Social Determinants of Sex As Expression or Transgression

By David Metcalfe

October 11, 2018

Is Sex A Good Thing Or A Bad Thing?

Of course, an extreme view, of sex being always a good thing or sex being always a bad thing, is essentially non-existent. Every culture in antiquity and up to our current day has established some kind of distinction between what form of sex is acceptable and what form of sex is unacceptable. The distinction is incredibly varied among all of them. There is almost no consistency in the scope of the sexual practices of humans.

We often take our own cultural ethics for granted. We assume they are just “the way they are”, rather than a social construct, relevant to a huge number of factors. Take, for example, the fact that we abhor child molesters more than any other type of criminal. We assume that it’s a disgusting practice worthy of many years imprisonment, or even death, in some people’s opinion. The widespread scandals of the Catholic Church, for example, left a terrible mark on their reputation.

And yet, for the Ancient Greeks, it was common for men to engage in sexual activity with boys. It was even considered a celebrated “rite of passage” (Worthen, 2016).

We also assume rape to be an unacceptable practice. But even in the Bible, a supposed “moral guide”, we find rape to be acceptable in many circumstances. Deuteronomy 22:28 says that, “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.” Rape is basically a marriage fee.

Ezekial 16 describes a promiscuous woman, who, as a result of her promiscuity, is allowed to be subject to rape and public humiliation. In Numbers 31, God orders the Israelites to kill every one, but to save the virgin women for themselves, thus making them into sex slaves.

We are very aware in America that rape is common in prisons. It’s difficult to get accurate statistics, but we do know it occurs a lot. Yet, people do not care very much. When a member of the general population is raped, however, it is considered very egregious.

Just from these few examples, we can already see that acceptable sexual practice is dependent on history, culture, the identity of the victim, and the cultural meaning of the act. It is highly relative on these and other factors.

Establishing An Ethic In Modern America

Being that the socialization of human sexuality has taken a huge variety of forms, it is difficult to create a definite “correct” way to establish laws, norms, and values for modern Americans. Sometimes, competing views can co-exist, but other times, competing views are unable to co-exist. For example, if one group believed that sex should only be practiced after age 18, and another group believed it should be practiced at any age. Or if one group thought sex should only be practiced between opposite gender partners, and another group thought that gender should not define sexual practice. In order for society to operate effectively, without constant fighting, we need to share some kind of common belief.

The Victorian era produced a very strict sexual ethic, encouraging women to nearly completely cover their bodies (but still not as much as many modern day Islamic groups). The strict sexual values began to wane in the 1920s, but gained a resurgence in the 1950s, due to a strong religious revival and resulting culture. The sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s encouraged a sexual liberation, and the legalization of abortion and decriminalization of homosexuality were direct manifestations of this new prevailing idea.

Miley Cyrus effectively states a common sexual ethic among young people in current America: “I am literally open to every single thing that is consenting and doesn’t involve an animal and everyone is of age. Everything that’s legal, I’m down with.” (Mize, 2015).

She establishes no objective ethic, but rather a subjective one. She does not suggest that bestiality, rape, and appropriate age are necessary limiting conditions for all people, but are things that she does not personally prefer. She then suggests that her sexual ethic coincides with the current laws of our time.

But due to the widespread influence of Christianity in American culture, there is a strong sentiment towards sexual repression. Jesus and Paul, the defining figures of Christian theology, are both very against sexual practice outside of the confines of a heterosexual marriage (Matthew 5:28, 1 Corinthians 7:2). They suggest that all other forms are sinful and not to be practiced. While, of course, we know this will affect people who are directly affiliated with Christianity, it also affects secular people, due to the cultural interactions and their necessary compromises and accommodations.

While practices like pedophilia, bestiality, and polygamy all continue to be nearly universally condemned among Americans, homosexuality has significantly increased in acceptance. In 2001, 57% of Americans opposed gay marriage, but in 2017, only 32% of Americans opposed it (Pew Research Center, 2017).

American culture has increasingly recognized homosexuality as a normal part of human sexual expression. Many people suggest that homosexuality is acceptable because it is biologically originated, and is an orientation which cannot be changed. Yet, pedophilia is commonly considered an orientation as well, and is not treated the same way. This is primarily because we have accepted the values of liberalism, which are foundational to the constitution. Essentially, we allow anything to be practiced so long as it does not infringe on the rights of others. Miley Cyrus’ concept is consistent with how we have come to define this idea of sexual liberty. Liberty is practiced through consent; a purposeful, conscious decision to do or allow something for one’s self. Since animals and those under the age of consent do not have the ability to consent, sexual practice is therefore limited.

Basically, the main competing factions in existence right now are between liberals, who base their ideas on the liberal values of the constitution, and the Christians, who base their ideas on the repressive ideas of the Bible. It is not possible to establish a legal ethic that completely appeases both, and since “there shall be no law regarding the establishment of religion”, we generally take the secular concepts over the Christian ones.


Human sexual expressions, and their socially constructed acceptability, are incredibly varied and offer no consistent standard. Whether a sexual practice is considered a healthy expression or a harmful transgression is based on a variety of factors that make sexual ethics increasingly difficult to define. In modern American culture, there are a variety of views, but they take two main forms: the basis of consent (secular) and the basis of repression (Christian).

I previously mentioned that the Bible is very ok with raping women, for the most part. That is, however, limited to the Old Testament. I want to conclude with a story from the New Testament, and the implications of understanding and co-operation it may have for both secular and Christian groups.

Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”

They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.

When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”

“No, Lord,” she said.

And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”

Perhaps, if Christians were slower to condemn, and quicker to love, there might not be such contention as we see today. Their religious conception defines a certain ethic for them to live by as adherents, but it does not need to be forcefully carried out against the will of others. There is absolutely room for us to respect the freedom of all persons, as the constitution states, while also abiding by our own religious ethic. The cultural norms of sexual expression will inevitably change, as they have throughout all of history. We may move towards more procreative ideas of sexual expression, or we may move towards more pleasure and liberating ideas of sexual expression. Regardless, we need to live at peace as best we can in society. Secular people can have more understanding of the views of Christians, and Christians can show love and mercy while simultaneously upholding their own ethic.


Mize, C. (2015). 9 Sex-Positive Miley Cyrus Quotes That Prove She’s All About Unconditional Love & Acceptance. Bustle. Retrieved from

Pew Research Center. (2017). Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage. Retrieved from

Worthen, M. (2016). Sexual deviance and society: a sociological examination. Routledge: New York. Retrieved from



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