As adults, we often think that we already know everything there is to know about sex. But do we? Knowing the mechanics of sex is relatively simple. But is sex just about the physical aspects? The older I get and the more experience I have accumulated, the more I feel that perhaps most of us have missed entirely the significance of sex.
Early in the beginning of this year, I listened to a NPR broadcast on laughter. Several scientists were interviewed. The scientists made some observations about human laughter and found, quite shockingly, that, most of the time when we laugh, there is nothing funny. Rather, the laughter is used as a form of social communication, perhaps to show friendliness and group harmony. The scientists also remarked that other mammals such as chimpanzees and rats also have a form of vocalization which is the equivalent to human laughter. Again, chimps and rats “laugh” not because there is something funny. It is their way to communicate that they are just playing and not trying to kill each other. Thus, animal laughter is a way to say that everything is alright and there is no cause for alarm. In short, humans and other mammals vocalize laughter, not necessarily because there is something funny, but because it is an important form of social communication.
Now, let us come to the issue in focus — why is sex so enjoyable? On the surface, it seems like a trivial and “stupid” question. As a teacher, I love asking such questions. Many questions which may seem trivial are actually very deep. We may think that “everybody” knows the answers to such questions. But appearance is usually deceiving.
Many people think of sexual pleasure as strictly a physical matter. They are the sexual materialists. It is true that our sexual organs — the glands of the penis and the clitoris are full of nerve endings. But if sexual pleasure is strictly a nerve ending business, then why is oral sex pleasurable to the one giving it? I can’t imagine that there are as many nerve endings in the tongue as in the sex organs. We can perhaps understand this better by drawing a parallel between laughter and the giving of oral sex. As discussed earlier, most of the time, people laugh when there is nothing funny. Similarly, people experience sexual pleasure even when the only point of contact is the mouth or the tongue. The pleasure in giving oral sex is not derived from the physicality of the experience. Rather, it is a psychological phenomenon. Oral sex gives pleasure to the one giving it because of its social meaning. We feel good when our partner moans with pleasure or experiences orgasm. We derive a sense of satisfaction from our ability to bring pleasure to others. My understanding is that some women can even orgasm from giving their partners oral sex. Truly, blessed are those to serve others. Should this be a big surprise? After all, we humans are social animals. Nature rewards us with pleasure when we give our partners pleasure. Beyond what is physical, there are also the psychological, the social and the spiritual dimensions. Isn’t the serving of one’s partner an act of kindness and selflessness?
Human and animal behaviors are usually complex. Things may not be what they seem. This is particularly true when it comes to sexual matters. There is always a danger of reductionism, of simplifying things too much. Another way to discount the significance of sex is to reduce it to an animal phenomenon, devoid of rich human meaning. Recently, a young man posted an interesting remark in my Literati group on Facebook. He asked, “Isn’t sex an animal thing?”
Of course, sex is a kind of animal behavior and we too are animals. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, some of the more thrilling aspects of sex have to do with the fact that sex is an occasion when we can express our animal self. We feel safe enough to let our inner animal out. There is no need to put on a mask to pretend that we are more “civilized” than the other animals. Sex can be both very primal and very good. Many religious people are too quick to dismiss or debase sex as something which is dirty, base and the opposite of what is spiritual. They apparently don’t see the connection between animal sex and spirituality. But I have a different opinion. Sex is spiritual in this sense — it is one occasion when we give up our ego and our need for control. In the heat of sex, we return to what is natural and spontaneous. We don’t need to censor ourselves. It is an occasion to bare our souls.
Some religious people have the notion that sex is okay only if it is engaged in for procreation. Among both Buddhists and Christians, there is an understanding that sex is something we would better do without. In fact, that is one of the reasons for the development of a monastic tradition. Somehow, sex is seen as an obstacle on the path to God. I disagree totally with this attitude. Sex serves many worthy human purposes. Besides procreation, sex serves the purpose of recreation, relaxation, bonding, comforting, loving, communicating, affirming and healing. For better or worse, sex is never just sex. It involves so much more. Any human behavior is likely to have a big component of social communication and signalling. I have not written about the spirituality of sex for a long time. I used to include it as a part of my public dharma talks. Because of this young man’s question, I have decided to write something about it. So many spiritual and religious people are so confused about sex. The universe must have known my intentions. One night, when I was driving home, there was an episode of “On Being” in which the philosopher Alain Botton talked about the deeper meaning of sex.
Towards the end of Alain Botton’s interview with Krista Tippett, he mentioned one spiritual significance of sex. It is a way we express acceptance. For a long time, I have had this thought — nothing beats sex as an intimate act in which one has to be totally vulnerable and trusting of the other person. When someone is willing to engage in such an intimate and vulnerable act with us, it is an ultimate act of affirmation. The meaning of this affirmation dwarfs even the physical pleasure and sensations of sex. Sex is, for good reasons, considered as “dirty” or “revolting” by many. Yet, another human being trust us enough to do it with us. It is, in this sense, an ultimate gift and act of kindness. In more than one way, it is a gift of life and honor. It affirms our own human worth. Of course, on the negative side, being rejected for sex is also of great significance. It is a form of humiliation.
Many people are eager to dismiss the significance of sex. I run an Internet-based group called “Eros, Nature and the Tao.” One female member of the group is Buddhist. Many Buddhists take a very guarded attitude towards sex, just as many Christians do. Since she knew that I am Buddhist, she asked me whether I consider sex “a big deal.” I told her that, contrary to many religious teachings which dismiss or vilify sex, it IS a big deal for most people. Sex is important, not just because it is tied to pleasure, ego and vanity. I feel that the religious dismissal of sex as just expressions of animal lust and ego is crude and uneducated. If we look at Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. we can see that sex is not only a basic need, like food. It is also a high level need — that of emotional, social and spiritual nature. Sex is directly tied to one’s self-image and sense of worth. As humans, we do have a strong need for acceptance.
Like everything else, sex has both a bright side and a dark side. Let us not be quick to dismiss sex as something vile and unworthy for a spiritual person. When sex is offered as an expression of deep caring, empathy and the intent to heal and uplift, it can indeed be sacred, holy and wholesome. It can be a powerful expression of kindness, love, acceptance and an affirmation of someone’s life.