One of the things that sets my teeth on edge about what an old friend calls San Francisco's "Kinky Konfederacy" -- the loose affiliation of queers, kinksters, fetishists, swingers, pornographers, sex workers, and perverts who band together under the ethic of sex positivity -- is the idea that sex should somehow be "spiritual." As moving and powerful and important as sex might be to me, it's not spiritual to me -- not in the least. More to the point, I don't think it should be.
At first glance, saying that might sound like I just came out in opposition to fluffy bunnies and lollipops. And that's the problem: "spirituality" is vague enough that it doesn't say anything meaningful but still gives you warm fuzzy feelings inside. It's one of the fluffy bunnies of the English language -- and what kind of sick, heartless bastard could be against fluffy bunnies?
Well, me. I think that anything that could be called sex-positive in any meaningful sense needs to be strictly anti-fluffy bunny. I would go even further: I think that the whole point of being sex-positive is to seek out fluffy bunnies in sex and gender, wring their little necks, skin them, and sink our teeth into the meat with relish. The fact that it is so very, very popular in sex-positive communities to put sexuality in the realm of the mystical by defining it as "spiritual" or "sacred" doesn't make me feel warm and fuzzy; it gives me a numbing chill because what I really hear is shame. I hear people making excuses for their kinks and their pleasure. That so much talk about sexuality is wrapped in platitudes about spirituality, magic(k), or transcendence shows how deeply we've failed in being able to discuss sexual pleasure as a good thing in itself, without any excuses.
Probably the biggest obstacle facing anyone who thinks or writes about sexuality is that the body is always suspect. The idea that our bodies are inherently flawed and corrupt and that what matters is our abstract self -- whether you call it soul, spirit, mind, or whatever -- is only slightly less universal than 1+1=2. It's central to the religious teachings of the Catholic Church and the Dalai Lama, but it's also laced into the more secular ideas of feminists who write about objectification, and transhumanists who long for the day when they can upload their consciousness into a cloud of nanites.
Our bodies can be seen, heard, felt, weighed. They bleed and sweat and shit and come. They eventually age and die. And bizarrely, that very substance is why they're considered the most superficial parts of ourselves. Perhaps the sickest, most perverse part of religion's legacy is the lie that followers should ignore their worldly suffering in favor of the bliss that will come in the afterlife, when they can leave the soiled impurity of the mortal shell behind. Greta Christina, talking about this very same subject, sums up the dualism that haunts even those of us who fight puritanism tooth and nail:
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.
All the paganism, Tantra, meditation, sacred sex, and BDSM sex magic(k) books and workshops represent a step backward. They are very convenient ways of rationalizing sexual pleasure by letting people claim that it's about "something more" than just making your body feel good. All the sweat and cum and juices and the delicious, confusing carnality of sex get shoved back into the closet in favor of much tidier abstractions so that we can believe that we're not just shallow hedonists. And that takes us back to square one, where we were told by our teachers, priests, and parents that sex was good -- or at least acceptable -- when done for any reason other than physical pleasure.
We cannot afford for sex to be sacred. Sacred things sit on altars to be worshiped from afar, not to become part of one's everyday life. They are not to be touched, played with, fondled, mocked, examined, or questioned. They do not come down into the dust and muck that we live in every day. The sacred stays safely behind the veil of mysticism and respect. Keeping sex behind that veil isn't just repressive and boring, it's fatal. In the 1980s and '90s, when being "sex-positive" started becoming a popular idea, the costs of being dishonest about sex were writ large not in words, but in thousands upon thousands of caskets -- those who died in the AIDS epidemic. In the midst of that, feminists and religious moralists alike were clinging to the idea that they could keep their desires neatly contained in this box or that, made pretty with rose petals and a Vaseline-smeared lens. Talking about queerness, kink, pleasure, and health -- openly and without shame -- wasn't just about finding better ways to fuck, it was life and death.
The popularity of dime-store mysticism in alt-sexuality communities silences that kind of radical discussion about our bodies and our lives. One of the most popular fuzzy bunnies slung about by people who style themselves as educators is "energy." Divorced from any connection to physics or chemistry, "energy" is a vague, anonymous placeholder of a word that means whatever the speaker or the listener wants it to mean. When educators go on about "energy" instead of diving into the nitty-gritty of circulation, muscles, digestion, or other bodily functions, it reminds me of my parents and teachers politely referring to the genitals as "down there." Learning how intricate and individual "down there" really was represents one of the most revelatory parts of my sexual education.
Sex is not spiritual. There is no god present when I kiss someone, no goddess there when I go down on that person. Neither my erection nor my orgasm is a devotion to spirits. Every bit of it belongs to me and to them, and to no one else. When you can have something like that, why would you want to embroider it with fairy tales and euphemism?
Chris Hall is a godless pervert, sex nerd, and writer who lives in the East Bay. Follow him on Twitter at @LiteratePervert.