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Sex and spirituality survey: the results

Roger Scruton once wrote: ‘The sexual revolution of modern times has disenchanted the sexual act. Sex has been finally removed from the sacred realm: it has become ‘my’ affair, in which ‘we’ no longer show an interest. This de-consecration of the reproductive process is the leading fact of modern culture.’

This is not entirely true. In fact, judging by my survey of 323 respondents, most people (77%) think that sex is or can be a spiritual experience, and many (60%) report that they have experienced ego dissolution or merging with their partner during sex. And a surprisingly high number (16%) report altered states during sex – hallucinations, or even a sense of an erotic encounter with a spirit.

At the same time, the majority of respondents (77%) think our culture has become over-sexualized. People are generally morally accepting of homosexuality, masturbation, S&M, casual sex, abortion and porn –  all of which were de-stigmatized during the sexual revolution. However women are more disapproving of porn than men, and much less likely to have paid for sex.  Both men and women (particularly women) worry about the commodification of sex through advertizing, porn and music videos, and the effect of this hyper-sexualized media on children and young women. Westerners have rejected the control of priests over their sexuality, but worry about the control of the free market.

What the results suggest is that the sexual revolution involved several different movements, which sometimes worked against each other. I’d suggest there were four main trends in the sexual revolution:

1) The rationalization of sex

51u2vEVU4GL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sex is seen as something fun and pleasurable, and repression as irrational and weird. Hand-in-hand with this rationalization of sex is the commodification of sex – the rational free market should make it available through pornography, sex clubs, Tinder and so on. This was the sexual revolution promoted in the Sixties by figures like Albert Ellis, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and Erica Jong (champion of the ‘zipless fuck’).  Sexual rationalists tend to be atheists and materialists – sex is ‘something fun, like chocolate cake’, as one respondent put it.

2)  Sexual liberation and identity politics

prisonerofsex050530_3_400This movement in the sexual revolution is mainly concerned with liberating particular groups from societal oppression – liberating women from patriarchal society and giving them control over their own bodies; legalizing and normalizing homosexuality; and more recently legalizing and normalizing trans-sexuality. This movement would sometimes work against the first movement, as when feminists opposed the porn industry, There are also battles within this movement, as in the disputes between feminists and transsexuals, or the disputes between feminists and paternal rights groups.

3) Spiritual sexuality

img_0209This movement sees sex as a spiritual experience, as a means to transcendence and spiritual ecstasy. It was influenced by writers like DH Lawrence, Wilhelm Reich and, more recently, Ken Wilber and Margot Anand. The idea of spiritual sex is a driving force in many New Age movements like Tantra, Wicca and ‘conscious sexuality’, which often involve sex rituals or meditations. Contemporary Christians are also more likely to see sex as a spiritual experience. This movement will often resist the over-rationalization, commodification or disenchantment of sex (although the New Age supermarket can also participate in that commodification). Sex becomes for some people the heart of their spiritual practice, one of their main pathways to ecstatic experience. While they may not believe, as some sexual utopians of the 60s did, that the removal of repression will create some sort of perfect, spiritually-rejuvenated world (we tried that and it ended in Tinder) many people still believe spiritual sex is possible, particularly with someone you love.

4) Sex as self-annihilation

Foucault-Leather-JacketThe darker side of the idea of sex-as-transcendence is an emphasis on transcendence through transgression – trying to annihilate the self through extreme ‘limit experiences’ (to use Michel Foucault’s phrase). One sees this movement in figures like George Bataille, William Burroughs and Michel Foucault. It was never a major trend in the sexual revolution but helped to drive the rise of S&M culture in the 1960s. In fact, as we’ll see, S&M play has now become quite normalized in western culture. It’s accepted, mainstream, even bourgeois, and a long way from the extreme, self-annihilating experience Michel Foucault sought. Kinsey thought S&M so deviant, he didn’t even ask questions about it in his survey. Today, in a post-50 Shades culture, 75% of respondents say they have either tried light S&M play in the bedroom (spanking, being tied up etc) or fantasized about it.

My survey suggests these four movements in the sexual revolution still clash – people see sex as spiritual experience, and worry about commodification. Women are more likely than men to worry about porn and the commodification of women, but even men worry that porn is addictive and that our society is over-sexualized.

The results

Like my previous surveys, this was just an amateur survey, done through SurveyMonkey, which I sent out through my newsletter, through Twitter and Facebook. I got 323 responses, mainly from people aged 20-50 – hardly any teens responded. The respondents were equally divided between men and women, and roughly reflected the demographics of the UK in terms of Christian, Spiritual but not Religious, Atheist and Agnostic.
77.8% thought sex is or can be a spiritual experience – 75% of men, and 79% of women. You’re particularly likely to see sex as spiritual if you’re Christian (88%) or Spiritual But Not Religious (89%), less so if you’re atheist (51%) or agnostic (72%).

60% reported a sense of ego dissolution and merging with your partner – this is most likely if you’re spiritual but not religious. Only 36% of atheists reported this, suggesting less of a willingness among atheists to seek ego-surrender.  59% of respondents said they sometimes got the shakes or shivers during sex – 69% of women but only 49% of men (again, atheists were the least likely to report this). 17% said they sometimes hallucinated during sex – that rose to 22% if you’re SBNR. And 10% said they felt an erotic connection to a spirit or god during sex.

There’s very little academic research on sex, spiritual experiences and altered states of consciousness – the only research I’ve come across is by Jennifer Wade, who wrote a rather far-out book called Transcendent Sex that collected some people’s accounts of full-on transcendent experiences during sex (hallucinations, encounters with spiritual entities, past-life regressions etc). Wade suggests such experiences happen to about one in eight people. My survey suggests that, if you define spiritual experience as a sacred sense of ego dissolution, such experiences are actually much more common. There’s also been some recent research on how S&M play leads to altered states, and on how orgasm alters consciousness and brain activity. Clearly this is an area where there could be a lot more research. Even in well-being research and Positive Psychology, both now well-established fields, researchers have been wary of exploring the importance of sex to our well-being, despite 41% of my respondents saying it is very important to their well-being, and 41% saying it is quite important (it seems to be slightly more important to men). Are Positive Psychologists worried that if they focus on sex, they’ll be taken less seriously?

My survey also examined attitudes to sexual morality. The sexual revolution has profoundly changed our attitudes to sex – masturbation, once a central focus of moral reformation crusades, is now universally accepted, with only 1% thinking its immoral. Homosexuality is also widely accepted (only 4% think its immoral). So is casual sex (9.6% think its immoral), abortion (14% think its immoral), contraception (1.8% think its immoral), and S&M (8.3% think its immoral). Rape and paedophilia are universally condemned, bestiality and incest are still widely disapproved of, and adultery splits us 50 / 50. Christians are stricter in their sexual attitudes – 47% of Christians think porn is immoral, 73% think adultery immoral and 38% think abortion immoral. But only 9% of Christians think homosexuality is immoral, suggesting western churches are officially more disapproving than their congregations.

When it comes to the sex industry, one sees clear differences between men and women. 14% of men think porn is immoral, but 21% of women do. Only 12% of men say they’ve never watched porn, while 55% of women never have. Men still worry about porn though – 43% of men say they find it addictive.  49% of men say they’ve paid for some sort of sex (actual sex, a lap-dance or an erotic massage), including 24% who have been to a prostitute, while only 4% of women have paid for some sort of sex act.

7ef506d72a6b70961b565bed94686a1aS&M is now widely accepted in our society – even by Christians, of whom 40% have tried spanking and 35% being tied up. Agnostics are kinkiest – only 15% say they’ve never tried or fantasized about S&M play. Obviously I defined S&M rather loosely and lightly – as spanking, being tied up, biting and scratching in bed etc, rather than, say, going to a leather bar and being hoisted in the air. While extreme S&M is probably still quite rare, ‘S&M lite’ now seems very normalized and even bourgeois, the stuff of mainstream fiction and adult education classes rather than transgressive dungeons.

Finally, I asked people if they think our culture is over-sexualized. 74% said they thought it was. Again, there’s a gender difference, with 65% of men agreeing and 84% of women. 65% of atheists agreed, 75% of SBNR and 88% of Christians. When I asked people to extrapolate, the most popular comments were about the sexualization of children, the objectification of women, and the commodification and saturation of sex, by the free market media:

Pornography is too easily available to children and teenagers, and products are sold to these same age groups using sexualised imagery, and sexually provocative clothes and make-up are sold to children as young as 10 (or even younger).

I feel we focus on the material and physical aspect of sex because we have lost touch with the deeper aspect and have commoditised sex.

Women are portrayed as sex objects. Just compare music videos over the past 20 years.

I think our culture is over sexualised when it comes to youth, particularly young women and girls and being objectified.

modern culture is not erotic. eroticism has been stripped down to XXX. also the kind of sex promoted by porn is very degrading to women.

A culture that promotes sex as primarily about personal pleasure fulfilment risks teaching many to see physical intimacy as an act of hedonistic orgasmic opportunity. There is a deeper, more sacred, transcendental experience of unity that making love can bring between 2 people in love.

I think people are over sexualized especially due to pornography however I feel there is way more room for a healthy sexuality to arise.More Sacredness. More true intimacy and connection so it is over sexualized with McDonalds of sexuality but totally under the radar for the real magic.

Vogue and Marketing. The simply idea that some pair of breasts or a highly-worked body will (and finally is) be attractive for consumers. An open door to our wallets by our insecurity and shame of our own body/appearance/social status.

I feel that over-sexualisation especially applies to women in popular culture. The pressure on women and young girls means that they have to fulfil being a sexual object first and foremost before being anything else ‘person’ related. I count myself as strong willed, fiercely politically engaged and independently minded but still feel that if I am not attractive or sexually alluring, I am in some way failing.

Advertising uses sex manipulatively whenever possible, and popular media tantalizes or promotes unhealthy stereotypes rather than portraying sexuality as a normal part of who we are.

I think the Madonna-Whore Complex is the primary commercial driver of US culture. I think sexuality is policed by advertisers and bankers much moreso than by the gov’t.

It seems the only thing any advertising is using is sex and nudity.

Desires and emotions are generally over stimulated for commercial ends; organised religion’s obsession with sex has been complicit in making this possible.

As a psychotherapist I’m especially dismayed by how early in their lives girls feel they need to become sexual beings in order to be loved or accepted. Children simply don’t have time to grow up and be prepared to encounter sexuality with its immense power for pleasure or emotional pain.

I worry about the explicit sexualization of the role models of our children. Their use of graphic dancing, ie twerking and song lyrics which are mimiced by younger folk.

I think our culture is fixated on porn sex, appearance, and sexual display but almost entirely ignorant of the more sensual aspects of sex.

I’m a woman. Of course I think our culture is oversexualised!

You can see the full results here. I wish I’d asked about attitudes to bisexuality and polyamory, both of which seem to be on the rise. I’d be interested to hear about any other research out there on sex and spirituality.

Postcard to Rome: gay people can flourish too

The Catholic church has a new pope! Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio this week became Pope Francis I, the first non-European pope. The first BRIC pope. He sounds like a man of humility and asceticism, who travels on budget airlines – Lord knows that is a trial of the flesh. While a friend to the poor, Pope Francis is not a liberal when it comes to homosexuality or gay marriages, despite coming from Argentina where same-sex marriages are legal. He has written that the moves to legalise gay marriage are ‘a machination of the Father of Lies’. OK then!

Here in the Church of England, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, faces a much harder decision on this issue. Unlike in the Catholic Church, there is a real division in the Anglican church over homosexuality and gay marriage, and there are some high profile gay priests – one of whom has been tipped to take over from Welby as the Bishop of Durham.

The C of E is in a very difficult position because the Anglican community is, by numbers at least, overwhelmingly African. There are roughly 13 million Anglicans in the UK, and around 38 million in Africa, with 17 million in Nigeria alone.

Infographic from BBC News in 2008

The liberal wing of the C of E is quite strong in the UK, and is vocal in the British media through spokespeople like Giles Fraser or Reverend Coles, who is a presenter of Radio 4’s Saturday Live. In Africa, by contrast, there is barely any institutional demand for gay marriage or gay priests within the Anglican church. African Anglican bishops would be horrified by the prospect – although Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of the Anglican Church of South Africa, is a rare exception.

As one priest put it to me this week: “Justin is caught between two lorries speeding towards him: British liberal Anglicans, and conservative African Anglicans. And whichever way he moves on the issue, he will get hit.”

There are pragmatic, political considerations on the matter. In Nigeria, for example, where the Islamic and Christian churches are in a tussle for spiritual power, Muslim leaders are much more hard-line on the issue, and use Christians’ apparent softness on the topic (there is now an underground ‘Rainbow church’ for gay Nigerians) as ammunition against them. If Welby came out in support of gay marriage and sexually active gay priests, would the Nigerian church break away, immediately reducing the Anglican church’s congregation by almost 50%?

What’s the right thing to do?

There are moral questions too. Never mind the questions of political expediency, what is the right thing to do? Both Christians and Socratics try to do what is good, but for Christians, the will of God as expressed in the Bible is an important part of that process. It may be uncomfortable and it may go against popular opinion (or the ‘pattern of the world’), but Christians strive to submit their own will both to the will of God as expressed in the Bible, and to the will of the Church. Socratics by contrast don’t have to submit to anyone or anything besides our own reason, which is lovely, but also means we don’t really have much genuine community.

Don’t look back, like Lot’s wife in the movies

Anyway, the Bible is not the most rainbow-tinted text. The Old Testament God was no friend of the Sodomites, who surrounded Lot’s house and demanded Lot allow them to ‘know’ the two angels who were visiting him, in the only known instance of attempted angel-rape. Nothing annoys God like angel-human sex – he almost wiped out the entire human race when the sons of God bred with the daughters of men in Genesis 6. And, sure enough, He wiped out the city of Sodom when they tried to rape the angels.

This has been taken as a sign that homosexuals are Sodomites and therefore evil, and any culture that allows homosexuality will incur God’s wrath. But maybe the sin of Sodom was angel-rape, which for various reasons is obviously a bad idea. Or maybe the unnaturalness of their act was rape of any kind? After all, this was clearly a very bad way to treat guests, whoever they were. Perhaps the Sodomites got what was coming to them, but not because they were into anal sex – because they were rapists. (I still think it’s unlikely the entire city was entirely made up of evil rapists – it would make city-living impossible, in a Hobbesian sense).

In the New Testament, however, the matter seems clearer. In the first verses of his Epistle to the Romans, St Paul condemns those who

exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures…For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.

This is a pretty weird passage. St Paul suggests homosexual desires are ‘unnatural’, but they’re not exactly a crime. They’re a punishment for worshipping animal-gods! This seems to be drawing on a calumny that was frequently hurled at early Christians by Romans – that they worship a donkey-God and have orgies. St Paul is perhaps throwing that accusation back at the world…I don’t know.

Anyway, if you’re a serious Christian and you think the word of St Paul is the word of God, then this is a difficult passage to wrestle with. I personally think St Paul was a writer of genius, an astounding and inspired writer. The rest of that letter is beautiful. But Socratic as I am, I don’t agree with everything he says, just like I don’t agree with everything Plato or Aristotle say. Paul had a particular personality, which was one of complete celibacy and suspicion of the body, and he says he wishes everyone could be like him (which would rapidly wipe out the human race), but if they can’t then they should marry to prevent fornication. His words have been taken to mean no sex before marriage and (in the Catholic church) no sex for priests.

I personally think St Paul is too Stoic, that he demands far too much of us. I think it is asking too much to expect people not to have sex before marriage (boys, anyway), and dangerous to expect priests never to have sex. His teachings go against nature, and nature will always win. There might be some strong people capable of celibacy, but for most people, sexual urges will come out, despite all the Church’s fine words. If they are not allowed natural expression, they will come out in twisted and unnatural forms, which is what has happened in the Catholic Church’s systematic child abuse (for how many centuries?)

The same thing used to happen in single-sex English boarding schools, by the way. There was no way for natural adolescent sexual urges to come out, so older boys systematically raped younger boys (and their parents paid to send their children to these rape camps!) By the time I went to boarding school, thank God the culture had improved, arguably because girls were more proximate and porn was more available.

Homosexual and flourishing

I also think homosexuality naturally occurs in human nature, at all times and in all cultures. I don’t think it’s a deviancy. On the contrary, some of the greatest humans who ever lived have been homosexual or bisexual, from Plato to Shakespeare. You can be gay and flourish. You can be gay and love God – I have gay friends who do, passionately. And the fact that people have been gay even in cultures which are very homophobic, like many African societies today, is proof of the natural occurrence of these passions. As Desmond Tutu put it: ‘it is so improbable that any sane, normal person would deliberately choose a lifestyle exposing him or her to so much vilification, opprobrium and physical abuse, even death.’

St Anselm, who took matters into his own hands

I don’t think you can entirely extirpate natural erotic passions, as the Stoics believed and as St Paul seems to believe – at least, not without doing violence to yourself, like Origen and Anselm cutting off their balls. Instead, as Plato and Aristotle argued, we should guide our passions from their savage state into their higher, civilised state. Eros, the god of passion, can be deeply socially destabilizing, but we can civilize him and guide him into pro-social institutions. That is one practical argument for gay or heterosexual marriage: that it knits people together and is good for community. In this sense, I am resolutely bourgeois about gay marriage.

The other, even better, argument is not about civility, but about love. Plato believed that our sexual desire, in its highest state, points us towards God. Our earthly loves (for men or women) soften our hearts and prepare us for the deeper experience of God’s love. This is similar to the mystery of love in the New Testament – the Holy Spirit that fills our hearts. Do we really think that the Holy Spirit does not also fill the hearts of gay people…that only straight people receive it? It is more oceanic than that. It flows over boundaries. This, in fact, seems to me what the rest of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is about – God’s love isn’t just for the Jews but for everyone. ‘There is no partiality with God’.

I read today of a Republican senator, Rob Portman, who initially opposed gay marriage, and who changed his position when his 21-year-old son Will told him he was gay. He said: ‘It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a Dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have – to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years’.  That, to me, is a loving father. I’d be surprised if a Republican was capable of greater paternal love than God.

The Anglican church faces a very difficult and painful decision. But if the decision is between politics and love for the marginalised and oppressed, then I think the answer is clearer, particularly when considering the persecution that gay Africans suffer. As Desmond Tutu said: ‘The Jesus I worship is not likely to collaborate with those who vilify and persecute an already oppressed minority.’ That’s also the opinion of this unchurched north London metrosexual liberal, for what it’s worth.

Senator Portman and family. Guess which son is gay. Wrong! It’s the macho one in the centre.


In other news:

On this day in 1884, Tolstoy imagined a Calendar of Wisdom, with entries from Aurelius, Epictetus and the Buddha. The first New Age pick-and-mixer!

Next week sees the release of David Esterly’s philosophical reflection on his vocation as a woodcarver and his love for the Baroque work of Grinling Gibbons. It’s called The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making. He writes: ‘A carver begins as a god and ends as a slave’. Here’s a review from the Boston Globe, comparing the work to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Cardiff Uni has released a pamphlet of six essays about evil and Nietzsche, for A-level philosophy students.

The British Psychology Society has released a monograph on the history of psychology in British education, going back to 1913.

Gallup released an interesting survey on which jobs had the highest well-being (physicians and teachers scored well), finding correlations with the extent to which workers feel they use their strengths at work, and whether they feel their boss is more like a partner.

Interesting and to my mind legitimately scathing take on Frank Furedi and his Institute for Ideas by the Guardian.

Two upcoming events in London – a lecture next Wednesday by Steven Pinker, and Andrew Stead is organising a ‘Five Daily Slices’ event on well-being with five experts on Sunday April 7 (neither of these have paid me to promote this by the way, I’m just giving you a heads-up). Also, there’s a job going at Nina Grunfeld’s Life Clubs in sales, get in touch with her if you’re interested.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has started a sort of ‘consciousness-raising circles’ movement for modern women with her ‘Lean In’ circles. More about that here.

Comedian Stewart Lee had an interesting piece bewailing the disappearance of intellectuals from TV.  He exaggerates how great it was in the past – hardly anyone watched the BBC’s Third Programme in the 50s – and it’s not that bad now, particularly on radio. I was at a great AHRC / Radio 3 workshop on media engagement for humanities academics yesterday, and was very impressed firstly with the calibre of the academics and secondly with how keen Radio 3’s Nightwaves is to engage with academics.

Talking of publicly engaging academics, here is Thomas Dixon, head of the Centre for History of the Emotions, talking about anger in Metro newspaper.

That’s all for this week, see you next week. Thanks to everyone for supporting my book and buying it for their friends!