This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about my skeptical, materialist, atheist, entire non- spiritual view of sexual transcendence, and why you don’t need to see sex as metaphysical to see it as magnificent and meaningful.
I deliberately didn’t make the piece critical of spirituality and religion. Partly, that simply wasn’t the point of the piece: the point wasn’t to tear down the spiritual view of sex, but to offer an alternative to it. And partly, I’ll admit, it was because many of my friends and allies in the sex community have spiritual beliefs about sex, in some cases deeply held spiritual beliefs, and I was gun-shy about alienating them.
But I recently gave an interview to Greg Fish of the Weird Things blog, who read the piece and wanted to talk with me about it. And what Greg mostly wanted to know was the very question I’d been deliberately avoiding. He wanted to know why, in my opinion, so many people in the sex- positive community are so heavily invested in associating sex with spirituality and religion.
This is an attempt to answer that question.
I want to say something at the outset: This is pretty much speculation. Since I’m writing this piece from a skeptical point of view, I feel honor-bound to make that clear. It’s reasonably well-informed speculation; but it’s not based on double-blind, peer-reviewed research or anything. It’s just my opinion, based on my own observation and reading and thinking on the subject.
That being said:
Why is there so much New Age spirituality in the sex-positive community? I think there are three basic things going on.
One of the central tropes of religion is that being a religious person makes you a good person, pretty much by definition. God is good, supposedly, so the closer you are to God, the better a person you are. And related to this is the notion that being a spiritual person means being connected with the most real, and most important, part of life and existence. The material world is hollow, according to this trope; a mere shell for the creamy metaphysical goodness that lies within. Focusing on the material world makes you shallow at best; focusing on the spiritual makes you deep.
Now, even when people reject conventional religion, these ideas can still be very pervasive. And if people have been brought up with any sort of religious teachings (which most people have), the ideas are learned from a very early age: they’re not necessarily conscious, but they’re deeply rooted nevertheless. And even people who aren’t brought up in religion usually still have this idea drilled into them by their surrounding culture.
So when people embrace sex as good and important, it seems natural to frame it as a spiritual experience. If you’ve absorbed the idea that the spiritual world is both the most good and the most real world there is, then once you reject the conventional view of sex as trivial and wicked — once you start reframing sex as valuable and beautiful and a central part of human life — it seems natural to see sex in spiritual terms. If the spiritual world is the most virtuous and precious part of the world, then seeing sex as a spiritual experience is a way of distancing it from the smear of being pointless, selfish, guttural, and evil, and repositioning it as honorable and worthwhile.
And so instead of saying, “Religion is wrong about sex being bad, therefore I’m going to reject religion,” many people say, “Religion is wrong about sex being bad, therefore I’m going to find — or make up — a new religion.”
Second: The sex-positive community tends overwhelmingly to be a progressive community: one that rejects, or at least questions, the mainstream. And unfortunately, a lot of progressive people see science as “the man” — part of the mainstream establishment.
So they throw the baby out with the bathwater. In rejecting the things that are genuinely troubling about mainstream institutions, they also reject science. Including the scientific principles that human judgment is fallible and needs to be rigorously tested and counter- checked, and that claims about the world should be backed up with solid evidence, and that your own personal intuition isn’t by itself enough reason to believe something about the world.
Principles that tend to put the kibosh on spiritual beliefs.
I’m not saying that science and spiritual belief are inherently incompatible. But it does seem to be the case that a greater degree of familiarity with science — not just with scientific knowledge, but with how the scientific method works, and what its history is, and the degree to which it’s radically changed our understanding of the world — tends to make people more skeptical about religion and spirituality. So when people in the sex positive community reject science as just another oppressive mainstream institution designed to deaden the human spirit, they become more likely to embrace spirituality, almost by default.
I think a big part of this phenomenon has to do with the nature of sex itself.
When it’s good, the experience of sex can feel very much like what people describe as a spiritual experience. It can take you out of your body; change your experience of time; give you an almost telepathic connection with another person; make you feel ecstatically transported out of ordinary physical experience; etc., etc. etc.
And again, even if you reject conventional religion, the deeply- rooted reflex in our culture is to see these kinds of experiences as metaphysical. Our culture doesn’t have a widely held framework for understanding and processing these experiences, other than a spiritual or religious one. The idea that the brain and the body, by themselves, can produce these altered states of consciousness — that’s not very prevalent, or very well- understood.
So when people start to have really good sex — the time- bending, body- transcending, ecstatically transporting kind of sex that seems like a religious experience — and when they start to take those experiences seriously and see them as both valuable and important… again, the reflex is to put those experiences into a spiritual framework. That’s the main framework we have in our culture for this kind of experience… and it’s not surprising that even people who whole- heartedly reject conventional religion as hateful and fearful of sexuality would still put transcendently ecstatic sexual experiences into a larger spiritual outlook.
Which is exactly why I wrote A Skeptic’s View of Sexual Transcendence: to offer an alternative framework, a way of experiencing and understanding sex and sexual transcendence that doesn’t rely on spiritual belief, one that is entirely rooted in the physical world.
Now, I can already hear some critics gearing up to ask, “Why do you care?” Why do I care what other people believe? Why do I feel compelled to poke holes in those beliefs, try to persuade people that they’re mistaken and unnecessary? Aren’t I being just as intolerant and evangelical as the sex-hating hard-core religious fanatics I oppose so strongly?
I don’t really have the space here to get into that discussion, in any detail that would do it justice. If you are interested in why I think spiritual belief is mistaken, you can see my arguments (among other places) here, and here, and here and here and here. If you’re interested in why I think it’s harmful, you can look here, and here, and here and here and here (again, among many other places). And if you want to know why I care what other people believe, you can see my explanations here, and here, and here. Again, among many other places.
But if you want to know those arguments in a nutshell: I think spiritual belief is mistaken. I think that, on the whole, it does more harm than good. And I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t discuss it and debate it and criticize it, just like we do with any other hypothesis about how the world works and why it is the way it is. The fact that I see spirituality as both mistaken and harmful is exactly the reason that I care.
And all of that is every bit as true in the sex-positive community as it is anywhere else.
So I plan to keep looking at where these spiritual beliefs about sex come from. I plan to keep critiquing them. And I plan to keep offering alternatives to them, whenever I can.
(Some of the ideas for this piece originated in my interview with Weird Things.)