A fiercely intellectual book on the moral complexities of sex

A review of Anthony McCarthy’s "Ethical Sex: Sexual Choices and their Nature and Meaning"

I cannot pretend that a book entitled Ethical Sex would normally jump off the shelf at me but Anthony McCarthy’s erudite exploration of human sexuality and its significance provides a worthy contribution to an academic field dominated by secular thinking. 

Dr McCarthy is a sexual ethicist academic and lecturer, a career that has clearly given him a solid scholarly and practical basis for this work exploring what is perhaps the most talked about, over-emphasised and least understood area of human experience. One of the grave dangers in the current perception of sexuality in many quarters is the belief that sex is a morally neutral act akin to driving a car, a recreational activity that should not require comment or discussion from anyone. Indeed, one of the first quotes cited in the book is taken from Richard Dawkins’ work The God Delusion: “Enjoy your sex life (so long as it damages nobody else) and leave others to enjoy theirs in private whatever their inclinations, which are none of your business.” 

As a bioethicist, it is always tempting to shy away from debates about sexuality per se, but this book provides a chastening reminder of the impossibility of avoiding the root cause of the sexual revolution’s terrible anti-life legacy. It is arguable that any debate on abortion which does not acknowledge the significance of sexual behaviour, risks unwittingly encouraging the trivialisation of sexuality which feeds so directly into the abortion culture. 

Dr McCarthy’s book provides a scholarly analysis of human sexuality which is not afraid to explore a vast range of issues associated with sexuality, from the centrality of traditional marriage to the horrors of rape and the reasons why society is rightly appalled by acts of sexual violence and exploitation. The book is certainly not for the fainthearted or for the casual skim-reader; this is a fiercely intellectual treatment of the moral complexities of human sexual interaction which requires close reading and considerable concentration at times to work through the detailed arguments. It is, however, well worth the ride and makes a valuable contribution to a subject that is increasingly treated with indifference and cynicism. What makes Ethical Sex so significant is that it explores not only the morality of human sexuality (there are plenty of books that do that), but precisely the reasons why sexual behaviour is important in the first place. 

My biggest criticism of the book if anything would be Dr McCarthy’s diffident, almost apologetic note at the start of the book, which reads like a government health warning. The book is ‘fairly technical’, we are told and the author goes so far as to suggest that readers may wish to skip chapters 1 and 4 for this very reason. The book certainly is highly technical, but it is also engagingly written in a style that is at times passionate and even lyrical, with some glorious flashes of British humour thrown in. I would personally suggest that readers do not avoid reading chapter one as it tackles head-on some of the most serious flaws in contemporary thinking about contraception and NFP as contralife.   

The book is a must-read for teachers, academics, doctors, clergy and campaigners but it should be read by anyone in search of intellectual clarity in an age of confusion and uncertainty.  

Ethical Sex: Sexual Choices and their Nature and Meaning
by Anthony McCarthy PhD
Fidelity Press, 2016
Paperback, 326 pages

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About Fiorella Nash 38 Articles
Fiorella Nash is a researcher and writer for the London-based Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and has many years' experience researching life issues from a feminist perspective. She makes regular appearances at both national and international conferences and has appeared on radio and in print discussing issues such as abortion, gendercide, maternal health and commercial surrogacy. She is the author of The Abolition of Woman: How Radical Feminism Is Betraying Women (Ignatius Press, 2018), and is also an award-winning novelist, having published numerous books and short stories under the nom-de-plume Fiorella De Maria.