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!”
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?