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 sexual (kāma) behaviour (cāra) wrong (micchā)?
Once, while addressing an audience of brahmans, the Buddha said that intercourse with
Because this discourse was addressed to men, the Buddha spoke only of female sexual partners. Had he been addressing women he would, of course, have spoken of male equivalents.
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 coerced 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 coercion or that is in any way non-consensual, 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 promiscuity , while perhaps being inadvisable, socially unacceptable or not conducive to spiritual development, would not per se be breaking the third Precept.
Having a nocturnal emission does not break the Precept either.
As in many societies, sex in ancient India was surrounded by numerous superstitions, restrictions and taboos.
Brahmans believed that having intercourse when one’s wife was pregnant would defile the foetus (atimiḷhaja) or when she was nursing would make her milk impure and thereby defile the baby (asucipaṭipīta).
They taught that it was proper to have sex only to produce offspring and not for pleasure (kāma), for sport (dava) or out of sensual delight (rati).
They also believed that it was wrong for a couple to have sex during the wife’s menstruation (utunī).
The Buddha praised brahmans who followed such rules, not because he agreed with them, but because they were being true to what they preached (A.II,226).
There are no examples of where he subscribed to any sexual superstitions or taught them to his disciples.
Another widespread belief was that indulging in too much sex could cause cough (kasa), asthma (sāsa), joint pain (daraṃ) and lack of judgment (bālayṃ, Ja,VI,295).
While accepting that sex is a normal part of lay life, the Buddha generally had a poor opinion of it. He dismissed 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.
See Adultery, Incest and Prostitution.
Buddhism and Sex, M. O’C Walsh, 1986.