Sexual behaviour (kāma or methuna) is any actions motivated by erotic desire and usually involving the genital region. This includes all forms of coitus, intercrural sex, masturbation, sexual fondling and perhaps even voyeurism. The third of the five Precepts, the basic principles of Buddhist ethics, says that one should avoid sexual misconduct (kāmesu micchācārā). What would make a sexual (kāma) behaviour (cāra) wrong (micchā)?
Once, while addressing an audience of brahmans the Buddha said that intercourse is sexual misconduct if it is with:
- Girls under the guardianship of their parents (māturakkhitā, piturakkhitā), i.e. under-aged;
- Protected by Dhamma (dhammarakkhitā), nuns or those who have taken a vow of celibacy
- Married (sassāmikā)
- Undergoing punishment, (saparidaṇḍā), i.e. prisoners
- Those bedecked in garlands (mālāguṇaparikkhittā), i.e. engaged to be married, would be wrong (A.V,264).
A child is unlikely to have the maturity or experience to make an informed decision concerning sex while having sex with 2, 3 and 5 would involve them in breaking a solemn vow or promise, i.e. lying. An incarcerated person can be cohered into doing something they really don’t wish to do and thus cannot make a genuinely free choice. It is clear from this that sex involving exploitation, dishonesty or cohersion or that is in any way non-concentual, would be breaking the third Precept. Although not mentioned here, using or threatening physical force (i.e. rape) to compel someone to have sex, and intercourse with an intoxicated or a mentally disabled person would also qualify as sexual misconduct. From the Buddhist perspective therefore, sex before marriage or during menstruation, masturbation, homosexuality, with a person of a lower caste (forbidden in Hinduism) or sexual gluttony, while perhaps being inadvisable, socially unacceptable or not conducive to spiritual development, would not be breaking the third Precept.
While accepting that sex is a normal part of lay life, the Buddha generally had a poor opinion of it. He disparaged it as ‘a village thing’ (gāma dhamma, D.I,4); i.e. common, unsophisticated and worldly. He understood that a heightened desire for sensual pleasure (kāmacchanda) causes physical and psychological restlessness and that this diverts one’s attention from spiritual aspirations and hinders meditation. He encouraged his more serious disciples to limit their sexual behaviour or to embrace celibacy (brahmacariya). Monks and nuns, of course, are required to be celibate. However, experience shows that taking a vow of celibacy when one is not ready for it can be anything but helpful. Constantly struggling against and denying sexual desire can create more problems than it solves and in fact can even be psychologically harmful.