Author Nancy Baker is currently leading a Tricycle community discussion about sexual misconduct and the third Zen precept. You can join the discussion here.

Photograph by Saya Chontang, Gallery Carte Blanche
Photograph by Saya Chontang, Gallery Carte Blanche

This is a time of great sexual freedom, which most people think is a good thing. Sex is everywhere these days—in newspapers, on TV, in advertising, in literature, in movies, in the classroom, in jokes, on the Internet, in our conversations. There is no avoiding it—not that anyone wants to. And along with these sex stories, sexual misconduct is frequently discussed. This includes both ordinary and scandalous infidelities as well as downright criminal behavior. We human beings are fascinated by the misdeeds of others, particularly when they are sexual.

The third Zen precept, refraining from impure sexuality, probably originated in a monastic setting where celibacy was practiced. As laypeople who are not tempted to engage in physically violent sexual misconduct, such as rape, or psychologically violent sexual misconduct, such as the abuse of young children, we might wonder how this precept relates to our lives. In fact, if we look more closely, it is a subtle and interesting precept; there is more to it than first meets the eye. There are several different translations of its subject matter: “adultery,” “impure sexuality,” “sexual misconduct,” “unchaste conduct,” and “misuse of sex.” What causes the misconduct and the impurity has been translated as “attachment,” “greed,” “grasping,” and “desire.” A consideration of some of the differences among these translations actually allows us to see the richness of the precept. Here, I will examine two ways of understanding this precept: sexual misconduct and misuse of sex.

First, we should consider the notion of sexual misconduct. Misconduct invites condemnation, whether legal, moral, or social. When it comes to violence, rape is the far end of a spectrum. Closer to the middle of that spectrum is what Robert Aitken Roshi in his book The Mind of Clover called “boorishness.” I laughed when I first read the term—it seems like such a 1950s word. Nowadays we have the word “groping,” which has actually become a legal term. I remember a few blind dates in college where I was returned to my dorm in the dead of winter in an unheated car driven by a “groper.” Not pleasant! I don’t know if young men are “boorish” any more. Now we have date rape. I was watching the news recently, and a woman was asked if it was true that she had had a sexual encounter with a certain man. She said, “Yes, it was consensual—and brutal.” We may consent to a sexual encounter, but what that encounter turns out to be may not be what we expected. “Consensual” doesn’t always mean mutual or shared or mutually generous. And what seems consensual may not actually be so. What about sexual relations between teacher and student? Or between therapist and client? Or between two adulterers? Are these consensual? Here, perhaps, what we need to look at—on both sides—is self-deception and motive, particularly unconscious motives. We then might see what the unintended consequences could be before it’s too late. All this is to say that there are forms of sexual violence that are much closer to home than we realize. Failing to speak up in all these cases, whether we are speaking for ourselves or for others, is a serious failing.

Photograph © Don Smith/Getty Images
Photograph © Don Smith/Getty Images

While sexual misconduct addresses our treatment of people—our conscious and unconscious impulses to take advantage of the susceptibility of others for our own emotional or physical gratification—misuse of sexuality addresses our relationship to our own sexuality. If we look at the translations of the word for the causes of sexual misconduct—greed, attachment, grasping, desire—we see some interesting differences. “Sex addiction,” for which people get treatment, is our contemporary version of repetitive grasping, a must-have. Then there is addiction to pornography, which (thanks to the Internet) is increasingly and easily accessible. One of my undergraduate female students told me that many of her male contemporaries are not only addicted to pornography but actually learn about sex from it. She said it does not make them good lovers. In the case of “desire,” which sounds less harmful to the other than “greed,” there might be desire for someone else’s spouse or partner and actually acting on that desire. On the surface that might not appear harmful to the object of your desire, but what about the harm done to the spouse or partner of the other or to your own?

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