original posted Oct 20, 1997: http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/sustainable-sex/integral-sex
Why do so many people believe that everyone else is having all the fun, while their own sex lives are drab? How did pregnant (and poor) teenage girls become the symbol for all that is immoral in America?
With so many techniques for beautifying our bodies, why do so many people loathe their bodies? Why has loving touch become such a scarcity?
Sex is big business, a surefire way to rile up voters, and a source of endless speculation and anxiety.
There are patterns to these cultural dysfunctions around sexuality. In this issue, we explore those patterns and the possibility that a new form and practice of sex is emerging – which we might call integral sex. In particular, we’ll look at whether integral sex could lead to deeper and more authentic connections to lovers and friends, a joyful acceptance of our bodies and our desires, and perhaps even a deeper experience of interconnectedness.
The old divide
Before we get into integral sex, let’s look at the two dominant sexual paradigms. To oversimplify, these could be divided between fundamentalist and modern liberalism. The modern liberal position is concerned with the freedoms of consenting adults. Women’s rights, access to contraception, no-fault divorce, gay and lesbian rights are all part of this philosophy. The emergence of modern sexuality, which occurred in conjunction with the advent of The Pill and women’s rights, represented an enormous liberation compared to eras in which gays and lesbians, women who committed adultery, and others who deviated from a narrow norm were ostracized and sometimes brutalized.
However, modern liberalism has also created the conditions for the exploitation of sex, which now sells everything from toothpaste to bombers. The mysteries of sexual ecstacy are trivialized – all is laid out in magazines and videos. There is little discussion of the effects of inundating the culture with superficial images of sexuality and of associating those images with consumerism, violence, and exploitation rather than love and creativity.
Liberalism, with its focus on individual freedom, is firmly entrenched in the rational/secular world; ethical debates over such questions as pornography, the commercialization of sex, divorce, and abortion don’t fit well in that world. While many liberals do private soul searching about these matters, the commitment to a secular approach has kept liberalism out of the public debate about spiritual and ethical values as they relate to sex, except to insist on individual rights.
What happens if you project this approach into the future? The proliferation of sex in advertising, videos, and cyberspace could be just the beginning. Computerized sex-robots along with chemical or electrical stimulation of the hypothalamus might eclipse sex with mere humans, predicts one writer in a recent issue of The Futurist. Robots don’t get headaches, always do it your way, and never ask for alimony. Virtual sex will be cleaner as well; no need to worry about the messiness of disease – or emotional entanglement.
It’s not surprising that many people are turned off to valueless sexuality and seek instead the safety of clearly defined rights and wrongs in a context that acknowledges an ethical and spiritual dimension. The fundamentalist Christian (and Muslim) view has been until recently the only widely available alternative to the alienation of modern sexual mores.
If the strength of the traditionalist perspective is its willingness to consider the spiritual and ethical implications of issues related to sex, its weakness is its inability to consider the complexities and nuances of the human experience.
It may be appealing to reduce our choices to a few simple rules – for example that sex is permitted only within heterosexual marriage and that the man is the head of the household. When people feel embattled and fearful, such simplicity may seem necessary for survival, as Reverend Mariah Britton points out in her article about the evolution of African-American sexuality.
But the inadequacy of this oversimplification can be seen in the large numbers within the ranks of the fundamentalists who violate their own rules — well-known cases of fundamentalist preachers caught in extramarital affairs, the large number of prostitutes and women seeking abortions who come from fundamentalist households.
And adhering to oversimplified rules can mean denying our true nature as passionate creatures who crave touch and sexual intimacy. This denial has caused real damage. Maria Dolan describes the dilemma faced by teenage girls, who cannot prepare for safe sex without admitting to their desires. Reverend Britton speaks of the silence of the black church in the face of the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The denial shows up in high divorce rates and bad marriages, as people try to conform to a two-dimensional image of happy coupledom that fails to incorporate the multifaceted quality of ever-changing human beings.
So while fundamentalists have good reasons for rejecting the alienation and value-free quality of modern liberalism, simplistic rules are too confining and too dogmatic to meet complex and evolving human needs.
Since the liberal and the fundamentalist versions of sexuality are both turning people off, what might be the alternative? Just as there appears to be an emerging integral culture that transcends both the modern and traditional cultures of the west, there may be an emerging integral sexuality. What might be the characteristics of integral sexuality?
The politics of touch
We are embodied creatures, as Sam Keen points out in “The Loving Arts” in this issue. Neither the modern vision of disembodied cyber-sex nor the denial of lusts and passions of fundamentalism gets it. Babies crave the touch, motion, sound, and smells of their parents. I expected my two children to eventually outgrow their desire for bedtime snuggles, but at age seven and twelve, neither have shown any signs of wanting fewer hugs or less physical closeness.
Our society has created a completely unnecessary scarcity of touch. Touch is so closely associated with sexual contact that it has become taboo in most settings. Friends can’t hold hands. Teachers can’t touch children. In China I used to see male soldiers walking down the street holding hands. In Central America, women often walk arm in arm. How much of our yearning for sex is actually a yearning to be held and cherished?
There’s no need for a scarcity of touch. Hugs, strokes, and massages are gifts we can give away freely, if we can get over associating them exclusively with sex.
Likewise, there is no need for a scarcity of enjoyment of our bodies. We compare our bodies endlessly with commercial images of sexually attractive men and women. What will it take for us to move, dance, exercise, and make love joyfully, released from the burden of comparing ourselves to stereotypes and supermodels?
The capacity to fully and comfortably inhabit our bodies is associated with our capacity to experience connection to the physical body of planet Earth. We are biological creatures, with close evolutionary links to other animals; the reptilian brain and the mammalian brain are as much a part of us as the cerebral cortex – the part of the brain that distinguishes us from other animals. And, according to biologists Lynn Margulis and Elisabet Sahtouris, our bodies are in part communities of previously autonomous bacteria and mitochondria, working together in an astonishing harmony that goes unnoticed except when something goes wrong.
What would it take to fully inhabit our own body and celebrate our lover’s body, without feeling inadequate or shameful? How would our feelings about the natural world change if we felt more at home in our bodies? What if there was no scarcity of touch?
The ethic of interconnectedness, or at-one-ness, which is so central to many spiritual traditions is also fundamental to integral sex.
The question that shows up in so much of the modern media is, “How can I get the most out of a relationship?” and “Do I stand to gain by moving on to someone else?” While the fundamentalists ask, “How can I make my life fit into expected patterns and overcome the pain when it doesn’t?”
Sam Keen suggests inhabiting our lover’s world and seeing life and lovemaking from his or her perspective. Can we get inside the deepest desires of our mate? Can we take the chance of sharing our own hopes and dreams? Can we support our lover, not just in having great orgasms, but in creating a deeply meaningful life?
The experience of ecstasy and the glimpse it reveals of greater mysteries indicate a sacred dimension to sexuality, say Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Eve Ilsen. There is a thinning of the ego that occurs as we mature, which allows transcendent light to shine through, and sexuality to become an experience of spirit.
When we actually experience the sacred in one another and in our intimacy, the trivialization of sex and the exploitation of a lover becomes impossible. When we see sex as an expression of God (as Zalman and Eve suggest) we can also leave behind the sense of shame that many people associate with eroticism. If we reclaim sex and touch from the world of commercialism and exploitation, shame and denial, we may open the doorway to enchantment.
Freedom and creativity
The freedom to create a unique path through life is basic to integral sex – and fundamental to stemming population growth.
Alan Durning says that young women who feel they have choices about their future – college, careers, marriage – tend to delay motherhood. Girls brought up in abusive situations or in poverty tend to believe they have few choices and may be less inclined to actively avoid pregnancy. (“Just Say No” sex education has no effect either way, according to a study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute.)
This confirms the findings internationally of population researchers: women who feel in charge of their lives and believe they have meaningful choices for their future have fewer children.
Likewise, the teenage fathers who addressed soap opera producers about the issues they face in real life said they had access to condoms, but hadn’t used them. They only began using condoms when they had met their basic needs for security and self-esteem – and began experiencing themselves as having real choices.
Integral sex offers freedom but asks in return that we stay with complex questions, and challenge ourselves and each other to act in mindfulness of our interconnectedness.
How do we choose whom and how to love, what commitments to make, when to have sex? What needs might we be seeking to fulfill in our relationship with a spouse or lover that could better be met in friendships, in therapy, or in solitude?
Integral sex is built neither on a modern version of valueless freedom, nor on a traditionalist view that dogma should determine the nature of our relationships. Instead, integral sex grows out of a joyful inhabiting of our body and senses, a recognition that our longing for one another and for transcendence contains elements of the erotic and the mysterious, and a realization that we have opportunities to embody in our lives the loving world we want to create.