A Taste of Erotic Rites
Loraine Hutchins, Ph.D.
Previously published by Loving More magazine, Issue #28
from Erotic Rites: A Cultural Analysis of Contemporary U.S. Sacred Sexuality
Traditions and Trends
February 2001 Doctoral Dissertation by Loraine Hutchins, Ph.D., The Union Institute, Cincinnati, Ohio.
We Are Taught That Pleasure Takes Us Away From What is Sacred
As a child I instinctively wanted to worship with my body, to run naked up to the church altar and dance in ecstasy at being alive. However I was firmly taught that worship meant sitting still and listening, or standing rigidly only to sing a hymn or recite a prayer in unison. Sex was not taught as part of spirituality but as something opposed to it, something that distracted one from “higher” pursuits. Especially as a girl child I learned that sex was not my birthright, not something between me and god, but rather something for my future husband to awaken in me. My body was neither my friend nor my own. Caught between outer church propriety and inner sensuous spirit, I felt lonely and confused, until I found the women's liberation movement, which brought me back to my body through an immanent experience of Goddess all around. It was women's blossoming, women's strength, women's vision and passion, that finally helped me integrate my spirituality and my sexuality as an adult. It took many years for me to find other traditions where nakedness was unapologetically sacred. I discovered Lalla, a 14th century Kashmiri Sufi dancer and poet from Rumi’s time, who danced naked for her people and sang: “Dance, Lalla, with nothing on but air. Sing, Lalla, wearing the sky. Look at this glowing day! What clothes could be so beautiful, or more sacred?” 1
Sacred sexuality is a hot, hip topic these days; the subject of web sites, television network newsmagazine features, and supermarket magazine articles. Familiarity with sacred sex imagery is even assumed – in everything from Atlantic Monthly whisky ads2 to mail order catalog Valentine's Day displays. Different terms are used, but whatever one calls it, there is a new popular interest in reviving the ancient arts of erotic spirituality in the United States today. People don't necessarily mean the same things when they say tantric sex, sacred sex, or sex magic, but distinctions between these varied terms are becoming increasingly blurred. Tantra is casually referred to as the “sexual yoga.” More accurately it is complex system of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs and practices that originated in ancient India. Serious tantra involves years of devoted study. Sex magic is the ceremonial use of erotic energy for various purposes. Sacred sex is more of a catch-all term.
However, people use these terms to mean a wide range of things -- from erotic calisthenics, to enhanced partner-intimacy, from therapeutic spiritual and sexual healing, the pursuit of better orgasms and feel-good ambiance, to seeking connection with the divinity within and beyond oneself. That is a ridiculously wide range of experiences and pursuits to squeeze under one big ‘sacred sex’ umbrella, but it's an accurate reflection of how the term is now being used.
When I was finishing my dissertation my colleagues urged me to preface
my writing with the explanation below so that people would know exactly
where I was coming from in approaching this controversial topic.
The Absurdity of Wanting Sacred Sex
To research contemporary U.S. sacred sexuality traditions and trends I had to confront the secret symmetry of sex and religion, an extremely taboo topic, while simultaneously juggling apparent contradictions -- of sluts and goddesses, of what is holy and what is not, what is forbidden and allowed, by whom, and why and how. In addition to directly interviewing practitioners of these emerging traditions, I chose to personally acquire training in sacred sex approaches and to engage in participant-observation of sacred erotic group rituals. So I wrestled intimately with my own sexual/spiritual issues at the same time I researched how others dealt with theirs. Both the hubris and the absurdity of inquiring academically into these most private, conflicted aspects of people's lives often dumbfounded me. What does it mean to write about contemporary sacred sex, what are the personal and political implications of choosing this as a doctoral dissertation topic in the academy? How dare I study sacred erotic rituals of healing and pleasure, especially at a time of violent religious wars, a time when women and children are still abused and sold into sexual slavery, when hunger, homelessness, and racial hatred abound, when the rape of Mother Earth's resources continues? Yet, as sex becomes ever more depersonalized, how dare I not speak out?
At the beginning of this research I went looking for teachers who could show me how to balance and integrate my spiritual, political, and erotic longings, wise ones unencumbered by fear or prejudice about all the different ways people love and create erotic community. Instead I learned to fall back on my own strengths and insights, finding myself becoming one of the wise ones who educate those in the sacred sex field and elsewhere – about woman-hatred, homophobia, pan-sexuality, and how oppressions interconnect to keep erotic spirituality from truly flowering.
As I studied recorded reflections and analysis on sacred sexualities, and sought people creating diverse erotic rituals in many different parts of the United States, I found that the most overly-eroticized and sexually-objectified groups -- such as women and queer people -- those suffering most from sex-specific oppressions, are also creating some of the most universally tender and caring sacred sex rituals and modes of sexual healing.
I also found many people searching for mind-body fulfillment as a basis for erotic spirituality. But as for an intentional community where sexuality is sacred today; except for brief bittersweet intervals, I never found such a place of safety and renewal. Instead I found that the process of dismantling oppressions is desperately needed before we even know what sacred sex really looks like. I found that longing for sexual healing is a sacred act itself, and that I am not as alone in my grief as I feared. I found other seekers who dream this same dream of erotic wholeness, and I discovered that allowing ourselves to yearn and hope helps embody this dream. For without the memory, or at least the vision of paradise lost, we would not realize why we are weeping, or have the faith to reach out and join hands to create the welcoming communities where sexuality may someday be truly sacred.
I should add that my partner Andrew cautioned me about ending on this sober note. “You need to have a happy ending, Loraine,” he counseled. “People don't want to hear only about pain. You have to give them hope.” He's so right. I am finding my way back to hope as I reach out and connect with others around this dream of egalitarian sacred sex, creating this hope as we go along.
The following excerpt is from pages 163-165 of the dissertation. It comes after introductory overview chapters on the social pre-conditions that have emerged in the past half century – in the areas of education, healing, politics and spirit paths -- that have all made sacred sex teachings more accessible to a general public. After some sample interviews with a wide range of people who do sacred sex in the U.S. today (omitted here) I transition to talking about the problematic areas of actual practice – what happens when women and men try to integrate sacred sexuality rituals into their relationships, what comes up in terms of gender roles and conditioning, and the difficulties often encountered that short-circuit erotic energy, especially when we are all still working on our sexual healing as a culture. This particular passage is about why same-sex sacred sex is important to all of us – both those of us who are drawn to it personally, and those of us who merely learn from its beauty as a part of others’ experience.
The Importance of Same-Sex Explorations
There are times, when at the moment I touch my tongue to her clitoris,
my whole mind ‘sees’ a blue light around the precious organ, and as my
tongue folds around it, I seem to be licking a living yellow/red light,
some essential stone-like flame with a blue light around it. I know
I am entranced at those times, gone into another dimension, as she is,
and our flesh is more than material, our lovemaking is more than love and
more than sexual. The silver rays connecting between us fill me with
strength, confidence, affirmation, joy, and some esthetic quality of beauty
that is like another way of seeing, like being in another place.
– Judy Grahn, Another Mother Tongue 3
Much of sacred sex teachings as they have been brought down to us focus on male-female couple interactions. However today these teachings are being presented in a contemporary U.S. culture where definitions of sex and gender are rapidly changing and being re-evaluated. Previously hidden populations of transgendered, inter-sexed, and other gender-variant peoples are becoming more visible and the old “fixed” distinctions are in great flux. Sexual minorities’ needs and self-articulations of their own identities are also placing assumptions of what is ‘female’ and what is ‘male’ in the center of great debate. As a rule, I have found less emphasis on gender difference (and the superiority of male/female combinations only) in Wiccan sacred sex groups than in neo-tantric groups. Perhaps it is because the Goddess is often more dominant in Wicca, and/or that many of the Wiccan sacred sex groups I studied are feminist inspired, whereas tantric cosmology emphasizes Shakti and Shiva as a divine couple, and feminism is rarely a direct part of these groups’ origins or focus. Whatever the reason, neo-tantric groups particularly tend to imply and assume heterosexuality, just like in mainstream U.S. culture. 4
What would make a person who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered feel equally included in such a group? And how can such groups become more sensitive to the same-sex affinities within many heterosexually identified people, as well as those who identify as queer? Two things: (1) Teachers broadening their own assumptions about who their audience or clientele includes, and (2) teachers actually using more inclusive language when describing and leading exercises, would be a good start. As Diane Mariechild says in her book, Lesbian Sacred Sexuality, “For a long time I searched for a book that exemplified the spiritual nature of sexuality between women. I have read many Tantric books, but they have all been directed towards the heterosexual experience. The reality of balancing the feminine and the masculine within one gender is never truly accepted. If it was, then the fact that this integration exists in homosexual relationships would be an equally explored avenue of Tantric sexuality.”5
The tender, caring, passionate, and playful love I have witnessed between many bisexual and gay men is not often seen as sacred, but overlooked or discounted by many teachers of sacred sexuality. As an anonymous radical faery writes in Lavender Pagan magazine: “I've grown tired of the divine heterosexual couple of contemporary paganism. While I continue to invoke a variety of spirits, both male and female, the emphasis is on linking them to my queerness. I might invoke the Goddess as Sacred Bitch, Dyke Sister or Mother of Faggots. Her relationship to male spirits is anything but ‘traditional.’ The God I call on has a variety of names. He is the Rising Pillar of Flesh, the Open Hand, Boyfriend, Lover and Gate of Pleasure.”6
Lesbian poet/essayist and cultural critic Judy Grahn was one of the first contemporary U.S. women to write about woman-to-woman sacred sex communication in her book, Another Mother Tongue.7 She explains erotic/spiritual communication between women in terms of what she calls “Modern Lesbian Sex Domains.” She describes "four levels, or spheres, of power involved in the sexual dynamic between and among women,” – the physical, the mental, the psychic and the transformational – saying that each domain represents “another level of the emergence of historical Lesbian sexual connection from its suppression over the centuries.” Starting with the basic domain of flesh-to-flesh contact, and moving through the mental domain of fantasy and control, she then describes two latter stages which “go beyond physical sensation, intimacy, fantasy, shared orgasm, mental control, and feelings of love,” saying that these stages do not involve imagination or role-playing so much as going into an altered state and/or helping one's partner get there:
…There is extreme feeling. … There are highly dilated pupils. … There is a spinning out. There is a journey, and a return. … There is no attempt or necessity by either lover to deliberately control and construct mental images in the psychic domain, for control only interrupts what is happening … in the sexual creative trance, metaphors, scenes, personages speaking and moving, one's ancestors, mentors, spirit-guides of every description from earth and sky and parts unknown arrive with messages and meanings, as the lovers pass through level upon level of sexual and psychic feeling in a state that may go on for hours, at or near the level of intensity immediately preceding orgasm. … One Lesbian … told me that she and her lover Julie would take turns being lover and beloved and would go ‘out,’ that is, enter an entranced state. … they had a term for what the lover was doing as the guide. They described it as ‘spotting'. So, for instance, when Julie was being the lover and Nancy, as the beloved, had gone into a psychic state, Nancy said that Julie would ‘spot’ for her to make certain she could come back to the present world. 8
Grahn adds, “It is not Lesbians or Gay people alone who have access to the sexual psychic domains, of course. Heterosexual culture has a well developed tradition of sexual yoga (Tantra yoga) for the purpose of psychic vision.”9 However Grahn believes heterosexually oriented sacred sex texts have emphasized physical discipline to the exclusion of emotional discipline – “openness, trust, honesty, and a willingness to display both vulnerability and strength with each other … a well developed femme side and a well developed butch side,”10 which are necessary for true communion. The fourth domain Grahn defines as “the plane of transformation;” beyond all uses of sexual power there is another domain where “the powers released … can influence not only the participants but also the world around them and its future.” She speaks of “…an exchange between at least two mind/bodies, who share an image between or among them, greatly intensified by their close sexual and emotional connection,” saying that when this happens celebrants can hold such a strong visualization and “pour their mutual energies into a mutual image” so intensely that they “will literally be able to bring back the power of any ‘goddess’ force they desire…”11
There are several women teachers teaching sacred sex to all-women’s groups12 and the Body Electric has been focusing on all-men’s groups for over fifteen years. (The Body Electric has an all-women’s component too.) But is the sacred sex work with same-sex couples essentially, or even incidentally, different from the work with male/female couples? Of course it is, for all the reasons that society has imposed different conditions on these relationships at this time, for all the reasons that the relative power positions between same-sex couples are different than between men and women, etc.
However, Evalena Rose from Sebastopol, Selah Martha and Collin Brown from Oakland, and other sacred sex practitioners who work in same-sex groups, all assert that the so-called absence of “male/female polarity” is not a problem in helping women and women, or men and men, create tender, juicy and profound sacred sex ceremonies with each other. This goes directly against the folk wisdom propounded by the leaders of many old-fashioned sacred sex groups, who claim that male/female complementarity is “essential” for sacred sex to “work.” Instead these teachers find that each person has both female and male and bringing out these aspects is quite enlightening. Each person is able to express either side of this polarity and as they do, become more whole.
These teachers who work with same-sex groups are also finding that some of the most interesting work is being done in these boundary areas and in the collaborations between them; that is by all-women’s groups and all-men’s groups that work with the power of same sex interactions first, and then compare notes about how women and men learn sacred sex techniques and concepts differently, and share this with mixed male/female groups.13 As one of the sex education field's elders, HAI (Human Awareness Institute) founder Stan Dale, says, “Who knows us better than our own?”14 Yet this essential wisdom is often overlooked or given short shrift when heterosexuality is the default assumption in teaching approaches.
1. Lalla, Naked Song. (Athens, GA, MayPop Press, 1992), translated by Coleman Barks, 17.
2. “Tantric Sex Is A No-Brainer for a Whisky Man,” was the headline of an ad for Glenfiddich whisky in the Atlantic Monthly, February 2000.
3. Judy Grahn, Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984) 240.
4. I say I found Wiccan groups less sexist than tantric groups but then that is because the Wiccan groups I studied were much more feminist-influenced; they were not the initiatory, more orthodox Wiccan covens led by male high priests who emphasize male/female rites.
5. Diane Mariechild, Lesbian Sacred Sexuality (Oakland: Wingbow Press, 1995), iii.
6. Anonymous, “On Discovering Queer Archetypes,” RFD – the Radical Faery Magazine, Summer 1996. This article was reprinted from Lavender Pagan, a gay pagan publication. RFD is published by the Radical Faeries, a national gay and bisexual pagan men's spirituality group, from their headquarters in Short Mountain, Tennessee.
7. Grahn, op. cit.
8. Ibid., 255-8.
9. Ibid., 257.
11. Ibid., 258.
12. Evalena Rose leads an all women couples tantra group. Sonia Tinker, her colleague in the Bay Area, used to run Loveworks, a woman-centered group that offered sacred sex trainings. Diane Greenberg also mentioned to me a woman she works with in the Los Angeles area (name unknown by me) who does similar work with women. I am aware that there are women in the New York City area who also do women's sacred sex work, but I did not speak with them directly. Of course the Body Electric Erotic Massage School in Oakland, California has a women's program that offers workshops around the country and Annie Sprinkle and Barbara Carellas have until recently offered summer women's sacred sex events at Susun Weed's Wise Women's Center in Woodstock, NY.
13. Sandra Lee Golvin, “Faggot Rant,” Ritual Sex. Tristan Taormino and David Aaron Clark, eds. (New York: Masquerade Books, 1996) 307. In this piece, Golvin gives an example of this interesting sacred sex communication emerging between lesbians and gay men. I have heard the same remark about lesbians and gay men teaching each other profound things about sexuality and also being able to teach heterosexuals how to better erotically communicate with each other from Chester Maynard and Barbara Carellas. Maynard was trained by Body Electric and Carellas by Betty Dodson, Annie Sprinkle, and others. They themselves are a gay/lesbian sacred sex training team who have delivered many successful sacred sex workshops for audiences of all sexual orientations in both Australia and the U.S.
14. Stan Dale is the founder of HAI – Human Awareness Institute, the most well-known and long-standing sexual awareness encounter group training program in the country. Washington, DC sacred sex practitioner Floyd T reported this comment of Dale’s to me in a telephone conversation, September 2000.
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