Written by Kevin Winters on December 2, 2014
I am passionate about sex.
And it is not only engaging in the act itself, but delving into its history, its structure in different cultures and sub-cultures, and the infinite ways that it can manifest. Mankind’s pursuit of passion has literally led to the downfall of nations or, in some exceptionally fascinating cases, the achievement of enlightenment. Passion can be sparked by anything from full nudity to seeing a wooden spoon! For some this passion is incredibly strong, permeating (occasionally dominating) their lives, and for others it is marginal, if not (in the case of bona fide asexuals) completely absent. From handcuffs to animal costumes to lingerie, from longing gazes to gentle caresses to intense quickies, from loving devotion to casual encounters to violent violations, human sexuality is breathtaking in its complexity, depth, and power.
Sex and Fear
This also means that sexuality is often an object of fear: whether it be fear of the near violent embodiment of orgasm (it is called “the little death” for a reason) or the potential dangers (emotional and physical) of unprotected sex or protecting the power structures of the dominant class/gender/religion, sexuality is often viewed as either suspect or downright dangerous. There certainly is no lack of horror stories, real and made up, intended to cultivate fear and aversion to sex. This is also the case within many Buddhist communities: examples of teachers sleeping with students, sexual abuse, promising enlightenment through sexual activity, all of which often leads to the desolation of the Sangha and enduring psychological harm for those involved.
These cases, and the long-standing harm they have created, often lead us, as either organizations or individuals, to take aversion as our primary coping mechanism: we forbid any interactions or discussions that even hint at sexual relations. A teacher (or person in authority) cannot say that they are attracted to a student because, or so the fear says, doing so might ignite passion to the point of no return or the power differential is seen as too disparate so that any hints at intimacy could become an issue of compulsion/coercion. We can openly talk about anger, frustration, stress, and sadness. But sex? Physical attraction? Strong passion? It is too dangerous!
This was my culture growing up: as part of a very conservative Christian community, we didn’t talk about sex. When I got married the only “helpful” advice I got was, “Be patient and have a sense of humor.” My ex’s mother, a nurse by trade, at least gave me some basic physiological information, but nothing about the female anatomy of arousal beyond “use your hands”. But before this, beyond the usual caveat of “after marriage”, I was told again and again that sex is bad, too powerful to play around with, including masturbation which was bad enough to remove the possibility of participating in saving sacraments/ordinances (honestly, it is no wonder that I grew up depressed, because I “sinned” often and heard often how that made me “unworthy”). This shaming of sexuality has a well-documented powerful effect on many of those within such sexually repressive cultures: arousal can be difficult, sex is usually painful and seen as a duty wives have to their husbands, and the newly condoned activity can still be punctuated by lingering shame.
For me, all of that changed shortly after my divorce: I happened to reconnect with an old friend through Facebook from my years at BYU. She had also had an unhappy marriage and had left the Church of our youth. To this day neither of us knows who suggested it first, but we came up with this crazy idea that she would fly down to Georgia for a raucous and passionate weekend. The weeks slowly went by as anticipation grew, punctuated by us talking about our fantasies for the weekend, reassuring each other that this was going to be great, and continually surprised that we were actually going through with it. And it was incredible, but not entirely for the reasons you might think: yes, the sex was amazing, but we also connected on every level; we cuddled and talked about our pain; we were open, not having to hold back, simply being who and where we were without fear of censure or condemnation. For one of the first times in my life, I could simply be who I was, I didn’t have to put up the façade as the “good Mormon boy”, and I could ask for what I wanted without fear of judgment.
The effects of that weekend still reverberate today: a few days after she left, I woke up and, for the second time in my life, I actually felt happy, content, open, and light. But unlike the first time, which lasted about 24 hours after attending an open house at the Atlanta Shambhala Center, this one endured and I am still on the tail end of it now, over 6 years later. After 28 years of near-constant depression and self-hatred, I feel free. There were other important conditions in place prior to that morning: I was meditating somewhat regularly, I had taken a class on bereavement (primarily from a Buddhist perspective) that gave me the space to mourn parts of my life that I had been running from, so there was already significant “letting go” occurring. But that weekend, those extended and powerful moments of release and surrender, of opening up, of being vulnerable and allowing someone else be vulnerable in return, tuned me in to the positive transformative power of sex. Yes, sex can be powerfully destructive, but it can also change lives and open hearts when done with kindness and compassion.
Sex, Culture, and Shambhala Vision
It is because of these transformative experiences that I feel sex should be discussed, celebrated, and appropriated in a way that encourages communal sanity. Admittedly, we are not at that point: many people relate to sex from an ingrained neurosis composed of shame and ignorance, or, in some cases, scarred by abuse. This is particularly difficult for women, for whom more liberal sexual expression and enjoyment is often seen as a moral deficiency: they are “sluts”, asking for sexual abuse because of their clothing or mannerisms, they should be thankful for men’s unsolicited advances and compliments, and are valued primarily as mothers (and any other role is secondary and, thus, less valuable/meaningful). Even for those who consciously reject these contingent norms, they can still remain firmly lodged in their minds and hearts.
This makes any discussion of sexuality difficult: we never know when something, no matter how innocently or compassionately spoken, can trigger an intense reaction. But even behind this legitimate concern lies one constant within Shambhala vision: trusting in the basic goodness and wisdom of our members. We do it when talking about fear, anxiety, anger, and disappointment, so it seems about time that we do so in relation to sex. The wider culture is becoming saturated with discussion of sexism, gender-based power dynamics, and the dissolution of traditional gender norms which already provides a ripe ground from which these discussions can emerge. Ultimately, for me the question is this: if people cannot talk sanely and gently about sex at our Shambhala Centers, then where else can they go?
With this in mind, I would ask you to contemplate the following questions:
What would a culture of kindness and goodness look like that relates sanely to sexuality? How can we establish a community that simultaneously respects the resistances of those involved yet also cultivates a space where the passion, aggression, and ignorance behind those resistances can be released? How can we trust everyone’s basic goodness enough to make this a regular topic of discussion and reflection while also mitigating potential dangers for those for whom this is an incredibly strong trigger? Rather than ignoring it, how can be bring sane sexuality, mindful sexuality, compassionate sexuality out of the darkness of the unspoken and into the light and warmth of the Great Eastern Sun?
Social change is only possible when a society as a whole moves on it, so I am genuinely interested in your views, criticisms, and experiences. Thanks very much for reading!