Issue of gender imbalance in 3rd precept on forbidden partners

Just today, a lay yogi who had read the booklet by Bhante Aggacitta below on the 5 precepts had a conversation with me about the range of 3rd precept.

The relevant pages are in the 3rd precept pages (40-54), and Appendix C (86-87) on Forbidden persons.

I just read that so before that, I always assumed that the gender thing in the wordings of precepts can just be gender switched and remains the same wording. However, according to the booklet, it doesn’t provide the same treatment for the two genders.

In particular the following two:

  1. The personal status of a male (his marital status, age, dependency, etc.) does not bar him from having sex with a female who is not in his forbidden list.
  1. For a female, there are no males forbidden to her if she is unmarried, unattached or not “protected by [law with threat of] penalty”. In other words, such a female who has reached the legal age—regardless of whether she is still protected by her guardians—does not break the precept when she has sex with any male.

Bhante Aggacitta claimed that this is based on the Pali scriptures (maybe commentaries?), is there any basis in it?

Cause the above two together says adultery in the form of a married male with a single, legal age female doesn’t break the precept, whereas gender switched it does.

Granted that there’s also social considerations to avoid such adultery, but I think it’s an unfair wording of the precept.

Also, the lay yogi I talked to said that rape is protection by law, so I asked if there’s a new country without law for rape, would rape then not break the 3rd precept in that country? He said no it doesn’t break that precept.

What do you guys (edit add on: and gals and whatever gender you are) think?


Huh…this should be an interesting thread. I only glanced at the book, but saw this (emphasis in the original):

The forbidden person can only refer to the opposite sex and not to the same sex.

I guess the author is trying to be as literal as possible. The author seems to be saying that since homosexual sex between the laity wasn’t overtly addressed by the Buddha, it isn’t covered at all by the 3rd precept. To me that seems literal to the point of absurdity. So if I was bisexual, I could, while married to a woman, cheat on her with a man and I wouldn’t break the precept? That’s pretty ridiculous.

Even if you could, due to some very literal interpretation of the 3rd precept, say rape doesn’t count as breaking that precept, it’s obviously not in accord with other Buddhist teachings. I don’t even see the value in making the argument, or being technically correct (in some legalistic sense), about this, honestly.


I’m not a guy but could I give it a try?

Rape is never okay.
Betraying your partner is never okay.

There’s that universal saying to threat others only the way you wanna be threated. No mather our faith, position or gender. :earth_africa:


Interesting question. AFAIK the Buddha never condemned courtesans or prostitutes, so Bhante Aggacitta may be right on that point.

As for rape being ok if it were legal — I’m curious about the woman who is “protected by the dhamma” (translated as “protected on principle” by Ven. @sujato , e.g. here). Would that mean that a woman should not be raped if it violates her principles?

Thank you for pointing this out. “Guys” is often used as if it were gender-neutral, but it’s better to try to avoid it, especially in a context like this.


The overall principles of the Suttas and Vinaya make it abundantly clear that coercive or violent sexual acts are never okay. And of course, we should not need the Suttas to tell us this.

We should bear in mind that precepts are limited: they only describe a limited set of conditions, and should never be interpreted as absolute or complete descriptions of appropriate conduct.

When interpreting the precepts on sexuality, there are two things to remember:

  • they are highly culturally contextual, more so than other precepts.
  • they are presented from an andocentric point of view.

Any reading should take these things into account. For example, we can’t always “flip” rules of sexual conduct straightforwardly from the male to the female case and vice versa.

This asymmetry is actually found in the early texts. For example, the rule forbidding sexual intercourse for nuns adds the word “willingly” (chandaso) to the rule, presumably to reflect the fact that women are more likely to be violated unwillingly.


Ven @sujato — do you have any further insight on what a woman “protected by her Dhamma” means in the context of sexual misconduct?

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If you don’t mind, I will give the good Bhante Sujato a bit of help! “Protected by the Dhamma”, dhammarakkhita, refers, according to the commentaries, to a woman who is protected by belonging to a religious community. The idea, presumably, is that anyone who is celibate should be respected as such.


Thank you, Ajahn @Brahmali! That answer makes a lot of sense.

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Just some comments on why the text is the way it is. Which is NOT a comment about what that means today, in Malaysia, or anywhere else, for that matter. Which is something that rational people can think about.

The thing to remember about ancient patriarchal social systems is that good women are not sexually autonomous. They are guarded, a fact which is referenced in the terms, “protected by father, mother, relatives, etc” in respect of women. In ancient Indian terms, an offence against a woman’s moral purity, by engaging in an act, whether consensual or not, is actually an offence against her guardian. Putting on the ancient patriarchy glasses, we could see this as a type of property offence, like misusing a chattel. The women who are on the “no-go” list are the ones with guardians, i.e. there is a third-party with a right over that women’s sexuality. The fundamental prerequisite for being a good woman in ancient India was to be guarded (gutta), the assumption of ancient Indian law is that an unguarded woman is sexually available. So the ones on a man’s “available” list are in two categories: they are either (a) guarded by oneself or (b) unguarded.

So things like levitirate marriage, a relationship with a man’s own dependent female servants, taking a second or minor wife, etc, etc, have never really been an issue for any ancient legal system that I know of, because they don’t violate a third-party right. I don’t think we should take the precept as a blanket endorsement for male adultery, it’s just that “normal” (socially sanctioned) male sexuality in the ancient world was broader than lifelong monogamy.

For a woman who is under protection, sexual promiscuity would typically be categorised as “disobedience” in every ancient legal system I know of (e.g. Roman, Chinese, Indian, Islamic). This was historically treated very seriously. If Ven. Aggacitta has quoted the commentary correctly (p50), what should be meant is that she has offended against her guardian, and not against the sexual misconduct precept per se, as there is no forbidden person involved in terms of the elements as they have been formally defined.

The whole approach is just a pretty straight-forward, stock-standard kind of explanation that you would expect from more-or-less any ancient social, moral or legal code. That there are ancient ideas in ancient texts= not particularly surprising.


Viewing any aspect of the Dhamma in isolation seems error-prone. I think all the lay precepts should, first and foremost, be interpreted as an expression of “doing no harm.” In another thread I mentioned viewing Buddhist morality as principally being not causing harm. I also think that the lay precepts regarding stealing, alcohol, and sexual conduct need to be interpreted in light of the Buddha’s teaching on being content with little. As lay people, we aren’t required to be celibate. However, that doesn’t mean the Buddha gave us a green light to go wild and endlessly indulge our sexual cravings so long as, by the letter of the law, we aren’t breaking that precept.

After thinking about it more, considering how harsh the law is in Malayasia, both civil and Muslim, regarding homosexuality, it’s possible the author was being careful in his choice of words in that book. I might have judged the book a bit too harshly in this respect.

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IMO, the spirit of a precept is more important than the letter of its wording… and the precepts are of course, voluntary… so if someone pulls them apart threadbare to see just how far they can be stretched, who are they really fooling? And what’s the point of that? Is it for one’s own good, for the good of others or for the good of both? :thinking:

What I as a married layman personally aim for with regard to the 3rd precept is well described in AN4.55

“Bhante, since I was young, when the young girl Nakulamātā was given to me in marriage, I do not recall ever transgressing against her even in thought, much less by deed. We wish, Bhante, to see one another not only in this present life but also in future lives.”