sex, culture and religion with greta christina
Not too long ago, I found myself reading a blog post which called for skepticism in sex. How skeptical do you have to be to advocate the scientific method in the bedroom? Well, according to Greta Christina, the author of the post and a full column on the subject, even when people see sex as something natural, healthy and very important in life, there’s still a tendency to inject a large dose of the supernatural into it. To find out a little more about spirituality in sex and the culture which embraces it, I asked Greta for some insights…
Q: What prompted you to write an article about acknowledging materialism in sexuality?
A: I’ve been in the sex-positive community, the community of people who write about sex or who are activists promoting sexual liberation and sexual civil rights for a long time and one of the things that I’ve been noticing in that community since I’ve been identifying myself as an atheist, is how much the community views sex in a very spiritual light. It’s not the same as a traditional religious attitude. The sex-positive community rejects the traditional religious view since it tends to be hostile towards sexuality. Instead they view it in a New Age way, with chakras and goddess worship and so on, and so I just wanted to write a piece which presented another view on sex. Something to say that you can be very positive about sex and embrace all the wonderful things in sexuality, but in a way that doesn’t frame it as a metaphysical experience.
Q: Why do you think so many people in this community view sex with a spiritual, New Age reverence?
A: First off, I want to preface this by saying that it’s just speculation on my part. I think it’s reasonably informed speculation though. There are basically three things going on. First is that the idea that spirituality is good and that the spiritual world is the more important world is very pervasive in our culture. It’s taught to us early in our childhoods and even when you reject the traditional version and embrace sexuality as something positive, it’s natural for people to create their own spirituality to frame sex as good.
The second thing is that the sex positive culture is overwhelmingly a progressive culture which tends to reject mainstream institutions. And we see this in the way that this community accepts alternative medicine despite the fact that conventional medicine has been very rigorously tested. But to them, science is The Man and they are pretty much throwing the baby out with the bathwater and embracing alternative medicine. They embrace intuition and feeling and personal experiences, values they want to uphold over “establishment” ideas.
The third thing has to do with the nature of sex. When sex is good, especially when it’s very, very good, I think it can feel a lot like what people describe as a spiritual experience. It transports you in an extraordinary way out of your normal experience. Again, even if we reject traditional religion, we tend to frame these experiences as metaphysical. But at the same time, they’re still physical experiences. We’re just shifting the way the brain is processing information. So I think that when people start embracing sex and sexuality as something positive, they tend to frame it in this mystical, spiritual way.
Q: What exactly do you mean by a sex-positive community? Is there a sex-negative community?
A: I would say that the Religious Right is a very sex-negative community which actively promotes the idea that sex is bad, sex is trivial, sex is something that has to be prescribed in a certain way and there’s a very small number of cases where you’re allowed to have it. And that can extend to any community where sex is seen as just a trivial thing that can only happen in certain cases. By contrast, sex-positive communities are people who through writing, through art and activism try to promote the idea that sex is an important part of our lives.
Q: How do you think religious communities reconcile their religious commandment to be fruitful and have sex with their attempts to control sexuality and inject legality into sex?
A: I think the answer they would give is that they don’t think sex is bad. On the contrary, they think sex is great and wonderful but God only wants you to have sex under these very specific circumstances. You have to get married, it has to be an opposite sex marriage, obviously, and you have to be willing to have children so birth control is out. But the reality is that they promote a lot of fear and hostility towards sex, telling women that men are just horny wolves and telling men that women are temptresses who will lead them astray. So what really ends up happening is that they promote a very mixed view of sex, that sex is bad and evil but then, when you’re married, it’s wonderful. And of course it doesn’t work that way.
You get couples having really bad sex and unhappy sex lives because there’s this barrier to talking about sex, getting information about it and absolutely no mention of female satisfaction. But then you also have a culture of teenagers not using birth control. They grow up thinking they’ll reject sex but since they have hormones as we all do, they end up having sex and they don’t use birth control. There are a lot of statistics which show that in states where right wing religion is very prominent, teen pregnancy is very prominent. So I think the upshot is very mixed messages and a very conflicted, messed up culture about sex.
Q: Imagine your ideal world in terms of sexual culture. What would it be like?
A: I thought about that a lot and the best metaphor I came up with for treating sex and sexual preferences is to treat them the way we treat music. Different people have different musical tastes. Some like opera, some like rap, some like country, some people like a wide variety of music. To some people, music just doesn’t matter a whole lot and to some people it’s central to their lives and we pretty much accept that. We might have our own negative opinions about certain musical types but we generally accept their right to enjoy their music as long as they’re not forcing others to listen to it against their will. And in fact we celebrate the diversity in music, that musical tastes change over time and that we have the right to choose the music we like for ourselves.
And I would like people to treat sex the same way. I would like to see people treat sex as something important in life and something that’s powerful and shouldn’t be trivialized. We should acknowledge the fact that it could potentially do some harm, but that basically, it’s a central part of life that we should accept, and that we should accept others’ sexualities even if they’re different from ours.