity to be friends – to find positive values. So that even though we’re afraid or vulnerable, we make ethical decisions out of courageous virtues:

Two primary values:

1) the sacred value of our sensuality, our erotic power and our unalienated sexuality. Valuing sexuality itself obligates us to respect our own and other’s bodily integrity and to protect, especially, the bodily integrity of children, women and sexually vulnerable men. Another of our obligations is to act sexually only in mutual relationships, in which the erotic moves between us to evoke that which is most fully human in each of us.

2) The second basic value for sexual ethics is fidelity, or faithfulness, to our commitments. In learning to take care of our relationships with lovers, friends, colleagues, helpers, and those whom we are helping, we are obligated to honor, rather than abuse, one another’s feelings. Fidelity to our primary relational commitments does not require monogamy. But learning to value sexual pleasure as a moral good requires that we be faithful to our commitments. This is always an obligation that involves a willingness tow work with our sexual partner or partners in creating mutual senses of assurance that our relationships are being cared for. Thus we are obligated to be honest – real – with each other and to honor rather than abuse each other’s feelings.

An ethic centered in the value of erotic power and relational fidelity embraces sexual pleasure as intrinsically good. Sexual perversion is the complete twisting, the total misconstruction of erotic power. (Heyward, 139)

Erotic friendship includes sexual relations in a relationship based on mutuality. When we are in right relation, the qualities that will manifest are courage, compassion, anger, forgiveness, touching, healing, and faith. These qualities draw us into our capacity to risk befriending… so that the meanings and decisions involving our sexual lives have their foundation in positive values, not fear. “Sexual touching is right only when we are faithful to the commitments we have made. In this context of relational mutuality and fidelity, sex is not only right. It is sacred.” (Heyward, 149)

As we search for meaning, let us live fully embodied … and let us look to our 7th principle for the context of our bodies . In the 7th principle, we affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.

Dolores LaChapelle is called a “deep ecologist” by some; she doesn’t label herself but just goes about her life – climbing mountains and exploring how people have symbolized our connections with the natural world over the centuries. She has found that the most common symbol for the link between human and other life has been sex.

The western world’s separation of the mind from the body has been criticized by environmentalists for pulling our minds apart from the earth – detaching our heads from our own bodies and from the earth’s body. I have to admit some complicity here because it is a new thought to me that sexuality and spirituality can be linked by images of the interdependent web of all existence.

Younger people apparently have an edge on older folks here: “An eleven-year-old girl, interviewed on Earth Day, said: “we are not like your generation, thinking you are above everything; we know we are part of the earth and depend on it.” (115)

LaChapelle lifts up D.H. Lawrence as a writer who could imagine links between the natural world and sexuality. Her study of his life revealed that his childhood was filled with nature mystic experience; he sensed himself as a part of the whole world.

Lawrence invites his readers into this kind of imaging. In his novel, The Rainbow , he presents Will and Anna harvesting oats under a serene, full moon. “A large gold moon hung heavily to the gray horizon, trees hovered tall, standing back in the dusk, waiting.” Will and Anna walk through the gate into an open field where some sheaves of oats had been left lying on the ground by the reapers, while still others were already standing in shocks. They begin putting up the sheaves. And the rhythm of working in nature takes over. The tresses of the oats hiss like a fountain as each alternately stacks the oats. “There was only the moving to and fro in the moonlight, engrossed, the swinging in the silence, that was marked only by the splash of the sheaves, and silence, and a splash of sheaves.” And they moved ever nearer as they went down the rows until at last they meet and he takes her in his arms, “sweet and fresh” with the night air and the grain. “And the whole rhythm of him beat into his kisses … they stood there, folded, suspended, in the night.” (LaChappelle, 266)

After Lawrence died in 1930, an essay was published which presented his philosophy:

“The last three thousand years of mankind have been an excursion into ideals, bodilessness, and tragedy and now the excursion is over… it is a question, practically, of relationship. We must get back into relation, vivid and nourishing relation to the cosmos…The way is through daily ritual, and the reawakening. We must once more practice the ritual of dawn and noon and sunset, the ritual of kindling fire and pouring water, the ritual of the first breath , and the last… We must return to the way of “knowing in terms of togetherness”.. the togetherness of the body, the sex, the emotions, the passions, with the earth and sun and stars.” (LaChappelle, 266)

What if we were clear enough to know that our bodiliness, our sexuality and our positive sexual ethics are connected to the whole world – not just our partner, not just those whose lives we are directly touching, but all of life/ the whole world…and what if that clarity enabled us to ignore the non-spiritual nature of sexual expression in many our culture’s movies and advertisements and music? What if the courageous values of affirming life, including sexuality and of affirming honest commitments, made in equality and mutual respect – what if these were the foundation of our sexual ethics?

Our principles give us guidance in sexual ethics. Our religious imaginations can fill the symbol-space with natural-world connections. Our spiritual mentors and friends can support us as we mature through sexual/spiritual stages. Unitarian Universalism and this congregation invite us to live fully-embodied, mature, and creative.

Closing Words

Go in peace.

Deeply regard one another.

Truly listen to each other

Speak the truth of who you are and what you know.

Take care of your body – it is a good gift.

Remember that we are not alone – that there is strength, and goodness, and love beyond our individual efforts.

Go forth with renewed faith.


Sermon Sources:

  • Rev. Susan Archer, Metro New York Safe Congregations Team,
  • Dolores LaChapelle, Sacred Land, Sacred Sex, 1988;
  • Anne Stirling Hastings, Body and Soul: Sexuality on the Brink of Change;
  • Carter Heyward, Touching our Strength, 1989;
  • Joan Timmerman, Sexuality and Spiritual Growth, 1993