In Buddhism, we as lay followers (non-monastics), are urged to follow five precepts to help us live a skillful and ethical life. They include the practices of not harming, not stealing, being skillful with our speech and not abusing intoxicants. The third precept is: Refrain from sexual misconduct. This is an important intention to set, but there is little additional information in the suttas (the early teachings of the Buddha) on what this means. We are asked to refrain from sexual contact with people in committed relationships, minors, and monastics but there are no further instructions on how to define what sexual misconduct is, and how we refrain from it.
This is one of my primary explorations, and I can (and do) write and talk for days about this subject. I have done a lot of reflection and research on how to work with sexuality in a Theravada Buddhist context. I have lots of stories, and I can get quite fired up about this topic. But for this brief article I will provide a framework of how to work with the third precept, and how to define sexual misconduct for yourself. Please know this is just the surface of what is a very complex and fascinating topic.
I see why this precept is so important. As I reflect on the difficult times in my life there is often an element of unskillful sexual energy. Many of the lowest moments of my life had to do with sex in some way; the time I cheated on someone, or stole a partner from a friend, or married the wrong person, these all were really unskillful actions driven in some way by sexual energy.
Sex is a powerful energy. And we are in a culture that both glorifies sex and still is not open about talking about it. So it can feel super powerful, and we may not feel we have the capacity needed to cope with such an energy, so we let it lead us around. But luckily, many of us have a mediation practice. As I’ve practiced more, I’ve been able to see sexual energy as just energy. Yes, it’s powerful, but it is not unmanageable. Just like I’ve learned when I’m meditating to not scratch an itch in the middle of my sit, I have also learned I don’t need to act on every sexual impulse that arises.
The tool I have found most useful for working with my sexual energy (besides my daily practice) is the path factor of Wise Intention. Wise Intention is focused on what is the impetus behind our action; where are we coming from? It is made up of 3 aspects, non-harming, renunciation, and goodwill. I will break each of these aspects of this factor and how they can be applied to sex to help you craft your definition of sexual misconduct.
Harm looks different for each of us. Based on our history, personality, and current mood, we are all going to react to things in different ways. A smack on the butt may feel fine one person, but to someone who was beaten as a child it may be quite harmful. We need to remember that harm is really personal, and so your definition of non-harming will be different from other people’s and that is ok.
It helps to make a list of all the sexual behaviors you do, or all the ways you act on sexual energy. This ranges from how you think about sex, to how you express sexual energy on your own, to how you express sexual energy with others. For example, some behaviors I’ve had to look at: I would immediately evaluate every person I see based on if I would sleep with them or not, I used to masturbate to porn daily, when my partner wouldn’t give me multiple orgasms I would pester them until they did.
Once you’ve made a comprehensive list of all your sexual behaviors (which may take a few days of reflection) then it comes time to rate the behaviors. I use a scale of 1-10; 1 being not harmful at all, and 10 being very harmful. Again, defining harm is going to be really personal, and it’s important to look at the harm caused to yourself, and potential harm caused to others. So for me, with masturbating to porn: I found it to be a harmful behavior for myself because I was getting lost in the stories and wasting time in fantasy. And I found it harmful to others because I was watching whatever; I wasn’t intentionally seeking out ethical porn, so I was supporting an industry that I knew had some harmful practices. So it felt like a 6 to me.
The second aspect of wise intention is this process of letting go. Now that you are clear on the ways you harm yourself and others sexually, then it is time to look at what of these behaviors you want to try and let go of. For most of us, we will want to start with letting go of the most harmful behaviors first, but for some that may feel too much of a stretch, and so we may need to start with something more simple, to show ourselves we can actually let go of these behaviors.
I suggest doing one behavior at a time. I have done periods of full sexual renunciation too, but in day-to-day life, especially if you’re partnered, changing behaviors one at a time may be more realistic. And as you go through this process, you may see how your behaviors are inter-related, or are coming from a similar motivation; and then it may make sense to do more than one at a time.
For me it is always helped to have a set time period I will let go of something and then check in with myself to see if the renunciation is useful. For example, I initially gave up watching porn for three months. I checked in at three months and saw that there was still a lot of charge there, it was still something I was craving deeply, so I continued it for another three months. And another, and another. I’ve now not watched porn for a year and I can see the benefits; I’m not wasting time in the morning getting lost in fantasy and I’m not supporting an industry that has harmful practices. I did recently see that there is minimal harm if I read erotic stories, so now I will do that occasionally, but I also know that’s something I will reassess from time to time. Will I stay away from porn forever? I don’t know. I just take it three months at a time.
The final aspect of wise intention is goodwill. It’s important not to harm with our sexual energy, and let go of our harmful behaviors, and it’s also essential that as we do express our sexual energy we do so with goodwill. This does not mean all our sexual behaviors need to be super sweet, or that we can only “make love” and not have sex; a wide range of sexual behaviors can come from a place of goodwill, if we are coming from a place of communication and respect with our partners.
When we talk to our sexual partners; whether they are life partners, or partners for the night, we can share our desires and interests with one another, and act on those in a way that feels like it’s coming from a place of kindness. So when a partner tells me that they love to spanked, and how much, and in what way, I can act on that, without harming them, because I’m coming from a place of kindness and goodwill; I’m coming from a place of giving them what they ask for. Knowing that I’ll stop if they ask me to.
So much of expressing our sexual energy from a place of goodwill comes down to respect and communication. When we respect our bodies, and the bodies of others, we can express ourselves freely, trusting that we know how to respect boundaries and limits. When we clearly communicate our desires and boundaries with others, and listen to what they have to say, we can express ourselves in kind ways.
This can sometimes seem like a no-brainer, “Duh, of course I’m a good communicator and kind and respectful with my sexual energy,” but as you explore your patterns more deeply, and get honest with yourself, you may see that there is a place for growth. You will get to know your needs better, and in turn be clearer about how to meet those needs and the needs of others. You will see the moments where you can bring more goodwill into your actions.
As I said, this is a brief summary of a long exploration for me. My hope is by taking this practice to heart, that you may find a clear definition for yourself about what sexual misconduct is, and how to act from a place of wisdom with your sexuality.
Kate Spina, LCSW, is passionate about applying the early teachings of the Buddha to 21st century life. Kate is a meditation facilitator at Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, and an Adaptive Ski Instructor. Her home base is Los Angeles, CA. Kate can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out all of Kate’s posts!