Building Erotic Communities
Loraine Hutchins, Ph.D.
Previously published by Loving More magazine, Issue #30
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.
When we hold the erotic as sacred, we say that our capacity for pleasure
has a value in and of itself, that in fact it is one of the ways in which
we connect with the deepest purposes of the universe.
- Starhawk, “The Sacredness of Pleasure”1
Erotic pleasure is sacred, but coming to sexual intimacy with a feeling of holiness is not easy. Just witness the controversies about sexuality and the church that currently dominant the news. In this sex-obsessed yet erotophobic environment many of us disconnect. We worry about catching a disease, pressure to perform, and are more likely to associate sex with violence, alienation and abuse than with holiness. If we find someone else who values honest erotic communication, whole-body sensuality, gently-prolonged touching, conscious breathing, and visualizing oneself and one's love as divine -- we consider ourselves really lucky. Sex may truly be sacred, but experiencing it that way is still quite rare. So we look for antidotes, cures, guides. My thesis is that the trends toward self-loving, embracing otherness, and mutual ministering are all key building blocks of the erotic community our culture needs and that we can apply lessons from these trends wherever we erotically and spiritually find ourselves.
Being One's Own Best Lover …
i found god in myself & i loved her
i loved her fiercely.
“For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf”
Traditional sacred sexuality is not about masturbation. It centers on the complementarity of partner-love. Usually symbolized as male/female unity of opposites it is understood as the eternal dance of the universe, the harmonizing of life's contradictions. Less understood is the fact that this dance is profoundly based upon self-understanding and self-love; its deepest lesson is in the realization and union of all aspects of male and female within ones self. Yes, sacred sex concerns intimacy with another, but it is even more about discovering the male/female polarities within, learning how each of us encompasses all. So we need to learn how to be better lovers to ourselves as well as to each other. It is really all one.
Paradox and mystery. Sacred sex symbolism seems profoundly heterosexual, yet as it folds back into itself it is also homoerotic, omni-erotic. Penis-vagina intercourse is the most celebrated image of sacred lovemaking, but there are many more. And some of the various and wondrous other expressions developing in contemporary erotic communities are not dyadic male/female lovemaking in the usual sense we think of it, but masturbation ceremonies and sacred spot massages conducted in groups gathered for erotic sharing. I find these practices interesting not only because they are what sex educators call “outercourse,” i.e. non-intercourse, non-reproductive-sex-related erotic exchanges, but also because they are more accessible for a larger variety of combinations of people. They are also techniques that are teachable in large settings.
Masturbation, for instance, is being re-interpreted as a self-loving activity in its own right and as a skill of sacred worship and healing, not just an itch to be scratched. Betty Dodson brought masturbation out of the closet thirty years ago and, along with her legions of students, has been developing the fine art of masturbation coaching ever since. Sacred spot massage (also known as erotic massage or tantric massage), is an erotic sharing act of one-way or mutual ministering that is independent of intercourse, gender, or even pair bonding. It combines elements of self-touch and other-touch in a ritualized nurturing way, focusing on connecting genitals to heart and mind, with the aid of a partner who stimulates and helps one release to ecstasy. Sacred spot massage is usually demonstrated in workshop form, with both female and male observers/learners present but it can be demonstrated uni-sex as well. For the woman, Sacred Spot Massage focuses on internally massaging the G Spot on the upper inside of the vagina, beneath the clitoris and urethra. It should involve bi-manual lower vaginal/anal muscular release as well. For the man, Sacred Spot Massage focuses on massaging the prostate area, between the scrotum and anus and up inside the anus to release tension at the penis's base. The goal is to release sexual shame and increase pleasure and openness to love. It is supremely safe, without risk of disease when gloves are used. Since it can be performed either by a same-sex partner or other-sex partner, in a group as well as in a dyad; it often leads to an expansion of erotic options, including group rituals with optional same-sex touch and self-touch. These possibilities expand the sole focus on m/f nuclear dyads and intercourse to a wider focus on self-touch and other-touch centered on group connections.
Embracing, Erasing Otherness
One of the biggest conundrums in the pursuit of feeling connected with the oneness of the universe is transcending separation, the feeling of self and other. Within the heterosexual paradigm this transcendence is taught as identifying with one's opposite, becoming one with one's love. The same is true for same-sex lovers though it is not as well understood or recognized. But how do we get from you and me to I/Thou, from individuality to oneness? Identifying with the other certainly helps. So does seeing sex as the precious erotic stuff of life, whether or not it expresses through a reproductive act. What is most interesting to me is how this interplay with The Other is evolving in a more sexually diverse world. In egalitarian relationships we have more freedom to explore self-loving, self-sovereignty, and self-responsibility in deeper ways. With this comes permission to learn the sacred sex skills of conscious breathing, movement and visualization and interaction exercises that get us out of our heads and back into our bodies. The motivator for learning these techniques is also that they work directly to dissolve the self-hatred, fear, anger, and internalized oppressions that interfere with experiencing full erotic power.
One of the workshops offered at Starhawk’s Reclaiming Collective summer Witch Camp presents a good example. One of the teachers, Madrone, conducts a popular half-day sex workshop there that illustrates what I mean about helping people get beyond Otherness. After a series of preliminary trust-building exercises and guided breathing, people stand naked in a circle and slowly name their sexual hurts. They are joined in the center of the circle each time by those who have also been raped, or abused, or lost babies (whatever the “called-out” hurt or oppression is). And they are then lovingly witnessed by the entire group, both by those who have shared that particular suffering and those who have not. Those who name their hurt feel the support of everyone, both those who have walked the same way and those who have not, and especially because they are naked in an erotically affirmative environment, the experience becomes an experience of group sexual healing.2 Another example is the glorious improvisational group erotic dance experiences popularized by Body Sacred on the east coast and Sacred Connections in the west.
From more advanced, intensive levels of sacred sex teachings3 people gain knowledge about women's and men's erotic/orgasmic ranges, about breath control's relation to meditation, arousal and childbirth; about the relation between men's anal exercises and their increased erotic enjoyment and control; about how the altered states of pleasure, pain, trance, dance, and meditation all overlap and relate, or can relate, to progress along a spiritual path.
However, the sense of us and them persists and interferes with building more long-term and wider erotic community as long as power imbalances divide us. For example, at many sacred sex gatherings, sexual, class, race and other hierarchies that make certain groups into ‘others’ still go largely unexamined. Contemporary U.S. sacred sex traditions appropriate different cultural customs out of context. Hindu, Buddhist, Native American, Egyptian or Yoruban fragments of traditions are often incorporated into ceremonies with little regard for what is lost in translation or misunderstood. Middle-class white people don't usually understand how profoundly people of color's sexualities have been over-eroticized, exoticized, infantilized and criminalized. Many sacred sex teachers speak too casually about “ending the war between men and women;” as if it were something unrelated to male supremacy and sexual oppression. Glorifying women as goddesses, for instance, and encouraging men to become more woman-like, does very little as long as we ignore sexism in the wider world and romanticize the ‘soft’ and ‘feminine’ at the expense of supporting women's strength and assertiveness, or make excuses for men's lack of emotional maturity.
One of the most taboo, revolutionary ways that men of all orientations are now learning to embrace and erase their experience of woman-as-other is in the experience of anal penetration. Since heterosexual hegemony is based on rigid division between fucker and fuckee (and never the twain shall switch), anal penetration of men is profound transgression, even if it involves only the gentle introduction of gloved and loving finger(s). I know it takes more than heterosexually identified men receiving sacred spot massages on their perineum, pc muscle and prostate to foster a mass re-examination of gender roles and the dismantling of male supremacy, but if heterosexually identified people, particularly men, learn more about the experience of being ‘other’ and embrace/erase it in this way, just as when white people learn how to be comfortable as minorities in groups led by people of color, we then become closer to building a more egalitarian, truly joyous society. It's what the bodhisattvas have been trying to tell us all along – none of us are free until all of us are free and we only enter ecstasy together.
Same-sex-only sacred sexuality exercises are not only for gay people. They can be practiced by everyone. They help re-balance and redress heterosexism’s effects. Meeting in separate women's groups and men's groups -- for massage, discussion or learning theory & techniques -- allows people of all orientations to experience the value of same-sex/gender bonding, regardless of partner preferences or individual identities. The insights gained in same-sex groups, whether discussion and support groups or erotic ritual groups or both, tend to re-invigorate and inform larger mixed groups, especially when separate-identity-groups-caucusing is rooted in anti-oppression analysis and feminist values. Witness the Pandora women in the Pacific Northwest, who were dissatisfied with the lack of emotional communication and nurturing touch between the men at their large mixed group erotic rituals. After experiencing their own women's erotic massage group they insisted that the Pandora men also do erotic massage with each other before the big summer celebration. Three years later they report great results. Because some members (men) seemed to be moving too fast toward erotic expression at the expense of listening to everyone's concerns and fears, women in the Washington, DC area Cuddle Buddies group acted similarly upon their own intuition that more non erotic massage would create better preliminary bonds between the women and men and strengthen community across their entire intimate friendship network.
Groups like The Body Electric Erotic Massage School in Oakland (CA), Queen of Heaven play parties in the Bay Area, Body Sacred in the east, Sacred Connections in northern California and Pandora's gatherings in the Pacific Northwest are all living laboratories where people of different sexual orientations compare notes on conscious and caring sexual behaviors and then get a chance to ‘practice’ them together. These shared experiences become folk wisdom that adds to overall knowledge about erotic nature in a way that isn't possible in a privatized nuclear-coupled world sans sexual diversity. Mutual ministering is a term I use to illustrate an erotic connection between partners that is based more in peer sharing, and in community than it is based in hierarchical relationships of marriage or therapist/client.
The Growth of Erotic Polyamorous Communities
Feminists and queer friendly forms of sacred sexualities broaden the range of possibilities by emphasizing an increased attention to erotic communion expressed through the interplay of a multiplicity of genders, and of going beyond gender, beyond intercourse. Polyamorous communities are not free of sexism and heterosexism by any means but the larger group setting tends to break down isolation and make it a bit more possible. There is still an embracing of female/male complementarity, yes, but as part of a larger spectrum or continuum, rather than the only dance there is. With the coming out not only of gay and lesbian people but also of more and more bisexual, transgendered, intersexed and mixed heritage peoples, the whole culture is moving beyond black/white, binary, either/or, us/them thinking. It's in the air. Peer-to-peer erotic massage exchange is a freely negotiated, skills-dissemination activity, the ideal bridge from sexist unbalanced relationships to non-sexist ones, and from dyadic relationships, in general, to larger-community bonded ones. The more it becomes clearer that there are many variations in human experience, the more we can learn from all of them without making anyone ‘other.’
Erotic energy is a part of every group situation, whether we choose to recognize it and act on it or not. In simplest terms, as we work on reconciling egalitarian sexuality and spirituality in our society, we learn to analyze the dynamics of what makes wider erotic community, and how and when it is appropriate to support it. We need particular study on the dynamics of communities and groups organized around experiences of pleasure – what does it mean, on the level of consciousness, to place pleasure in a central role, what are the nonverbal and energetic dynamics of an erotically bonded group of people, what happens when communities and groups are focused on desire and its fulfillment? What is the relationship between intimacy, psychic depth and pleasure? What is the relationship between pleasure, pain and eros? And what are the particular issues of sustainability and continuity in a community organized around pleasure?5
Once we acknowledge the sexual dynamics (implicit or explicit) that occur in any group we are closer to making wise choices and being able to identify useful skills we can teach about dealing with the inevitable erotics of human community. If we are to design a society wide platform to re-integrate sexuality and spirituality in people's lives these budding erotic communities may well offer resources and guidelines by which to integrate the erotic into overall community controlled healing events and projects. For example, this could involve:
Many of my interviewees and colleagues observe that after receiving initial training at sacred sex workshops, they often stay in touch with each other by attending seasonal festivals, visiting each other on vacations and business trips, and corresponding over the Internet. Given the kind of population mobility and rapid high-tech communications linking people in this society, these new neo-tribal sacred sex communities (less full-time residential than communities of the past, more retreat-focused), are more like communal vacation time-shares or group beach homes one returns to year after year. Though they may never be anything analogous to the intentional utopian communities with sacred sex themes of the 1800s in this country, these loose, rapidly evolving affiliations of people who travel frequently and associate with each other; exchanging ideas, and partners, are helping institutionalize the kinds of flexible, sustainable erotic communities most likely to survive in the new millennium.
Contemporary sacred sex is no magic panacea. Its practices can be used merely to entertain, or to exert one's will. Its popular images – such as the romantic tantra-couple embracing on New Age greeting cards, and the ads promising “improved orgasms through meditation” – trivialize the deeper dimensions of such paths. However, the wisdoms and lessons of sacred sex are what guide me, not the popular distortions.
The hopeful part of sacred sex groups’ current presence in our society is that they can, and do, function as part of a larger effort to help redefine sex, touch and intimate relationships in less abusive, more inclusive, nurturing ways. Sex is less about nudity, genitals and reproductive acts and more about how we manage the sacred erotic energy of life as it moves and pulses between us. To the extent that we in sacred sex groups and poly communities learn to orchestrate and guide individual and group erotic energy our skills will be valued much beyond our own individual circles. Rather than fearing or suppressing group erotic expression, this new kind of erotic/spiritual practice can address peoples’ need to heal from sexual alienation and sex negativity by creating guided erotic exchanges, with the protection of peer/group supervision and realistic limits. Whether we agree with individual examples of these experiments, or not, is less important, I think, than recognizing that these kinds of approaches meet real and significant needs, and can provide adaptable models for the sex/spirit integration of many different kinds of individuals and groups.
1. Starhawk, “The Sacredness of Pleasure,” Bisexual Politics:
Theories, Queries and Visions, Naomi Tucker, ed. (Binghamton, NY: Haworth
2. Witch Camps are predominately populated by women; though all orientations and all genders are welcome there. Having groups that are majority women helps women feel safer to explore their erotic boundaries and desires.
3. Such neo-tantric/neo-taoist traditions as The Body Electric School of Erotic Massage, the Radical Faeries men's groups, Black Leather Wings, and women's sacred sex groups led by Barbara Carellas, Annie Sprinkle, Gina Ogden, Taj Anapol, and Evalena Rose, all offer ways for people to learn how to seek erotic pleasure within the guidelines of non-sexist instruction, discipline and accountability to self and community. Mantak Chia’s techniques to maintain and strengthen inner physical health and to prolong orgasm and intimacy, Betty Dodson’s methods of deepening breathing and body awareness while engaging in self-touch, Jwala’s tantric communication techniques to help release muscular armoring and blocked emotions and achieve greater spiritual connectedness and inner peace, are all additional examples.
4. I don't mean to imply with these two examples that only women contribute to fuller, stronger community building. If you know of an example of how men have acted in these ways, in all male or mixed sex group settings, please share them with me, I’d love to hear about them too.
5. My thanks to Liza Gabriel Ravenheart of the Church of All Worlds, Body Sacred and Sacred Connections, for the phrasing of these questions. They come directly out of an e-mail she wrote a group of us in August 1999.
6. I thank Deborah Anapol for the examples in this paragraph, which she has spoken about many times in her articles, her speeches, and her workshops.
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