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
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
This 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
This 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
The 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.
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.
S&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.