When we think of sex ed, we often think that the info is made up of a conglomeration of various subjects combined together under one theme: sociology to learn about the social construction of gender for example, biology for reproduction, literature for gender dynamics, social work for helping those who are disadvantaged, psychology for understanding our sexual desires, arousals, and our thought patterns, and queer theory to understand sexual orientation and disrupting heteronormativity. All of these topics make up a comprehensive sex education. However, where is philosophy in all of this?
Now, I can imagine that while having philosophy is an interesting subject, it seems too theoretical for a practical field like sex education. Sex ed is all about helping students become more knowledgable about who they are as a sexual person which can help them form better relationships, communicate sexual boundaries and needs, and perhaps develop resiliency and courage to set down those boundaries. Philosophy, on the other hand, it too theoretical, too abstract, and divorced from the real world. How can philosophy help? The list I’ll provide isn’t comprehensive, but here are some major reasons why philosophy is crucial for sex education.
- Metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of what is real. A major discussion in metaphysics is what is real vs. what are mere appearances. So what is the metaphysics of sex? A major question to ask is what counts as sex. Why is this important? For many religious folks, they are concerned with maintaining virginity and the common understanding of virginity is PIV (penis in vagina) sex. Think about that. Suppose that really was the definition of sex. If that is the definition, then that means any other form of sexual behavior/activity doesn’t really count as sex. That means that anal and oral sex isn’t really sex under the PIV definition. Many religious folks who are concerned about maintaining virginity, therefore, engage in oral and anal sex but still claim to be virgins. Another implication: if the PIV definition is true, then that means that gay sex and lesbian sex isn’t really sex. Notice that if something isn’t really sex, then PIV sex is the sex. It’s the paradigm of what is considered real sex and anything else are derivations of the real thing. So what, you might say? Well, with PIV being the center, then anyone who doesn’t engage in PIV sex isn’t really a sexual being. If anything, they are derivations of the real thing. They may appear to be sexual, but they are not. Thus, gays and lesbians aren’t really sexual under the PIV definition. You can see where this is going. Thus, gays and lesbians aren’t really one of us—meaning heterosexual people who do engage in PIV sex. Defining PIV as real sex automatically gets us toward heteronormativity and is a very restrictive view of sexuality. This is just one example of how our definitions of sex isn’t just a theoretical thought experiment, but it has serious implications: it can harm those who don’t engage in PIV sex.
- Ethics. Ethics isn’t just the study of what is right and wrong, but it also investigates our values and whether we have the right values or not. There are three main topics that I want to discuss:
- Values. When it comes to sexual values, people have a variety of them. Some people value casual dating and causal sex. Others consider monogamy a value. Others may see as remaining a virgin until marriage as a high value. And still others may want to develop feelings for the other person first before getting involved sexually. At the same time, many people may be value neutral or may see disvalues in some of the activities/attitudes I’ve mentioned. Some people see no value in casual sex and may find it appalling. Others may see monogamy as a take-it-or-leave-it value, or perhaps they may see monogamy as appalling and so see monogamy as a disvalue. Now we often consider values as pluralistic, meaning that that there are a diversity of values and we should all respect, or at least tolerate, different aspects of sexuality—up to a point, and this point, is usually consent. There are major things to consider: which values are the right values? Are values universal or purely subjective? Is it possible to have the wrong values? Suppose that someone values sex after marriage, and considers this as a universal value. Now if that was true, the implication is that sex before marriage isn’t a value universally. It doesn’t matter if someone believes it’s a good value. If sex before marriage is an absolute universal value, then any other value is wrong. The implication is that sex before marriage is wrong, and anyone who engages in sex before marriage is wrong. Moreover—and this relates to epistemology down below—it doesn’t matter what that person believes: having any other value is wrong and if people believe there’s no problem with having sex before marriage, then they simply have the wrong value.
- Sex Positivity/Negativity. Finally, one of the major proponents of comprehensive sex education is to be sex positive, which means to view sexual decisions as one’s own. No one can tell me what to do with my sexual relationships or how to perform my sexuality. It is purely subjective. However, this is a weak foundation. Subjectivity has never been a good starting point for any ethical position. After all, if subjectivity is the true ethical position, then virtually anything is permissible (e.g. I can do whatever I want sexually because it’s up to me to decide what to do which includes, rape, sexual assault, or causing sexual trauma). So we need to put constraints, and the constraint that people in the sex positive community give is consent. But now consider those who are sex negative. They wouldn’t call themselves sex negative, but they hold to certain values and positions that are opposed to the sex positive movement. They would argue for such values such as abstinence, sex until marriage, monogamy, sex only for reproduction. Now, I’m not going to go through their arguments, but their arguments are philosophically valid and they give various arguments as to why. These arguments can include naturalness, mitigating risk, promoting family values, and the virtue of temperance. Furthermore, the sex negative movement also has arguments against the sex positive movement: consent cannot be the necessary and sufficient conditions for ethical sexuality, pleasure cannot be the main motivation behind sexual activity, and that the sex positive movement has the wrong goal. So philosophically speaking, the sex positive movement has a weak argument as to why it’s true; the sex negative movement has solid arguments as to why it’s true AND why the sex positive movement is false. The sex negative movement, philosophically speaking, already has an advantage. We can see this more so in our education systems, laws, and politics. To make the sex positive movement more robust, it has to engage with the sex negative movement and debate their arguments on their own terms in the same way as the sex negative movement has argued against the sex positive movement on their terms.
- Epistemology. Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge, beliefs, and justification of those beliefs. There are a couple of ways we can look at this.
- Consistency. To be epistemologically sound, our beliefs must be coherent. Otherwise, we are contradicting ourselves based on our actions and beliefs. For example, people may believe, and gives reasons for this belief, that sex before marriage is never ok. However, these same people engages in sex with a partner whom they are not married to. Their behavior is inconsistent with their beliefs. To have philosophy as part of the program would help students investigate their beliefs and see if they are consistent. Otherwise, to be consistent, they would either have to change their beliefs or change their behaviors. Of course, there are different nuances behind this and I’m oversimplifying it a bit, but this is just one example of what people could do.
- Consent. Consent has a big topic lately. Consent is a major ethical issue, but I would also put it under epistemology. Why? I think most people understand that sex is wrong when it’s nonconsensual. However, I think the complexity is when is an activity consensual? In other words, how do you know the activity is consensual? This is an oversimplification, but I think we could use a matrix to analyze this issue.
Let’s start with A. A is considered ethical: consent is happening and you know there’s consent. There’s no problem. Both parties are on the same page and there is no perpetrator or victim.
What about B? With B, consent is happening, but you don’t know/believe that it is consensual. You may act like it was, but you really don’t know. In this case, you just happened to be lucky…but why would you continually engage in sexual encounters where you’re not sure if i was consensual or not? The next time may not be so lucky, but it also suggests that you’re epistemically negligent. Imagine if you went hunting and you see a rustling in the bushes. You’re not sure what it is, but you shoot it anyway. Luckily, it just happened to be an animal, but what if it was a human being? Clearly, you’ve got to make sure that you’re in the clear before you proceed. More than that, if you don’t believe that it was consensual but you still proceeded anyways, you’re not only negligent, but you’re uncaring toward your partner and perhaps have the intention of being an assaulter. Now from the victim’s point of view, this is really fascinating. Is it possible to believe one is sexually assaulted, but in reality, that person wasn’t? I actually don’t know. With that, it comes down to not only the metaphysics of consent—hence why metaphysics is important to sexuality—but also whether the epistemic stance of the victim has higher priority than the metaphysics of the case. Is the victim playing “the victim card,” or is there something still seriously wrong here? A philosophical investigation, combined with other elements in sex ed, is required.
In C, consent is not happening. The perpetrator made a mistake and it was a costly mistake. Now, we often hear sexual assault cases happening and when we do, we often think it is with cases D: someone who doesn’t care about consent. I would wager that most non-consensual cases, from the perpetrator’s point of view, comes down to case C: someone who doesn’t know whether the other person consents or not. Let’s suppose that the perpetrator genuinely wants consent, but simply has no idea how to obtain it or even what it is. Again, the metaphysics is important here. From the victim’s point of view, this is a classic case of exploitation and depending on the extremities, manipulation. What does it mean to be exploited and manipulated? How does this relate to consent? Knowing the signs is helpful because one often doesn’t know one is being exploited.
Finally, in D, this is a clear case of sexual assault. The perpetrator doesn’t care that consent is happening, and the victim is clearly a victim of sexual assault.
I hope that with the philosophical categories of metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology, we can see why sexuality is rich with philosophical analysis. Because it’s very complex and requires a lot of thought and analysis, I suggest that philosophy needs to be in sex ed. This means that educators and students need a good dose of it. For some books that have used philosophy in the sex education classes, check out Al Vernacchio and Sharon Lamb. Lamb has a website dedicated to her book about sexual ethics and even has a podcast dedicated to sex and ethics. These are good starts and I hope there is more to come.