Why Make Sex Sacred? Some Thoughts On Atheism and Sexuality


I suppose I should start by coming out of the closet as an atheist. More specifically, as a jewish-pagan-atheist, as I once told a very confused Mormon missionary who accosted me on a sidewalk.

I grew up non-practicing Jewish in the suburbs of New Jersey. I did have a bar mitzvah, mostly because a lot of other kids in my town were Jewish and I was wondering what it was like. That, and it made my grandparents happy. For several years after I moved to California, I was a practicing pagan. I was curious about it and many of the meditations and visualizations were quite useful. But eventually, I decided that although they were valuable (and I still use many of them), they were helpful metaphors and tools for self-regulating my mental and emotional processes, rather than descriptions of anything that took place outside of myself.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” -Arthur C. Clarke

Part of my shift towards atheism came from reading Greta Christina’s blog. I’ve always been interested in rigorous intellectual exploration and the more I read her work, as well as the authors she pointed to, the more I came to see that many of the things that I thought of as spiritual explanations of the universe were a combination of the biases inherent in the human brain and a lack of knowledge. But you can read her blog for more detailed and nuanced discussions of that, as well many other related topics.


I’m willing to keep an open mind and listen to any evidence that challenges my views, though I’ll submit it to the same standards as any other information I receive. Given the cognitive and processing limits of the human brain, the scientific method is the best tool we’ve devised for overcoming those flaws and it can (and in my opinion, should) be applied to anything we want to test with rigor. I’ll give attention to alternative ideas, keep an open mind, test the evidence I’m given, and change my views when I see good reason to. I don’t find the tautology of “This book is the word of God. I know, because it says it here in this book.” to be particularly compelling.

I still use a variety of practices that I find helpful for self-regulation, some of which come from pagan teachings and others of which come from yoga. I find that after I use them, events often unfold in ways that are aligned with what I wanted to see. Some folks will suggest that I’ve made them happen, though I tend to think it more likely that by creating and visualizing my desires and intentions, I recognize opportunities to bring them into being more easily. After all, I’ve also had experiences in which I made a decision to do something, and then realized that there had been opportunities to do it all along that I hadn’t recognized until I took that step.

If it helps you to call it praying to god or magic, go for it. Unlike some atheists, I don’t really care what you call it as long as you don’t expect me to agree with you. I’ll keep on thinking of it as setting intentions and seeking opportunities.

When I read Chris Hall’s article Why Sex Is Not Spiritual, I decided to delve into the issue of sacred sex and its relationship to “sex world” a bit more deeply. It seems to me that there are several different reasons that some folks link sex and spirituality and I think it’s important to tease them out and take a look at them.

1) For some people, labeling sex a sacred or spiritual act serves to raise it out of the category of “mere sex”. I often wonder how many people realize that this is fundamentally rooted in sex-negativity, since it’s based on the idea that sex is inherently sinful or dangerous unless something redeems it. Whether the validation comes from marriage, procreation, or calling it spiritual, there’s a common thread- sex needs to be lifted out of the pit of sin.

“To oppose something is to maintain it.” -Ursula K. Le Guin

Personally, I’d rather think of sex as an activity that no more inherently sinful than eating, playing football, or reading a book. In my view, it’s all in what it means to you, how you feel about it, and what your relationship to it is. I find that validating sex reinforces sex-negativity because it rests on the idea that sex needs to be justified in the first place. I see no reason to fall into that trap.

As Barbara Carellas recently said on Facebook:


“Ecstasy is not “better” than sex. It is not more spiritual, more evolved or more acceptable than “just sex.” I despise the phrase “just sex”—as in, “It’s not love it’s just sex. Or, “It’s not a relationship, it’s just sex.” Or, “What’s the big deal? It’s just sex.” The dismissal of sex as some lower form of energy or lesser activity is a denial of both our physical reality and our spiritual potential. Sex is an expression of who we are. It’s not simply a description of physical qualities—as in “She’s so sexy!”—or quantities—as in “Boy, I sure am getting a lot of sex lately.” It’s not even an activity—as in, “I’m going to fuck your brains out.” Sex is energy—our life-force energy—and it is expressed in every area of our lives. There is no difference between going-to-work energy, eating-dinner energy, taking-out-the-trash energy, and sexual energy. It’s all life-force energy. Because the same life-force energy that flows through us also flows through every living thing on the planet, we are in an ongoing erotic relationship with all of life all the time. How much of it we see, feel or appreciate is dependent upon how much of this energy we have learned to recognize, accept, and allow.”…

I’m all in favor of practices that help people tune into and express this energy. I’ve seen and experienced the profound changes it can foster. And I’d like to see more discussion of these topics that doesn’t rely on, or reinforce, irrational beliefs that are demonstrably in conflict with the world that we can observe.


2) The experience of an altered state of consciousness, whether through sex, drugs, meditation, prayer, intense activity, ordeals (including mortification of the flesh or BDSM), etc. has often been labeled as “spiritual”, though that term is rarely, if ever, defined with precision. When we’re talking about something that exists entirely within our felt experience, there isn’t a lot of language for it and most of what we have comes from religious or spiritual traditions. But when we can “lose our selves” in prayer, sex, dancing, breathwork, or through drugs (among other techniques), what does it really mean to say that it’s a spiritual experience?

My thinking about this changed when I started managing my blood sugar through my food choices. I realized that anything we put into our bodies changes our homeostatic balance, which often changes our state of consciousness. Caffeine is just as much of a drug as heroin, but so is oxygen. A colleague of mine once took a workshop on breathwork and how different types of breathing shift the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our bloodstream, causing physiological shifts that affect how we feel. We can do that deliberately, such as during a tantra practice or pranayama, which can have profound effects on our bodies and our mental/emotional state. That still doesn’t mean that we’re connecting with god, though.

Please note- I am most certainly not suggesting that these experiences aren’t real. But until and unless there’s some evidence that they reflect something that exists outside our heads and bodies, I’m going to apply Occam’s Razor and say that the simplest explanation is that they are physiological responses to various stimuli, rather than something external to our selves. That’s especially important since you don’t actually need to believe in the doctrine in order to have the physiological effects. That seems to indicate to me that other than motivating people to practice, belief isn’t relevant. And if belief isn’t relevant, what does it mean to call it a spiritual experience?


I once listened to a discussion between Jack Kornfield and Dan Siegel, Mindfulness and the Brain: A Professional Training in the Science and Practice of Meditative Awareness, in which Siegel described some of the research about mindfulness. It seems that meditating upon compassion increases our capacity to experience and express joy. I find this kind of science quite fascinating because it suggests that many meditation and related practices are, in a sense, hacking our brains’ operating systems. There are ways that we can work with these tools to change how we think and feel, and we’re just beginning to see some of the research that describes these mechanisms. I think this is really exciting because we might be able to work with and refine the techniques.


3) Another factor is that  many meditative and religious traditions create a set of tools that mark physical and temporal boundaries between the everyday and the practice. As you begin to experience the shifts that a practice can facilitate, using the tools helps you engage in that work. Whether it’s sitting in a particular position, lighting candles, or reciting a prayer, these markers often make it easier.

In many ways, this is similar to the ways that some people signify the beginning and end of a BDSM scene by putting on a collar, or for that matter, some people play specific music to get in the mood for sex, or eat certain foods to celebrate different holidays. Since a lot of traditions, as well as many sacred sex practices use this technique, it becomes easy to say that the sex that follows is somehow spiritual. As far as I’m concerned, if the routine helps you mark the transition and makes it easier to sink into the experience, go for it. But that doesn’t mean that it has a deeper meaning, other than what you bring to it. Sugar cookies might remind you of Christmas, but that doesn’t make them holy.

Having said that, some tantra practices have tapped into some of the mechanisms that deepen connection and sexual pleasure. For example, breathing in unison with someone synchronizes your limbic systems. Eye-gazing, especially left eye to left eye, is said to do much the same thing. Those are real physiological responses and they can be quite powerful, whether performed with a lover or someone else. (Breathing slowly and eye-gazing are part of how caretakers help infants learn to self-regulate, by the way. That’s why it’s useful for adults to keep calm when a baby is crying- if the grown-up freaks out, it accelerates the baby’s distress.)

But the fact that these useful tools have been incorporated into tantra and other traditions  doesn’t mean that the sex that follows is more spiritual than sex without it. Is there deeper connection between the partners? Is there less emotional guarding? It’s likely, especially with practice, but that doesn’t imply anything beyond that. Again, the fact that you can get the same effect without belief indicates that belief is irrelevant, other than as a motivation to stick with the practice.


4) A lot of people in sex world have been disillusioned by religion. Often, that’s because many religions shame people for being queer, sexually curious (especially women), or simply being different. My observation is that some people carry undigested shame as a result, which can cause them to desire a connection to a spiritual tradition that will accept them with love. So when they find one, they might be more likely to unquestioningly enter into it.

That seems to be especially true when we’re looking at traditions that center on “direct connection with the divine” without mediation through clergy. The idea that we can experience the divine without worrying about whether a priest will attack or shame us can be quite appealing and many sacred sex practitioners claim that their practices offer that. However, the longing that these traditions seem to satisfy doesn’t mean anything beyond that.

Given these different dynamics, it makes sense to me that the whole phenomenon of sacred sex is so appealing to a lot of people. Each of these runs deep and many folks experience more than one of them, so it’s hard to pin them down. I’m also sure that there are other factors that I’m not thinking of. I’m curious to hear suggestions and I invite you to comment below.

I would love to see more discussion of what ecstasy and ecstatic practices mean when we remove the trappings of spirituality. I’ve learned many of these techniques and I know from personal experience that they can be amazing. They’ve helped me deepen my awareness of my own sexuality, and they’ve given me tools that enable be to be more present in my body and with another person. They still work for me, even though I consider them to be useful visualizations and metaphors, instead of literal descriptions. It’s rather like that relaxation technique, where you visualize your toes falling asleep, your feet falling asleep, all the way up your body. Your legs aren’t actually falling asleep, but the idea still works. Similarly, I’m not convinced that there really are channels of energy moving through my body, but that doesn’t get in the way of my using the tools and having amazing experiences.


It also very well may be that as we learn more about how bodies work, we’ll discover that the metaphoric language is describing real things. For example, I’ve learned through my yoga practice that there are physical connections throughout our bodies, such as the fascia that surrounds and links our organs. As I’ve found ways to work with these connections, I’ve experienced sensations that feel like electricity between different parts of my body. If I didn’t have a teacher with a deep understanding of anatomy, I might not realize that what feels like a current of energy is actually the fascia stretching, for example.

For that matter, I find a lot of the language that has developed around these ideas to be really useful. If I’m having difficulty feeling love, perhaps due to shame or emotional disconnection from someone, I might describe it as feeling locked up in my heart chakra. Part of the process of shifting that might include visualizing that chakra opening like a flower or like the iris of an old-style camera. I’ve used those and similar visualizations many times, and I continue to find them quite effective. I suppose that makes me one of the more woo-woo atheists. But if it works, I’m happy to use it.

If someone ever manages to find a way to measure what’s going on during those processes, I might change my mind about whether that language is nothing more than a metaphor. But until then, I’m likely to be quite skeptical about the whole thing. And I certainly don’t need to redeem sex in order to enjoy it.

I’ve heard some people say that thinking of sex as sacred is that it can help them approach a sexual experience, whether solo or partnered, with a sense of reverence, joy, love, compassion, and care. Personally, I think that bringing those to sex is amazing, whether you’re with a long-term partner or someone you’ve just met. If labeling sex as sacred helps you sink into that, go for it. It’s just as useful a metaphor as my heart chakra opening like a flower, and the more people learn how to approach sex with those intentions, the better the world will be. And I invite you to consider why it is that you feel the need to use those terms, when it’s entirely possible to approach sex with reverence and joy without them.

So I’ve come back to my original question- why make sex sacred? And what do people get out of doing so? What would the world be like if we could bring connection, pleasure, compassion, joy, & love to our sexual experiences without needing to use language that assumes that we need to validate sex in order to do so?

I’m going to be speaking on a panel on the topic in a few weeks, and I’d love to see you there. Here’s the info, a link to the Facebook event, and to the Fetlife event.

Godless Perverts: Atheism and Alternative Sexualities
Thursday, April 26, 2012, 7-9 pm
The Center for Sex and Culture
1349 Mission Street, San Francisco
Cost: Sliding scale, $10-20 requested.

What’s it like to be a queer or kinky atheist? Alt-sex communities might favor calling the goddess or tantric rituals instead of a church revival, but the belief that a spiritual life makes you a better person is as common as in Middle America. The reality is that for nonbelievers, dungeons and Pride Parades can be as unwelcoming as the neighborhoods they grew up in.

Whether you’re a believer or a skeptic, come join us at the Center for Sex and Culture on Thursday, April 26 for a dynamic conversation exploring the role of atheists, agnostics, and skeptics in alternative sexuality. The panel features Greta Christina, Charlie Glickman, Chris Hall, and Maggie Mayhem speaking about how to be a good perv without God(dess), community attitudes that privilege religious and spiritual beliefs, how science can be ecstatic, what atheists call out when they come, and much more.

Note: sex world is a term a friend of mine came up with a while back to describe the loose conglomeration of communities of erotic affiliation that are sometimes called the sex-positive community. In my experience, it’s not always sex-positive and in fact, many participants mistake sex-positivity with enthusiasm for and enjoyment of sex, which isn’t the same thing. So I prefer the name sex world, though of course there is considerable overlap with the sex-positive crowd.

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14 Responses so far.

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I think it’s important to keep in mind that talking about sex as if it is a spiritual, sacred experience can be REALLY marginalizing to some people, like asexuals for example. (I’ve been meaning to make a post about that for some time now, actually, and I should get on it.) It might be a nice idea for some people, and sure, it might allow them to have better experiences themselves, but it also tends to lead people to see asexuals as “spiritually incomplete” and pathetically pitiable to a much greater extent. It frustrates me, and I wish people would cut it out.

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  2. Charlie says:

    Elizabeth, when you write it, could you come back here and add the link to the comments? I’d love to read it and pass it along!

     

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  3. Ms Naughty says:

    Nice post, Charlie. Congrats on your “coming out”. From what I can tell it’s no easy thing being godless in the US. I’d love to go to that panel but as usual an ocean is getting in the way. Another time, perhaps.

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  4. Jo says:

    Thanks so much for teasing out this question and giving me a lot to think about before commenting. 
    I had to stop and examine why I feel the need to see sex as a sacred act, when I embraced this view as my own and what it means to my sexuality in present time.  Some of this is too personal to share on an open blog, but the jist of what I got to is this:
    I live in my head a lot and a large part of my healing path has been to fully inhabit my body — especially during sex.  This alignment of mind-body-soul is one of the most sacred and loving acts I know and it works for me.  When I am completely present with my lovers and they with me, I feel a connection that defies logic. 
    You may say it’s that we are seeing and holding the divine in each other or that in that moment our cells recognize the sameness of source (aka we are all made of stardust).  To be present to the science, the magic and mundaness of my sexuality, is the definition of sacredness IMHO. 

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  5. Melanie Davis, PhD, CSE says:

    Makes me wish I lived on the West Coast, so I could attend your panel discussion. Great piece of work, here.

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  6. I’m really impressed that you have the balls to draw such a clear line in sand about such touchy topics, sexuality, spirituality & religion (combined!).

    It’s inspiring :) 

    You grew up Jewish, non practicing, but have you always felt this way about sex  & sacredness from a young age or has this been something that you’ve evolved into overtime?

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  7. Thanks for also addressing this topic, Charlie. 
     
    I really appreciated Chris writing his article, because as an atheist I feel very uncomfortable and marginalized by the “sacred sex” approach.  It’s analagous to how I feel when a mormon or a christian starts trying to convert me to their religion.  I dislike the dichotomy of sacred sex as better or more than sex, and I think you address the negativity inherent in the term “just sex” very well.
     
    Again, thanks.

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  8. Have you looked much into chaos magic as a framework at all? Because it sounds like you’ve got a big chunk of the philosophy already in practice. That’s actually where much of my background is – and why I’m sitting here nodding along with the idea of substances, rituals, foods, etc. as tools to access these altered/trance states which don’t have to be remotely mystical, with the end goal of hacking yourself.

    I like to say that whether or not they’re “magic” or religion is irrelevant: they’re tried and useful tools for accessing certain states, and they’re very accessible tools for manipulating our minds as well as frameworks for handling whatever happens in those states. On the one hand, we value reason and being able to evaluate and manage our responses to stimuli: on the other, people default to illogical, so it’s useful to be able to manipulate the illogical aspects of our natures. In other words, I’m a polytheist by default because the framework fits my practice – but that’s subject to change as needed. I’m comfortable with both the idea of gods as constructs, masks, projections that don’t exist outside of me – and with manifesting the most sincere and heartfelt belief not two hours later.

    That’s another idea mixed into general chaos magic philosophy which you might find especially interesting: that of belief as a tool that you can use or discard, something which can be manufactured quite strongly with practice to give our maddeningly illogical brains a useful lens, with the full knowledge that it *is* a lens… sort of a virtual machine approach to belief.

    The downside of long-term practice is that once you get into the habit of mixing belief systems as tools, you tend to mix metaphors with greater frequency in general (see above). 

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  9. Emerald says:

    Thanks for sharing this; it seems an interesting subject and angle to me.
    “For some people, labeling sex a sacred or spiritual act serves to raise it out of the category of ‘mere sex’. I often wonder how many people realize that this is fundamentally rooted in sex-negativity, since it’s based on the idea that sex is inherently sinful or dangerous unless something redeems it. Whether the validation comes from marriage, procreation, or calling it spiritual, there’s a common thread- sex needs to be lifted out of the pit of sin.”

    I myself (very respectfully!) don’t actually see it this way. For me, seeing sex as sacred is actually the same as seeing everything as sacred…to me it seems everything is, and since I feel particularly interested in the subject of sexuality, its sacredness is something I tend to focus on particularly. I’ve often used the word “inherent” or “intrinsic” when referring to what I see as the sacredness of sexuality for this reason—regardless of how we perceive it, it seems sacred to me just as everything is.

    “Personally, I’d rather think of sex as an activity that no more inherently sinful than eating, playing football, or reading a book.”

    Thus, because of what I said above, I agree with that completely.

    I like the quote you offered from Barbara about sexual energy. The energy piece seems very important to me; I agree that sexual energy is life force energy. I’ll also say that I agree that “spiritual” has not often seemed to be defined, and I’m not sure how I would define it myself. Sometimes I have been known to use the word “consciousness” in place of it these days, though it can seem to take quite a few words to describe what that seems to me too. It doesn’t seem to be a small-talk kind of subject for me, I guess, in that I would probably feel compelled to go on and on about it if I were to aim to do justice to what seems to me. (I will say that “spiritual,” to me, has nothing to do with religion.)

    The word “sin” is not really a part of my vocabulary at this point, nor is “God” in any kind of religious or sacred sense. I don’t identify as atheist, and I don’t identify as affiliated with any religion either, or really any label that may seem attached to spirituality. I do inner Work, but I don’t right now seem to feel an attachment to any label about it (on the contrary, really). To me, frankly, “belief” does not seem to be particularly relevant. Like I interpret you as saying, I don’t generally feel invested in how someone else perceives his/her/their experience or in “convincing” anyone of anything.

    Thank you again for sharing, and have a lovely panel!
     

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  10. Thurman Hart says:

    I can understand why an atheist would take umbrage with talking about “sacred” or “spiritual” anything. So I can appreciate the article on that level. 
     
    The issue with “just sex” however, in my opinion, is refusing to look at the totality of human experience. There are times when sex is an act of connectedness and emotion. There are times when it is not. Those times when it is part of a larger act, it is, in effect, sex plus something else. When it is not, then it is just sex (without anything added). In fact, the article itself pretty much insists that there IS something to add to sex to make it more than the barest physical sensations we experience. In other words, if visualizing your heart chakra opening like a flower adds a connectedness that wasn’t there without it…well, isn’t that saying that there is a difference? I honestly don’t get it.
     
    I don’t really care if someone calls that extra connectedness “emotion” or “sacred” or “spiritual” or “unnecessary baggage” or “the random interaction of pheremones, neurotransmitters, and blood chemistry” or..I don’t know..”Wayne.” But I find it truly odd to hear someone say that all sex is on the same level, when it clearly is not. Even more so when the article goes to some length to say that there are ways of making it more (fill in the blank). 
     
    This is not to say that one type of sex is “better” or that any type of sex is “bad” or “sinful.” I think that lot is a bunch of crap. It depends on what one is looking for – sometimes firing off a quick one is really all someone wants and/or needs and that’s fine. Sometimes we want a deeper connection or more intense experience or whatever. Great. 
     
    I think the answer to “why make sex sacred” is because the language of the sacred (or the sublime, perhaps) is what comes closest to explaining what people are experiencing. I don’t see “sacred,” in this sense, as meaning “divine” or “religious” (which are not the same thing) in any way, but rather as meaning “above the mundane or normal experience.” 
     
    To get back to the beginning of what I said, I don’t have a problem with de-spiritualizing or de-mystifying sex (or anything else). But if you want to remove the spiritual language – which would actually accomplish your goal – then I think you are going to have to offer some sort of language to replace it. Perhaps it is just the anatomical verbiage and a deeper appreciation/understanding of our anatomy that is required. I don’t know. 
     
    I do know this: “You make my heart sing” is a lot more stirring than “You make the oxytocin levels in my blood rise so that I experience a curious feeling in my chest as if my heart were happy.”

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  11. Awol Gina says:

    Charlie, I’d also love to read such an article. After being celibate for 12 years, not so much by choice as lack of opportunity (was ill 10 of those years), I’ve often wondered if I am what is called sexually anorexic, or asexual, at this point in my life. So @Elizabeth, please do come back & share.
     

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  12. Awol Gina says:

    This is a fantastic and thought provoking piece, thanks for taking the time to write this & express yourself so well. I too wish I could attend the panel, will it be filmed for those who can not attend???

    I’ve had enormous respect for Good Vibrations for decades, so the fact that you are affiliated with them, lends credence to your background, for me anyway. What got me to read further was the idea of a Jewish Pagan Atheist, and I thought, there is a story in that alone, without the sacredness part of the discussion, but you answered both. 

    I also struggle to define my beliefs which are atheist and energy based, in that all that exists is made of energy, not just so called “living” things, but those thought of as not living, such as stone, furniture, plastic, as all are made of atoms that move continuously. Just as the Native Americans always said, science finally proved. What else will science prove over time? many older religious beliefs, including Native American ones, are based on superstitions, explaining something in nature that was not explainable at the time, or the science wasn’t available. 

    I don’t believe in a supreme being or a single creator, perhaps a creative energy but that’s as far as it goes. Humanism is perhaps the closest belief system I’m still exploring, anti-religion is how I label myself most of the time, as I believe religions were formed to control people and power & had very little to do with spirituality or “god”. I’m with Hitchens on most of these ideas.

    Thanks for an enlightening article, I’m now following your profiles & work, as I know it will be an eye opening & mind expanding experience. :D
    Gina 

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  13. Charlie says:

    Awol Gina, thanks for the kind words. I don’t know if the panel will be filmed, but I’ll ask!

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