Sex in the Sangha

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!

My Experience

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.

ripe-tomatoesFor 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

coupleIt 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!

17 responses to “Sex in the Sangha”

  1. fredclaymeyer says:

    Thanks for the article, Kevin!

    In terms of your question, I think the attitudes to sex we form in childhood can really stick with us strongly. So this is an area where parents have a lot of opportunity to model a cheerful, un-freaked-out approach to sex. That seems the most helpful single thing we can do, as I think about it.

  2. Kevin Winters says:

    Yes, I definitely agree.

    From a ZiJi perspective, though, how can we begin to have un-freaked-out discussions in a wise and kind way? If we have members who are from the taboo-oriented culture, how can we begin to open up about it without “going too far” (whatever that might mean; I’m actually unclear on that concept here)? We already instruct people to sit with discomfort, to lean into the edge, so how can we do it with such a charged topic without going through significant growing pains? And if it can’t happen without such significant growing pains (which is my assumption), is there a way to frame/situate it that guards those for whom this is a literally traumatic topic?

    I am quite confident that if Shambhala started having classes on the topic of sex that they would be wildly popular. How can we reach out to those teachers who would be comfortable blazing the trail on this to express our interest in it being more vocally addressed within the Sangha?

    Let me end with saying that I think that if we created a wider culture of sex-positive Sanghas then occurrences of sexual abuse would significantly be reduced. If we can empower people to own their sexuality and have a clearer sense of their boundaries (which includes the perceived capacity to say, “No,” which many do not feel empowered to do), people will be harder to exploit than someone with a less confident relationship to their sexuality. Perceived uncertainty and fear are the basic tools by which would-be abusers choose and manipulate potential victims.

    More and more questions…

    • Janelle says:

      Wow. Victim blaming galore. The problem is NOT that women do not feel empowered to say “no”. The problem is that men should not make inappropriate advances on women in spiritual communities. I do not see if as inevitable that abuses occur. Sexual abuses occur because women’s experiences at spiritual communities are undervalued and complaints are not taken seriously. Some of the conversations you articulate should occur, but Shambhala in its present state, does not provide a strong enough container to provide for the safety for women, in my opinion. Maybe someday things will be different. And you can minimize the problem of sexual abuse all you want to Kevin; but the problem is serious enough for the Sakyong to convene a task force to correct gendered harms.

  3. Janelle says:

    Unless you have training working with people who have experienced trauma, you can cause a lot of harm despite good intentions. Most women don’t want to hear about men’s sexual fantasies in spiritual communities unless it is our partner. We just want to meditate in a place in which we feel safe. Roundtabling sexuality under the guise of open spiritual exploration is usually the precursor to seduction or a seduction attempt, usually unwanted or harmful. It is best to keep private sex lives out of spiritual communities. It is not an issue of shame, just giving women space and privacy who are tired of emotional and physical intrusions masquerading as spiritual advancement. This is particularly true in Shambhala where young men (in my personal experience) think its okay to try to sleep with everyone in the sangha because the lineage holders did it. Thanks for your article. It sounds like you are of good intent.

  4. Janelle says:

    PS The gendered language is a little offensive too: “Mankind’s pursuit of passion” . . .

  5. Kevin Winters says:

    Janelle,

    I agree on the issue of trauma. It seems the best way to mitigate that is, when we have conversations/contemplations on sex, to announce it ahead of time and make sure those who know it is a trigger can avoid it. And also to make sure those leading the contemplation are aware of any particularly strong reactions among the attendees so that they can be gently addressed or escorted out. That is definitely a matter of concern for me.

    On your second sentence, I don’t think these discussions and classes I’m considering would be about people talking about their sexual fantasies, men or otherwise. Do you see that as an inevitable aspect of any kind of discussion on sexuality? If so, why? From my perspective, I see it as providing a space where we can discuss common barriers to healthy sexuality: the three poisons in their many permutations, including sexism, consent, patience, communication, tuning in to the body, etc. At least I don’t see that the airing of fantasies as an integral part of it, though providing the tools for such to happen between couples afterwards would be.

    On your next point, I think that raises some complicated issues: yes, it is undeniable that such things happen and we have plenty of examples to choose from. But is it necessary? Let me give one potential scenario: let’s say someone leads a class on sex and during the course of it finds that they have a strong sexual attraction to someone else. What kind of safeguards can we put in place?

    In asking this I am thinking of the guidelines used in Cuddle Parties (http://www.cuddleparty.com/rules/), which, in this case (as I’ve talked to a CP facilitator in the past about other potential guidelines for a class on sacred sexuality I was trying to pilot), should also include other guidelines like, “If you feel attraction, don’t act on it. Give it a week before initiating any contact with the person. Etc.” We have similar advice for retreats where amorous feelings are quite common. Yes, this doesn’t mean indiscretions and abuses won’t happen (it’s impossible to stop them all), but my belief is that the content of such courses would help people make more healthy and sane sexual decisions thus making abuse less likely.

    On your second to last point, it is not always an issue of shame, but I do think it is regularly an issue of fear: fear that we cannot bring up the topic of sex without someone getting hurt, fear that others actually aren’t basically good and, thus, cannot handle strong sexual feelings, etc. And I think removing sex life from spiritual communities doesn’t end well: suppression and prohibition have a horrendous track record of cultivating a healthy and sane mentality in relation to what is prohibited, which then creates fertile ground for abuses to happen. I’m convinced there has to be another way. Sexuality is impossible to run away from; it *will* come up in any community, spiritual or otherwise. So I think it should be addressed openly and mindfully/gently, not ignored.

    On your last point, in your experience, do we have a significant number of women who have been the targets of such intrusions? If I recall correctly, we’ve discussed sexual abuse in Shambhala before in another forum. It is undeniable that it happens, but are the numbers so much that most women would agree with your final sentence?

    On your last comment: that is the only use of any quasi-gendered language in the entire blog post: its primary definition is inclusive of male and female; it is *rarely* used in everyday discourse to refer only to all males and its regular gendered use died out 4-6+ centuries ago. What term would you prefer me to use?

    • Janelle says:

      Why do you feel compelled to bring sexuality into the sangha? This is a private matter. The reason men want to bring sexuality into the sangha is because women are vulnerable, and open and men use the intimacy of the dharma setting to get laid. Period. Have your cuddle parties at home. Unwanted sexual overtures are out of control in Shambhala centers and women need to feel safe not pressured. Senior teachers need to be protective of new students who may confuse tenderness that results from being touched by the teachings, with feelings for a teacher or more senior person. In my view, given the current climate in Shambhala, all meetings with sex as a focus will be used by most men to seek sexual partners and it is a recipe for disaster unless you are talking about gender politics or relationship issues. The culture and dynamic is ripe for abuse of the vulernable and it happens over and over and over again. Fix the problem of leaders and teachers abusing students before you launch into this. Maybe when a strong container is in place in which women are treated with dignity and respect in the Shambhala community, can such groups open up. For now, lets focus on putting an end to abuse of power issues, sexual assault, and how theInternational Care & Conduct has, for decades, shunned and silences women who report abuse. Show me a safe, woman-positive community before we talk about a sex-postive community.

      • Kevin Winters says:

        I’m not bringing it in at all: it is always already there! By the mere fact that we are human beings, sexuality will play a role (for some of us bigger than others) in our lives and we cannot neatly (or even messily) detach the one from the other.

        But you also hit *exactly* the point I’ve been making: we need to change the culture! The best way to “be protective of new students” is to talk about this, e.g., the difference between tenderness and sexual feelings, the topic of boundaries and consent, etc. I don’t see any other way of fixing any problems, whether it be abusive leaders or vulnerable students, without talking about it! A container that requires us to not talk about and thus sanely relate to an inherent part of our being as human beings is not a strong container: it provides no space, no ventilation, and requires us to reject a part of ourselves rather than bringing it into the light of the Great Eastern Sun. In short, it is an explicit rejection of basic goodness, which is the ground, path, and fruition of the Shambhala path.

        Also, thanks for forwarding this to the Care & Conduct committee. I was actually on a conference call with them this last weekend where we discussed the issue of sexual abuse in Shambhala, how we are doing (most said relatively poorly), and what we need to improve on. We have a long way to go, but I don’t see how we can get there unless we actively talk about it.

        Let me be clear on one more thing, because I think it is a point we are not connecting on: when I say have a class on sex, I am *not* saying that we have a how-to class (that would be fun, but definitely in another venue). Rather, it is a class that involves various questions and issues, including gender politics and relationship issues. Also, as I’ve mentioned on a few occasions, it will also involve discussions about consent, communication, boundaries (which includes power dynamics), etc. I honestly think we agree more than you think.

        • Janelle says:

          Kevin,
          Given that your article started out talking about how much you love sex and included a discussion of your sex life, it seemed evident to me you want a forum to talk about “sacred sex” (your words) rather than address gender equality and power imbalances. Sure you included a few lines about rape and slut-shaming, but the overall intent of your article communicated you want sex (the act of sex) and sexuality discussed in sanghas. To be honest, it sounds like you are looking for like-minded persons to have sensual relationships. I think you should have these groups at your home for interested persons. The problem is you likely don’t have the critical mass to get the women in, so you bring your interests into Shambhala centers, to get their patrons. One in four women have been abused. Women go to Shambhala centers generally to alleviate personal suffering. Women who are new to spirituality are vulnerable and do not need invitations to sex-positive groups under the pretense they they will be spiritually advanced.

          If you want to have a group that addresses gender politics, avoiding abuse, and the like, then I am all for it. But to change course in the same group and start talking about the power of orgasm, sacred sex, and other topics than men routinely use to seduce vulnerable women they only have access through a Shambhala center, is a problem and smacks of manipulation.

          • Kevin Winters says:

            Yes, I included articles about slut-shaming and rape. I also talked about openness, vulnerability, kindness, compassion, and authenticity. In fact, I essentially attributed my incredible sexual adventure with my friend and my subsequent opening to the presence of those qualities; without them I believe it would have been a very different experience. All of them cultivated together would be antithetical to the kind of manipulation you are accusing me of, and that is my ultimate goal.

            Yes, discussion of such qualities can be used by those wishing to manipulate, but not surprisingly they are also used by those who don’t. In fact, they are qualities that we talk about *constantly* in Shambhala, and in Buddhism in general: they are the qualities of basic goodness, the qualities of the Four Dignities, the qualities of the Cosmic Mirror. That I seek to apply them to sexuality, just as we apply them to *every* *single* other aspect of our lives, should not be surprising. That I think, per our belief and embodiment of basic goodness, that we can talk about them openly as a community, is not a rejection of Shambhala principles, but a fuller embodiment of them. What I am lacking is clear ideas of how we can proceed as a community, which is why I posted this along with my questions. Yes, I have ideas, but I need the collective wisdom of others to find my own blind spots, to get gendered perspectives (like what you are providing here), etc.

            I understand well enough (and continue to learn more) how much of a problem rape and abuse are, both within and outside the Shambhala community. I’ve sat in groups where we discussed how such abuses have hurt those involved, how people are angry, torn, and heartbroken, how we have lost beloved community members because of it. I’ve seen people I love become distant from the community, I felt their absence again and again. I’ve talked with people who have been cheated on, with the cheaters themselves, and I have felt their pain and would take it upon myself in a second, if given the chance. I don’t know you, so please don’t assume that you know me by projecting on to me the motives of those who have hurt you before. I don’t think you see how much of allies we actually are because you are letting your pain filter what you see and don’t see in my post and comments. I’ve done that *many* times before and you have my compassion.

          • Kevin Winters says:

            No, I messaged with “Elaine Remple”, not you, though we did swap comments on Facebook on a particular post. If I recall correctly, I said that I had no knowledge of the situation and thus could not judge. I only had her word to go off and do not feel it right to judge a situation when only having one side of the story; that’s not silencing, shunning, or even doubting her story, it is only wanting to know more before reaching a conclusion, which I see as merely responsible thinking. I vaguely recall talking about legal matters, but I don’t remember what I said and our conversation is no longer on Facebook (“Elaine” deleted her account, so the message thread was deleted as well), so I can’t review what I said. I most certainly would not advocate a protocol that shuns a victim simply to avoid a lawsuit. That is morally repugnant.

            And, yes, I did contact Mary Whetsell because you invoked her name on a public forum on a sensitive topic and I wanted her to know her name was being used. I know her personally, so it was not difficult.

            Let me be clear: I admit it is a problem and that Shambhala has not done a good job of dealing with it, much like the wider culture (i.e., this is not Shambhala specific). I fiercely disagree with slut shaming and blaming the victim. And, if I had my preference, I would want this to be a much more transparent process on all levels (something, by the way, that was mentioned by a few of us in the recent conference call on sexual misconduct and the abuse of power, so it is on a number of minds). What is usually framed in terms of privacy is often a coverup for protecting the guilty within many communities, religious and otherwise, and I think more transparency would help.

            As with before, I am willing to be a sympathetic ear, but I ask that you stay on topic. If you have constructive advice on how to develop a culture that sanely relates to sexuality, I would love your input. It seems you have a unique perspective that would be useful. Otherwise, please respect basic internet protocol and don’t deter from those of us trying to find ways to make Shambhala a safe, sane, and healthy place for sexuality to be discussed and practiced.

          • Janelle says:

            You are using the teachings, at least in significant part, to cultivate a community of titillation, Kevin, for the aggrandizement of ego and sexual desire. It is inappropriate. Your article is not about sexual safety its about wanting to explore sexual topics for your own benefit, and for the benefit of those with similar interests, under the auspices of spiritual advancement. I sent your article to the Sakyong for review as well.

            I am happy to send you an email in which you told me that protocols written to shun and silence women who were abused by teachers and to ex communicate them from the community were acceptable if they helped Shambhala avoid lawsuits. I told you Mary Whetsall was completely unresponsive to to the issue of gendered harms in the Shambhala community because she abdicated her responsibility to care for women who have been harmed when told to do so by Shambhala’s legal counsel to protect the organization and corrupt teachers. That is a sad, sad fact and I am happy to provide that documentation to anyone who asks for it. The way you treated me in that exchange certainly impacts my opinion on your intention in writing this article and whether you are the appropriate person to be spearheading discussions as important as sexuality in Shambhala.

            You are not the arbiter of decorum, Kevin, and I certainly will not take orders from you on how to behave. Wrapping up seduction in spiritual language does make it palatable. It is spiritual materialism at its finest. Here is a tip: If you want to convince your readers that an article you write is about sexual safety, don’t start out by writing, “I am passionate about sex.” It kinda gives you away.

          • Kevin Winters says:

            Janelle, I never once “minimize[d] the significance or number of sexual assaults in this community”. At most I said I don’t know how many there have been, which is a true statement. If you still have the text of our conversation (or my conversation with “Elaine”), feel free to post a full unaltered transcript of it. If I said anything of the sort, I will apologize. Otherwise, I see nothing to apologize for.

            If I wrote anything offensive above, please point it out. If the only offenses you see are ones you read into it by attributing motives to me, then, again, I see nothing to apologize for. And, yes, I could have written an article on ending sexual violence, but I see creating a culture that sanely (meaning with kindness, compassion, openness/vulnerability) relates to sexuality as being an essential part of that goal. If you disagree with that claim, please give me your arguments. If you don’t, then, as I’ve said a few times, we are mostly in agreement.

          • Kevin Winters says:

            On your first point, I most certainly agree, which is why I’m trying to get input from others on how we could approach this in a way that respects resistance (especially the cogent resistance that comes from trauma) while also helping it self-liberate through practice and discussion. And it definitely is true that the environment can really amplify the passion: that has been my experience again and again which has given me *a lot* to work/sit with. But that’s also all the more reason to directly address it: such a potent energy needs to be handled non-neurotically.

  6. Emily Earlenbaugh says:

    As someone who has been inappropriately advanced upon by a teacher in a shambhala setting, I share Janelle’s concern about sessions turning into avenues of further abuse. But, I also feel that talking about sex and sexuality is vital to healing the issues in the community. It is probably best for anyone with triggers to avoid such sessions, but these conversations could include discussions of consent, sexism, and power dynamics in the context of shambhala teachings. In my view, discussing these issues which come in relation to sex and sexuality is the best way for our larger community to start to better understand the complexities of sexuality – both in it’s benefits and it’s real potential to be harmful if misused. I do appreciate that this program is being held and feel that lots of women do want open discussions of sexuality. What we don’t want is to be hit on in the process of these sessions. But I don’t see that that is a necessary feature of any discussion of sexuality.

    • Kevin Winters says:

      Emily, in your “ideal” exhaustive class or discussion (assuming, per impossible, an infinite amount of time and resources), what topics do you think should be openly discussed?

      You already mentioned:

      1. Consent
      2. Sexism
      3. Power dynamics

      Also, feel free to include any sub-topics in each as you are so moved. I like detail, so give as much or as little as you want.

      • Emily Earlenbaugh says:

        I like the list of topics you suggested in your earlier post. Openness, communication, authenticity etc. In terms of sub-topics of what I’ve already mentioned, I think it is important to talk about the harms that come from power-imbalanced romantic relationships. Even when both parties are interested and have genuine feelings for each other, when one person is in a more powerful role, as a teacher, religious leader, therapist, boss, etc, the power dynamic can lead to a lot of trauma for the less powerful party. Having an open discussion about the ways this can affect people is important when sex is being discussed especially in a spiritual context where the potential for abuse is heightened by the trusting attitude people bring to spiritual pursuits. I would like to see discussions of how to reduce sexual trauma in our communities through respectful boundaries when you are in a position of power, and through compassion and openness to those who go through sexual abuse within our community.