The Nuts and Bolts of Creating A Sexual Ethic


“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”

Matthew 7:15-20

When it comes to sex, you probably have a lot of people telling you what you should and shouldn’t be doing. For those of us seeking to figure out sex within a progressive, LGBTQ-affirming Christianity, it can be tempting to look outside of ourselves for the answers. If the conservative pastor tells us one thing about sex, maybe we should look to a progressive pastor to tell us something different.

I’m not going to do that.

I trust you — yes you! — to formulate a sexual ethic that works for you and is in alignment with your faith and your values. That doesn’t mean that it exists in a vacuum, or that you can’t (or shouldn’t) consult others — trusted friends, spiritual leaders, mentors, and even sacred texts — but what it does mean is that ultimately, the buck stops with you.

You’ve got this.

You are a smart, thoughtful person. You care about doing the right thing. And, just by reading this, you’ve shown that you can look for support when you need it.

Together, we’re going to develop a sexual ethic that resonates with you.

Step 1: Identify your values

If you haven’t already done so, take some time to think about the values that matter to you. You can’t outsource this work, you can’t just simply flip open a Bible because “the Bible says” a whole lot of conflicting things about sex.

You can use this worksheet to jot down what matters to you.

Step 2: Reflect on your experiences

Think back on the sexual and romantic experiences you’ve had and get in touch with what felt good and what didn’t. There’s a spectrum of sexual and romantic experiences so think about everything from holding hands and kissing to penetrative sex (if you’ve had it). And don’t just limit yourself to “traditionally sexual” experiences. You can also meditate on times when your boundaries have been respected or transgressed. When you’ve felt safe and when you’ve felt vulnerable.

Also notice when your desires match or mismatch with your actions or the expectations or people around you. Maybe you really wanted to express your relationship but felt pressure from your church not to. Or maybe you don’t experience sexual attraction to anyone and feel pressured to have sex.

This step isn’t about coming up with a list of “dos” and “don’ts” (those are often context-specific and shift over time). Instead, this is about picking up on throughlines and patterns.

At the end of this process, we’re going to walk away with two things: clarity on what works for you right now and a guiding framework for interacting with others.

Step 3: Step outside yourself

I know that it’s tempting for me to center myself. If I don’t like something, how could anyone? If I want something, why doesn’t everyone?

Step 2 was all about reflecting on our own experiences and it’s important to remember that they are just that: our own experiences.

In this step, we’re going to step outside of ourselves and use each of those experiences to tap into shared values.

As you look at your past experiences, look beyond the specifics (“We were drunk,” “there were lots of candles and rose petals”, “we did this thing,” or “we didn’t do that”) and look at how you felt: safe, seen, understood, respected, violated, disregarded, taken advantage of, excited, scared.

Step 4: Articulate your ethics

This is the step where it all comes together.

You’ve gotten in touch with your values.

You’ve reflected on your experiences.

You’ve stepped outside of yourself and tapped into something bigger.

Congrats: you’ve already done all the hard work. Now it’s just about putting it all together.

We’re not looking to create a sexual rulebook. Instead, we’re looking to articulate an ethical framework.

Merriam-Webster defines ethics as

a set of moral principles : a theory or system of moral values

That’s what we’re developing here: a set of moral principles. What’s right and wrong. What’s helpful or harmful. What’s ethical and what’s not.

Your responses and reflections to the prompts in each step so far point the way toward that set of moral principles. Now you just tie them all together.

I like to “speak from the I” when I share my ethics. In doing so, I own that these are my ethics, they’re how I see the world. I use them to judge people and experiences (more on that in the next step), but I also acknowledge that they’re mine. Yours might be different.

Here are my sexual ethics:

  • It’s important for me that relationships be grounded in honesty, communication, and trust.
  • I want sex to be free of force or coercion.
  • I want people to feel safe and supported in their sexual decisions.
  • It’s important to me that everyone has control over their own body.
  • I value informed consent.
  • I understand that I am responsible for my own decisions — and my partners are responsible for their own decisions. And also, I want us to take care of each other as best we can, in ways that are appropriate for our relationship.

That list is pretty different from the list I heard in youth group growing up (wait until you’re married to have sex, don’t date for more than a year, light kissing is ok, making out is ok if you’re dating … just don’t get too heavy with it, you maybe shouldn’t masturbate, you probably shouldn’t touch each other below the belt, you’re probably going to touch boobs but you’re also probably going to feel guilty about it).

The specific sexual decisions that you or I make might vary from context to context or shift over time.

For instance, Fr. Shay was celibate for many years and now is not … but his underlying sexual ethic didn’t change.

When you create a sexual ethic, it’s not a list of what you want or don’t want to do (though, thinking through that can also be super valuable. Scarleteen has a thorough Yes/No/Maybe list that you could go through by yourself or with a partner). And it isn’t going to tell you what you’ll do in any given situation. Instead it’s a framework that you can refer make to when you need to make sexual choices.

Step 5: Release judgements

Your sexual ethics are the summary of what you value, how you see the world, what’s right and what’s wrong. Sometimes we are called to make decisions about what’s right and what’s wrong, and sometimes we are called to celebrate differences.

It’s important here to distinguish between “judging something as right or wrong” and “judging something as different than me.”

It’s possible for someone who shares my sexual ethics to make completely different sexual choices.

Looking at my sexual ethics, it’s possible that one person could be celibate while someone else might be completely comfortable with casual sex. Someone might be polyamorous while being completely supportive of another person’s decision to be monogamous.

Release judgement against people who are making different decisions than you would make, even if you don’t understand them, as long as they are acting ethically.

Step 6: Assess and Adjust

Sex is messy. And so is life. You’re going to hit some bumps along the way. You’re going to have an experience that shakes you up or meet a person that challenges everything you thought you knew.

My sexual ethic today looks completely different than the one I had 10 years ago and even more different than the one I had just 5 years before that.

Think of your sexual ethic like the United States Constitution: it’s a foundational document, it’s what we base our decisions on, it should withstand (and transcend) the whims of the moment, but also sometimes you need to change it and that’s OK.

You need to move from theory to practice

The most important part in this process is actually doing it. This isn’t something you can just sorta think about in your head while you’re reading this on your morning commute.

Set aside some alone time. Light a candle if that’s your thing. Use Word, Google Docs, Evernote if you collect your thoughts better on a computer. Grab your favorite notebook or a piece of scratch paper if longhand is more your style. And then write out your thoughts.

If you want to email them in, I’d love to read what you come up with. Send them over to

You got this.

This article was published by Brian Murphy