In religious circles, there is a common tendency to regard anything sexual as an enemy and an obstacle to the spiritual path. This is true for both Buddhism and for Christianity. Apostle Paul certainly thought of sexual desire as an obstacle. He wrote the following to the Corinthian Church:
Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. … Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7: 1–9)
Thus, according to Saint Paul, sexual relations are a matter of concession and a compromise. For him, celibacy is the ideal. Buddhism also has a long history of celibacy and asceticism. In Buddhist parlance, there is a saying about the “desireless Arhat.” It is commonly understood that the enlightened arhat has no desire of any kind. In the Pali Canon also, there are multiple references to sex as being unworthy and dangerous. It would therefore be fair to say that both Buddhism and Christianity have an anti-pleasure and anti-sex tendency. But such a tendency is also anti-nature and anti-human. What can be more natural than the desire for pleasure and sex? Such attitudes can perhaps be understood as the emphasis of a highly patriarchal and masculine society, which puts a high premium on will power and discipline. The idea is that sex and pleasure will weaken our will to conquer ourselves or to seek God. In both Buddhist and Christian cultures, there is a strong belief that sensualities weaken the spiritual warrior. This has real consequences. I have heard of Buddhist couples giving up sex to become celibate.
There are other misconceptions that lead to the belief that sex and spirituality don’t mix. They include the notion that (a) sex is primarily a physical phenomenon, (b) the notion that sex is about the ego, and © the notion that sex is “dirty” or unworthy.
To respond to these allegations, we should first develop a better understanding of human motivation. I find Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs very helpful. In Maslow’s motivation theory, there are the following levels of human needs:
(1) Physiological needs
(2) Safety and security needs
(3) Social belonging needs
(4) Self-esteem needs
(5) Self-realization needs
(6) Self-transcendence needs
It is a very common misconception that our sexual needs are physical in nature. Yes, it is true that during orgasm, important hormones are released which makes us feel good. For example, dopamine (the pleasure hormone) is associated with pleasure, desire, and motivation. There is also oxytocin, which is released during orgasm and breastfeeding. It is sometimes referred to as the “bonding hormone.” Oxytocin strengthens our connection to our sexual partner and our infants.
There is no question that orgasms and the hormones released during orgasm create a feeling of euphoria. But do such biochemical reactions explain the thrill of having sex with someone? We must remember that orgasm can be achieved alone, through self-pleasuring. One does not really need a partner for that. In addition, many of us derive pleasure from giving (not receiving) oral sex. The fact that one can experience joy and excitement in the giving of oral sex is a clear sign that sexual pleasure is not strictly a nerve-ending business. Beyond that, there is also the joy of phone sex and cybersex. In both phone sex and cybersex, there is no direct sexual contact. Where does the pleasure come from?
First, we must understand that humans are social animals. Our desire, motivation, excitement, and pleasure often stem from this social dimension. Where does our sexual need fall in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? It is important to understand that sex addresses multiple levels of human needs. At a minimum, it involves our physiological, social and self-esteem needs, if not all six levels of needs. When we feel pleasure as we give our partner oral sex, our partner’s pleasure and/or orgasm become the basis of our own satisfaction. This is a primarily social and psychological phenomenon, not a physiological phenomenon. It is no different from deriving pleasure from helping others. We can derive sympathetic joy! Could the satisfaction we receive from the giving of oral sex be a reward for our altruism? After all, as social animals, nature rewards us for our cooperation and collaboration with others. This example of oral sex would refute both the notion that sex is primarily physical and the notion that sex is selfish. And if our brain rewards us for helping our partner, it also contradicts the notion that sex is “dirty” or lowly? How can service to others be unworthy? Quite the contrary, according to conventional wisdom, all acts of altruism are praiseworthy, even sacred.
The thrills of sex also have much to do with self-esteem issues. Researchers have found that many women with a promiscuous lifestyle have low self-esteem issues. Many teenage girls with low self-esteem, for example, become promiscuous in a desperate attempt to get male attention and love. It is perhaps their misguided way to try to earn something they yearn for and they are willing to offer their bodies as natural assets to attract. In the case for teenage boys, it is quite the opposite. Low self-esteem teenage boys are less likely to pursue sex with girls. They are mortified by the possibility of social rejection. The male body, quite unlike the female body, is not a natural magnet for the opposite sex. Here again, we see the important role our social needs and self-esteem issues shape our sexual behavior.
With these considerations, we can derive a key insight into the attractiveness of sex. It is not the physical sex per se that thrills us. Rather, the attraction lies in social significance. If someone is willing to have sex with us, it sends a tremendous social signal — it means that we are worthy. Let’s face it, many of us are anxious about our body image. Most of us do not have “perfect” bodies. So, the willingness to get naked and have sex is a show of deep trust and vulnerability. Perhaps instead of thinking of our sexual need as a physical need, we should think of it as an emotional need for intimacy, which has more to do with genuine trust than it has to do with the physical body. Even today where the world is flooded with sexual images, sex remains a taboo. Sex is a taboo because it reminds us that we are animals and have certain raw animal instincts. During the heat of sex, we lose our inhibitions and our ego and reveal the animal self that we hide from the public. Because society tends to demonize our animal nature, we need to feel safe and become totally comfortable with someone before we are going to have sex with that person. Here again, someone’s willingness to engage in sex with us is a vote of confidence and trust. It is one of the most life-affirming acts that one person can do for another. The other person surrenders to us. It is one of the highest forms of honor and affirmation of our person. We are supremely validated as worthy humans.
Clearly, the sex act addresses all these needs — physiological, social acceptance, self-esteem. It may also address our self-realization need. Each of us has the potential to offer love, kindness, compassion and service to other human beings. Decades ago, I had a close woman friend who was a single mom. I visited her often since we were collaborating on a project. Due to our closeness, there was nothing we would not talk about. She told me about her loneliness and her need for the human touch. She suggested that we practice Tantric sex together. She was ten years my senior. Physically, I was not attracted to her. But I could empathize with her situation and I loved her as a good friend. She had a boyfriend at the time. But the boyfriend seemed to be only interested in her money and her financial support. He was miserly in offering her sexual intimacy. I seriously considered offering her sex, as a friend. I only backed off because I was married at the time. In this day and age, however, I think there will be many situations where sex with a friend (and someone you do not plan to marry) will be a kind gesture and deemed appropriate. In being selfless in helping a friend, we can also address our self-transcendence needs.
We are already in the 21st century. Society’s long prejudice against sex ought to be corrected. Sex is not intrinsically evil, although it is often abused. It is often used in a self-serving way, at the expense of others’ well-being. But if we understand the real nature of sex, in terms of how it addresses our human needs, then we can learn to use sex as a vehicle for our spiritual expression — to offer others comfort, love, kindness, and compassion. Like anything else, the practice of sacred sex requires tremendous mindfulness. We have to be aware of our own needs and our real intentions. But sex and spirituality are not incompatible. With pure intention and wisdom, sex can be a powerful vehicle for our spiritual path.