In a world where Judeo-Christian faith no longer writes the rules on intimacy, who will define the new sexual ethics?
John Christensen—born, raised, and married in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—had flown all the way from his Utah home to attend the beginners’ workshop in Tantra: The Art of Conscious Loving. He arrived with lots of baggage about love and beauty, sex and spirituality.
For years, his Mormon wife had resisted the idea of attending a tantric sex workshop with him. She thought their sex life was just fine. She’d previously agreed to go with John for a private consultation with two tantra teachers, a male daka and a female dakini, but it wasn’t her thing. She did not share John’s enthusiasm for learning how to blend Eastern mysticism and exotic sexual techniques, nor was she tempted by promises of multiple, mind-blowing orgasms. But, as a gift, she’d agreed to let John go to this workshop by himself.
The weekend gathering was a mix of couples hoping to spice up their sex lives and single men and women looking for a new kind of love. They did breathing exercises, simple yoga postures, and watched as the two workshop leaders—Charles Muir and Leah Alchin—demonstrated various sexual techniques using a penis-shaped dildo to represent the man’s lingam and a velvety puppet for the woman’s yoni.
There was no nudity in the group sessions, but lots of hugging, touching, and staring into the eyes of strangers. Single women picked the single men to pair up with for various exercises, including one in which the couples gazed at each other and asked, “What are you afraid I’m going to see?”
The first day of the workshop led up to the big event that night, when the couples—including the newly created ones—returned to their hotel rooms to practice “sacred-spot massage.” This is a sexual technique in which the man uses his fingers to lovingly enter the woman’s vagina, find her G-spot, and, if all goes well, give her an orgasm like she’s never had before.
John, who asked that his real name not be used in this article, thought he was ready for this, but he was not. He was sitting in a circle with the other single men, his eyes closed, waiting for a woman he didn’t know to select him for her night of sexual-spiritual bliss.
“There was guilt. There was shame,” he recalled. “I’m sitting there thinking, How can I be drawn to this? This is so different than anything I’ve been taught to understand. Why did I spend all this money to fly here? Emotionally, I went crazy. Fight or flight kicked in, and I fled. I bailed out.”
It wasn’t just the sexual guilt of his religious upbringing that freaked him out. Looking back on that weekend, John now sees that Madison Avenue was as much to blame as the Mormon Church.
Most of the single women at the workshop were not his idea of “sexy.” They were either overweight or “defective” in other ways that veered from the Playboy playmate of his dreams.
“My idea of love was totally based on physical beauty,” he recalled. “If a woman didn’t have a certain look, I just could not engage.”
John returned to the workshop on Sunday, embarrassed by his behavior the previous night. “It wasn’t pretty,” he says. “I cried for six or seven hours in class. Finally, when the course was over, a young lady came up to me and asked if she could be with me that night. I couldn’t do it. I turned her down three times. Then she said, ‘How about if I come to your room and draw you a bath and just hold you?’”
John reluctantly agreed, and as he recalls this encounter, he once again starts to cry.
“This woman was from Mexico. She’d had breast cancer. She’d lost one of her breasts. Her physical shape did not meet my Madison Avenue beliefs. But I came to see that she was gorgeous. When I was massaging her and got to her breast, her tears began to flow. The intensity of love began to grow. She changed the way I thought. She rewired my brain. Pleasuring a woman for five-plus hours with unconditional love, with orgasm after orgasm radiating from her body—it was so intense. There was no right, no wrong. Just being. It changed me.”
Seven years later, John is still married to his Mormon
wife of 29 years and still living with her and their children
in Utah. But he has continued his work with the Source School of Tantra Yoga and has become a teacher of sacred-spot massage. “This is who I am,” he says. “This is what keeps me alive.”
John’s story—from Mormon family man to tantric masseur—may be extreme, but it shows just how far afield Americans will roam in the search for sacred sexuality.
For most Americans, issues of sexual ethics and sexual morality have long been intertwined with the teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But today, growing numbers of people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” along with more liberal members of the nation’s churches and synagogues, are looking for a new sexual ethic—one that goes beyond the “thou shalt nots” of organized religion.
Many are searching for a more joyous, sex-positive theology. They are looking to see what their own sexual experiences tell them about spiritual truth—and to connect their spiritual and sexual selves.
This exploration raises as many questions as answers in an era of rapidly changing sexual mores. Today, once-closeted gay couples are living happily ever after in marriage; pornography formerly restricted by obscenity laws is available 24 hours a day for mass consumption online; teens flirt by “sexting”; and online dating sites facilitate everything from quickie hookups to clandestine extramarital activities (“Life is short, have an affair,” suggests Ashley Madison.com, a dating website specifically for married people). Without the sexual rules that once governed our relationships, how do we separate right from wrong? What makes sex “sacred”? What makes it “profane”?
The search for a new sexual ethic is not so new. It began with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. In fact, you could say the revolution began on May 10, 1960, the day the New York Times reported that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had given G. D. Searle & Company permission to market the birth control pill. Sex was no longer just about procreation. By 1966, six million American women were on the Pill, assuming the reins of reproductive freedom and redefining women’s sexual empowerment.
Today, a new generation of progressive sex educators is trying to build on that foundation. “The sexual revolution was pivotal, but now we are in a sexual evolution,” says Leah Alchin, who leads classes and works with private clients as a certified tantra educator.
Alchin teaches her students how to release past emotional trauma from their lower chakras. “If you can wake up these spiritual centers and clear them out, you have more energy in the body, more flow, and more orgasmic pleasure,” she says. “You’ll be able to spiritually awaken on a deeper level. If you want to get ahead in the [work of spiritual developement], you need to cut the cords from the past that hold you down like gravity.”
Alchin, 34, grew up in a sexually repressive Christian family, but she no longer seeks solace in Jesus or the Virgin Mary. Today, she finds her spiritual power in those fierce, sensual deities of the Hindu faith: Shiva and his consort, Shakti.
She and Muir, her 65-year-old mentor and former lover, are leaders in the neotantra movement. At a recent workshop near their home base in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco, they banter like a kind of new age George Burns and Gracie Allen. They sit on a platform adorned with a furry white rug, two dozen red roses, candles, and white Christmas-tree lights. Colorful tapestries on the walls of this makeshift temple depict the seven chakras, various incarnations of the Buddha, and Hindu deities joined in ecstatic embrace.
“You laid down $500 for this, so we promise to take you on an adventure. We’ll show you how to bring God to bed with you,” says Muir, who’s been teaching since the 1970s. “Now there’s a threesome!”
Sexual threesomes—with or without God—are not all that unusual in this corner of the tantra world. Alchin and Muir recently ended an eight-year open relationship but remain friends and business partners. “I’ve seen real beauty and lots of incredible love show up for polyamorous couples,” Alchin says. “I’d rather be in an open relationship than risk having someone cheat on me, or risk cheating on my partner. But you have to have the constitution to do a lot of personal work if this is the path you are going to choose. The polyamorous path is a warrior’s path.”
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the world’s largest church, the Roman Catholic Church, continues to condemn any form of sex that is not between a married man and woman using no artificial forms of birth control. But are Catholics still listening to what the church says about sex?
Not really, says Lisa Fullam, an associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley.
Fullam, a married woman teaching sexual ethics at a Catholic college, says that it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the hypocrisy of the church’s teaching on birth control. “Even the U.S. bishops estimate that 94 percent of sexually active Catholics of reproductive age use some form of disallowed birth control,” Fullam says. “It’s no longer a question. ... People just say, ‘Forget it. The church has nothing to teach us.’ And I find that tragic.”
Fullam seems like a good person to provide a crash course on how the Catholic Church—and in many ways the broader American culture—developed a “shame-based” attitude toward sex.
First off, Fullam says, don’t blame it on Jesus.
“His dealings with women were extraordinary for a man of his time. He seemed non-uptight about women. Look at the story of the woman who broke the jar of ointment over his head. The whole house was filled with the scent of this ointment. It’s a tremendously sensuous image. Then she anoints him, and he sits there enjoying it. Another woman comes along and washes his feet with her tears and wipes his feet with her hair. And he celebrates that.”
So where did we get the idea that sexual pleasure is bad or somehow dangerous? Fullam, like many other theologians, blames Saint Augustine (354–430), who infamously wrote, “There is nothing which degrades the manly spirit more than the attractiveness of females and contact with their bodies.”
Augustine was influenced by ancient Greek philosophy, which saw the spirit as pure and the body corrupt. “The Jewish tradition has never had the kind of baseline fear of sexuality that many strands of Christianity have. It’s hard to overestimate Augustine’s influence on theology. The Christian tradition is based on the idea that sex isn’t something you celebrate. It’s something you justify.”
In an article in the Catholic journal Commonweal titled “Thou Shalt—Sex beyond the Lists of Don’ts,” Fullam proposes a new sexual ethic for Christians based on “a feel for incarnation, an ability for intimacy, and an eye for insight.” That means treating sexual passion as a celebration of the bodies we were incarnated in; using sexual connection as a path for real intimacy and connection (not masking our isolation with promiscuity); and reflecting on how our sexual relationships have played out in the past.
And what about Roman Catholics in homosexual relationships, which the church continues to condemn as immoral and evil?
Many of Fullam’s students at the Jesuit college are gay and lesbian. “The church’s teaching on homosexuality is stunningly hurtful,” she says. “I can stand up there all day and explain how words [the church uses to describe homosexuality] like objective moral evil and intrinsic disorder are technical language, but that doesn’t make it not hurt.”
For the syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage, a gay man who was raised in a strongly Catholic family, the words moral evil and intrinsic disorder are not just hurtful words—they’re fighting words.
Savage dismisses the argument that the church is not anti-gay because it condemns only the sin of gay sex, just as it condemns the sins of masturbation, premarital sex, and extramarital sex. “The pope, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and priests know that straight Catholics are using birth control, obtaining abortions, having premarital sex, having sex for pleasure, and masturbating. But they can pretend not to know it because they can’t actually see it,” he said in an interview with S&H. “Priests can’t do the same when a gay couple walks into a church.”
Savage has little faith that liberal Christians will be able to come up with a sex-positive theology. “Christianity, going back at least to [the Apostle] Paul, has been a rejection of sex,” he says. “The Christian church saw that sex was this sweet spot in the human psyche. They pathologized it and have been reaping the rewards ever since. It’s a scam, and it goes all the way back to the roots of the church.”
At the same time, Savage, who lives in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle with his husband, Terry, and their 15-year-old son, has no patience for the sexual bliss promised by the tantra crowd. “I’m not interested in having an eight-hour orgasm,” he says. “I have other things to do.”
The most common sexual problem readers of his Savage Love column report is that they’re not getting enough of it. He urges sex partners—gay or straight, tantric or Christian—to try a little harder to be “good, giving, and game,” as in “good in bed, giving pleasure without expectation, and game for anything—within reason.”
Savage preaches that monogamy is usually—but not always—the best policy. Many people who say they are monogamous are actually “monagamish,” he says, citing studies stating that 40 to 50 percent of married women and 50 to 60 percent of married men have had at least one extramarital affair. Cheating is always wrong, he says, except when it isn’t.
“Only someone obsessed with sexual fidelity to an unhealthy degree places a higher value on preserving the ideal of a monogamous marriage over preserving an actual marriage,” he wrote in his new book, American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics. “These are my sexual ethics.”
A Gift from God
Not far away, at Seattle Pacific University, Tina Schermer Sellers is advocating what Savage says cannot be done—preaching what she calls a sex-positive gospel. Sellers teaches marriage and family therapy at the Christian college and sees outside clients as a certified sex therapist. She asks her family-therapy graduate students, many of whom come from conservative religious backgrounds, to write out their sexual autobiographies. Some of them move her to tears.
“They break my heart,” she says. “There’s so much sexual shame, self-loathing, and condemnation. There has been so much pain and sexual dysfunction caused by the Western church. Some of the women are so encrusted with shame that they don’t realize they have this wonderful, juicy, diva-like power.”
Sellers recently completed her PhD dissertation at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. Her paper, “Resurrecting the Spirituality of Sexuality,” describes her work with couples seeking to foster intimacy, reduce sexual shame, and experience the ecstatic, spiritual side of sexual intimacy.
Sellers encourages women from religious backgrounds to look at sexual desire as a gift from God. “Desire is the life breath within us,” she says. “It is the source of all that moves us to love, create, and inspire. Desire is what happens between our first breath and our last. And God says, ‘It is good!’”
That was a message Peter and Sarena Li were ready to hear. Peter, 39, and Sarena, 35, were one of six couples attending Sellers’s Passion for Life Couples Intimacy Retreats earlier this year at a hotel in downtown Seattle.
Peter and Sarena grew up in conservative Christian homes where even talking about sex was taboo. “It was a temptation you were supposed to stay away from,” Peter recalled. “If you were attracted to someone, you were supposed to look away. I wound up having sex before marriage, but it hung over my head like a burden. Then, suddenly, when I got married, sex went from being wrong to being right, but I never really knew what made it wrong or made it right. I didn’t even have a baseline.”
Sarena’s background was pretty much the same. “Desire was something negative,” she says. “When I was in sixth grade, I told my dad that I slow-danced with a boy at school. He said, ‘You know what that leads to.’ I was thinking, No. I don’t. But he was definitely not happy about it. I spent my whole life trying to lock down my desire. And then I got married and then I became a mom. Is a mom sexual? I didn’t know. It all felt very compartmentalized.”
Sellers assigns four “passion practices” for the couples to try over the three-night retreat. “Tonight you will not have intercourse or do anything typical of your sexual dance,” she tells them. “If you frequently give or receive oral sex and then have intercourse, you will not do this tonight.”
The couples arrive in their hotel rooms to find a basin, hand towels, washcloths, and lotion at the foot of the bed. They are also given written instructions on how to proceed. “Come together and—one at a time, spend 10 minutes each silently washing the feet of the other imagining that you are blessing the body, heart, mind, soul of your beloved through your laying on of hands,” the instructions state. “The goal is not arousal.”
For Peter and Sarena, taking sex off the table was a liberating exercise. “Most of the women there had gotten into the pattern that the man was the most important thing. As long as he climaxes, that is what matters,” Sarena says. “The women had a hard time just receiving, especially if you’d been taught to be the Christian submissive wife.”
Peter came to see that connecting with his wife on a deeper emotional and spiritual level “was way more rewarding that the outcome of sexual intercourse.”
“If someone had told me before this workshop that I could make sex spiritual, I would have laughed at them,” he says. “I tended to scoff at things like that and thought nothing was sacred. Tina introduced me to the sacredness of sex.”
Peter and Sarena recalled their retreat two months after returning to their “real life,” where he does marketing for a health care company and she is a stay-at-home mother of three. Their oldest child, a 12-year-old daughter, noticed the change in her parents’ relationship the first night back. Peter says, “She said, ‘You guys are acting so weird! You’re so mellow and happy. I’m acting bratty and you’re not evening responding to it.’”
At Sellers’s suggestion, Peter and Sarena are spending more time working on their marriage and a little less on their children’s many activities. “They are balking at that, but deep down I think they want that, too,” Peter says. “Our daughter sees our lingering hugs and long kisses and walks away like it’s gross, but I know she’s walking away warm and secure.”
What single word best describes sex in America? Schizophrenic.
We celebrate it. We sell stuff with it. We’re ashamed of it. We’re obsessed with it. We repress it. We worship it. We fear it. We love it.
“We’re hardwired for intimacy and pleasure,” Sellers says. “We have this deep longing to be known, seen, valued, accepted. It’s not an easy thing to do, but we want to love and to be loved. And in that relationship we find the capacity to commune with God.”