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Sex and spirituality

Physical and spiritual fulfillment are more entwined than you might imagine

By Trisha Elliott

Most ministers wouldn't be caught dead handling pleasure toys in a hotel lobby. Most would avoid any place where personal moisturizers were passed out like candy and edible underwear was offered as a door prize. Opportunities for self-discovery at educational events I normally attend include drumming, walking the labyrinth and enneagram workshops -- not watching videos promising to help me discover my inner tickles. So understandably, during the first half hour of the annual conference of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT), I found an inconspicuous corner and assured myself that my skittishness was perfectly reasonable. The theme of the conference was "The Soul of Sexuality: Exploring the Depth and Dimensions of Pleasure." In all my religious studies, I'd never seen "soul" and "pleasure" occupy the same sentence, much less a four-day conference. And I'd certainly never imagined that such a conference could take place here, in Charlotte, N.C., where the Bible belt is practically an accessory.

Scanning the crowd for other first-timers, I tried not to look like I was eavesdropping. Sex rolled off the tongue as easily as did the southern drawl. Walking through a sea of well-dressed students, teachers, scholars and therapists, I overheard conversations that would make the birds and bees blush. On my way to the Hilton ballroom for the first keynote address, I passed a couple of women chatting easily about the latest flavours of condoms and wound my way around a handful of science-types discussing climax as though they were reviewing a movie. Nothing in my Christian upbringing or education had prepared me for such unashamed openness.

It's not that my cradle church had anything bad to say about sex. I don't recall any moralistic lectures or damning sermons. If anything, my church seemed detached from the national church's conversation about sexuality -- until 1988 when the denomination decided to ordain and commission gay and lesbian people. I was barely a teenager then, but I remember the hushed conversations and the strained exchanges.

Even when hot-button sexuality issues weren't at the centre of church discourse, sex was approached in a round-about way. At youth group meetings, we discussed body image and self-esteem issues. In theological college, we talked about the goodness of being fully created in the image of God. The nuts and bolts were politely avoided.

Growing up, no one spoke openly about sex. I learned about it when I picked up a copy of an erotic novel from a used book sale at the public library, mistakenly thinking that it was a romance novel my mother would enjoy. (Xaviera's adventures turned out to be a real page-turner!) Those were the days before sex-educators brought bananas into classrooms and the Internet popped the real thing onto our computer screens.

Our aptitude hasn't changed much. Most of us still aren't comfortable talking about sex. Maybe we don't know how to do it. When it comes to sex, we're either salacious or silent. We rarely, if ever, have sincere conversations about sex.

The first keynote speech pulled the wool off the insincerity to which I had grown accustomed. In a delightfully frank exchange, world-renowned American sexologists Gina Ogden and Beverly Whipple presented data proving that sex is deeply spiritual.

Ogden, whose charisma could melt the ice off any soul, broke new ground in the field of sexology when she conducted a massive survey about the spirituality of sex. Instead of asking the usual below-the-belt questions (How often? How many climaxes?), Ogden inquired about the spiritual nature of sex, the connection between spiritual and sexual ecstasy and the conditions that make sex spiritually satisfying.

“The response,” she said, “was overwhelming.” Of the 3,810 respondents, 67 percent said that sex needs to be spiritual to be satisfying, 47 percent reported that they experienced God during sexual ecstasy and 45 percent claimed they experienced sexual energy during spiritual ecstasy. Remarkably, 1,465 of the respondents not only completed the surve but attached letters describing their sexual experiences. Of the 4,400 phrases they used, only 23 mentioned genitals. In fact, the language that they used to describe their most joyous sex was distinctly spiritual: “bliss,” “a joining of hearts,” “a revelation,” “a gift from God.”

“The clinical language of sexual science shrinks sex to what can be counted or measured — pulses, spasms, hormone levels, goals. In some ways, the language of spiritual experience comes closest to expressing the fullness of our sexual response for it is the language of connection and ecstasy,” Ogden writes in her latest book, The Heart & Soul of Sex (Shambhala Publications). “There are emotional and spiritual subtleties [in sexual experience] that engage our minds, hearts and spirits as well as our bodies.”

Brain science agrees. Beverly Whipple, whose pioneering book The G Spot (Holt, Rinehart and Winston) has been translated into nearly as many languages as the Bible, affirmed Ogden’s findings. Whipple’s recent experiments prove that sex turns the brain on. Using neuro-imaging techniques to record the brain activity in 10 women during stimulation and orgasm, Whipple and her colleague Barry Komisaruk discovered that 12 regions of the brain were activated simultaneously during sexual pleasure, including the amygdala (the emotional centre) and the temporal lobe (the spiritual one). Their conclusion: Sex is more than physical; it is cognitive, emotional and spiritual. Together, Ogden and Whipple provided convincing anecdotal and scientific evidence that sex is part of the divine design. Essentially, we’re wired for it.

I wonder if the good news that we’re designed for intimacy has the potential to make us feel less sinful about it. Or are sexual hang-ups too entrenched in Christianity’s 2,000-year history to be stripped away?

The Christian retreat from “the sins of the flesh” is well documented. At various times in history, Christians have taken vows of celibacy and abstinence, have limited sex to procreation and have even attempted to divorce pleasure from sexual activity, going so far as to wear chastity belts and invent similarly oppressive restraining devices. The sweat of restraint practically crackles to the surface of influential church theologian Clement of Alexandria’s (150-215 AD) summary of the Christian sexual ethic. “If a man marries in order to have children he ought not have a sexual desire for his wife. . . . He ought to produce children by a reverent, disciplined act of will.”

Much of Christendom, beginning with early church founders like Clement, has operated under the assumption that God is anti-sex, an assumption that stemmed from the belief that the Spirit is anti-body. From the outset, Christian theology, borrowing heavily from Platonic philosophy, drew a deep distinction between the physical world and the spiritual one, equating the body with dirty, base desires and the soul with pure, Godly ones. The body’s “war against the soul” had a devastating domino effect. The degradation of the body in theory meant suppressing everything related to it in practice, including women (who were considered too connected to the body through menstruation and childbirth to successfully escape it) and, of course, sex.

Not every religion is as hung up on sex as Christianity is, though. Those religions that haven’t adopted the divide-and-conquer attitude toward the body and spirit have viewed sexual energy as an integral part of the energy that flows through everything in the universe. Some have even claimed that sexiness is next to Godliness.

In the 19th century, British explorer Richard F. Burton shocked Victorian sensibilities when he brought home souvenirs from his travels in India: Eastern sacred texts including the Perfumed Garden, the Ananga Ranga and the Kama Sutra. The books extol the virtues of sex and brim with helpful illustrations and tips to assist lovers in achieving, as the ancients so aptly described it, “The Great Typhoon.” Burton’s translation of these sexy books nearly landed him in jail.

Today, tourists travelling in Burton’s footsteps will discover illustrations as spicy as vindaloo carved into the walls of many Hindu temples in India, including the sun temple of Konark in Orissa and the Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh.

As is evident in sacred architecture and texts, eastern religions in particular have a high regard for sex. Some streams of Tantra, which is rooted in religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, encourage followers to intentionally engage in sexual activity in order to channel divine energy. Recently, Tantra enjoyed a resurgence in North America when rocker Sting became an outspoken devotee. (Sting’s partner, Trudie, told talk-show host Oprah Winfrey that they make love seven hours at a stretch. Soon after, websites extolling the virtues of Tantra were temporarily suspended due to a surge in traffic.)

It would be an overstatement to say that where sex is revered it isn’t controlled. Despite the radical acceptance of sex in some religions, economic and political influences often impose limitations. Although Hindu art might be  sex-positive, for example, the caste system rigidly governs the sexual lives of Hindu people, often determining whom they can marry. Imposing restrictions on sexual activity isn’t unusual.

Sexual activity is informed and controlled to a large extent by cultural values expressed in language and laws. In North America, the more-is-better language of capitalism is reflected in the “notch on the bedpost” way in which we address sex. At home and abroad, genital mutilation, arranged marriages, honour killings, bride prices and laws against same-sex marriage are all examples of ways in which sex is inextricably linked to social policy.

At the AASECT conference, I met sexologists working on the frontiers of social justice — and not in exotic places, but by the same beds that ministers sit. I spoke with professionals who are convinced that in North America, sexual expression is the privilege of a select group. Once an individual passes a certain age or state of health, they’re deemed “asexual” and consequently aren’t expected or allowed to express their sexuality. One sexologist talked about the hostility she encountered when she pushed beds together in a palliative-care ward so that a client could snuggle up to her dying husband on their last night together. Another tearfully recounted how she was fired from a nursing home when the owner discovered she had given vibrators to clients who had requested them in private counselling sessions.

In short, there’s more at stake in recovering the language of good, spiritual sex than what happens between the sheets. Sex is an expression of the power and prejudice that informs everything from the creation of social policy to the construction of hospital rooms. If sex lies at the heart of who we are and how we live and let live in the world, then Christians can’t afford to languish in what Gina Ogden calls “a sexual dark age.”

Articulating the need to reconcile sexual and religious experience, Debrah Haffner, director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, encouraged AASECT members to develop a new sex-positive theology. “We can hold onto our religious beliefs and deny our sexual experience. Or we can hold onto our sexual experience and deny our religious beliefs. Or we can become theologians,” Haffner said. Formerly the head of an influential American sexuality advisory council, Haffner is now a Unitarian minister. She discussed sex from a theological perspective in the second keynote address. “Sex is a means of grace, a connection to all life. Sin isn’t sexual activity, it’s sexual exploitation. It’s sexual decisions that hurt us and others. . . . From the outset, the Bible affirms that sex is a wonderful part of life. What did God say after humankind was created? ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ In other words, ‘Go and have sex.’”

Haffner’s take on Scripture highlights a key point — the Bible doesn’t blush as easily as we think it does. Its characters have graphic affairs, commit rape, elicit sexual favours, bathe and eat sensually, pleasure themselves, and fall head-over-heels in love. In the Hebrew Testament, Sarah describes the pleasures of sex, and men “know” their wives. In the Greek Testament, Jesus spends time with prostitutes. In fact, one of the Bible’s most ignored books is completely devoted to sex.

Long before Shakespeare wrote about forbidden love and Isidore Liseux began publishing erotica, the Song of Solomon or Song of Songs was included in the biblical canon. Songs is a collection of love poetry so graphic it is often referred to as erotica. Its readers become voyeurs in the bedroom of lovers whose affair is conducted in secret — perhaps, some scholars speculate, because the couple is interracial. “I am black and beautiful,” she says. “My lover is radiant and ruddy . . . his body is like polished ivory.”

No one knows who wrote the Song of Songs or how it made it into the Bible, but it has long been a source of embarrassment. In the second century, the book was quoted as often in taverns as it was in temples. Since then, Christians have mainly interpreted it as an allegory of Christ’s love for the church. But there are many other ways the author  could choose to express God’s favour than to write words that could curl your toes. (Don’t believe me? Check out chapter 5, verses 4 and 5.) No, the Song of Songs is a celebration of love variously expressed as friendship, commitment, passion, desire, longing and yes, hot sex. Recapturing the language of sexual joy could begin to free Christianity from the guilt, shame and remorse that has held it in a cold shower for 2,000 years.

Saying goodbye to some new friends, I circled the display tables a final time. Somewhere between the vibrating doodads and the titillating books, I had a flashback.

It was my first day of university and I was so green going into the art studio that I thought “Life Drawing” was about learning to sketch plants. A young woman walked into class wearing a navy bathrobe, and I honestly thought that she had overslept. When the robe hit the ground, my jaw went with it. An hour later, the professor stopped in front of my easel. She smiled knowingly and then whispered, “It’s okay to look. It might help if you did.” By the second semester, I had grown  so accustomed to the shapes and sizes that I didn’t bat an eyelash.

As I dragged my suitcase into the warm southern air after the AASECT conference, I marvelled at how my perspective had changed in just a few days, how easily I had initiated sincere conversations about sex as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Just three days earlier, I had hid in a corner trying to overcome my embarrassment. And then I realized that figuring out how to have “the talk” was the story, and that a lot is riding on Christianity’s willingness to be a little uncomfortable and to struggle doing the same word-searching I did.

Sex is about more than what goes where. Good sex has to do with strengthening the soul by making a deep connection with ourselves, the other and our God.

If our ability to love makes us most like God, then it stands to reason that when we make love we might be in our most holy state. Should we break out the linens, candles, incense, flowers and wine? O God, yes! Great sex is not only possible — it’s divine.

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