Combining physical, psychic, and spiritual dimensions, sexuality ranks as one of the core aspects of the human personality. In the past, human sexuality has been regarded as instrumental, that is, subordinate to some other aim, usually procreation. Yet just as there is sex without procreation, so—thanks to advances in medical technology—offspring can be conceived without sexual contact. Sexuality is not tethered to procreation.
For centuries, Western society sought to confine sexual congress within the bounds of marriage. In this context, commercial arrangements (prostitution) and homosexuality were discouraged or proscribed. Today, a broader understanding of sexual freedom prevails.
From a libertarian perspective, all forms of sexual expression are permitted, provided that both parties give informed consent. This provision would exclude sex with animals and children. In keeping with the “harm” principles that almost all libertarians embrace, those who are HIV-positive would be required to engage in sex only after providing their partner with proper notice. Some situations, as when the initiator of sexual relations is a prison guard or a priest, would appear to be instances where full consent could not ordinarily be given inasmuch as the intended partner is so clearly vulnerable. However, consensual sadomasochistic (s/m) relations fall within the compass of voluntarily agreed-on acts and would be permitted, as would polyamory, which is love and relations among three or more persons. A good maxim to follow is, “Do it if you wish, but cause no harm.”
Libertarians favor elimination of all laws limiting sexual freedom among consenting adults as representing a needless intrusion of the state into the business of the individual. Moreover, libertarians do not support legislation (which exists in some European countries) providing penalties sanctioning speech and writing that demeans sexual minorities. Lack of sympathy for other human groups is regrettable, but freedom of expression mandates that it be tolerated unless specific acts of incitement to violence are involved.
Full enjoyment of sex requires adequate information. Unchecked by correctives, the circulation of popular sex mythology is an obstacle to sexual maturity among young people. Access to sex education is therefore essential. This principle also entails toleration of erotic writings and images, sometimes termed pornography. Contraceptives must be available because sexual freedom should not be obtained at the cost of unwanted pregnancy. Evidence from European countries indicates that ready access to contraceptives reduces rates of abortion—surely a goal embraced by most people.
Just as a wide range of sexual activities should be permitted to flourish, by the same token, there should be no attempt to disparage chastity as an individual decision. The overarching goal is maximizing choice, and choosing not to have sex is a legitimate option. It need hardly be added that one should not have to marry in order to engage in sex. But what obligations does marriage entail? Does each partner agreeing to marry have the right to expect sex? In the past, annulments have been granted on the grounds of nonconsummation. However, as marriage moves closer to centering on agreed-on arrangements, it would seem that such expectations should be stipulated in advance. Provided that it is understood that this will be the case, there is no reason that the partners in a marriage should not remain chaste.
Some libertarians argue that copulation should be performed in private, but ultimately, from a libertarian perspective, the determination of whether sexual activities can take place hinges on the decision of the owner of the property where it is to occur. Public displays of affection are a different matter. Homosexuals are surely correct in arguing that they should have the same rights in this regard as heterosexuals. Moreover, if sexual self-affirmation is to be provided for all, solicitation must be accepted.
Some scholars have posited a fundamental division between sex-positive and sex-negative societies. Ancient Greece, medieval Islam, and traditional Japan have been classified as sex-positive, whereas Christian polities figure as sex-negative. This contrast seems too stark. Medieval Islam, for example, was indeed relatively sex-positive for men, even as it drastically restricted the range of women’s sexuality. Western Europe has evolved over time from a situation in which the Christian churches exercised a large role to a more secular orientation. During the 18th century, a group of libertine writers emerged, especially in France—among them Jean-Baptiste Boyer d’Argens, Jean-Charles Gervaise de Latouche, and the Marquis D. A. F. de Sade—who vividly highlighted the positive value of sexual expression. Working in a different realm, the Italian legal theorist Cesare Beccaria for the first time advocated discarding laws against homosexuality, which he regarded as ineffectual. The idea that, in the absence of express justification, repressive laws should be pruned from the statute books proved influential. In the following century, feminists and others stressed the need for access to sexual information, including methods of contraception. It was not until the early 20th century, however, that Kurt Hiller, in his book Das Recht über sich selbst (1908; The Right Concerning Oneself), defended sexual freedom as part of the right to control one’s own body. On a comparative basis, he dealt with such subjects as suicide, abortion, incest, and homosexuality.
Historically, the range of sexual freedom has been quite variable. The boundaries of what is permissible have been affected by theological concepts, by the promotion of state interests, and by concerns within the family unit—often centering on the importance of determining paternity. In the early 21st century, however, many of these concerns have become less salient—at least in advanced, industrialized societies.
The outlook for Western societies is continued affirmation of the expressive dimension of sex as something that should be available to every adult. In many Third World countries, however, the picture is more clouded. In some regions of the world, female genital mutilation, causing a permanent impairment of women’s sexual functioning, remains prevalent. There too homophobia is rife, leading to imprisonment and even execution of those found to have engaged in same-sex behavior. Libertarians insist that these repressive acts must be opposed and not simply excused on grounds of cultural difference.
Bullough, Vern. Sexual Variance in Society and History. New York: Wiley, 1976.
McElroy, Wendy. Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the Twenty-First Century. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002.
Posner, Richard A. Sex and Reason. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. Ayn Rand, Homosexuality and Human Liberation. Cape Town: Leap Publishing, 2003.
Originally published .