Monday, June 20, 2005

Sex, the Sacred, and Me

Attempting to find the connections between the sacred and the erotic seems a fool's enterprise. Immediately, my own intellect begins to mock me, presenting images of lascivious priests, porn shop editions of the Kama Sutra, or jokes about the ResERECTION or the Second Coming.

But, when I can release myself from the shackles of my rational self, I can admit some things. I don't know if god exists. But I do know that my understanding of the sacred, those moments when awe replaces fear, is linked to my understanding of the erotic-those moments when the distance between two bodies is breached by contact. The hum of flesh against flesh.

I recognize this aspect of myself, this desire, need, to find my connection to spiritual bliss in genital contact. After all, so many of the feelings used by mystics to describe their encounters with the divine have always sounded to my ear like descriptions of orgasm or its afterglow. When scholars make this argument, that religious ecstasy is sexual ecstasy sublimated, they are accused of reductionism. But what of persons such as me, who feel in ways that we are not always able to articulate, that sexual intimacy is as close as we'll ever come to feeling the fire of the divine?

And what of those moments when we go off seeking that connection and find something awful instead of the awe that we're after? How can sex mean and not mean simultaneously?

A few Christmases ago, I found myself alone. My ex was with my kids at his new girlfriend's house and I felt piercingly lonely and sad. A casual acquaintance invited me to go for a hike with him, and, rather than being alone and miserable, I opted for company. At the end of the afternoon, there was a tacit agreement that we would have sex, this virtual stranger and I. And thus followed a horrendous encounter. It would be an exaggeration to say that I was raped; after all, I had agreed to be there. But this man I barely knew did unspeakable things to my body over my objections and subjected me to a barrage of verbal humiliation. When I was able to extricate myself, I drove away from his house in rage at him and in an agony of anger at myself for allowing my loneliness to lead me down such a dark path.

There didn't feel as if there had been a moment of sacredness in any of what had happened. It was empty and malevolent and icky, and I wanted to cleanse myself of it-but I wasn't certain how.
In writing about this event so many months later there is the urge to remove all reference to it, to erase it from the past, treat it as if there is nothing sacred there. But there is, if only in the recognition that took place-not that day, but eventually-that sacred experiences are not always about bliss. Sometimes they are about the recognition that pain and suffering are the result when we attempt to unhitch the erotic from the better part of ourselves and denigrate it.

To speak about sex as if it is capable of elevating us is to risk being accused of not being spiritual enough, of living only on an earthly plain, of privileging the body over the soul. But why? There are few religions that celebrate the body as the gateway to the divine. Mostly, we are advised to subjugate the body to the spirit, to discipline it, to control it, to prevent it from carrying us into excess. And this has never made sense to me.

It has on an intellectual level. I understand the notion of dualities: sacred and profane, suffering and pleasure, good and evil, man and woman. As someone who has studied gender in historical context, I could riff for hours on the association of women with the body, men with spirit, and how both women and the body became the gateways through which evil, the Devil, sin found ways to enter the world.
So resorting to dualities explains away many of my questions. But it does nothing to solve the dilemma of my own questions-because I see sex as containing within it the potential for everything at all times.

The pain of existence is that we do it alone while constantly longing for contact with something other. We elevate the idea of spiritual communion with something outside of ourselves while we downplay the significance of the physical communion with another human being. And we denigrate it in ugly ways. I'm not saying that we should be worshipping the yoni or erecting statues of Priapus, but it seems to me that our insistence that sex is earth-bound is shortsighted. What other activity allows two human beings to grant to each other such release?

I think that sexuality is a gift. I don't know whether to call it divine because I don't know whence it came. But I know the places it has taken me. I have made realizations about when sex is sacred, and when I am using it to find a false sense of completion.

I cannot speak for other women, but I can speak from my position as a heterosexual woman. When I have read many accounts of male experiences of interaction with the divine, the most frequent image is that of a piercing or penetration by the divine spirit. The metaphor is important for several reasons. I would argue that one of the reasons that there has been such an insistence on separating sex from the sacred is the fear that describing sex and the penetration of the soul homoeroticizes the relationship between men and their gods. I have never seen an instance where a male mystic refers to being engulfed by the divine.

Because my experiences of sex involve the penetration of my body by a man, it has felt in ways that sex was an act of completion. Somehow, I saw in sexual intercourse and the complementary anatomies a desire to be completed by another human being. But it's become increasingly clear to me that I cannot be a whole person by the filling of Slot B with Tab A. Sacred sex cannot be about finding my other half.

This was not an easy illusion to give up. So much of our language of coupledom is about half coming together with half to form a whole. So many times I thought that sex could fix what is broken inside of me. But I cannot fix anyone else; nor can I be fixed. So many times I have mistaken my desirability as power, when I see now that frequently, I was in a weakened position. And so many times, I have walked away from those experiences diminished.

In the last few years, my whole self has emerged. The self that is capable of keeping itself company, of not feeling flattened by loneliness (although loneliness has not been completely banished). Instead, as I have written about before, I have learned to relish being alone, to find spiritual peace and emotional fulfillment in my presence. Still, questions about sex remain. And I let them remain unanswered, even as I acknowledge their insistence to be asked.

Cross-posted at CultureKitchen


Anonymous rhondda said...

Wow, thank you for articulating this. I have felt this way too.

12:18 PM  
Blogger Caneel said...

Some 30 years ago, I visited the temples of Kujaraho in India. The temples are full, top to bottom, of carvings of depicting sexual acts. I have often wondered what the culture of that time knew that we did not. Much has been written about sex and spirituality but the popular culture of today evades and banishes it, although interest in the Tantra has been revived. For those interested in further discussion: "Aphrodite's Daughters" by Jalaja Bonheim and "The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller" by Erica Jong. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Lorraine. I urge you to circulate it.

4:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lorraine, I know this isn't an easy one to come to terms with, but you were raped: "this man I barely knew did unspeakable things to my body over my objections." That is rape. There is no other word for it.

"It would be an exaggeration to say that I was raped; after all, I had agreed to be there" may be how others/society in general try to make you feel guilty or somehow take all/some of the blame that belongs to the asshole who did this to you, but that is a lie. It wouldn't matter if you'd given your full consent and you were in the middle of fucking, if you decide to stop, the onus is on him to stop. If he doesn't, that is rape.

Crys T

10:08 AM  
Blogger Morgaine said...

Have you ever looked at the Goddess religion? Wicca, or whatever you want to call it, is all about sensuality, and honors the body and sexuality as sacred. Sex is the ultimate ritual expression of the divine. There's no guilt. There's no sin. There's choice, empowerment, and healing. Too many of us are scarred by the asceticism of patriarchal religion. We've been raised to devalue the physical, to fear our lust and our anger, to be obedient to an obsolete code of behavior. It doesn't have to be that way. The true antidote to the rape culture that surrounds us is to accept the divine within ourselves.

Just a thought. I hope you find what you're looking for.

11:11 PM  
Blogger Morphienne said...

Thank you for sharing this. I feel much the same way about se, regardless of the genders of the people involved (although obviously one of them--me--will always be female). The color of sex is love, to me, and love IS the divine. I don't understand the concept of sex without love, although I know of its existence.

I have also had someone degrade me and abuse me in a sexual way, and I, too, am uncomfortable calling it rape. I don't know what your situation was, and I won't judge as to whether it was rape, but I will say this: what that person did to you was evil. Evil, and, I assure you, undeserved. Even if you agreed to be there; even if you agreed to it. I hope you're okay.

5:25 PM  
Anonymous brenda said...

If you say stop and objected to anything and he did not respect that and stop, at that point it becomes rape. Please don't minimize what he did. You did not deserve in any way to be treated that way and you did not consent to it. That is just my opinion. A similar thing happened to me and it took a very caring and conscious friend to point out to me that it was indeed rape/sexual abuse and not my fault. Very nice insightful post. Peace.

5:23 PM  
Anonymous heather said...

I only skimmed over this post a little too quickly, but I am reminded of the Calvinist (?) spin on woman as connected to nature and the 'material' (non-spiritual). The material seems both to be a woman's sexuality, which we know is resoundingly reviled, and the fear of the downfall this leads man to.

This is not the first story I have stumbled across - anecdotal, personal, or otherwise - where a venture into the wilderness with a male companion was followed by a sexual violation (degrees and level of consent vary). His equation with you in the natural realm seems to have justified acting out on his baser instincts: the need to violently assault you to keep your sexuality at bay and in so doing reinforce his pathetic need to embrace his conquest of the feared 'natural' realm.

Notably, I have heard of instances when women, backpacking together in groups, have stumbled upon a man or group of men, who immediately query: you mean your out here by yourselves?? I should think so........

The semantics of rape can be beaten to death here, and this would be a difficult case to prosecute. I am a strong advocate of reprisals, perhaps as personally exacted and untraceably insidious as the deed itself, but I don't have any good suggestions. Beyond that, I fear for any other woman who accompanies him on a hike (or any outing, for that matter) and agrees to return home with him for 'a bit of sex.' He WILL do it again......

5:24 PM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I admire what you did, and what you have done. It takes courage sometimes, to jump in with both feet. I always used to fall in love with women who would do that. It's almost inevitable that at some point, you will cast your pearls before the swine, as happened in this case. It's happened to me as well. You seemed to have benefitted from the lesson, somehow, and for that, I bow to you.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your lonely, because you have a worship disorder. Your not filling that void with the beautiful love for Jesus. Psalm 118:8 reads, Do not trust in MAN, but trust in the LORD. Which means man will always fail you, your ex, this guy, and other future guys.

8:28 AM  

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