I may not get to elaborate on this as much as I’d prefer under normal circumstances, but I have a few moments now, and thus am taking the opportunity to write a little bit, at least.
The above subject line might strike you as odd: what in the world does “cans of sex” mean? Is there an aisle in the store where cans of sex are sold, near the cans of whoop-ass and the bottles of awesome sauce? If only it were that simple…
No, what I mean by the above (in addition to writing it in such a way as to grab people’s attention!) is the notion of “can” in one’s sexual ethics, and the fact that just because a “can” exists doesn’t mean that a “should” necessarily comes with it. Let me try to explain a bit more.
In a great deal of alternative culture, including much of modern paganism, there is a certain permissiveness and even laissez-faire attitude toward sex and sexuality. While I think this can be a potentially positive thing, especially as a corrective to the toxicity and neurosis of the overculture in relation to sexual matters, it can also be something that might be problematic for some people. Amongst the people for whom it might be problematic are abuse survivors, for example: no matter how sex-positive a particular group of people might be, and no matter how sex-positive a survivor of rape or sexual assault or sexual abuse might be, things are never going to be quite as laissez-faire for such a person where it comes to sexual matters, especially where certain people, situations, or genders might be involved. That’s just that, unfortunately; and, while I’d like to give people the benefit of the doubt generally speaking, and assume that most people in a given space that is more sex-positive will be good people and not predators, at the same time, if there are people one doesn’t know well present, one can never be certain.
In a variety of places over the last few weeks, I’ve had discussions, or read blog posts, or heard things talking about sex in relation to paganism, and in particular in sex during ritual contexts. Certainly, the fact that many types of paganism have this is a good thing–there aren’t too many religions worldwide at present that do!–and I have no problem with them, so long as everyone is truly consenting to the activities that take place. What I do have some problems with, however, is the notion that just because some sexual activities are taking place within a ritual context, that therefore there are different rules involved in them, many of which would otherwise be to the forefront if it were any other sort of sexual encounter.
Something I’ve said in my Ekklesía Antínoou 101 presentations at PantheaCon over the last number of years is that sexuality is a sacred thing, and it can be (and should be!) a part of one’s spiritual life in some form or another; however, try and make sure that you don’t do one of two things that are all too common in such spiritual-sexual contexts: 1) don’t use ritual for sex; and 2) don’t mistake sex for ritual.
What I mean by 1) is don’t invite someone to a ritual, for example, because you’re sexually attracted to them and want to see them naked or want to have a sexual encounter with them under the auspices of it being “sacred” and “ritual” and “pleasing to the gods” and so forth. If you like someone and find them hot and want to have sex with them, go and tell them! Then, if they find you equally intriguing and like what you do religiously, then perhaps they’ll come to a ritual and you might get to do fun sexy things with them under those auspices. But, don’t use “it’s for ritual” to force the issue on anyone.
And what I mean by 2) is don’t fall into the “one-stop shopping” mentality, and assume that just because sex can be a sacred act that therefore every time you have sex it is automatically a sacred act, whether you are consciously cultivating that sense or not. Yes, under certain prevailing cultural norms, some cultures never see a difference between “regular sex” and “sacred sex”; unfortunately, we do not live in such a culture at present, which is lamentable, but undeniable. Given that such is the case, don’t assume that any drunken rutting on your part is automatically sacred sexual ritual. It certainly can be, but it isn’t automatically–it has to be cultivated and entered into willingly and consciously on the part of all parties involved in order to be a sacred act. Some people object, “But that’s boring and lacking in spontaneity,” and if that’s your objection, then just go and have sex and have fun, but don’t attempt to say you’re doing sacred sex of any sort. If you’re not willing to spend the time and the attention on a sexual act that you’d spend on your daily meditation or spiritual practice (if you have one), then what you’re doing can’t be considered sacred sex, unless you have such an inflated opinion of your own holiness that I suspect you’ve therefore got much larger issues to look after than this one…
In any case, those are some of the guidelines that I’ve tried to observe around these matters for the last twenty years. And, for the most part, I’ve been successful. Yes, there were some delusional and self-important flawed constructions in the early days for me, but since about 1995, they have not happened.
Now, jumping to more recent conversations, there does seem to be an assumption on the part of some sex-positive individuals (including some pagans) that just because someone can have sex in a given situation, they therefore should. I think this is one of the most potentially harmful ideals one can have. There have been a number of situations in my life in which I could have been having sex, but I didn’t, for various reasons. Sometimes, I wondered, “What good will this do me?” and when I couldn’t come up with an answer for that which was overwhelmingly positive, I decided not to have sex. In many situations, I realized that to have sex in that moment would have been actively harmful to me, or I had an instinct toward such. (I’m very glad I did, because in at least one situation, the individual involved was HIV+, never mentioned it, and was very known for not using protection of any sort.) If my whole heart and soul and body isn’t in it, I tend not to engage in sexual activities with people; and on certain occasions, when I have said that is the case, I’ve had potential partners not take “no” for an answer…which has made me all the more certain that my decision was right, no matter how bad or uncomfortable the situation in the aftermath tended to be.
Sex for its own sake is, I don’t think, an ideal to be cultivated. If I were sitting around in a room with six people who were all very attractive, that I might not get to interact with again, and the choice were to continue talking and hanging out, or have sex, I’d probably choose hanging out and talking. While I’m not monogamous by any stretch of the imagination, I do know that for me, sex is an activity which creates a bond between myself and someone else, and if that bond is not acknowledged and treated like something that exists and is worthwhile, it is far better for me to not be having sex with the person. Does it mean we have to get married and move in together and be with each other forever? Certainly not. Does it mean that we make every attempt to speak with one another on a regular basis–even if that’s a two-line e-mail once every six months–in the aftermath as long as everything seems to be good between us? Yes, I think so. But, that’s just me and how I’m wired in this regard. I don’t need much reassurance that I’m an important person in someone’s life; I do need at least some, though.
The best analogy for sex that I can think of is this: nuclear power.
When treated properly, it is a wonderful source of energy that is practically limitless. However, it does have to be treated properly and tended to carefully, because it has great potential to cause collateral harm if it is not looked after. It plays with the most basic forces of the nature of the physical universe, and employs them in new ways through volition in order to create new things through a chain reaction. It can also be used to create things of such destructive and horrific potential that it might make one want to throw up one’s hands and say “To hell with this! Never again!” on the whole endeavor. But, as with almost everything, there is a happy medium which can be reached, in which all parties benefit and the environmental impact is low, if not minimal, so long as all rules are followed and everything goes as well as possible.
If given the chance, I’d certainly enjoy having more sex than I have been for the last few years; but, just because sex is a few e-mail clicks away for pretty much anyone on the planet at present doesn’t mean that it is automatically a good idea to be having it as often as possible.
I’d be interested in any thoughts on this matter that any of you readers might like to share.