Can You Get Closer to God by Having Sex?

The  young black man with an open-face and eager demeanor sat across from me on a blanket in a park in Harlem last night and smiled warmly.  The artists’ share we were both there for hadn’t started yet, and we had just been introduced.

“Do you like yoga?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you like reading?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.  “Do you?”

“Oh yes!” he leaned in. “I just finished reading an amazing book about celibacy.”

“Oh!” I said.  “Great.”

A History of Celibacy by Elizabeth Abbott.  It was amazing.  Really just amazing.”

“What were your takeaways?” I asked.

“Oh, she covered everything!” he said, leaning closer yet. “Just everything!  Foot binding being a kind of chastity belt.  Joan of Arc, who I love.  I just love her.  And Gandhi.”

“Why Gandhi?” I asked.

“Oh!” he exclaimed, almost aghast that I had to ask.  “Because Gandhi was a brahmachari!”

“A…what now?”

He explained that today the practice of brahmacharya loosely translates to practicing celibacy, or sticking to strict sexual controls (such as withholding semen) for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment.  He also explained the diet of one who practices brahmacharya (a diet he, too, adheres to), and described the spiritual discipline of a brahmachari (which he too was cultivating).  And over the course of our conversation, I began to get the impression that this warm young man was a brahmachari himself.

So I probably shouldn’t have said what I said next.

Which was: “I know the idea that sexual abstinence brings you closer to God has been around forever, but what if it’s wrong?  What if, actually, sex can bring us closer to God.”

The young man leaned back.

“What are you guys talking about over there?  Talk louder!” three young women across the blanket from us called.

“I said!” I hollered, “That I think that having sex can bring us closer to God!”

“Go on…” they cooed, scooting toward us.

“Okay,” I said.  “So, I was raised in a very conservative religious community.”  They nodded.  “And in this community, my friends and I were taught that sex outside of marriage was a sin, right?  And when I say sex, I don’t just mean intercourse.  I mean everything.  Thinking about sex.  ‘Making’ someone else think about sex by the way we dressed, or laughed, or flirted.  It was all equally ‘bad.’

“The Biblical illustration was that David’s sin of seeing Bathsheba bathing, and not looking away, was the same in God’s eyes and all of the sins that followed: David sleeping with Bathsheba, his killing her husband, and so on.”

“I hear you,” one woman chimed in.  “I was raised Catholic.”

“So my girlfriends and I,” I continued, ”we learned to shut down every part of ourselves that might have been construed as even remotely connected to sex or sexuality.  We scrutinized ourselves and if we found even the slightest sexual something, we shamed ourselves before our peers or our leaders had a chance to, calling ourselves bad, or sinful, or slutty, for doing things as small as wearing the wrong pair of shorts.  We created these boundaries inside of ourselves, these walls inside to keep out the parts of us we didn’t want there, designed to protect ourselves from ourselves, and protect others from us too.”

The women nodded again.

“Then,” I said, “I had sex.  In my mid-twenties, so pretty late, but I got there.  And it didn’t kill me.  Or anyone else.  So eventually I stopped fighting that I was a sexual person.  And when I did that, all of these boundaries, these walls that I had built up inside of me, they slowly came down.  And in the process I found that not only was I able to better connect with myself, and with others, especially my partner, but I also found myself more able to connect with…God.  I could see him and hear him better with the walls down.  It was incredible really, realizing how much closer I could be to God when I was being honest with myself, and thereby was able to be honest with him.”

“Oh totally!” one women said.  “Yes!”

Then she looked at the bramachari, who had pulled away from us, and was looking down at the blanket.  “But maybe it’s because you’re a woman,” she continued.  “Maybe men, they need to withhold, because of the way in which sex can overwhelm men, but women, they need to express their sexuality.  Because our power, our connection to God, is body-based, in our wombs even.”

“I don’t know,” another woman responded.  “It seems like men shouldn’t benefit from holding back any more than women.”

We all turned back to the brahmachari.

“What do you think?” I prodded.  “Can some people get closer to God by controlling their body, while others can get closer to God by embracing their body in all of its complexity?  And is the line between these two groups a gender line?”

He just stared at us, and suddenly I felt very sorry for having questioned a philosophy he seemed to feel so strongly about.  But the truth is, his philosophy…or rather, the philosophies of some people who think similarly to him…had a lot to do with my having hated myself growing up, and my friends having hated themselves too, because we were sexual to varying degrees and taught that this meant we could not be holy.

In the end, the group of artists and I all just shrugged and let it go. But thinking back on the conversation today, I wanted to create a space here to pick it back up if anybody would be down to.  What do you think? Is it possible to get closer to God by having sex?

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11 Responses to Can You Get Closer to God by Having Sex?

  1. Jimmie Briggs says:

    I definitely agree that men’s responses to this conversation versus women, is distinctive. Based on your recounting of the conversation you had in the park, I wonder if the brahmachari ever considered the possibility of his philosophy having a negative outcome or view of women and their sexuality. The conversation was certainly a fortuitous one as it goes directly to the questions and issues you’re raising with this blog.

    I understand the perspective of the brahmachari, but disagree.

    Personally, I think expressing and embracing one’s sexuality in its various manifestations-including thought-is a spiritual need, which can bring you closer to God.

  2. O. Ayes says:

    Linda,

    Poignant, humorous recollection of that night and that particular conversation. That entire night was fascinating. I understand the religious traditions that promote celibacy/restraint but believe in healthy expression of sexuality–a creative, powerful energy that we as a culture tend to overindulge in.

    Your project sounds incredible and so necessary! Any thoughts on the infantilization of women and how it promotes a pedophilic culture? Once read an interesting article on that. Essentially, we don’t promote age/wisdom as a more desirable trait than youth/innocence, which in turns glorifies the predator/prey dynamic. Yikes.

    O.

    • Linda says:

      Thoughts on it? Oh man. Yes! A million of them. My book is named Man-Made Girls, afterall. I will make my next blog post entirely about girling in the evangelical Christian church. It’s about time after all.

      Warmly,
      Linda

  3. Gary Matthews says:

    Wow. I will now include you in my cadre of Provocateurs. So I was raised under the same strictures. My sexual motivations were always under scrutiny and sin was charged against me when I caused others to fail. Of course I was let of the hook pretty easily too, if and only if, the girl in question could be determined to be the progenitor of my sexual desire. The cards are evangelically stacked against women for sure, but I lived under these same rules. With that said, when I stated having sex I lost sight of God altogether. All I could see was the awesomeness of sex. It took me a long time to be able to come back, and part of that was due to the established division of “keep sinning and your back is turned to God.” So I had to make a decision, go back to God and not have sex or keep having sex and leave God behind. I choose to leave. I was in my mid 20′s, I began having sex in my teens, when I was finally able to rectify this bifurcation: I am a sinner, and if I am in sin, I can still love and serve God. It was a little later before I was able to see that these rules were arbitrary, man made, and once I moved passed them, my faith grew much much stronger. But my ability to relate with evangelicals became very very strained. hahahah, when God opens one door, He closes another :) or was that me?

  4. Lily says:

    I agree with your article about how RELIGION makes women feel dirty/guilty for doing it. And that it’s up to women to reverse this imprint. A well written article!

    Simone de Bouvoir, our first modern Feminist, said it best in her SECOND SEX book, written in 1949, that women have been made into OBJECTS, or secondary when it comes to sex. AND that for SEX to be meaningful, pleasureable, and orgasmic, women have to experience it as SUBJECTIVE sex! Thus, this societal confusion between objective and subjective sex led women to close up, withheld, become non-orgasmic, in addition to the guilt and blame from RELIGION.

  5. didier says:

    what a lovely story, and powerful question, Linda!

    are you familiar with david deida? i think you might find some of his writings or lectures interesting. you might not agree with everything he says, but i know that’s not a problem for you…

  6. Cassidy says:

    Fantastic blog and blog post! As someone who was raised in a deeply religious Jewish community, I struggled (and still do) with a lot of these issues. The major texts of Judaism–Bible, Talmud, etc.–largely support the idea that sexuality per se is not sinful, and that every desire has its “sacred” manifestation in the appropriate time and place. In other words, “sacredness” was created by expressing physicality within a spiritual framework: that framework was “halacha,” the Divine Law. But of course, halacha did not allow for any kind of sexual encounter (and I mean any kind: touching a member of the opposite sex, even to shake hands, was out) before marriage (needless to say, especially for women). I never knew what to do with my feelings about touching my boyfriend and my very, very palpable desire for him — “hooking up” FELT deeply spiritual, inevitably sacred. Neither of us would have considered “cheating” of any kind; there was an unspoken sense that our bodies were, indeed, “sanctified” to one another. Yet we both grappled with an education that taught us that these interactions were sinfully out-of-context, as dangerously idolatrous as Nadab and Abihu’s “alien fire” given to God in the right place at the wrong time.

    I still struggle with the attempt to define sexuality vis a vis spirituality. I never identified with the “slut-shaming” that takes place in religious worlds (and everywhere), and indeed I have experienced it myself often enough. Yet I also relate to the idea that a sacred relationship–whether with my own body and self, or with someone else–involves drawing boundaries. I try to treat my selfhood as precious, and share the deepest parts of who I am only with those who will value them as much as I do. And I try to relate to my body in the same way. Yet I am always attempting to integrate my approach to these issues with my equally “devout” feminism and a religious skepticism that has only gotten stronger since I left my Orthodox community. What are your thoughts on sanctity and sexuality via feminism? Can we ever approach “preciousness” without slipping into a dangerous “principle of scarcity” that glorifies virginity and “girlhood”??

    • Linda says:

      What a thoughtful and beautiful comment Cassidy. I am particularly interested in learning more about the role that boundaries play in your conception of creating a sacred relationship, either with yourself or another. I have certainly carried that concept with me from my history in a conservative religious community as it seems that you have, and see it as one of the great gifts this community gave me. However, like you I no longer draw the boundaries based on roles or titles (eg: You are my husband and therefore you are allowed to touch me in any way, whereas no other man can touch me at all.) Instead, I draw boundaries based on gut instinct (eg: You are my boyfriend and I choose to allow you to touch me in ways that feel loving and respectful; when I begin to feel disrespected or uncomfortably vulnerable, I will tell you so and we will figure out what that means for us together.) It takes much more work of course. It is a constant navigation really. But I think the feminism comes in my giving myself the right to steer that navigation. I am embodied, listening to my body, and communicating the messages I receive from it in order to form the healtiest relationships with myself and with others that I can.

      But your comment brings a memory to mind. There was a time in which I didn’t know how to draw boundaries with my friends, boyfriends or even family. For so much of my life, boundaries had been drawn for me by the church in ways that felt controlling and unnatural. So when I took on the task of drawing boundaries for myself, I had to learn how to do it!

      In this difficult time, I created an image. I drew a series of circles within one another, like the ripples in a stream when you throw a rock in. And in each circle, I wrote the names of people in my life. It was a visual representation of the boundaries I needed to draw with people. The person in the innermost circle had to know the absolute truth about everything. That person was me. The people in the next circle were deeply trusted and I could share just about anything with them–my fears, my foibles, my insecurities (and, if they were a trusted romantic partner, my body). The circles continued until I reached the people farthest away–people who were new to my life, and those who had proven themselves untrustworthy. These were the people that I needed to remember not to share my innermost self with–all those insecurities and failings–though it is my tendency to share it with just about anyone who will listen (as you can see illustrated here!)

      If you want to talk more about this, I would be glad to grab a cup of coffee. Based on your email address, I assume you are in New York City? Let me know!

  7. tiffany says:

    Reading your article and seeung the comments saddens me. How can you connect to God by having sex outside of marriage! This is a shame and very dangerous to follow. I know you may not know or undetstand the downfall of practicing fornication God does not condone it and the word of God does not either 1st Corithians 6:18-20,, 2 Timothy 3:4
    . ..1st Corithians 7:12, Galatians 5:19, Ephesians 5:3, 1st Corithians.7:12. This behavior is an open rebellion against God and He loved us so much He sent His son Jesus to die on the cross for us. If you want to really please God you would repent and ask God to lead you in the way He wants you to.

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