Editor’s Note: Because sex remains as relevant today as it was twelve long months ago, we’ve resurrected last year’s July 4th feature to mark the 233rd year of American independence. Whether you’re BBQing, hiking, reading, or mourning the loss of the British monarchy, please do enjoy the holiday weekend.
Can I talk about sex and religion without talking about gay marriage, legalized in California by the state supreme court last month? Can I avoid talking about the prevalence of premarital sex and the virtues of virginity? All are wonderful topics in their own right, and all have been the primary obsessions of the religious right who set the terms of debate in the media and public culture. But are these the only subjects worthy of our attention when it comes to sexual matters with religious implications?
From the copulation of animals so gametes can fuse to generate new life, to the explosion of pornography across cyberspace (nearly 30,000 users per second), sexual desire is an inescapable reality of the world we live in. Sex is a force at work in every nook and cranny of social and cultural life: in the home, office, mall, classroom, hospital; it’s imaged on television, computer, theater, and mental screens; aroused at sporting events, clubs, parties, funerals, and weddings. You get the picture.
It’s no wonder that sex, along with death and health, plays a primary role in the world’s religious traditions; most of which seek to regulate and monitor the body generally, but especially the terms on and by which sexual desires can be fulfilling or transgressive, socially productive or morally corrosive. Is adultery permitted? Can a man have multiple wives? Do different positions bear spiritual fruit? What is the meaning of orgasm? Religious traditions thrive on intimacy with and access to the body, its experience of suffering, sorrow, and sickness, as well as rapture, delight, and bliss. The obvious and overwhelming role of sexuality as a primary, primal factor in evolution and communication throughout the animal kingdom makes it even more confounding to humans who are animals (yet more than animals), and members of a species that makes much more of sexual relations than the biological imperative to secure a fertilized egg.
Non-reproductive sexuality—i.e., sex for sex’s sake—is certainly an explosive topic. But pleasurable intimacies with the sexual body, like healing intimacies with the suffering body, or mortal intimacies with the dead body, are charged with real-world powers that have concrete social ramifications helping to shape the contours of the sacred in cosmic space and time; the boundaries between self and other, inside and outside, animal and human, ordinary consciousness and ecstatic states, dissolve or at least blur during sex, producing extraordinary experiences that are physically tied to tactile intimacies, changes in respiratory rate and blood flow, and chemical and electrical processes in the brain.
Indeed, there is a burgeoning science of the orgasm, with physiological evidence suggesting that the orgasm itself is a richly complex neurological phenomenon, with brain stimulations in some regions and complete neural shutdowns in others; imaging activity just as mysterious and just as revealing as other measurable mystical and altered states of consciousness induced in more conventional religious practices, like meditation, prayer, or the ingestion of sacred medicine.
The powers of sex, its potentially empowering pleasures and mind-blowing transportations, however, are entangled in phenomena that cannot be reduced to bodily processes, or easily measured with brain-imaging technologies.
How these powers are defined and understood varies across and within cultures but they are never simply neutral and always bear on the sacred. The intricacies of sexuality in human cultures—its political, economic, mythic, moral, ritual, emotional dimensions—belie any easy generalizations, though many scholars focus on patriarchal versus matriarchal societies as a determining factor in sexual mores and proclivities, and as signally important to the treatment of women. Historically though, the powers associated with sex and the sacred can be envisioned in any number of ways, with or without God to set the terms and consequences of sexual relations.
Ascetics who practice celibacy in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and other religious cultures, see the profane sexual body as a distraction, or obstacle, in the pursuit of spiritual fulfillment and empowerment. In the biblical story of David and Bathsheba, the adulterous sexual union between the two initiates a chain of bloody, violent acts and violations, including rape, murder, and even civil war in ancient Israel; but the sexual union between the two also brings life to another son, Solomon, who becomes a great king, propelling sacred history forward under the powerful hand of God. Practitioners of some forms of yoga engage in sexual exercises that not only arouse vital life energies, but also lead the way to profound spiritual enlightenment and liberation from the self.
Missionary position at “Girl’s Breast Point”
The examples of sexual diversity are endless across the world’s religions. But the sacred is usually embedded in the sexual rules and scripts, norms and expectations of any given society, and most societies disagree with each other and are internally fraught with conflict about just how sex should relate to the sacred.
Most Americans are familiar with a prevailing monotheistic take on sex, associated with sin, temptation, and paradise lost. (The image of Hester Prynne, Hawthorne’s adulterous anti-heroine, being led ignominiously through town with the scarlet letter emblazoned on her chest, is as much part of American mythology as the first pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth.) For Christians, the savior was born from a virgin who abstained from sex and had followers convinced that the body was corrupt if not downright demonic, leading to a volatile ambivalence about, but a constant fixation on, sexuality. Monogamous sex in a marriage for the purposes of reproduction, with the man on top of the woman (“missionary” position), makes sense and is given the sacred stamp of approval.
Celibacy and the glorification of sexless bodies spiritually more intimate with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, are also authorized in many Christian communities, though these spiritual intimacies can erupt into full-blown mystical ecstasies often described in quite sexualized terms and images.
Other kinds of sexual relations or imagery are taboo; signs of moral transgressions of the worst order. These are vigorously, yet obsessively, scrutinized in the effort to promote proper Christianized versions of “family values” that are not defiled by the pursuit of carnal, sacred-less, pleasures.
Indeed, American history is plagued by the sexual obsessions of Christians gravely concerned about sexual order; as if the order of society if not the cosmos depended on making sure sex was limited to husband and wife having babies (were intercourse to happen at all).
It is also, of course, peppered with contradictions and hypocrisies when it comes to sex, an activity which opens the chasm between ideal moral virtues and real human appetites in social relations between Christians and others. When Catholic missionaries encountered Pueblo Indians in southwestern North America beginning in the sixteenth century, for example, they were particularly offended by a radically different view of sexuality, one that knew no God but was integrally tied to the surrounding natural world they lived in and bound to cosmic conceptions of fertility and renewal.
As Ramon Gutierrez has explained it in his When Jesus Came, the Rain Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846:
Erotic behavior in its myriad forms (heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality) knew no boundaries of sex or age. Many of the great gods—Zuni Awonawilona, the Navajo First Man/First Woman, the Hopi Kawasaitaka katsina—were bisexual, combining the potentialities of male and female into one—a combination equally revered among humans. If the Indians sang of sex, copulated openly, staged orgiastic rituals, and named landmarks “Clitoris Spring,” “Girl’s Breast Point,” Buttocks-Vagina,” and “Shove Penis,” it was because the natural world around them was full of sexuality.
This was also a matriarchal culture, with women, and women’s sexuality, especially powerful in the daily lives of the community; not just for reproduction, but for economic reasons associated with agriculture, spiritual relations concerned with maintaining social harmony, and regenerative rituals based on mythic female creator figures. Were this insufficient to challenge the limits of the missionary position and imagination, the many other honored mythic spirits who were bisexual—literally both male and female, such as the Hopi Kawasaitaka katsina—and the orgiastic festivals ritually performed at certain times of the year, only fueled the fires of the missionary spirit and convinced them of the desperate need for spiritual redemption through sexual purification.
The recurring battles and conflicts over the terms of sexuality have been a well-worn pattern in American religious history, with pagan Indians (Captivity Narrative of Mary Rowlandson), polygamous Mormons (anti-Mormonism from the get-go), perverse Jews (Philip Roth), predatory Catholics (Awful Disclosure of Maria Monk), and an assortment of other villains and sexual deviants representing a serious threat to American society and especially to vulnerable women and children. Even with the herculean efforts in America to keep sex in line with an ideal moral order under the control of institutional authorities (whether the church through much of American history or the government more recently) the seductive powers of sexuality, and especially transgressive sexual activities outside the norms, are too strong and deep-rooted to be managed according to the monotheistic standards by which all citizens must abide.
Instead, the potentially sacred expressions of sexuality find cultural authority in a diverse range of voices and texts, with communities of people engaging in intimate relations and erotic practices outside America’s purported sexual ideals tied to heterosexuality, monogamy, and reproduction. From the homogeneities in the Bible Belt to the radical pluralism of cosmopolitan centers like New York, Los Angeles, or Atlanta, sex is celebrated in ways many would find offensive to God. But for participants in sex acts that are more sacrament than sacrilege, penetrating the spiritual depths of a Godless universe can be meaningful and fulfilling, with moral purpose and cosmic insights more profound than any they experience by reading the Hebrew Bible or New Testament. Sexuality unhinged and detached from the Lord is just as sacred, just as transformative, just as redemptive to many as the romantic love experienced by a husband and wife successfully conceiving a new life form under the watchful eyes of God.
Same-sex sex: the last taboo
When does sexual desire cross the line from healthy to unhealthy, and turn from pleasurable ritual to pathological addiction? How can the erotic imagination awaken spiritual pursuits that take an individual beyond the sensual pleasures of his or her body? Does sacred sex promote values in harmony with America’s highest principles of individual freedoms and the pursuit of happiness? After the 1960s, and to the present, public debate and awareness about the answers no longer depend solely on narrow, usually contradictory, Christian principles and doctrines. These days, answers come from Americans who publicly challenge limits on their pursuit of sexual pleasures and privately find sacred meanings in innovative foreplay, unrestrained intercourse, and indescribable orgasms sanctioned not by monotheistic sacred texts, but other fonts of religious authority and spiritual wisdom.
Sexuality can be sacred in ways never imagined; or at least never publicly acknowledged before critical events in the 1960s, an era of sexual revolution that still reverberates in today’s strangely pornified yet puritanical culture. Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court decision overturning a state law prohibiting the sale of contraceptives and identifying a right to privacy in the early years, was pivotal; as were bra burnings and other radical stirrings of women’s liberation and empowerment.
Of course, Woodstock and the Summer of Love, with music as an essential ingredient in new erotic experiences, propelled sexual insurrection into the deepest reaches of popular and political cultures. The Stonewall uprising in New York City near the end of the decade placed gay and lesbian culture squarely in the public eye for good, even if the significant gay rights movement already in existence has now been largely forgotten—most notably The Mattachine Society.
The list of pivotal moments in the history of sexuality is quite extensive, but the bottom line remains the same after the heady decade: sex, sex, sex—it sells products and greases the wheels of capitalism, with sexual eroticism having become a blatant tool of advertising and consumer culture. It captures, if not rivets, the imagination of both men and women, and increasingly pervades all forms of popular culture and media communications. In recent years it has become dechristianized in American society, no longer restrained by biblical injunctions or, to use the lingo of the time, “hang-ups”; but instead a religious discipline in its own right, with potential for spiritual satisfactions and awakening unmatched by any institutional liturgy with wafers or wine, scriptures or sermons.
Sexual diversity in many forms is now accepted or at least tolerated in American society—except same-sex sex, that is. Many Americans who are white or black, Christian or Jew, Muslim or Native American, fundamentalist or atheist, and on across racial, ethnic, and religious communities can grant social legitimacy to women giving blow jobs and couples wife-swapping, group sex and one-on-one action; but men engaged in anal sex or women penetrating each other with dildos or their own tongues is a cause for outrage and moral panic. While the sexual revolution(s) no doubt led to greater sexual permissiveness in American cultures, the sacred line that still holds for so many between acceptable and unacceptable, normal and abnormal, tolerable and transgressive, is the line separating heterosexuality from homosexuality—even if Ellen DeGeneres recently scripted a lesbian kiss for a temporarily adoring television audience.
For those opposed to gay and lesbian sexual freedoms and rights, sex between members of the same sex can never be anything other than perverted and Godless; an act so vile for many so-called modern Americans the only place to turn is the Bible and the language of sin. The other source for cultural authority on sexual matters in the twentieth century, science, no longer condemns homosexuality as pathological, since the American Psychological Association officially removed it from the DSM in 1973 (it made a controversial, if brief, reappearance a few years later but that’s another story).
It is clear that the current firestorm over same-sex marriage, though rhetorically tied to preserving a conservative concoction of ideal family values, is primarily about obsessive fears with deep roots in Western Christian history about men pleasing men and women pleasing women (coming out of Mark Jordan’s work Invention of Sodomy; also present in Foucault’s history of sexuality; somehow connected to Ted Haggard too). The confusing history of the word sodomy, and its application by the church to describe a variety of behaviors, highlights the persistent difficulties posed by these sexual preferences, or “orientations” as we like to say today, within Christian communities, let alone outside of them.
Sex between men and sex between women can be about more than physical pleasures, or erotic transgressions, or sensual explosiveness; much to the chagrin of conservative moralists devoted to reproductive sex (the only sacred kind), it is often described in deeply religious terms and explicitly spiritual language. Compared to the days before Stonewall, when the pleasures of gay and lesbian sex rarely made their way into public culture, these communities now have a voice on the social stage and a presence in most media, including journals, videos, books, television, and Web sites, which allows them to offer alternative visions of homosexuality than those coming from the statehouse and the pew. This alternative vision, however, is far from uniform, providing a range of perspectives within a complicated, heterogeneous community, where many self-identify as Christian, Jew, or Muslim and see their sexual preferences and experiences as unproblematic to their religious commitments, incorporating rather than excluding God.
But many also speak of divine sex that does not lead to the Divine One in heaven dressed in robes and sitting on a glorious throne; instead, cruising The Castro in San Francisco, experimenting with leather while role-playing with a lover, or having a night of romantic passion as an integral dimension of monogamous lifelong love, can all arouse and inspire a spiritual dimension to sex that lives beyond but does not deny the physical body and has both real- and other-worldly religious value and meaning. While this sentiment about sexuality is promoted by gays and lesbians within the many monotheistic traditions who can reconcile the potential for spiritual transportation (and transformation) during sex with their commitment to One God, many others do not need the comforting presence of God above to understand the extraordinary experiences which can emerge when members of the same sex make love—or inflict pain, for that matter—down below.
Guy Baldwin, a writer and world class expert on gay male leather culture and sadomasochistic rituals, for example, speaks of S/M as a form of “holy fire” and characterizes it as a spiritual experience. In one interview, Baldwin indicated that his longstanding involvement in these rituals and that the spiritual dimensions of S/M are what kept him at it for so long, emphasizing a mystical element at the core of what for him, and a good many others, is a sacred act infused with sexual eroticism. “When I am with a partner with whom I can achieve a nearly perfect synchronous dance, my ‘self’ becomes stripped of all of its external trappings… What I am left with is an ecstatic contact with Self.”
The specifics of his religious experience vary depending, he says, on whether or not he is on top and in control, in which case Baldwin keeps his wits about him and does not lose consciousness. But make no mistake, the entire ritual does have an other-worldly, spiritually liberating quality, whether Baldwin loses control of sensory processing or not: “the ecstatic, transformational event can occur for me on either end of the top-bottom, master-slave, sadist-masochist dynamic.”
Pain and leather, power and submission, can all play a part in the sacred dance of S/M ritual, but connections between spiritual elevation and sexual intimacy can occur in less extreme, more mundane, bedroom settings of same sex couples as well. Many Americans think all of this is preposterous and see any alternative form of sexuality as hedonistic and devoid of spirit, displaying only base carnality and salacious immorality.
Yet a persistent refrain from within homosexual communities is that, au contraire, this alternative path often brings them right smack into a sacred realm uncharted, but vigorously suppressed by so-called normal folks who only get it on with members of the opposite sex.
Robert H. Hopcke, a psychologist and Jungian scholar, is convinced that sexuality and spirituality can overlap seamlessly in the lives of gay men, understanding both in terms of universal archetypes deeply embedded in consciousness and through his personal experiences as a gay man. “In my adolescence and early adulthood there was absolutely no question to me that eroticism was a divine gift. The most important relationship I had in high school was with the Italian-American captain of the soccer team… My relationship with him was clearly erotic and yet sacred at the same time… Gay sexuality, gay eroticism, is as transformative as any transformative sacred event.”
The spiritual life of gays and lesbians celebrates and embraces eroticism and sexual play, intimate romantic passions and outrageous rituals, as a means to transform consciousness and transcend physical experiences. In other words, sexuality can be a viable pathway to sacred experiences and meanings, liberating the self from the material and social prisons that inhibit true spiritual awakening but also reinvigorating social ties that bind individuals and communities together in a discriminatory political context.
The spiritual possibilities immanent in intercourse and foreplay, in sexual situations and erotic interactions, including good, old-fashioned heterosexual lovemaking between a man and a woman, have been fondly celebrated in American popular culture, whether through consumption of esoteric spiritual practices, discussion of the subject on talk-shows or in bestsellers, or seduction of the opposite sex in Top 40 music in ways that blend sensuality with sacred longing.
When Marvin Gaye soulfully sings “Get up, get up, get up, get up, let’s make love tonight,” in Sexual Healing (1982), the combination of his vocal performance with the music, his emotional tonalities and the musical rhythms, strikes a chord in many listeners, today as twenty years ago, that is as spiritually charged as it is erotic. Indeed the sexual healing Gaye yearns for when he declares, “I can’t wait for you to operate,” is sacred medicine that heals the body but also sates the spirit. A haunting voice from the past, a ghost still alive in the public imagination, Gaye continues to remind an American audience about sexuality unhindered by traditional religious preoccupations with fertility and propagation, or increasingly psychological language about syndromes and addiction.