A Declaration of Sexual Rights and Responsibilities

Vern L. Bullough

Evolving Principles for a New Century

In 1976, Lester Kirkendall drew up what he called “A New Bill of Sexual Rights and Responsibilities.” It was signed by many distinguished sexologists as well as other scholars and therapists. The original document was commissioned by Paul Kurtz, then editor of The Humanist and later published as a pamphlet by Prometheus Books. Times have changed, and it is important to issue a new statement. Some of those still alive who signed the original declaration have also signed this new one.

Sexuality has long been denied its proper place among other human activities. It has often been shrouded in mystery and surrounded by taboos, or heralded far beyond its capacity to, by itself, contribute to the fullness of life. Clearly, human sexuality grows increasingly satisfying as life itself becomes more meaningful. This importance of sexuality can be illustrated by looking at its contributions to enhancing the quality of today’s lifestyle.

For the first time in history, if proper precautions are taken, there need be very little fear of unwanted pregnancy or illness from a sexually transmitted disease. It is important that we recognize the changing role of sexuality which this change has brought about.

In the past, the legal limitations to conjugal unions or monogamous marriage were part of a social system in which reproduction was largely a matter of chance—and women were subject to men. Though a viable marriage has long been a cherished human relationship and will, we believe, continue to be, other types of sexual relationships have also been significant and need to be recognized. We believe that human beings should have the right to express their sexual desires and enter into relationships as they see fit, as long as they do not harm others or interfere with those others’ right to sexual expression. This growing sense of sexual freedom, however, should be accompanied by a sense of ethical responsibility. That is the purpose of this “Bill of Sexual Rights and Responsibilities.”

1. We believe the boundaries of human sexuality need to be expanded.

Sex is more than procreation, and, though procreation will always be important, it is only one aspect of human sexual expression today. Alternative sexual activity has often been condemned in the past, but, in today’s world, the widespread use of effective contraceptives as well as other developments in reproductive technology have made effective family planning possible for larger and larger numbers of people in the world. As a result, it is time that sexuality should be viewed as an expression of intimacy, a source of enjoyment and enrichment, and even a means for releasing tension. Sex should be integrated with other aspects of experience that are part of a balanced life.

2. Developing a sense of equity between the sexes is an essential feature of a sensible morality.

All legal, occupational, economic, and political discrimination against women should be removed and all traces of historical sexism erased. Until women have equal opportunities, they will be vulnerable to continued exploitation by men. This means that men must recognize the right of women to control their own bodies and to determine the nature of their own sexual expression. All individuals—female or male—are entitled to equal consideration as persons.

3. Repressive taboos should be replaced by a more balanced and objective view of sexuality based upon a sensitive awareness of human behavior and needs.

Archaic taboos have limited our thinking in many ways. The human person, especially the female, has often been held in bondage by restrictions that prescribed when, where, with whom, and with what parts of the body the sexual impulse could be satisfied. As these taboos are discarded, an objective reappraisal is required, although even without any formal authorization, changes have been taking place. Premarital sexual intercourse is being seen in a different light, and forced marriages are disappearing. Some individuals have multiple sexual relations, and organizations have appeared advocating polyamorous relationships. Homosexual relationships have finally been recognized as legal. Different lifestyles should also be permissible, including those engaged in by transvestites, transsexuals, and other transgendered or bisexual individuals. The guiding principles should be age and consent and how the activity affects others. On the whole, the use of genital associations to express feelings of genuine intimacy, rather than as simply connections for physical pleasure or procreation alone, is an important step forward.

Past taboos have prevented adequate examination of certain topics, thus blocking the discovery of answers to important questions associated with sexual activities. Abortion is a case in point. By focusing only on the destruction of the fetus, many have avoided facing the other issues that are fundamental, such as a woman’s right to choose to be pregnant and the need to medically protect the mother.

There must be open discussion of ways of providing a comprehensive sex education for both children and adults. Adequate and accurate information about contraceptive procedures should be available to those who wish to use them or as something they might use in a special situation. Likewise, taboos that cause people to feel that viewing the genitals or seeing sexual intercourse is obscene and pornographic should be challenged. Sex must be treated as part of the natural experience of being human. And masturbation is one of the joys of sex and should be regarded as part of the natural experience of being human.

4. Each person has both an obligation and a right to be informed about the various civic and community aspects of human sexuality.

A necessary first step is to affirm and support the statement of the United Nations World Health Organization’s committee on human sexuality that every “person has the right to receive sexual information and to consider accepting sexuality for pleasure as well as for procreation.” Even children have a right to sex education that is adjusted to their levels of understanding.

It is important to recognize that sexual attitudes are often intimately related to many problems of public importance, although taboos too often inhibit free discussion. For example, to deal effectively with extremely rapid population growth in different areas of the world we must accept that individual attitudes influence sexual expression and contraception choices. This requires research and experimentation. So does satisfying the sexual needs of individuals who are incarcerated or institutionalized for one reason or another and who still need to establish meaningful ties with others, whether they be in homes for senior citizens, for the developmentally disabled or mentally compromised, or in prison. In sum, sexual attitudes and lifestyles continually need to be adjusted to meet changing conditions brought on by technological and medical developments as well as changing cultural patterns. We often do not know the answers to these new problems, but we must recognize the need and deal with the reality.

5. Potential parents have both the right and responsibility to plan the number and the time of the birth of their children, taking into account both social needs and their own desires.

Family size and the decision to give birth is up to the individuals involved. This means that birth control and abortion information as well as that about voluntary sterilization must be freely available to both married couples and unmarried individuals. Males as well as females should be involved in family planning decisions. Contraception should not be the sole responsibility of females. There is a need to urge more intensive research on an effective male contraceptive.

6. Sexual morality should come from a sense of caring and respect for others. Much of it cannot be legislated.

Laws can and do protect the young from exploitation and people of any age from sexual abuse such as rape. And child sexual abuse is a major problem that must be given a high priority for serious research. But, beyond laws emphasizing the importance of age and consent, most forms of sexual expression should not be matters of legal regulation. Mature individuals should be able to choose their partners and the kinds of sexual expression suited to them.

Certain forms of sexual expression, such as being a prostitute or utilizing one, are regarded as demeaning or confining by many, but any changes in such practices should come through education and counseling and not by legal prohibition, although the conditions and locations of soliciting can be subject to regulation if they appear to endanger children or seriously violate the rights of others. The overriding objective should be to help individuals to live balanced and self-actualized lives. The punishment and ostracism of those who voluntarily engage in socially disapproved forms of sexual conduct only exacerbate the problem. Sexual morality should be viewed as an inseparable part of general morality—not as a special set of rules. Sexual values and sex acts, like other human values and acts, should be evaluated by whether they frustrate or enhance human fulfillment and avoid force and exploitation.

Individuals should not knowingly pass on a sexually transmitted disease. Such an action is harmful to another. Those who are diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease should not be ostracized but should be treated as any other ill or diseased person.

7. Physical pleasure has worth as a moral value.

Traditional religious and social views have often condemned pleasures of the body as “sinful,” “wicked,” or as major causes of illness. These attitudes are highly judgmental and very destructive of human relationships. Deprivation of physical pleasure, particularly during the formative periods of development, can and often does result in family breakdown, child abuse, adolescent runaways, alcoholism, and various forms of dehumanizing behavior. Physical pleasure within the context of meaningful human relationships is essential—both as a moral value and as a contribution to wholesome social relationships.

8. The ability of individuals to respond positively and affirmatively to sexuality throughout the life cycle must be acknowledged and accepted.

These responses differ with the ages of individuals. Childhood sexuality is expressed through genital awareness and exploration, which involves self-touching or caressing parts of the body, behavior for which children should not be punished. It is a natural part of childhood and such learning experiences help the individual understand his or her body feelings and incorporate sexuality as an integral part of his or her personality. Masturbation is a viable mode of satisfaction for many individuals, both young and old, and should be fully accepted as part of being human. Just as repressive attitudes have prevented us from recognizing the importance of childhood sexual exploration, they can also prevent us from seeing the value of sexuality in the middle and later years of life. We need to appreciate the fact that older persons have sexual needs just as those much younger do. The joy of touching, of giving and receiving affection and the satisfaction of intimate body responsiveness is the right of everyone throughout life.

9. In all sexual encounters, commitment to human and humanistic values should always be present.

No person’s sexual desires should hurt or disadvantage another without their willing consent. This principle should apply to all sexual encounters—both to the brief and casual experience and to those that are deeper and more prolonged. In any sexual encounter or relationship, freely given consent is fundamental—even in the marital relationship.

These concepts raise troublesome and perplexing questions since those directly engaged in the encounter may hold widely differing points of view toward sexual conduct. This makes it essential that open, candid, and honest communication about current and future expectations takes place. Even then, decisions are subject to judgment and projection, and their outcomes are only slowly revealed.

No relationship, sexual or otherwise, occurs in a vacuum. In addition to the persons directly involved in the sexual relationship, there are important others—parents, children, siblings, friends, and other lovers or mates. The interest of these persons are usually complex and diverse, and no course of action will satisfy everyone. Even willing consent, however, is not enough to justify maiming or killing a person for the purpose of sexual satisfaction. The key is to have empathy for others. It is important to ask oneself, “How would I want others to conduct themselves sexually toward me and others that I care about?” Equally important to consider: “Am I concerned for the happiness and well-being of my partner or others involved or just for my own?” Each person contributes to creating a social atmosphere in which a full acceptance of responsible sexual expression should exist.


The realization and acceptance of the points in this statement depend upon each individual recognizing that one has autonomy and control over one’s own sexual function. Each individual needs to realize that it is reasonable to accept and enjoy pleasures of the body (and mind) and to respect the rights of others who also accept them.

At this point in our history, we human beings are embarking on a wondrous adventure. For the first time, we realize that we own our own bodies. Until now, our bodies have been in bondage to church or state, which have dictated how we could express our sexuality. Most people in the past have not been permitted to experience the pleasures and joys of the human body and their sensory nature to their fullest capacity. To do so, we need to accept the belief that actualizing pleasure is among the highest moral goods—so long as it is experienced with responsibility and mutuality and does not involve unwanted force or exploitation.

A reciprocal and creative attitude toward sexuality can have a deep meaning both for the individual and for society. Each of us will know its personal meaning, but we also need to experience it with others. In effect, our behavior can say to another, “I am enriched for having had this experience and for having contributed to your having had it also.” The social meaning can derive from the loving feelings engendered in a person who is experiencing guilt-free, reciprocal pleasure. The loving feelings of mental and physical well-being, the sense of completion of the self that we can experience from freely expressed sexuality may well reach out to all humanity. It is quite impossible to have a meaningful, ecstatic sexual and sensual life and to be indifferent to or uncaring about other human beings.

Freeing our sexual selves is vital if we are to reach the heights of our full humanity. But at the same time, we believe that we need to activate and nourish a sense of our responsibilities to others.

Lester Kirkendall, 1976. Revised by Vern Bullough and others, 2003.

SIGNERS (Those with asterisks signed the first declaration and are still active).

Elizabeth Rice Allgeier, Ph.D. Bowling Green State University, Ohio

Rick Allgeier, Ph.D. private practice, Bowling Green, Ohio

Linda Alperstein, M.S.W., School of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco

Marianna Beck, Ph.D., Chicago, Illinois

Joani Blank, M.P.H., Oakland, California

Walter Bochting, Ph.D., University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Gwen Brewer, Ph.D., California State University, Northridge

Vern L. Bullough, Ph.D.*, D. Sci. R.N., State University of New York at Buffalo, and D. Sci, California State University, Northridge

Carol Cassell, Ph.D., University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

Eli Coleman, Ph.D., University of Minnesota

Helen Colton*, Family Counselor, Los Angeles, California

Clive Davis, Ph.D., Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York

Sandra L. Davis, Syracuse, New York

Sol Gordon, Ph.D.*, Professor Emeritus, Syracuse University

John DeLamater, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Milton Diamond, Ph.D, University of Hawaii

Albert Ellis, Ph.D.*, private practice, founder of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex, New York, New York

Robert Francoeur, Ph.D. , Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison, New Jersey

Robert C. Friar, Ph.D., Ferris State University

Suzanne G. Frayser, Ph.D. researcher, Conifer, Colorado

Edward Gregersen, Ph.D. Queens College, New York

Jack Hafferkamp, Ph.D. Chicago, Illinois

David Hall, Ph.D., American College of Sexologists, Stockton, California

Janet Shibley Hyde, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Madison

Paul Kurtz, Ph.D., State University of New York at Buffalo

Elizabeth Larson, D.H.S., Seattle Institute for Sex Therapy, Education, and Research

Ann A. Lawrence, M.D., Ph.D., private practice, Seattle, Washington

Jean Levitan, Ph.D., William Paterson University of New Jersey

Harold Lief, M.D., University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

Andrew Mattison, Ph.D., University of California, San Diego

Konstance McCaffree, Ph.D. Widener University

Naomi B. McCormick, Ph.D., Clinical Health Psychologist, Cedar Falls, Iowa

Sharon McNeely, Ph.D., Chicago, Illinois

David P. McWhirter, M.D., University of California at San Diego

Michael E. Metz, Ph.D., St. Paul, Minnesota

Ronald Moglia, Ed.D., New York University

John Money, Ph.D.*, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland

Charlene Muehlenhard, Ph.D., University of Kansas, Lawrence

Raymond J. Noonan, Ph.D., Fashion Institute of Technology, New York City

Ira L. Reiss, Ph.D.*, University of Minnesota (Emeritus), Minneapolis

Stella Resnick, Ph.D.,Clinical Psychologist, Los Angeles, California

Paul A. Rimassa, Ph.D., Hamilton Square, New JerseyBen Robinson, Ph.D., University of Minnesota

Michael Ross, Ph.D., University of Texas

Howard Rupple, Ph.D., Institute for Advanced Study of Sexuality, San Francisco, California

Herbert Samuels, Ph.D., LaGuardia College, City University of New York, New York City, New York

Stephanie A. Saunders, Ph.D., Indiana University

Julian Slowinski, Psy.D., Pennsylvania Hospital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

William Stayton, Th.D.,Therapist, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Widener University

Mark Schoen, Ph.D.*, Sinclair Institute, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Louis H. Swartz, Ph.D., L.L.M., R.N., State University of New York at Buffalo

Beverly Whipple, Ph.D., Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey

Vern L. Bullough is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York and is currently an adjunct professor of nursing at the University of Southern California.

Vern L. Bullough

Vern Bullough, a FREE INQUIRY senior editor, is a noted author and researcher in human sexuality. He is with the Center for Sex Research at California State University, Northridge.

Evolving Principles for a New Century In 1976, Lester Kirkendall drew up what he called “A New Bill of Sexual Rights and Responsibilities.” It was signed by many distinguished sexologists as well as other scholars and therapists. The original document was commissioned by Paul Kurtz, then editor of The Humanist and later published as a …

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