What is “sexual misconduct” (kamesu micchacara)? Here are two definitions in the Buddha’s own words.
“One conducts oneself wrongly in matters of sex; one has intercourse with those under the protection of father, mother, brother, sister, relatives or clan, or of their religious community; or with those promised to someone else, protected by law, and even with those betrothed with a garland” (Book of Tens, Anguttara Nikaya, X, 206).
“Abandoning sexual misconduct, one abstains from sexual misconduct; he does not have intercourse with women who are protected by their mother, father, mother and father, brother, sister, or relatives, who have a husband, who are protected by law, or with those already engaged”
Sexual misconduct or “wrong sensual indulgence” is karmically harmful behavior. On account of karma it will result in suffering and unsatisfactoriness now and/or in the future.
Kama [not to be confused with karma] denotes pleasure associated with the senses, particularly sexual pleasure — as in the legendary Sanskrit classic, the Kama Sutra. Sensual misconduct is wrongdoing for the sake of satisfying sensual desire. This harm may be to oneself or others. For example, there can be harm by overindulgence, such as gluttony/obesity or alcoholic intoxication. This is because craving arises, and one habitually tries to satisfy it in an ultimately unsatisfactory manner.
Any excessive or addictive sensual (kamesu) indulgence can constitute “misconduct” (miccachara). Strictly speaking, however, the term “sensual misconduct” is defined only in sexual terms, as the Buddha made clear by his definition.
Right Speech Example
This limited definition makes sense when sex is viewed as representative of sensuality in general – much in the way as the ordinary Buddhist thinks that Right Speech (samma vaca), the third factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, means only abstaining from lying. But lying is simply the grossest form of verbal misconduct. In fact, Right Speech refers to “speech that is timely, true, gentle, purposeful, and uttered kind-heartedly”
Right Speech is abstaining from speaking unseasonably (at the wrong moment), falsely, harshly, idly, or maliciously. After all, the honest truth — or the situation as one sees it and claims it to be — may be more harmful when spoken in any of these other ways than even a fib or silence.
Moreover, “sexual misconduct” has been hastily defined by early English, German, and French scholars based on Judeo-Christian thinking as “fornication and adultery.” But the Buddha did not teach that householders should abstain from sex, nor did he proclaim that they should engage in sex only in the context of marriage as many Christian sects teach.
It is mistaken and off-putting to confuse the Puritanical teachings of other religions with the ethical universals taught by the Buddha.
Consenting individuals not under the protection of others are free to engage in and enjoy sex without being admonished. What is important is that in so doing they are neither being harmed nor causing harm to others.
“Sexting,” harmless child’s play or worrisome trend?
Therefore, definitively speaking “sexual misconduct” means engaging in sex with a non-consenting individual (as in rape, coercion, or fraud) or consensual sex with anyone under protection. This means any dependent supported by parents, guardians, the community, state, or a spouse or fiancee.
The state (or monarch) may decree someone as “off limits,” such as the common early English translation of a “female convict.” This meant someone who was not free under a mandate, for example, a court edict or royal decree.
It would be clearly be harmful to engage in sexual intercourse with someone under duress. That would be harmful to all three parties — oneself, another, and both (which means the community). In the same way, to a lesser degree, harm is being done when one has sex with someone promised [by parents or guardians] to another, betrothed, formally engaged, or married.
In brief, one avoids doing harm by abstaining, not from sex, but from “misconduct.” To over extend or distort the meaning of misconduct leads to hypocrisy and even guilt for those trying to live as Buddhists.
Complete abstinence (brahmacariya) is said to be the supreme-life. It is only incumbent on those who willingly adopt such a stringent rule. That usually refers to Buddhist monastics, but it also refers to laypeople who choose to keep more than Five Precepts for a limited period of time, for example, during a meditation retreat.
Celibacy is not imposed on independent adults. It is sometimes voluntarily adopted as a form of training and self-discipline to bring craving under control.
But the fact of the matter is that one best advised to follow the customs and sensibilities of one’s era and culture — not because these are right but because one avoids reproach, hurt feelings, and many unnecessary troubles by doing so. This is in fact what many monks advise. Keep in mind what the Buddha taught; in addition, be mindful of what your society teaches.