The First Principle is “Do No Harm”
Paul Abramson is a professor of psychology at UCLA and one of the world’s leading authorities on sex. His new book, Sex Appeal: Six Ethical Principles for the 21st Century, Abramson makes us keenly aware of all the damages irresponsible sex can cause, celebrates the many ways sex can deepen and strengthen relationships, and firmly opposes limiting personal freedom based on sexual orientation. In the excerpt below, from the beginning of the book, Abramson introduces his first principle: Do No Harm.
Why do I begin with harm? Sexual harm puts people off. Might a more optimistic principle be a better place to start? How about enjoyment, ecstasy even? After all, this book is about sex, so why not start with a bang?
I certainly considered as much and quite frankly in a perfect world would not have hesitated to begin with the most exciting aspects of sex. But unfortunately the sexual world is anything but perfect. The best place to ethically improve it, I believe, is with the principle, and more importantly the habit, to do no harm.
Take a look at the numbers. In 2004 there were 95,089 forcible rapes in the United States reported to the FBI. In 2005 the number was slightly less, 93,934. This translates, at least where female victims are concerned, into approximately 32.2 forcible rapes per 100,000 women a year. Considering that only a small percentage of rapes are actually reported, and that males can also be victims of rape, these numbers are extremely alarming, to say the last.
Or consider our schools. The frequency of serious violent crime (which is a composite or rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault statistics) committed against 12- to 18-year-old students is staggering. In the five-year period from 2000 to 2004, there were 639,000 incidences of serious violent crime against students while in American schools. This translates into a rate of approximately 5 serious violent crimes per 1000 students. (Incidentally, outside of school it is even worse, with over one million serious violent crimes committed against 12- to 18-year-olds between 2000 and 2004.)
When sexual assault is committed against very young children (under 6) in the home, the perpetrator of it is most likely to be sexually assaulted by an acquaintance over 18 years of age. The bottom line is this: kids are not truly safe from sexual assault in either the home or at school.
Abroad, the situation is not much better – often much worse, in fact. Consider for example the incidence of sexual harm in strife-torn countries such as Nigeria. Amnesty International reports that Nigerian perpetrators of rape are rarely punished and that females have no forum for redressing the crime of rape. If that were not bad enough, Amnesty International also indicates that Nigerian police and security forces routinely commit rape as well, often as a strategic means of intimidating communities. This tragedy is by no means limited to Nigeria. Many countries, like Burundi, have a high incidence of rape, or, like South Africa, a low conviction rate for rape (Nigeria has both.)
There can be little doubt that sexual harm is an epidemic with global impications.
Now imagine this: as a first step in training all children about sex, parents around the globe (and societies more generally) teach the simple rule to “do no harm.” Imagine too that this instruction was extraordinarily effective. What would this world look like? What benefits would accrue?
For the most part, we would have an adult population that did not commit rape or date rape, did not sexually abuse, sexually harass, sexually assault, or perpetrate any of the other sexual harms of which people are capable. As the song goes, “What a wonderful world it would be!”
The absence of sexual harm in not, I believe, unlike world peace. An all-encompassing reduction or elimination of sexual harm would have a profound impact on the planet. Better yet, I believe also that this scenario could be achieved more simply than world peace. With a few exceptions, sexual harm is an offense committed by an individual. The point of intervention, then, is each and ever individual child. Instruction to do no harm must be repeated throughout development, from preschool to college, so that it becomes, an entrenched habit. Our entire social body must work toward eliminating sexual harm by teaching that the first lesson of sex, or the first ethical principle, so to speak, is to do no harm.
Physicians are taught the same basic rule. Do no harm. A patient seeks a doctor’s advice. If the doctor, as opposed to the illness itself, does not make the patient worse, the patient at the very least has not suffered from the visit. To say it another way, if the doctor has no effect, this is without question better than making the patient even sicker. The best possible scenario is that the doctor cures the patient – and doing no harm is a good place for the doctor to start.