I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct

The Third Precept

Today is August 1st! It’s the official beginning of my 31 Day Precept Project. So, let’s talk about sex.

The topic of sexual misconduct within our society has been getting a lot of attention recently, and the Buddhist community has not been immune (see Noah Levine and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche for a couple of recent examples.) In thinking about the third precept, I think that there is a lot of light that can be shed on a skillful way of applying this precept. The #metoo moment that we are in offers a lot to think about in regards to the complexity of sexuality.

As I’ve pointed out with other posts in this series, the five precepts are not a list of commandments, but a list of guidelines for how to live a life that minimizes suffering, both to ourselves and to other beings. Human sexuality is a powerful influence that can cause a lot of suffering if handled carelessly. The craving of sexual pleasure can be consuming, and under various circumstances can lead to feelings of guilt, anger, sadness, and other emotions, as well as sometimes leading us to make harmful choices. It can also lead us to mistreat others when we prioritize our sexual desires over the needs (emotional, sexual, safety, etc.) of other people.

Photo freely given by Alexis Fauvet on Unsplash

My understanding of the third precept for us laypeople, is that we should be mindful about how we use our sexuality in order to not cause harm to ourselves or others. The precept itself is pretty vague, but a few of the specific things that have often been seen as addressed in this precept are; sex should be between consenting adults (no rape, no sex with minors, no animals) and that it is not proper to cheat on yours or another’s marriage. These precepts line up with many common cultural mores around the world. I think that stopping at a list of behaviors to avoid, however, isn’t really the point.

In thinking over this precept from a modern lens, I think a broader view of how we can misuse our sexuality is appropriate. The current climate that we find ourselves in has demonstrated that there are a lot of imbedded problems involving power dynamics and sexuality in our society. As a man, I feel like my exploration of this precept has to include a consideration of whether I am sufficiently aware of how my actions, whether purposeful or accidental, can make another person feel sexually threatened or objectified. I would like to think that this is an issue that isn’t a problem for me, but I realize that the current conversation has pointed out that a lot of men in our society have some significant blind spots in this area. If nothing else, asking the questions is a worthwhile endeavor.

Another area of thought for me is the question of pornography. Does consuming porn contribute to the suffering of the people involved in its production? I feel that it probably does in some cases, if not all. Is there also an element of taking what isn’t freely given? My assumption is that some of the people involved in the porn industry could be understood to not be 100% free of coercion, either in a literal sense or in an economic one.

Finally, I think that an important part of dealing with this precept is examining the level to which lust controls us. Sexual desire is a hardwired part of our makeup as humans. We don’t have to try to suppress that desire, but we can practice not getting carried away by it. We can accept it, be with it, even enjoy it, but not cling to it or push it away. Ultimately, the wise approach to sexuality seems to be a focus on non-harming. In regard to myself, can I be present with feelings of sexual desire, without craving, aversion, or delusion? In regard to others, are my intentions and actions in the realm of sexuality causing harm or distress to anyone? This is an area that requires a lot more vigilance than most of us give it, but if we are to learn anything from the current moment, it should be that it is an endeavor that is incredibly important to undertake.