People hold ambivalent feelings about sexual activity. Libertarians rank "sexuality" alongside morally neutral activities the significance of which would be determined in terms of their place in the constellation of human affairs. To them, "consent" is sufficient for a sexual activity to be morally legitimate. They practice noninterference with sexual activity, provided that it does not interfere with the "freedom" of others

Alan H. Goldman captured this belief succinctly: https://iai.tv/articles/why-sexual-morality-does-not-exist-auid-1212

There is no such thing as sexual morality per se. Put less dramatically, there is no morality special to sex: no act is wrong simply because of its sexual nature. Sexual morality consists in moral considerations that are relevant elsewhere as well being applied to sexual activity or relations. This is because the proper concept of sexual activity is morally neutral. Sex itself is not a moral category, although it places us in relations in which moral considerations apply. It gives us opportunity to do what is otherwise regarded as wrong: to harm, deceive, or manipulate others against their will

"Consent" may be decisive over a wide area of activities, making the difference between theft and gift, battery and sport

But is "consent" always enough? Are there any philosophies that maintain more than "consent" is required to legitimatize sexual activity?

Is sexual activity morally neutral? Or is it governed and regulated in accordance with morality?

  • 1
    What is the moral context? From a secular and societal context, there is a lotta sexual activity considered amoral that would not be considered such in a religious or faith context. It depends on what forms the basis of one's morality. Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 3:29
  • First, as always, the facts.
    – Hudjefa
    Commented May 25, 2023 at 2:38
  • Real morality stems from conscience. Conscience is a quality of consciousness. Consciousness is absolute. Sexual activity can be immoral if it is not in accordance with your conscience. We all know this deep down in our hearts. Commented May 25, 2023 at 13:43

4 Answers 4


"there is no morality special to sex"

By the same reasoning there would be no morality special to murder, you just have to get busy on the particulars (war? self defence? etc). That is, it's dissembling. The presence of specific reasoning for different situations within a topic, or of exceptions to general rules, doesn't void the topic of requiring its own special moral consideration.

I would contend two major drivers of moral behaviour: intersubjectivity; and game theory. The selfishness of genes, in the competition to replicate, makes sex an area of special focus for game-theory ethics. Our evolved drivers of impulses succeeded in replicating, that is our unreasoning animal self, very likely to conflict with reasoned (through intersubjective considerations) moral thought. But evolved impulses do not have our personal interests at heart. I think of Observations on mating behaviour of Julodimorpha bakewelli, where the substitution of discarded beer bottles for the cues of sexual attraction in jewel beetles nearly wiped them out.

Normative ideas about how to behave arise powerfully from evolutionary drivers in ways that we find hard to question. Consider How do ethicists tackle the question "Is it immoral to have sex in public places?" Is it possible to use rational and empirical ideas to answer? and Haidt's research on 'moral dumbfounding'. The intelligent adaptability of human societies, has been focused on 'hijacking' the evolved shame & disgust 'circuits', to serve cultural purposes, discussed here: How is Society shaped?

There are special questions around social change and gender roles. Discussed here: Studies exploring the rationale of gender equality I'd look toward Singer's picture of moral progress as being in the direction of widening the circle of moral concern. It's notable that as an area of serious philosophy this has almost only been dealt with by women philosophers, from Wolstencraft to Debouvoir to Haraway, who don't get the credit they deserve. Vs lazy status quo apologists, which it sounds like includes this Goldman.

It's a running joke that Libertarians are just anarchists that make a top priority of lowering the age of consent. You go find mothers who think age of consent is a 'morally neutral' topic. I'll wait. If you look at the modern history of age of consent laws the key wasn't moral condemnation of all teenage sexual activity, it was that rape has incredibly low conviction rates (<5%), & age-of-consent means all that has to be proved is it happened.

"The threat of public disorder, like from puritans or religious conservatives in Pakistan Afghanistan or Iran, shows how failure of governments to keep policy up to speed with public sentiment can lead to unrest, even revolution." from Is artificially generating images of minors in sexual positions unethical?

I would argue sex and sexuality has always been one of the most explosive topics, and potential sources of violence and political disintegration. What is morality for, if not preventing or mitigating that? I'd argue morality is the negotiation of a society on how to live well together.

I have to say I think your question is deeply, worryingly misguided. Like how could you possibly take this seriously:

"It gives us opportunity to do what is otherwise regarded as wrong: to harm, deceive, or manipulate others against their will"


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    The last statement in the quote from Alan H. Goldman dismisses everything written before it. It is a very twisted view of sex and intimacy.
    – user64314
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 2:16

The problem is that sexual activity is unlike any other activity in that it can initiate a new life. As a consequence, the logic involving it includes many considerations that no other arena of life would bring in.

For instance, if you lie about using contraception, does that mean the consent is void? What if you told the truth, and the contraception failed -- what moral responsibilities result?

  • It is a conundrum. What if you had dinner at a nice restaurant, and 6 weeks later you were told that ownership had conveyed to you and you were responsible for managing it? Pretty steep bill for a nice dinner.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 1:38
  • @ScottRowe: Is that, likely? A relevant real case, was what Boris Becker faced for a blowjob in a cupboard at The Ivy theguardian.com/uk/2001/feb/08/oliverburkeman We definitely have some logically inconsistent rules, as well as legal judgements out of step with moral sentiments. Like the legal case Elon Musk faced for propositioning his flight attendent/masseuse, it seems logical financial decisions were not being made by the male party.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 2:07
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    @ScottRowe It clearly produces conundrums that no other activity does, resulting in its being its own sub-region of the field.
    – Mary
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 3:11
  • Babies can be made in labs without any sex involved. Although starting a new life is clearly the source of many ethical questions, it is not exclusively related to sex.
    – armand
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 1:36
  • There a re also many practices that are identifiied as "sexual" and have zero chance of producing offspring.
    – armand
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 1:43

The paragraph you cite appears to assume that morality is absolute and that Alan H Goldman is an authoritative guide to its scope, neither of which am I remotely prepared to accept. There are many sections of society in which sex outside of marriage is deemed immoral, consent notwithstanding. In most societies sex between an adult and a consenting teen under 16 is also considered immoral, notwithstanding the fact that a person on their 16th birthday is no better judge of whether to give consent than they were the day before. And then let us not forget incest taboos, prohibitions on sex in public places, homophobic sanctions in some societies and so on. Goldman is quite entitled to state that he disagrees with all of that, but not that he is absolutely right to hold that view.


In reality, there is no way to isolate sex from context. Sex simply doesn't exist in the absence of the circumstances surrounding it. There is no 'pure' sexual experience that can occur outside of participant, behaviour and environment.

There are 'kinds' of sex we recognise, many of which we name and many of which we don't, many of which occur simultaneously. Loving/ambivalent, adventurous/timid, violent/gentle, consensual/non-consensual, celebratory/grieving, 'kinky'/straight, bad/good, emotionally distant/emotionally intimate... etc.

So, like any other behaviour, all sexual behaviour is prone to varieties of moral judgement by populations of people who understand morality as it relates to sex in different ways. Religious communities, LGBTQi communities, kink-based communities, those of us unaffiliated with any particular group; all have notions of what makes sex moral and many of these notions conflict not only between groups, but within groups. In turn, most of these groups will have their own notions (philosophies?) of attributes other than consent which are morally relevant to sexual behaviour, including (but not limited to):

  • What is 'natural'/'unnatural',
  • What is approved by a god or gods,
  • What maintains a cultural/family tradition (such as 'no sex before marriage'),
  • What is harmful/safe,
  • What is legal,
  • Human vs animal,
  • The rights of the dead.

For some people, consent might enough, but most of us recognise (as does the law in many places) that the consent of minors or the cognitively impaired should not be understood as consent at all, because such consent can be coerced or manipulated, and because some people do not sufficiently comprehend what it is they are consenting to.

Is sexual activity morally neutral?

Sexual behaviours might be deemed morally neutral by some moral subjectivists and relativists, in the sense that it - like any other behaviour - can be assessed differently by different people; that there is no objective morality. But these people would still likely offer moral assessments of any given sexual scenario; they would merely acknowledge that in doing so, that their views have no objective basis. Moral realists might disagree, but would likely require that - usually - more than mere 'sex' must be analysed in order for it to be meaningfully judged; that it must be appraised within more detailed contexts. Sex of any sort, for example, might be wrong for the priest, or for a child, or an unmarried person, but note that sex is still nested in circumstance here; it is not being judged as absolutely good or bad.

There are probably people to whom any sex at all is undesirable, perhaps because of a belief that it results in something like a corruption and/or weakening the mind and/or spirit/soul, but such a belief is not to claim sex is morally neutral, just that it is subject to an absolute (negative) moral assessment regardless of context.

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