Audio: Thinking Sex at Harvard

February 2, 2017
Mark Jordan
HDS professor Mark Jordan / Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Harvard Divinity School professors have long taught ethics in the Yard. Beginning early in the 1880s, as HDS pioneered the analysis of "social problems" using the case method, Francis Peabody taught an undergraduate course on urban ills. Students called it "drainage, drunkenness, and divorce."

Today, teaching has to address other ethical anxieties. Despite claims of universal liberation, many of them have to do with sexuality and gender. What does it mean to teach sexual ethics at Harvard in the age of hook-up apps, fluid identities, and "affirmative consent"?

HDS Professor Mark Jordan addressed these and other pressing questions in his lecture, "Thinking Sex at Harvard," delivered on February 2, 2017, at the Harvard Club of San Francisco.

Let me start with my title, “Thinking Sex at Harvard.” It’s a pun on another title with a local reference. “Thinking Sex” is Gayle Rubin’s field-changing essay on how societies arrange their systems of sexual taboos.

She wrote “Thinking Sex” in her early 30s while a doctoral student of cultural anthropology at Michigan. By then, she was already living here in San Francisco to work on a dissertation about dissident sexual communities. One of the great evenings of my life—don’t worry, this is a safe story—one of the great evenings of my life came in April 1997 when Gayle took me on a walking tour of Folsom Street. Stopping every few yards, she would tell stories: “This building used to be… And then it became… And its most notorious owner was…”

Thinking sex may include the critique of abstract categories, but it also requires patient observation of how people actually live into the sexual categories handed to them—how they inhabit those categories and so re-fashion them.

I teach Gayle’s essay every year—sometimes every semester. I taught it this past Monday in my General Education course. Let me describe that course as one example of thinking sex at Harvard now.

“Gen Ed” is what remains of Harvard’s undergraduate core curriculum. My course is entitled “Sex and Ethical Reasoning.” It satisfies an “Ethical Reasoning” requirement that is about to become an “Ethics and Civics” requirement under a new version of the curriculum. I designed the course on two bets. The first was that many Harvard students might have some interest in sex. The second bet was that I could use that interest to lure them into thinking not only about their own sexual ethics but about why human beings need ethics at all.

The easiest way to describe the course is to perform a short clip from the opening session. So imagine yourself in Sever Hall 113. The room is a sloped amphitheater done up as an Edwardian burlesque theater—I mean, the seats are incredibly uncomfortable and very garish. Out there are Widener Library and University Hall and Memorial Church. In here, there are about 250 students trying to squeeze into 190 seats—because it’s Shopping Week and the class is capped at 150.


Good morning! Welcome to the tensions of an awkward first date. There may be other tensions as well, because this is a course—you know—like—I mean—about sex. (Of course, so is a date.) Or maybe what’s really got you worried this morning is that other word, ethics. Let me address the tensions by talking about what this course will ask of you. You then get to choose.

I’ll give you a picture to look at while I talk. This canvas is called The Lovers. It was painted by René Magritte in 1928 and hangs now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Like most things related to sex, it provokes competing interpretations. For some, the painting represents the shame that prevents us from showing ourselves even to our lovers. For others, it shows how erotic desire covers our eyes when we gaze at a person we desire. We never kiss anything but the fabric of our own fantasy. Whatever Magritte had in mind, I like to use the image as a little test of erotic assumptions. Did you see this painting immediately as a white man kissing a white woman? We do see a little patch of skin—though it’s hard to tell its color and it might well be latex. Other than that, we have no information about these bodies—and certainly none about their genital configurations. We don’t know if this is a man and a woman, or a transman and a transwoman, or two lesbians, or two gay men, or someone with passion for department store manikins. Notice how little we actually see of these bodies—and how much we think we know about them.

I’m very interested in assumptions about sex—in yours and in mine. If you look me up on Amazon you’ll find an unusual assortment of books. Some of them are about the technical history of Christian ethics or contemporary critiques of it. Other books are about the history of sex and contemporary quarrels over it.

But by now you might be asking yourself another question about me: Why have they sent an old man to talk to us about sex? To which the answer is: Welcome to “civilization”!

This print shows Americus Vespucci “discovering America” or—according to the caption—“awakening” her.

America (Engraving) Nova reperta (Speculum diuersarum imaginum speculatiuarum 1638)
"Americae Retectio," circa 1615 ("Allegory of America" engraving by Jan Galle after Jan van der Straet), Public Domain

Note the gender relations, of course, but also what might be described as a contrast of presumed modesty. I think that we’re supposed to dress like the old man wearing armor on his loins. The word “civilization” implies the regulation of sex. Sexual ethics in particular typically expresses social hierarchies. Rules for sex are one obvious way—perhaps an unusually effective way—for those with status (often older males of a privileged class, caste, or group) to exert power over those without it (often younger females of any kind, but also young men or slaves or foreigners or anyone else). We will be talking this semester about sex as a circuit for the creation or exercise of political and social power.

But I’m also interested in a more specific answer to your unspoken question: Why is an old man going to give us lectures about sex? To which the answer is: Welcome to college!

Battle in Commons Hall [drawing, 1819] by William Henry Furness, courtesy Harvard University Archives
Battle in Commons Hall [drawing, 1819] / by William Henry Furness HUD 2818.75.45A (Furness drawing), (olvwork406678), Harvard University Archives
For those of you who weren’t there, this drawing depicts the Great Harvard Rebellion of 1818—also known as a food fight. It resulted eventually in the expulsion of the entire sophomore class—including Ralph Waldo Emerson. Historically, the American college has been one of the great scenes of sexual regulation. When men were the only ones allowed to attend colleges, they were herded together at regular intervals—in the chapel, or the gym—for a stern lecture by the chaplain, the president, the dean of students, from Coach, in which they would be threatened with dire consequences for yielding to lust—consequences divine and physical, but also civil and academic. If you do these filthy things, God will punish you and you’ll be riddled by disease—but we the college authorities will also punish: by public shaming and expulsion. When women were finally allowed to have colleges of their own, or admitted to men’s colleges, a similar scene was repeated after carefully segregating the sexes—because of course people of the same sex can’t be attracted to each other. Then the dean of women students or Nurse or Coach would deliver the stern lecture, adding to the standard threats the strongest language about saving yourself for marriage and motherhood.

I’m sure that you’ve heard about this version of sexual ethics before. Perhaps you even experienced some of it, depending on what sort of high school you attended. But you probably regard it as ancient history so far as secular American universities are concerned. For some decades now, those of us who live and work in large universities have been assuring ourselves that all these practices of sexual regulation were banished decades ago by something called the Sexual Revolution. Sometimes we go further: we proclaim that we our whole society has rejected moralistic superstitions to discover that sex is just another human behavior, subject only to basic rules of rational action and one or two special considerations about health. Beyond that we don’t need a sexual ethics—so says the myth of the Sexual Revolution—and we certainly don’t believe that secular universities should be enforcing one.

But, wait. That story isn’t quite right. Or it isn’t over. In the last few years, we have found ourselves in a growing national debate about sexual regulation on university campuses—about restoring not just rules for sexual activity but regular training in something that looks a lot like a new sexual ethics. What is more important, there is a growing recognition that the so-called “sexual revolution” didn’t erase the questions that most of us have about living our sexual lives. We may be a little less ashamed than Americans were 50 years ago—we may have a little more information—we may have seen more porn or had more sexual partners—maybe—but we still face fundamental questions about how to integrate sex into our lives. Indeed, the loud claims of liberation may have made us more anxious about sex life, since unfettered choice increases anxiety. And I don’t even speak about the present political chaos—which has everything to do with policing sex and gender.

That’s what this course is about: addressing once again basic questions of sexual ethics—without any illusions about the Sexual Revolution, without the mythology of a triumphant sexual liberation. We will cover as many questions as we can reach in twelve weeks. Here are some of them.

What is sex? What is sexual ethics?
Before we go in search of “sexual ethics,” we have to ask what that phrase means.

What is “sex” for sexual ethics? Does it refer to particular bodily organs or actions, to reproductive capacities, to certain desires and emotions, to specific shames and vulnerabilities?

How many fields or kinds of knowledge do we need to think about sexual ethics? And in what ways might supposed knowledge about sexual ethics be particularly vulnerable to the influence of social assumptions or the pressure of political conditions?

Sexual Ethics in “Western” Memory: Ancient Authorities
Sexual topics are prominent in the most influential texts of “Western civilization.” We tend to take religious preoccupation with sex for granted, but it is worth asking exactly how and why sex became a problem for Judaism and then (in other ways) for Christianity. It is also worth noticing that sex was ethically problematic for ancient philosophical schools apart from Judaism and before Christianity.

“Judaism” and “Christianity”—impossibly broad labels—are, of course, not the only religions in the world and not even the only religious that deeply influenced what is called “Western civilization.” I sample these two because of their importance in U.S. debates and also because of my own training. I stress that this is only a sample. Indeed, all our reading assignments are only samples. If you want to work on other religions, other philosophies, other histories, you are more than welcome to do so.

Sexual Perversion, Sexual Identity
After sampling these authoritative “Western” texts on sexual ethics, philosophical and religious, we turn to a series of controversial topics in their recent versions. We begin with the historically connected notions of sexual perversion and sexual identity.

Does the notion of “perversion” still have any ethical use? Ought we to replace it with the (supposedly) neutral notion of “sexual identity”? But what kind of thing is a sexual identity? Is everyone required to have one? How do you get one? And how is it supposed to be related to all the other sorts of identities people claim or have imposed on them—especially “gender” and “race”?

Sexual Violence
Among current American controversies in sexual ethics, disagreements over rape and sexual assault are among the sharpest—especially on university campuses. Moving carefully, we will try to clarify some of the basic issues underneath these disagreements, beginning with issues of definition.

What is rape? Is it primarily a sexual crime or an act of violence? Again, what is the ethical difference between an assault and a sexual assault? What are the ethical consequences of rape—on a person who is raped, on a person who commits rape, on the families or communities around them? And what are the obligations of various sorts of communities to prevent rape or to punish those who commit it?

You all know—or should know—that this topic will bring us face-to-face with current debates at Harvard about Title IX, its interpretation and enforcement. At the moment, it is completely unclear what will happen to Title IX under the new presidential administration. This part of the syllabus may need to be adjusted very quickly as we approach it.

Adultery, Polyamory
The only sexual sin mentioned specifically in the so-called “Ten Commandments” of the Jewish and Christian scriptures is adultery. It was also, until fairly recently, a serious crime in civil law. In Massachusetts, I believe that it is still punishable by up to three years in prison.

Why has adultery been counted a serious sin or crime? The violation of marriage vows or of the family unit? Dishonesty? The possibility of “illegitimate” birth? (Is there no adultery if there is no possibility of birth?) And what if spouses agree to an “open” relationship or believe (say, on religious grounds) that marriage is not in principle restricted to two members? Why shouldn’t polyamory be an ethical possibility for adult relationships—especially since it seems to happen rather often?

‘Prostitution’, ‘Pornography’, Virtual Sex
Many kinds of ethical arguments—religious, philosophical, social—have been made against ‘pornography’ and ‘prostitution’—two problematic words. Here again we will try to clarify their meanings and assess ethical assumptions. For example, is it unethical for an adult to consent to sexual acts for direct payment? What if the payment is indirect or non-monetary? And why does this differ ethically from the sale of other bodily service?

We will then raise similarly basic questions about the definition and ethical analysis of contemporary pornography. For example, if two lovers exchange erotic pictures, is that pornography? Does it become pornography if the pictures circulate more widely? Is there an ethical difference between the commercial production or circulation of pornography and its private consumption? Is “addiction” to pornography ethically culpable?

Finally, we will do our best to formulate ethical questions about new controversies that arise from the unprecedented availability of pornography via the internet and from virtual sex.

Is virtual sex ‘real’ sex? If so, is virtual rape ethically equivalent to physical rape? And when do people become ethically responsible for indulging or expressing their sexual fantasies—or are fantasies always fine so long as they remain fantasies? There are a lot of other topics here—like the use of hook-up apps.


Let me stop the performance there. We can talk about any part of it—or other issues besides. Before that, in just a few minutes, I’d like to add the other piece of my teaching—the graduate courses I teach on sexual ethics at the Div School. I’m not going to sample those courses. I’ll try instead to describe the frame around them.

Harvard’s Divinity School is—as I’m sure you know—proudly inter-religious. The faculty understands this as an extension of our original mission to be a non-sectarian school—to apply no test of orthodoxy for student admissions or faculty appointments. I am one example of how that plays out: I am what used to be called “a notorious homosexual,” and yet HDS hired me originally into an endowed chair in Christian ethics. A more vivid example than the faculty of our inter-religious character is the enormous range of religious traditions represented in almost any class.

When I teach sexual ethics at the Div School, I face a classroom that typically contains wildly different versions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. I also have students who name themselves as “nones”—as belonging to no organized religious group, but still deeply concerned with religious questions. Think of this variety as the range of religious or non-religious identifications.

These identifications are cross-cut or complicated by the fact that students come to the course looking for knowledge or skills useful in different ways. Those who come from so-called “conservative” religious groups often want to learn analyses or arguments that will help them to advocate for change in official teachings—or, for that matter, to defend official teachings. Those who come from so-called “liberal” groups may be looking to extend denominational changes already underway. Other students, who may identify themselves with non-religious groups, may be looking to religious traditions for resources in articulating sexual ethics for “nones.” Let’s call these the advocacy functions of sexual ethics—or, if you like, activist functions.

Then, deeper down, more urgent, there are the personal needs that students bring into the classroom—for themselves and for those they hold in care. People want help in shaping sexual lives that make sense as part of their lives. They want to do this for themselves; they want to do it for those around them. Let’s call these the healing functions of sexual ethics—if you’ll forgive me the medical metaphor.

I could go on with the description of the frame for teaching sexual ethics at HDS, but let’s take this as a rough list of some of the main kinds of pedagogical diversity you find in a classroom at HDS. Here’s the challenge for a teacher: What could possibly hold all of this together? What can you do to prevent the course from becoming a superficial survey, a scatter?

My hunch over the years has been that all of these relations are held together at least by a shared historical situation—by a set of shared tasks that arise from where we find ourselves in U.S. cultural and religious history—or world history, so far as there is such a thing. We stand at the end of an extraordinarily rapid change in religious teaching on sexual matters. No matter what traditional groups may claim, no religious body in the U.S. is teaching the same views of sex that it was teaching a hundred years ago. This change has been driven by many forces—from the emancipation of women through the spread psychoanalysis to the invention of oral contraceptives and now social media. The changes have been so rapid that most religious groups have spent the last century playing catch-up. They have either imported supposedly scientific results and accepted new social views uncritically or they have wasted all of their energy in denial of one sort or another.

Neither uncritical appropriation nor undifferentiated rejection is a good way to do serious religious thinking about sex. Religious ethicists—religious communities—need instead to reconsider basic categories and then the rules build around them; to strengthen the means of religious formation; and to learn more about sex by paying attention to emerging ways-of-life.

Let me give you just two examples—both Christian, since that’s the area of my research. Since at least 1950, Christian writers have been struggling with the fact that there is no word in New Testament Greek or Biblical Hebrew that corresponds to the modern category “homosexuality.” Whatever certain passages in the Christian Bible are talking about, they are not talking about what we mean by the category of homosexuality. As a Christian ethicist, what do you do with that? Do you refuse to use the modern category because it has no biblical equivalent? Do you just use the modern category and pretend that it’s what Christians have been talking about for two millennia? – That’s what some Bible translators have done. – Or do you try to make a new category that will preserve whatever is true in the old and new ways of talking?

My last example: relatively large, relatively public communities of women who love women and men who love men are still fairly recent. There are smaller, closed networks that we can identify in earlier centuries, but the evidence for relatively open communities at large scale really appears after World War II. That’s not more than 70 years—which is very short in the timelines of the major religions. Moreover, as you know, the granting of full civil rights to the members of such communities is much more recent than that. Historically speaking, we are still very near the beginning of thinking about the varieties of human sexuality—which is why someone like Gayle Rubin, who arrived here in 1978, could reach back in her interviews almost to the beginning of community memories. Instead of trying to produce complete systems of sexual ethics, instead of trying to settle all the questions all at once, could we first think about who people actually are and what they are actually doing?

That’s what I try to do alongside my students at HDS—and also in the Yard.

End of lecture. Let’s talk.