Recently in my city an alternative newspaper ran a feature article on an innovative program that had been introduced in the court system to deal with men arrested for soliciting prostitutes. Ongoing group sessions were part of the mandatory sentencing. In initial sessions, the men were extremely belligerent and resentful. Yet, at the completion of the eight sessions, nearly every one of them expressed a special gratitude for this opportunity, for the first time in their lives, to discuss their sexuality in an honest and open way. One man even signed up to repeat the course!
Sexuality, in our culture, is either sensationalized, over-hyped and exploited, or ignored. Mariah Britton, a New York minister, said, “It may require more intimacy to discuss sex than to actually have sex.”
Customarily we only talk about sex in jokes, in innuendos or stylized language. This enables us to avoid the painful feeling of shame that surrounds sexuality in our culture. Once when I was a grade-schooler I was walking through our living room and glimpsed my mother breast-feeding my infant sister. I still remember the shock and deep sense of puzzlement about how this most natural of acts fit in. My ears burned; my face was red. I scrupulously wondered if I needed to confess it the next Saturday afternoon. All of us have probably had similar experiences of this deep shame attached to sexuality. Writers and comedians have made a living recounting their ongoing struggles with sexual shame.
On the other end of the spectrum, we experience sexuality that is sensationalized, its mysteries trivialized and trashed. A trip to the nearest porn video rental emporium or strip bar supplies ample demonstrations of this side. Rental rates for such videos continue to climb through the roof. Sexual addiction is a huge problem in our society, made even worse by the diverse offerings of the Internet.
Is there another way -- some middle ground between deep shame and the most blatant exploitation? “If we reclaim sexuality and touch from the world of commercialism and exploitation, shame and denial,” writes Sarah van Gelder, “we may open the doorway to enchantment.” And to a sexuality that is sustainable, responsible and wise.
Let’s look at the two dominant views of sexuality in our world today. These can be labeled roughly as the liberal approach and the fundamentalist.
Liberals concentrate on the freedoms and rights of consenting adults (access to contraception, gay and lesbian rights, no-fault divorce, and so on). This is a reaction against previous, more oppressive, eras. No one can doubt that conditions are better now for women in general and for gays and lesbians than, say, in 1950.
At the same time, however, liberals created the conditions for the exploitation of sex in the media, advertising and elsewhere. The deep mystery that is our sexuality lies open for trivialization and worse. Moreover, as liberals focus on rights they often ignore how ethical and spiritual values relate to sexuality.
Fundamentalism, on the other hand, brings these value questions to the forefront. Many people rightly reject sexuality without values and insist that our sexuality must be tied to a broader religious view and to more rigid ethical standards. What the religious right misses, however, is a feel for the nuances, complexity and diversity in our sexuality, riding roughshod over something that is infinitely subtle and rich. The right suspects that sex always collapses into sin without elaborate safeguards. Their ideal is a situation where all sexual expression is carefully governed in a patriarchal marriage.
Neither point of view is adequate to guide us as we cross into a new millennium, into an increasingly complex and changing world. What is needed is a way of viewing sexuality as integral to our individual life, to our spirituality and also vital to the well-being of our families and the wider community -- in other words, a “sustainable sexuality.”
Through the work of such pioneers as Thomas Moore, Sarah van Gelder, Fr. Diarmuid O’Murchu, Fr. Richard Rohr, Joan Timmerman, Sam Keen and many others, we are beginning to see that our sexuality is part and parcel of our humanity. It is our interconnectedness. It is about the enchantment that enriches and motivates our lives. It is about embracing the mystery of existence. It is also an opportunity for creativity, for acts of communion with others. We reach into another, and through that person into all of life.
Why is sexuality so precious? “Because it is the great enabler,” writes Diane Ackerman, “that allows us to commune with every aspect of being alive, with people and objects, landscapes and cities. One needs love to feel harmonious, to feel part of the rich landscape of one’s life.”
To say that sexuality is just an animal instinct, an obstacle to holiness, is to say that sexuality has nothing to do with our humanity. But in fact our sexuality is an integral part of our personal and interpersonal identities. From childhood it looms large in our lives, and we must deal with it one way or the other. Thomas Moore, in his best-selling book The Soul of Sex, writes:
“We have a habit of talking about sexuality as merely physical, yet nothing has more soul. Sex takes us into the world of intense passions, sensual touch, exciting fantasies, many levels of meaning and subtle emotions. It makes the imagination come alive with fantasy, reverie and memory. Even if the sex is loveless, empty or manipulative, still it has strong repercussions in the soul, and even bad sexual experiences leave lasting, haunting impressions.”
There is an ancient wisdom, even within the Judeo-Christian tradition, that maintains that sexuality is primarily spiritual, possibly the single greatest source of spiritual vitality in the human psyche. Sexuality is a mode of interaction with divinity.
The Old Testament’s Song of Songs describes the relationship between Yahweh and humans in the most gloriously sensual and erotic images and poetry. Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross used sexual intimacy as the effective analogy for understanding intimacy with God. St. Augustine referred to the cross of Christ as a marriage bed, intimating that our sexuality has infinite redemptive dimensions.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, in his contemporary workshops on sacred sexuality, talks of holy lovemaking, a big part of the re-enchantment of life. “When you think about what your partner needs in his or her life,” he says, “and call down blessing with every gentle loving touch, God is not absent.”
In short, our sexuality is a rich source of religious experience, a great and holy mystery that brings beauty, meaning and divinity to our lives. Human love is a shape taken by the love of God.