Vancouver, British Columbia -- Sex is sacred. Sex is good. Sex can be for fun alone. Sex can be fine with oneself and, in some circumstances, it can be terrific outside marriage.

Those were some of the sex-positive messages speakers were delivering at the annual gathering of the Society of Christian Ethics, which brought together more than 350 religious ethicists from across Canada and the United States.

Many at the conference were determined to move away from traditional beliefs that Judeo-Christianity preaches sex is shameful, sex should be restricted to procreation, masturbation is wrong, sex outside marriage is always bad and homosexuality is evil.

Subjects such as "good sex," "sanctifying women's pleasure" and "the problems with regulating sex" were discussed in a host of sessions, papers and books at the conference, attended by Christian scholars from an array of denominations, including mainline Protestant, evangelical and Roman Catholic.

A chapter of one major academic resource book discussed at the conference, "Sexuality and the Sacred," edited by James Nelson, is titled The Moral Significance of Female Orgasm: Toward Sexual Ethics That Celebrate Women's Sexuality. Its author, Professor Cristina Traina, a practicing Roman Catholic who teaches about ethics and sexuality at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., says female religious scholars have been among the leaders in the movement toward promoting the sacredness of human sexuality. "The physical world, including the body, is one through which we experience the love of God," Traina said during the Jan. 11-13 conference, which debated scores of other controversial issues, from the morality of war to the ethics of globalization and cloning. Traina compared sex to food.

Just as sex doesn't always have to be a method simply to make babies, she said, food doesn't always have to be purely for nutrition. Sometimes, she suggested, it's fine to eat a chocolate brownie simply for the wonderful sensation.

Sex is generally moral, she said, when it doesn't harm society and has meaning. Although it's not official Catholic teaching, Traina said, most Catholics use some form of contraception. And even conservative Christians are moving beyond the old church belief that sex must be restricted to procreation alone.

Ethical sex in a relationship should be "mutually pleasurable," Traina said. But, like most people taking part in the sexuality sessions at the conference, Traina also endorsed masturbation, or what is now called "self-pleasuring."

Many of the 1,000 members of the Society of Christian Ethics (which includes about 25 Jewish ethicists) are staking out a kind of middle ground on sexual ethics that does not embrace either the mass media's promotion of promiscuousness or the strict anti-sex admonitions of some religious authorities.

The new breed of Christian sexual ethicists generally believes traditional religions have often ignored the health and sexual desires of women, restricting them to the role of baby makers. As a result, a growing chorus of women has been trying to broaden the definition of moral sex.

In "Sexuality and the Sacred," which was promoted at the conference, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America theologian Mary Pellauer says women "need to follow the trails of our joys with the same persistent adventurousness with which we have explored the pains of sexual abuse." In another book, "Good Sex," Society of Christian Ethics member Patricia Jung, of Loyola University, and Mary Hunt, a theologian in Maryland, reveal how followers of world religions are removing the stigma on once-illicit sexual relations.

"Good Sex," for example, suggests sex outside marriage can be healing and joyful in many circumstances. So do other books that were promoted at the conference, including "The Strange Woman: Power and Sex in the Bible." Traina, who contributed to a collection of essays on sexual morality, titled "Sexual Diversity in Catholicism," tends to agree.

Many Christians, she said in an interview, now believe sex between engaged couples, and even sexual experimentation among young people, including masturbation, is morally acceptable. In addition, many papers and speakers at the meeting do not condemn homosexuality, suggesting a sexual relationship between homosexuals is not much different from sex within a heterosexual marriage.

When it comes to family planning and women's rights, many of the Christian ethicists have been joining with noted University of Victoria religion scholar Harold Coward and working on how Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and other religions could be better emphasizing the need to limit family size to protect the Earth.

Daniel Maguire, a religious ethicist from Marquette University in Milwaukee, has been studying different approaches to contraception and abortion in 10 world religions. As co-author of "What Men Owe to Women," Maguire took part in a panel discussion at the conference on justice-oriented family planning, which supported "abortion as a backup when necessary."

The meeting revealed an explosion of interest in the changing shape of morality when it comes to sexuality, reproduction and spirituality. For her part, Traina said she didn't plan to be a "sexual ethicist" when she began her career at Northwestern University's religion department. "But every time I talked to people about sex and ethics, they kept asking me to do more."

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