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9.1: Sexual Morality

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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What makes sex right or wrong?

Our moral beliefs strongly influence the decisions we make. They tell us what is right or wrong in how we behave.

Moral or ethical principles are of two kinds-absolute and relative. Absolute moral beliefs do not change and will remain constant no matter what the situation. For instance, one of the Ten Commandments in the Bible says, “You shall not commit adultery.” This means a married person should not have sexual intercourse with someone other than his or her spouse. To a person who follows strictly the teachings of the Bible, this statement is an absolute moral judgment because it tells you how you should behave no matter what the circumstances.

Absolute or Relative? Both approaches to morality, absolute versus relative, have their advantages and disadvantages. Describe five pros and five cons for each approach, and discuss them with the class.

Relative moral principles refer to beliefs that don't judge behavior as such, but look at it in the light of circumstances. For instance, whether or not a sexual behavior is motivated by love is considered more important than what the behavior consists of. In the case of adultery just described, the circumstances under which it occurred would be taken into account by someone with relative moral beliefs.

People often disagree in their views of various sexual behaviors as right or wrong because some use absolute rules and others go by relative rules of morality.

Other disagreements over moral standards arise because people cannot always agree on the source of moral wisdom. For example, Christians base their beliefs on what the Bible says about many issues. But even among Christians there may be different interpretations of what a particular Biblical passage means.

Similarly, if you are going to follow a rule of relative morality, what should be the deciding principle? For example, with regard to premarital sex, what are the conditions that make it right or wrong? Being in love? Mutual consent? Something else? As a result, moral decisions are not easy, but they are still essential. You must sooner or later decide what is right for you.

What kind of moral beliefs (absolute or relative) are most closely related to cultural/societal beliefs-beliefs of society as a whole?

Through much of human history, most moral principles have been based on religion. Religious morality means that the religion and its teachings directly define moral principles. Individuals may belong to one religion or another and each has its own set of religious moral teachings to guide behavior.

What Do You Think?
Are most of your beliefs absolute or relative? Can you think of some beliefs that fit under each category?<

Most Americans are Christian, but many Americans belong to other religions, such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. And some belong to no religion (or do not practice their religion). As a nation, the United States has no official religion. American moral values can therefore be either religious or secular (not specifically religious) depending on the individual. Many secular, or nonreligious, values are quite similar to religious values. For example, to respect the rights of others is a value held both by religious codes of morality as well as secular codes of morality.

Debate! There should be one age, nationwide, at which young adults assume the following adult responsibilities (instead of the varied state and federally determined ages).

  • driver's license
  • vote
  • military draft
  • drinking
  • informed consent

When making choices about sexual behavior, each of us is ultimately responsible for his or her own decisions and his or her own actions. It feels almost unfair to have to be so responsible when there are so many different things to consider. Biology drives us from the inside. Society pulls us and pushes us from the outside. Doctors say, “Don't do this, it's not healthy.” Ministers say, “Don't do that, it's not right.” The law says, “Don't do this, it's not legal.” But then our friends may say, “Why not? Do it!” To whom do you listen? And what do you do?

As we discussed before, your own moral judgments should play a big part in deciding your sexual practices. In addition to your personal belief system, you also need to consider two other issues:

  1. Is what I want to do legal?
  2. Is what I want to do healthy?
What Do You Think?
Whom do you look to for moral guidance?

Many laws about sexual behaviors exist to protect women and children from harmful sex or coercion. Sex is not legal unless both partners willingly give their informed consent. There are two parts to this. First, a person should be clearly saying yes and doing so freely. A person should not be under pressure to say yes (such as when somebody is holding a knife to a person's neck). Second, a person's consent must be informed. That is, a person should understand what he or she is saying yes to. If a person is too young or drunk, they are not in a position to give informed consent. The law typically defines anyone under the age of 18 as unable to give informed consent, although the exact age may vary from state to state. Therefore, sex with a child is illegal, even if the child does not object. Also, if someone is coerced, or their consent is only given because of threat or Violence, the sexual behavior is also illegal.

Sexuality Puzzle Design a heart-shaped puzzle with as many pieces as you want. However, each piece should represent a source of influence on your sexual behavior. The size of each piece many vary to reflect the amount of influence the piece has on your sexual behavior.

Laws are based on principles, such as equality and freedom. In sexual relationships, this means to respect the feelings and rights of sexual partners and to treat them as you would want them to treat you. Coercion, for example, does not fit with the moral ideals of equality and freedom, and it is also considered illegal. However, unlike morals, laws are very specific and exact. Morality often expresses general principles, and you can use your own judgment in applying those principles. The law, however, does not accept your personal decisions but defines behavior as lawful or unlawful.

In terms of healthy sexual decisions, the goal is to behave in ways that do not make us sick or endanger the health of our sexual partners. One reason there are so many sexually transmitted diseases is that people behave sexually in unhealthy and risky ways. Knowledge, access to health services, and good judgment all contribute to healthy sexual decisions.

Decision-Making Practice Identify (or create) a decision you must make. Write out responses to the six-step decision process described on this page.

Every person possibly faces a number of sexual decisions: whether or not to have sexual intercourse; with whom, and at what age; whether to use contraception or not and what kind. In making these decisions about your sexual behavior, you can use a six-step decision process:

  1. Identify and gather information about the nature of your decision.
  2. Identify possible options.
  3. Describe the consequences of each option.
  4. Choose an option.
  5. Communicate and implement your decision.
  6. Evaluate your decision.

In applying each step of this process, you consider moral issues (what you believe in, what your religious teachings tell you), legal issues (what you are allowed to do or not), and health issues (the physical and psychological consequences of your actions). In order to make a decision that responds to all of these aspects, you need information about morality, about legal issues, and about your health.

For the following statements, decide if the person has made the decisions for legal reasons, health reasons, absolute moral reasons, or relative moral reasons, or for more than one reason.

  1. I'm not going to have sex with him because he won't wear a condom and I don't want to run the risk of getting an STD.
  2. I will never have sex before I'm married.
  3. I would love to have sex with her, but we're both under 16 years old.
  4. I never thought I'd have sex before I was married, but I love her so much, and I know that we care so much about one another, so I feel that it's right.
  5. I won't have sex because I can't take the risk of getting pregnant, and no contraceptive method is 100% effective.
  6. I've always thought it would be OK to have sex if I loved the person, but in this relationship I just don't feel right about it.

  • Where would you get more information about morality and sexuality?
  • Where would you be able to get more information about legal issues?
  • Where would you be able to get more information about health and physical consequences of sexual behavior?

Activity 8-1: Deciding for Yourself


Sometimes a person may think about becoming sexually active but feel that it is not the right time. Most people want to be responsible. Most want to do the right thing. But biology drives us from the inside. Society pulls us and pushes us from the outside. Doctors say, “Don't do this, it's not healthy.” Ministers say, “Don't do that, it's not right.” The law says, “Don't do this, it's not legal.” But our friends may say, “Why not? Do it!” To whom do you listen? And what do you do?


  • Activity Report


Step 1 Your teacher will divide the class into groups and give each group an Activity Report.

Step 2 Let's assume that an adolescent is trying to choose between abstinence and becoming sexually active. There are three things one should consider in making this choice:

  • Is it moral?
  • Is it legal?
  • Is it healthy?

Step 3 Your group will consider how this adolescent can make the best decision based on the pros and cons of these three points of view:

  • marriage-based view
  • love-based view
  • pleasure-based view

Write a letter to an adult (parent, trusted adult, religious official) expressing your moral beliefs. If there are questions or concerns you still have not resolved for yourself, ask them for advice.

Review Questions

  1. What is the difference between absolute and relative beliefs?
  2. How are moral beliefs and religious beliefs linked?
  3. What three questions do you need to consider when determining your own sexual practices?
  4. What factors contribute to healthy sexual behavior?
  5. What are the elements of good decision making?

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Date Created:
Feb 23, 2012
Last Modified:
Jan 30, 2016
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