Women's Studies Research Center

The Feminist Sexual Ethics Project

Image of 19th century African American Slaves with the title "Beyond Slavery Overcoming Its Religious and Sexual Legacies"

Image of book cover "Beyond Slavery: Overcoming Its Religious and Sexual Legacies" Edited by Bernadette J. Brooten with the editorial assistance of Jacqueline L. Hazelton

Photo Credit: Courtesy FSEP

The Feminist Sexual Ethics Project works to create Jewish, Christian and Muslim sexual ethics rooted in freedom, mutuality, meaningful consent, responsibility and female (as well as male) pleasure, untainted by slave-holding values.

The goal of the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, directed by Bernadette J. Brooten, is to provide religious communities and society at large with the knowledge and framework needed to recognize and acknowledge past collaboration in slavery; to engage in restorative justice for slavery; and to create sexual ethics untainted by slave-holding values.

Many people think they know exactly what religion teaches about sexual morality, namely that everyone should abstain from premarital sex, that marriage is a sacred bond between one man and one woman, that the principal purpose of sex is procreation and that life begins at conception. Yet the teachings of these three religions are not so simple: marriage has not always been defined as the union of one man and one woman; marriage has not always been seen as sacred; Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders have at times tolerated and sometimes even condoned pre- and extramarital sex; contraception and abortion have not always and under all circumstances been prohibited.

Furthermore, it is widely believed that traditional religious teachings on sexuality promote the full dignity of all persons. Yet slavery, which found acceptance in the ancient religious texts, has frequently involved the sexual exploitation of women and girls. In the days of plantation slavery in the United States, the law permitted a master to rape his slave woman, force her to endure the sexual abuse of her children, and sell her children away. Meanwhile, Christian ministers who actively promoted slavery from the pulpit were able to find support for their position in the Bible itself.

The toleration of slavery in the ancient religious texts should give us pause: it reveals that the values of mutuality and consent were not central to the ethics they promoted. The idea that one person may own another person’s body is embedded in the ethics — including the sexual ethics — of all three religions. Because we know that sexuality without mutuality and consent is fertile ground for abuse, for sexual ethics, meaningful consent and mutuality are absolutely vital. For this reason, we need to transform religious sexual ethics. This transformation will benefit religious and non-religious people alike, because the ancient religious texts continue to influence not only clergy and religious practitioners but also policy makers and legislators.

At the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, we see the legacy of slavery as the greatest obstacle to creating sexual ethics that are based on the full human dignity of all persons. We envision an ethic of sexuality rooted in freedom, mutuality, consent, responsibility and female (as well as male) pleasure, and we are working to make that vision reality.

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