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Sex and Religious Experience, A Preliminary View

Table of Contents

I. Preliminary Thoughts on Sex and the Erotic

II. Pertinent Definitions of Sex and the Erotic
III. Scholarly Investigations of Sex and the Erotic
i. Sex, Culture, Modernity
ii. Sex and Gendered Experience
IV. Intersections of Sex and Religious Experience (Types)
V. Annotated Bibliography
VI. Notes, Acknowledgements, Closing Remarks

Preliminary Thoughts on Sex and the Erotic

Sex – as an activity, as a topic of debate, as an intrinsic part of life – has forever found

itself connected to religion. Whether it was through religious rules governing sexual intercourse

between its adherents or erotic imagery used for religious expression or any number of other

examples, sex is intimately connected to religion and religious experience.

Given that most people initially recall the negative ways in which sex has been tied to

religion, it may be surprising to think of sex as being within the purview of an exploration of

"religious experience." However, sex as a biological act – coitus, orgasm, etc. -- has a long

history of being regarded as something akin to, if not identical to, religious experience.

Stretching across time back to ancient sex cults and forward into the late modern world where

some scholars have argued that sex has become a religion of its own, there exists an inescapable

relationship. And, living at a time in modern society when people choose to turn to self-help and
therapy to fill their spiritual voids and the adult industry, trading in sex-as-entertainment, is

estimated to be a multi-billion-dollar business, the centrality of sex in our daily lives cannot be


Sex -- and all that the word entails -- is different that many of the other categories one

might consider as religious experience. Sex can be simply biological, natural; completely

detached from religious meaning, it is an act that happens everywhere, all over the world, by

almost every person before they die. But, at the same time, it is similar in that it can be religious,

transcendent, life changing; it is within this realm that sex and "the erotic" become a kind of

religious experience.

Pertinent Definitions of Sex and the Erotic

Just like religion, terms like "sex" and "the erotic" are not easy to define. Below are a few

of the diverse attempts to do just that.

Calling sex a religion of itself, Germaine Greer describes it as a "magical, suggestive and

utter indefinable idea. It includes gender, eroticism, gentiality, mystery, prurience, fertility,

virility, titillation, neurology, psychopathology, hygiene, pornography and sin, all hovering about

actual experiences of the most intractable subjectivity, and therefore an ideal focus for religion."1

Philosopher Roger Scruton in investigating the philosophy of sexual desire discusses the

problems inherent in analyzing something of this nature in his first chapter, aptly titled "The

Problem," stating "the subject [is] encumbered by a thousand conflicting prejudices..."2 Scruton

goes on to say that "at many discussion will make contact with religion, not only

Germaine Greer, Sex and Destiny: the Politics of Human Fertility. New York: Harper & Row, 1984, 19.
Roger Scruton, Sexual Desire: A Moral Philosophy of the Erotic. New York: The Free Press, 1986, 3.
because -- as has been frequently observed -- erotic and religious sentiments show a peculiar

isomorphism, but also because religious experience provides the securest everyday background

to sexual morality."3

Riane Eisler adds: "Sex is an innate -- indeed, indispensable -- human activity. But sexual

attitudes and practices are learned...In short, sex does not, as a once-popular song had it, "just

come naturally." is to a very large degree socially constructed."4

And Carter Heyward offers her own definitions for the terms, stating "sex refers to our

"touching toward" one another's genitals," while it is sexuality that embodies the thoughts and

feelings associated with said act.5 She describes "the erotic" as "our desire to taste and smell and

see and hear and touch one another."6

Scholarly Investigations of Sex and the Erotic

Sex, Culture, Modernity

Given the ubiquitous nature of sex in the contemporary Western world as fixture of in

popular culture and media, it makes sense that scholars have focused on the intersection of sex,

religion and modernity. Building on notions of modernity and contemporary culture similar to

the one painted by British sociologist Anthony Giddens, arguments have been made that about

sex's place in society at large as well as within a religious context.

One such scholar is Charles Pickstone whose book, The Divinity of Sex, focuses on just

such an intersection. He argues that several forces have coalesced in the last century to create the

modern view of sex. Focused primarily on Great Britain and the United States, he traces its

Ibid., 14.
Riane Eisler, Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth and the Politics of the Body. San Francisco: Harper, 1995, 22.
Carter Heyward, Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God. San Francisco: Harper, 1989,
Ibid., 187.
origins to the Victorian Era, tied up in notions about childhood and innocence that themselves

transformed society.7

One major tenet of his argument is that "in the modern world, religion becomes

spirituality, and, as life becomes increasing more secular, spirituality becomes culture."8 He uses

secularization as one of the main carriers of this re-thinking and points to several reasons for this.

Relying heavily on Giddens, Pickstone states that modern, affluent societies no longer need the

unification and community that religion gave pre-modern people or gives to poor, contemporary

groups. Instead, he points to the highly individualizing force that money and secularization has

been, allowing for a "do-it-yourself" kind of religious sentiment to flourish.9

With culture and spirituality -- and thus religion -- becoming the same, one must look

toward culture for answers about what modern people consider sacred and, when one does so,

they come to find that it is sex that dominates. "The majority of people," he writes, "began to

turn to the mysterious, forbidden, private, ritualized world of sex both for experience of another

world and for the language in which to express that experience."10 This process that began with

the Victorians is still happening today and no longer is religion the realm of the sexless; instead,

Pickstone argues, "sex has become a strange religion substitute," the place where people must

now go to have the transcendent experiences once linked with religion.11

Peter Gardella makes similar connections between culture, sex and religion, though he

goes in a direction opposite of Pickstone's. In Innocent Ecstasy, he traces the historical process of

Charles Pickstone, The Divinity of Sex: the Search for Ecstasy in a Secular Age. New York: St. Martin's Press,
1997, 17.
Ibid., 7.
Ibid., 6-7; 12.
Ibid., 11.
Ibid., 12.
how Christianity freed sex from the taint of original sin so that it could be an innocent activity

and, in the process, gave America an ethic of sexual pleasure.12

That process, however, left indelible marks on modern American society, a consequence

of "sinless" sex: "the question of causality can become an infinite cause must

stand above the others," he tells us, adding, "Our sexual ethic has a religious quality that it could

have only inherited from the Christian zeal to overcome sin and to experience salvation."13 Some

of these marks are "miseries," according to Gardella.

One such misery he blames on this process is the American preoccupation with the

"quality of sex," how the endless work to make sex clean made it sacred and therefore subject to

rigorous demands and unhealthy expectations that he also links not only with the American's

search for good sex but also with the climbing divorce rate, "not because people revere marriage

less" but "because they have come to expect more."14

Scholars exploring the connection between sex and religious experience has found

another common link between these two hot topics and others such as modernity and

secularization. Culture, a place almost universally agreed to be rife with sex and the erotic, is

tangled between sex and religion in discussions, sometimes the cause, sometimes the effect and

sometimes just a reflection of that connection.

Sex and Gendered Experience

It is almost inevitable that a discussion of sex will lead to a discussion of gender; the two

are linked and scholars choosing to study one have found the other to be of a certain

consequence. The same is true with sex and religious experience: it leads to a discussion of
Peter Gardella, Innocent Ecstasy: How Christianity Gave America an Ethic of Sexual Pleasure. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1985, 3.
Ibid., 8.
Ibid., 6-7.
women's religious experience. Women's experience both sexual and religious are bound up in

their gender, making it an essential part of any conversation about sex and religion.

Many feminist scholars, such as the editors of Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the

World's Religions, point to the way in which religions have traditionally been the place where

women's sexual freedom have been limited and controlled through taboo and prescription.15 The

essays in their volume cover diverse topics but are united in their concern with women's sexual

experiences and its relation to religion, all around the larger theme of "good sex." In one essay,

Rebecca T. Alpert discusses the way in which Judaism regulates sexuality and sex. These

regulations differ along gender lines and are connect sex with things outside of sexual desire,

such as procreation and love -- both of which are problematic. This is just one way in which

gender is inherent in discussions of sex and religious experience.16

Others have taken it farther, have embraced sexuality as part of their new female-centric

spirituality. Pagan writer Starhawk is well documented to have made the claim that "the erotic is

the realm in which the spiritual, the political and the personal come together" and she has acted

accordingly in her reclaiming of female religious power.17 Similar instances of claiming are seen

in gay and lesbian studies, such as in Elaine Willis's essay on lesbian identity and religious


Gender issues are inherently a part of all discussions that touch women's experiences;

their experiences have forever been couched in terms of their gender and sexual roles and even

awareness of this fact has not changed it. This is even more true in the realm of religious

experience and sex, where gender becomes tantamount in both set of issues.
Patricia Beattie Jung, Mary Hunt and Radhika Balakrishnan, eds. Good Sex: Feminist Prospective from the
World's Religions. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001, xi.
Ibid., 43.
Linda Hurcombe, ed. Sex and God: Some Varieties of Women's Religious Experience. New York: Routledge and
Kegan Paul, 1987, 1.
Ibid., 104.
Intersections of Sex and Religious Experience (Types)

Tantra/Tantric Sex

When the average person hears "sex" and "religious experience" used in the same place,

tantric sex -- tantra -- immediately comes to mind. In the Western vernacular, tantric is

synonymous with a religious sexual regime. Tantra is a sect of Buddhism in which sex is

embraced as the most powerful aid in the quest for liberation from samsara, the eternal cycle of

death and rebirth. The basic premise of Tantra is that since repression of sex makes people

unhealthy and the very few can actually eradicate their sexual desires successfully, it is best to

control and redirect that energy toward the noble goal of liberation.19


One arena in which the religious dimensions of sex have been widely discussed is within

the realm of self-help books. Several books on the topic have become very popular, one of the

most well-known teachers being David Deida whose works such as Finding God through Sex

and Enlightened Sex teach readers ways in which the physical act of sex can transform them and

bring them closer to God.20 Other popular titles include Dr. Jenny Wade's Transcendent Sex

whose website describes it as the story of how people "can suddenly, without any warning or

preparation, find themselves in otherworldly realms when making love, as though God’s

lightning bolt of grace had illuminated the bedroom, transforming everything."21

John Stevens. Lust for Enlightenment: Buddhism and Sex. Boston: Shambala, 1990, 60-61.
"The Official David Deida Site," Accessed April 31, 2007.
"Transcedent Sex," Accessed April 31, 2007.
Annotated Bibliography

Browning, Don S., M. Christian Green and John Witte Jr, eds. Sex, Marriage, and Family in
World Religions. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

This work offers an historical overview of the attitudes of major world religions on the
topics of sex, marriage and family. Religions included in the volume are: Christianity,
Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Overviews rely heavily on
primary sources to discuss the religions.

Eisler, Riane. Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body. San Francisco: Harper,

Gardella, Peter. Innocent Ecstasy: How Christianity Gave America an Ethic of Sexual Pleasure.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Gardella argues that Christian influences, working through popular culture, have created
a culture of sex and religion in the United States that have let Americans seek sexual
pleasure and not feel guilty about it. Primary to this evolution, he contends, is a struggle
to overcome the nature of "original sin."

Giddens, Anthony. The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern
Societies. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.

While not explicitly about religion, this work of sociologist Giddens laid the foundational
work for much work regarding modernity and sex.

Goldberg, B.Z. The Sacred Fire: The Story of Sex in Religion. New York, University Books,

Goldberg argues that religion and sex are intimated connected, going so far as to suggest
that the sexual impulse, "the sacred fire," is the spark of all life and that religion must
acknowledge it in order to survive. Secondary motives include a message that human
love is itself "holy," sex is not impure in and of itself and uncovering the hidden ways in
which the sex-religion connection lives on in Christianity. The book is very dated with an
original copyright of 1930 but much of its arguments are echoed in newer works.

Heyward, Carter. Touching Our Strength : the erotic as power and the love of God. San
Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989.

Heyward states that her book is about justice -- sexual justice. In this book, she sets out to
write a theology of sexuality, rethinking definitions of "the erotic" and "God" in order to
"re-image both as empowering sparks of ourselves" and proposes to offer more questions
than answers. Working with feminist liberation theology, Heyward is an ordained
Episcopal priest working from within the Christian faith to heal the rifts caused by the
dualism of sex and religion.

Howard, Clifford. Sex and Religion: A Study of their Relationship and its Bearing upon
Civilization. New York: AMS Press, 1975.

Hurcombe, Linda, ed. Sex and God: Some Varieties of Women's Religious Experience. New
York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987.

An collection of essays, poems and other written accounts that deal with the topic of
women, sex, gender and women's religious experience. Contributors include Starhawk,
Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Polly Blue.

Jung, Patricia Beattie, Mary Hunt and Radhika Balakrishnan, eds. Good Sex: Feminist
Prospective from the World's Religions. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

A volume of collected essays on "good sex," with an attention to gender, feminism and
religion. Broad themes covered in the book include "Creation of Desires," "Prices of
Sex," and "Reconstructions of Sexualities."

Kripal, Jeffrey John. Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism & Reflexivity in the Study
of Mysticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Lee, Victoria. Soulful Sex: Opening your Heart, Body & Spirit to Lifelong Passion. Berkeley:
Conari Press, 1996.

Lee, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist, writes Sacred Sex as a guide for Christian
couples who want to integrate spirituality into their sexual relationship in order to create
deeper and longer-lasting passion and fulfillment, filling what she considers a lack of
such literature among academic texts about sacred sex and self-help manuals on good

Pickstone, Charles. The Divinity of Sex: the Search for Ecstasy in a Secular Age. New York: St.
Martin's Press, 1997.

Pickstone argues that in the modern, affluent society of the contemporary West
(especially the United Kingdom and the United States) that sex has become a kind of
religion substitute. He contends that the move toward secularism in society over the last
century has created a different kind of religious feeling -- spirituality -- and that it has led
to the dispersion of that spirituality into more varying spheres of life. He argues that sex
is the most obvious one but also makes connections between sex, religion, art and

Runzo, Joseph and Nancy M. Martin, eds. Love, Sex and Gender in the World Religions. Oxford:
Oneworld Publications, 2000.

A collection of essays on a wide range of topics that discuss love, sex and gender within
various religions and includes contributions by thinkers such as Arvind Sharma, Karen
Lebacqz, Julius Lipner, Karen Jo Torjesen, and Carter Heyward.

Scott, George Ryley. Phallic Worship: A History of Sex and Sex Rites in Relation to the Religions
of All Races from Antiquity to the Present Day. London: Luxor Press, 1966.

As the title suggests, Scott is interested in a grand historical overview of phallic worship.
He begins with the origins of phallic worship in the first part and then moves onto its
specific connections and rites starting from ancient times. Like The Sacred Fire, it suffers
from being outdated but is a "classic" of the topic.

Stevens, John. Lust for Enlightenment: Buddhism and Sex. Boston: Shambala, 1990.

Stevens's work is a survey look at the role sexuality has played within the practice of
Buddhism, covering both the periods where it has been ruthlessly suppressed and rejected
as well as when it has been embraced as part of a religious regime.

Scruton, Roger. Sexual Desire: A Moral Philosophy of the Erotic. New York: The Free Press,

A dense philosophical work on the nature of sexual desire, Scruton argues that sexual
desire, apart of other feelings connected to sex, is a uniquely human happening and thus
the center of his work to create a moral philosophy of the erotic. While not explicitly
about religious experience, one of the questions with which Scruton grapples is human
views of sexual desire which includes the mystical nature it holds for many.

White, David Gordon. Kiss of the yogin¯i: "Tantric Sex" in its South Asian contexts. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2003.

This work aims to present a balanced overview of Tantra in South Asia, adding to the
other literature on the topic by including not only textual sources and exegesis, but also
"complementary" disciplines such as art history and ethnography, in order to create a
clearer picture of the religion's reality. Also of importance to White is to pay attention to
the effects that Orientalism and colonialism has played in the modern view what Tantra is
and was, working to separate it from what he calls "New Age Tantra," an invented
tradition that has come to stand in for Tantra in the minds of the modern West.

Web Sources:

 "The Da Vinci Code: Reviving Religious Sex?" by Vishal Mangalwadi

 On Faith: Marcus Borg: Sex Can Be Sacramental
Notes, Acknowledgments, Closing Remarks

The text herein was originally written as part of a graduate seminar wiki project on the

topic of "Religious Experience" in the 2007 Spring Semester. Since leaving the graduate program

and thus the project, I decided to compile my efforts on the topic of "Sex and Religious

Experience" into one document for easy dissemination on the Internet. It is a topic that I find

infinitely fascinating and one to which I would eventually like to return; the work here is just a

drop in the bucket in the bucket.

Because of the unorthodox delivery message originally devised to share this information,

this document is a far cry from standard academic formatting and the topics discussed on

disjointed, at best. However, I think the document and information remain navigable and useful

even in its current state and I have tried to preserve the short, informative but not overly

academic style deemed best for the original wiki project.

The original text was accompanied by a photography by fetish/erotic photographer Nikki

Lachen who graciously allowed for its use on the wiki project. While I have not included it in

this document, I would like to publicly thank her again for her contribution.

This document is a work in progress and may well be added to, edited or changed in other

ways and republished. This version dates to September 04, 2007. If you have any questions,

comments or would otherwise like to contact me, my email is