We’re all interested in sex. After all, it’s the third appetite – drink, food and sex. And yet powerful taboos exist around sex. It’s not a simple matter. Some people experience discomfort when talking about it or doing it. It is clearly connected to spirituality so what might integral theory suggest about sex?
At the end of the 19th century a number of writers had begun to question the prevailing attitudes toward sex. One pioneering writer was Havelock Ellis. He wrote a book suggesting that homosexuality was simply a natural variation. He also pioneered the idea that women can and ought to enjoy sex. Space does not allow me to go into detail but it is well known that there were some very peculiar ideas about sex. Orgasm in women was regarded as a sign of hysteria. Masturbation was regarded as morally and physically weakening and homosexuality was aberrant. All of this was challenged by a group of thinkers who argued that the study of sexuality should be pursued scientifically, independent of moral prejudice. This field became known as sexology.
At the same time anthropology began to be developed as a discipline. The colonialist expansion introduced Europeans to a wide variety of cultural practices, including radically different views toward sex. Havelock Ellis wrote the forward to a ground breaking book by Bronislaw Malinowski called ‘The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia’. This book explored the sexual practices of the Trobriand Islanders and it revealed the dynamics of a very liberal and open approach. Malinowski challenged Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex and sexual libertarians found evidence in his work that much of the European attitude was based on false moral fear.
These new approaches led to the creation of The World League for Sexual Reform, which included Ellis, Freud, Wilhelm Reich and the writers Aldous Huxley and DH Lawrence. This group was founded by Magnus Hirschfeld who also started the first institute devoted to the discipline of sexology, the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin.
The rise of the Nazis and the Second World War interrupted research into sexology (The Nazis destroyed the ISR in 1933 – many of the images of Nazis burning books are of them destroying the ISR library). The work of sexology lay dormant until Alfred Kinsey and afterwards, Masters and Johnson. The field of sexology is now fairly well established.
How can integral theory add to this discipline? Is there an integral sexology?
Spectrums of sexual types
Almost everyone is aware of the spectrum of homosexuality and heterosexuality. The discipline of sexology has demonstrated that most people are a mixture, there are few pure homosexual types and heterosexual types. Instead there seems to be degrees of bisexuality.
We can also suggest that there are other spectrums of sexual behaviour and expression.
- Introvert to extrovert.
- Monogamous to polyamorous.
- Masculine to feminine (outward and inward).
- Asexual/disinterested to highly sexual.
All of these are normal spectrums and are expressed in both individuals and cultures. This means that people can express a wide range of sexual characters: the extrovert, polyamorous heterosexual; the introverted, disinterested homosexual; the lustful, bisexual swinger; the butch and fem lesbians; the cross-gendered and trans-gendered; the outwardly masculine man with a feminine sexuality; the monogamous, partly disinterested, partly introverted heterosexual. The combinations are endless. They are also subject to change. One can begin by being introverted and heterosexual and become extroverted and bisexual. One can also go through several transitions in a lifetime.
Cultures tolerate different expressions of these spectrums. The Greeks tolerated the homosexual and heterosexual spectrum. The Romans were less openly tolerant of homosexuality but they tolerated an active sexuality. Some cultures allowed polygamy of various types. The Judeo-Christian culture favours a heterosexual, monogamous, disinterested and introverted sexuality.
There are also important differences within stratified societies. What is permitted for the upper classes and elites may not be permitted for the lower classes. The wealthy elites of most societies had access to a wider range of sexual expression than the masses. Despite her reputation Queen Victoria had an extensive collection of nudes, both in painting and in sculpture. Catherine the Great of Russia had private rooms filled with commissioned works of erotica and pornography. It was common practice for the nobility to have mistresses, concubines and lovers. The Sultans of the Ottoman empire had a harem of hundreds of concubines. These societies also created moral systems that demanded the lower classes practiced restraint, so there is a clear political-economic aspect to sexual morality. Any integral theory of sexology must acknowledge this aspect.
Anthropology and sex
After noting the differences between societies sexologists suggested that societies could be placed into four broad categories; sex negative, sex indifferent, sex positive and sex enabling.
Examples of sex negative societies can be found amongst the Nolitic, Hamitic and Semitic language groups. Here we find a generally prohibitive and punitive attitude to any sexual expression outside strict norms. It is among these groups that we find circumcision and female genital mutilation. There is also a strong patriarchal component that values virginity and female marital fidelity. It strongly condemns homosexuality and masturbation and emphasizes procreation over pleasure. Sex negative cultures believe that sex is somehow inherently bad and needs to be controlled. Sex negative cultures also suppress knowledge of sexual matters and orgasm in women can be seen as either bad or irrelevant.
Examples of sex positive cultures are to be found amongst the Polynesians and some Melanesian groups. In Polynesian culture sex is seen as both a pleasure and a sacred act. Sexuality is connected to the idea of mana, a cosmic spiritual force. Polynesian religious ceremonies included sexual acts (Cook reports witnessing a ceremony that involved a twelve year old girl copulating with a prominent warrior, and the first European sailors reported women and girls offering themselves freely – they did so because they thought the Europeans carried great mana and having sex with them gave them access to it). The Polynesians were open about sexual matters and some trained children in the art of pleasure. A Polynesian child would know what an orgasm was and was free to pursue pleasure until they were married. The word tabu is Polynesian but it refers to who one can have sex with. The Polynesians had a caste system and certain people were tabu to others, otherwise there was a permissive attitude. The Trobriand Islanders were perhaps even more permissive. Children were allowed to indulge freely and married adults carried on a number of affairs.
Sex indifferent societies downplay the importance of sex. Sex enabling societies actively encourage sexual expression. Some tribal groups encourage masturbation amongst adolescents. Some do not censure open genital play amongst children. Some cultures believe that genital stimulation of children helps calm them and this can be either manual or oral. In some societies orgasms, ejaculate and menstrual blood have medicinal and magical properties. In Chinese societies sex with young women/girls is said to prevent the decline of old age. In some traditional medicines having a young male masturbate in the presence of a sick person can have medicinal effects.
Anthropologists also discovered that societies had great variation in how they married and ordered their societies. Matriarchal societies had women leaders, patriarchal had male leaders. Patrilineal societies figured issues of descent through the male line and matrilineal through the female line. A society could be patriarchal but matrilineal (Jewish society). Sex negative cultures tend to be both patriarchal and patrilineal. Great importance is placed on ensuring that the male can be certain that a child is his, thus female sexuality needs to be strictly controlled. In matrilineal societies there is no doubt who the mother is. Societies may also allow polygamy – multiple wives is the most common form but some societies allow multiple husbands.
The important thing to note is that anthropologists realized that there were no universal norms or behaviours. It has been said that incest is the only universal prohibition but even that taboo has been broken in some societies. In Japan mother-son incest is recognized as fairly common. In some Indian sub-cultures children participate in their parents sexual activities until the age of around six. There is an old Indian saying: “For a girl to be a virgin at ten years old, she must have neither brothers nor cousin nor father.”
Sexology has been controversial because it has questioned the idea of sexual normalcy. Is there any such thing as normal? Is there sexual pathology?
This is not an easy question. There are a number of variables. A practice that is normal in a sex positive society can be regarded as pathological in a sex negative society. A practice that is forbidden in one society may be freely practiced in another. Here we have to admit that cultural relativism has some validity. There seems to be no universal concept of normal sexuality (although I will suggest later that there is an integral sexual ethics). Sexual morality seems to be arbitrarily imposed, that is, it is not based on any universal behaviour. Rather, it is based on behaviour the elite of any given society deem desirable.
Sexology has created the term paraphilia. It is derived from the Greek philos – meaning love, and para – meaning beyond. A paraphilia is any sexual desire that steps beyond the average adult sexual expression. There are a wide range of paraphilias. The most commonly known is paedophilia, the sexual desire for children (a child is pre-pubescent). Teleiophilia is a child’s sexual desire for an adult; zoophilia is the sexual desire for animals; necrophilia is the desire for the dead.
Paraphilias are said to be caused when normal sexual development is frustrated in some way and is transferred to an ‘outside’ object. This ‘outside’ object is then made into a fetish. In the most extreme cases the paraphiliac can only find sexual release through the fetishized object. So there are degrees of paraphiliac interest and obsession. Clearly if someone is fixated on a single sexual fetish there is a pathology.
The companion to paraphilia is a phobia – a fear of an object or person. In extreme cases of paraphilia there is also a companion phobia.
A prominent factor in paraphilia/phobic complexes is sexual repression. Paraphilia would seem to be primarily a function of sex negative and sex ambivalent societies. However, this is now difficult to prove. Those sex positive cultures that did exist have since been altered irretrievably by colonialism and missionary activity. No pure sex positive culture exists today. Christian morality has replaced traditional Polynesian and Melanesian attitudes.
However there are some intriguing reports from pre-colonial times. Malinowski observed that Trobriand Island children were free to indulge in sexual play, including intercourse. He asked the adults if this led to the children being exploited by adults with paedophile tendencies. The adults were puzzled and shocked by his question. They had never heard of a such a thing and couldn’t conceive of adults being interested in children. It would seem that there was no paedophilia in the Trobriand Islands. Malinowski also observed that there seemed to be no evidence of Freud’s Oedipus complex, no evidence of incestuous desire amongst parents and children. Malinowski is noted for his challenge to Freud on this point and they had a brief correspondence.
What are the possible dynamics behind this? It would seem that in sex positive societies sexuality is allowed full expression and it is therefore allowed to develop normally. Early sexual curiosity is satisfied and so it does not transmute into paraphilia.
Support for this idea is found in the recent cases of child abuse in religious communities. This is not restricted to just the Catholic church but includes recent cases amongst Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and even the Amish. These sub-cultures advocate a sex negative sexual morality which might explain a high incidence of paedophilia and other paraphilias.
This tells us that sexual pathology cannot be divorced from the sexual practices of a given society.
It is clear that sexual desire is a strong component of our psyche. There are two broad systems of thought about this. One is the Western psychodynamic view and the other is the Eastern psycho-spiritual view.
The father of the Western view is Sigmund Freud. I’m going to skip over much of his theory (for reasons of space and because I don’t want to wade through the enormous amount of material the Freudians have produced). He observed that many of the psychological complexes people developed stemmed from sexual problems. We have already mentioned the Oedipus complex but he also developed a theory that vaginal orgasm was superior to clitoral orgasm, that mature sexual activity was genital and that society demanded the control of the sexual impulse which in its primitive form was polymorphous.
Freud has been much criticized. We have already mentioned Malinowski’s criticism of the Oedipus complex but recent criticisms have focused on his underlying assumptions. Feminists have criticized his prejudice against clitoral orgasm and others have pointed to his uncritical acceptance of social norms. I would add that many of the psycho-sexual problems Freud encountered may be a problem of a thwarted sexual desire in a sex negative society. Some writers have been even more direct saying that Freud simply reflects the sexual repression of 19th century Viennese society
Wilhelm Reich studied under Freud and eventually disagreed with his mentor over sexuality. Where Freud seemed to support conventional morality Reich advocated it be replaced by a sex positive culture. Reich contributed the theory of body armour – the idea that sexual tension was held in the body, physically and emotionally. He argued that these tensions could be released through a full body orgasm. His ideas have gone on to influence a range of somatic therapies.
Reich also argued that political power, especially fascism, relied on sexual repression. This lead to an explosion of ideas about psychological repression as a tool of power. European philosophy has expanded this idea on many fronts – Lacan, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari. An integral sexology must acknowledge these theorists.
Stanislav Grof has made some interesting theoretical contributions to the potential causes of pathology with his theory of the basic peri-natal matrices. Wilber has criticized Grof for committing the Pre/Trans fallacy, but this relates to the confusion of the pre-natal ground with the universal Ground. This disagreement does not detract from Grof’s overall theory.
Jung was surprisingly silent on sexual matters but we can see sexual desire being affected by the archetypes. Jung acknowledged that the energetic qualities of archetypes could be expressed in sexual images and energies. Archetypes can appear in a highly eroticized form.
The Eastern view has been expressed in Yogic and Taoist psycho-spiritual theories. These lend some support the Reich’s theories but are far more sophisticated.
Yoga theory recognizes that energy, prana, flows throughout a complex system of channels in the body (nadi). Blocks in the flow of prana cause a range of symptoms. Yoga theory also recognizes that humans are made up of five sheaths (kosha): the anamayakosha – physical body; pranamayakosha – emotional body; manomayakosha – mental body; vijnanamayakosha – higher mental body; anandamayakosha – body of bliss. Prana flows through all these bodies and each body affects the others. Blocks in the flow of prana are called samskaras – impressions or knots. Sexual energy is a form of prana and sexual samskaras can block the flow of prana in general. Thus yoga psychology places considerable importance on appropriate sexual conduct as a necessary part of a spiritual practice. However, as I will explain later there is disagreement between different yogas.
The Taoist system shares some similarities with yogic psycho-spiritual theories, although there are differences in the anatomy of the different bodies. It is not necessary to go into this here, anyone who is interested can find a large amount of literature on this subject. One area in which Taoism differs from many yoga systems is in its attitude toward sexuality. Both yoga and Taoism emphasize the retention of semen, but Taoism argues that sexual congress is an important way to facilitate the proper flow of Qi. Chinese sexual morality differs in many ways from Indian sexual morality. Again we return to the basic fact that there seems to be no universal sexual morality.
There are interesting similarities between the Indian and Chinese systems and Reich’s theories. There are a range of modern therapies and theories that combine aspects of all of these theories. What we can say with some certainty is that the healthy expression of the sexual drive is essential to psychological and spiritual wellbeing. But what we are not clear about is what is normal. Sexual trauma is complex and has to be understood using all four quadrants. Some sexual trauma can be caused by a conflict between personal desire (UL), internalized norms (LL) and group norms (LR) rather than in the sexual act itself (UR). Paraphilias, phobias and samskaras can arise because the subject has no means by which to resolve the dilemma. In sex negative societies there is a lack of a sophisticated language in which to discuss erotic desire as well as a prohibition on discussing sex at all. Repression is normative. When Alfred Kinsey first began to counsel young married couples he was appalled to find out just how ignorant they were. They had no words with which to discuss what they were experiencing. Is it any wonder that sexual samskaras develop?
Sex and religion
In SES Wilber uses the terms Ascender and Descender. I understand that Wilber has moved on from this sort of simple polarity into a more complex view as part of his Integral Methodological Pluralism. However, this simple duality still affects the way people think about the problem of religion and sexuality. I think it’s fine to keep this polarity in mind, but only in the back of the mind. The reality is far more complex. To give one example; people often speak of an Apollonian and Dionysian polarity. The Greeks however would find this amusing. One cannot understand Apollo without understanding his twin sister Artemis. They express both a duality and a complementarity. Nor was Apollo removed from the natural world. Artemis had a hundred nymphs as her companions but Apollo is sometimes called Apollo Nymphegetes, the ruling deity of the nymphs. So rather than being a remote, somewhat abstract god interested in the arts and philosophy, he was also connected to the earth. Dionysus also shows a similar duality. Yes, he was the god of wine and sexual excess, but he was also the god of high spiritual ecstasy.
So where does the polarity arise? I can only make a tentative suggestion but it would seem to have arisen as a result of the transition from an agrarian society that worshipped mother earth to a society based on a warrior code and the use of conquest to create surplus. An abundant agrarian society can afford to indulge in sensual pleasures but a society struggling to survive under the constant threat of invasion from rival groups has to have military discipline. Matriarchal and matrilineal societies thrive in abundant societies and patriarchal and patrilineal systems survive better in times of violent conflict where masculine strength is highly valued. Greek societies provide an interesting example of how these two forces combined in interesting ways. There is the example of a tribe of warrior women called the Amazons. Whether this is myth or reality is irrelevant (however most historians agree there is some truth to the stories). Spartan society is known for its harsh martial discipline, but what is less known is that Spartan women created an almost separate culture. Spartan women were literate with some becoming well known poets (Cleitagora and Megalostrata) and philosophers (Chilonis, Cleanor and Cratesiclea) and there is also the suggestion that prominent Spartan women took girls as lovers just as Athenian men took boys as lovers whilst acting as their mentors. Girls participated naked in athletics, wrestling and boxing and Spartan kings gained authority through matrilineal descent. The famous Helen was highly prized because she was the key to the Spartan throne.
On the island of Lesbos female homosexuality was accepted giving rise to the poet Sappho. Yet, despite these variations the Greeks maintained a disciplined military culture and a successful empire.
The idea that sex is bad and physically, mentally, morally and spiritually debilitating seems to arise in male warrior cultures. It would seem that the real reason is the effect open sexuality has on male bonding and military discipline, particularly if men are allowed to explore variant sexuality. There may also be a link between sexual release and aggression, particularly the idea that sexual indulgence calms aggression. This idea found its way into sports training where sexual activity before an event was said to sap the athletes vitality. This has since been disproven.
There have been several ways in which male societies have dealt with this. In Sparta boys were separated from the society of women at a young age. Their sexual desires were transmuted into a military homosexual culture. When a Spartan married he did not live with his wife. Instead he would steal into the matrimonial home in the night and then return to the male barracks. Much of Spartan society was directed to creating strong men and women, strong women were said to give birth to strong warriors. Heterosexual intercourse was directed toward procreation and homosexual practices reserved for release and pleasure. In Athenian society married women were kept in the home and were meant to produce children. Men pursued pleasure through homosexual liaisons or prostitutes. Some women were able to take lovers.
The Polynesian societies, whilst having a warrior tradition, did not face the same degree of threat from invasion. Conflict occurred but not to the extent that other societies faced. In these cultures sexual pleasure was not seen as a debilitating force. Instead it was seen as a positive force.
Now, if we can move to something of a sweeping generalization. Those religions that arose out of a patriarchal, warrior culture developed a sex negative belief system concerned with preserving male strength and power, as well as patrilineal descent. The control of sex was essential to ensuring male cohesion. Those religions that arose out of a matrilineal and non-warrior culture developed sex positive belief systems that emphasized the spiritual importance of fertility and the creative nature of sexuality.
It is not so much a question of Ascent or Descent but a question of matriarchal power in societies based on peaceful and abundant trade relations or of patriarchal power based on conquest in conditions of competition and scarcity. The matriarchal worldview saw spirituality as an ecstatic gift as part of the abundance of the gods, most often a Mother Earth figure. The patriarchal worldview saw spirituality in terms of a larger war against good and evil. They created monastic orders that resembled military barracks.
Greek society was complex and you find expressions of both modes. Some Greeks allowed sexual indulgence but others cautioned against sexual excess.
This polarity was developed further in all religions. The most extreme sex negative attitudes can be found amongst the early Christians. They developed the idea that sexual sin caused the fall of man through a literal interpretation of the eclectic myth of the Garden of Eden. This was combined with the ascetic practices of Jesus and the teachings of Paul who argued that whilst it was better not to marry at all it was better to marry than give into sexual licence.
Elements of this ascetic aversion to sex can be found in Buddhism, particularly in its attitude towards female enlightenment. It’s most extreme expression is the belief amongst some Theravadins that even touching a woman is bad karma.
The opposite view is found in the Tantric and Taoist traditions (and Gnostic). These traditions embrace the feminine and both include sexual intimacy as part of their spiritual practice. Both developed a highly sophisticated understanding and language of the erotic arts, both produced detailed manuals on sexual techniques and psycho-sexual dynamics and both recognized the ability of women to achieve enlightenment.
However some questions have not been resolved. We do not fully know the impact sexuality has on spiritual practice. We do not know whether the practice of semen retention is necessary (modern medicine argues that regular ejaculation helps prevent prostate cancer, does this mean celibates have a higher incidence?). Is homosexuality a problem? Does anal sex cause problems? Again, there seem to be no norms. Some yoga systems argue against homosexuality but it was an accepted practice in both China and Greece.
Developmental aspects of sexuality
It makes sense that sexuality would develop in similar fashion to cognition, values, moral reasoning, etc. But is sexuality a separate line or is it affected by the other lines of development; cognitive, affectation, values and moral reasoning? Can we talk of sexual moral reasoning? What does sexual moral reasoning mean?
I take the view that sexual act in itself is a rather simple mechanical (UR) activity. It requires skill but this skill can be learnt. In this sense it is like any other skill and a skill is not a separate developmental line. There are as many skill lines as there are skills – tennis is a skill, playing an instrument, playing a game, mastering a process. I realise that in saying this I am opening another can of theoretical worms, but essentially someone with a low cognitive level can be highly skilled in certain areas, although a high cognitive level certainly enriches the skill.
If there is any developmental aspect to sexuality it lies in a complex negotiation of the LL, UL and LR domains. Having a high level of cognitive, affective and moral development will help the individual negotiate the competing demands of each quadrant.
It also follows that Kohlberg’s moral stages can be applied to sexual moral reasoning, therefore we can speak of preconventional, conventional and postconventional sexual moral reasoning.
Such sexual moral reasoning is necessarily constrained by the dominant sexual morality code of the society the individual finds themselves in. Thus being postconventional in a sex negative society or sub-culture poses problems that being postconventional in a sex positive society or sub-culture does not.
I actually think that the most important developmental factor is the prevailing sexual morality code of any given society. In past articles I have outlined a political-economy spectrum of development (Thoughts Toward an Integral Political Economy). It seems to me that sex has a high value in all societies and that controlling sex allows a society to control desire and convert it to surplus. I have previously defined surplus as an excess of anything of value and what is valued is defined by the developmental level of a given society. This suggests a hierarchy of sexuality as a hierarchy of sex converted to surplus.
- Stage of unrestrained and instinctive polymorphous sexuality. This is associated with early family groups. There are no clear conventions and there is wide variation in sexual behaviour including bisexuality, incest, child-adult expression, zoophilia, masturbation, etc. Sexual activity can be non-consensual and include rape. Primate anthropology confirms this and also notes the pattern of the dominant male getting sexual preference. We will see that the surplus of the dominant male or elite is also a tradable/useable commodity.
- As a society develops into a larger tribal entity various sexual rules and taboos are observed. At this stage there is still considerable variation between tribal groups but sexual rules within the group can be quite strict. These rules are applied to reinforce magical beliefs, for example, Semitic societies had a magical belief about spilling semen whereas other societies believed semen had healing properties and could be spilled. At this stage access to sexual partners is also constrained according to the particular nature of the society. At this stage there are again, numerous variations; patrilineal, matrilineal, polygamous, etc. In big man societies the big man can preserve certain females (or men) for himself or allow access to females (or men) as part of his power.
- In early state societies sexuality is further constrained by the stratified nature of the society. The highest classes seek to control the sexual expression of the lower classes. This serves several power functions. First it helps control population, but second, and most importantly, it turns desire into a shortage. If desire is unsatisfied it can be converted into desire for other things (it is no secret why sex is used in advertising – would it work if people felt satiated or could satisfy their desire in other ways?). The shortage can be manipulated to control the lower classes – the only access to sexual satisfaction is through the right channels. A state sanctioned religion is an instrument of moral control. The Judeo-Christian ethic placed a particular emphasis on heterosexual, monogamous life partnerships sanctioned by a religious marriage ceremony. The state refused to recognise any other form of relationship. By controlling sex the church was able to control minds.
- In late state societies there is a rebellion against stratified society. The rise of a wealthy middle-class challenges the traditional power structures. During this phase individualism appears and various ideologies that challenge traditional authority, including traditional moral authority, appear. At this stage individuals begin to question the sexual norms of their society and sexual sub-cultures assert themselves. Individuals break free from moral constraints and sexual experimentation is increasingly tolerated.
- The period of individualistic sexual expression discovers natural constraints. One of these constraints is the limitation of objectification. Put simply the individual discovers that others do not like to be objectified and this introduces the constraint of intersubjectivity. In other words, sexual expression has to be negotiated with the other. There is then a corresponding explosion of polymorphous ‘consent’ groups exploring a wide variety of sexualities, including ecstatic and mystical traditions.
Now at this point you may be expecting me to introduce a transpersonal element, but it is not as simple as that. The extent of spiritual development is a parallel line that may or may not affect sexual expression – I will explain that later.
At this point I want to suggest that preconventional sexual morality is concerned with levels 1 and 2, conventional with the tension between 3 and 4, and postconventional with 4 and 5.
Again, the expression of postconventional morality is constrained by the level of a given society. Societies at level 3 often impose a series of extreme laws punishing certain sexual expressions. In some societies homosexuals have been condemned to death and sex outside marriage punished in a variety of ways. In sex negative societies any ‘deviant’ sexual practice is condemned and punished. Thus any postconventional sexual morality is severely constrained.
Modern Western society is experiencing a number of conflict scenarios. The conventional sexual morality of level 3 with the individualistic ethics of level 4, and the postconventional ethics of level 5 with both level 3 and 4. These conflicts create an intense political struggle which I will explain later.
Sex and spiritual development
I’m going to make the tentative claim that sex is actually incidental to spiritual development. Or, rather, it may or may not be important. It depends on whether or not the individual has developed sexual samskaras or psycho-sexual blocks.
In all meditation or contemplation traditions all non-essential activity is consciously controlled so as to prevent distraction. All activity is focused on the goal of spiritual realisation. It is a discipline like any other. Serious disciples remove themselves from all distractions, including food distractions, entertainment distractions, relationship distractions and sexual distractions. It is difficult to perceive the more subtle mental states if one is thinking about eating chocolate, seeing a movie, worrying about a relationship or indulging a sexual fantasy. It’s all about concentration and discipline.
However, many spiritual disciplines also recognize that aversion is as distracting as desire. Trying to not think about chocolate, a lover or sex can be just as distracting as thinking about chocolate, a lover or sex.
This process of mental discipline is further challenged by the fact that the psycho-spiritual process involves, in Eastern disciplines, the unblocking of samskaras. This process can involve reliving the physical, emotional, mental and bliss sensations connected to the samskara. Thus the disciple can go through a roller coaster ride of sensations, emotions, thoughts and subtle experiences. If these samskaras are sexual in nature then the disciple will relive and re-experience sexual energies, some of these can be amplified. So any authentic (using Wilber’s definition of authentic and legitimate) spiritual tradition ought to have a sophisticated understanding of this process and be able to explain it to the disciple, particularly in reassuring them and reminding them to be neither desirous of or averse to the experiences.
However, this is not always the case. Those spiritual disciplines that have arisen in sex negative societies have an unfortunate history of creating aversion to non-normative sexual experiences. Aversion creates corresponding negative emotions of guilt, shame, anger, hatred and so forth. But aversion can also lead to the creation of additional samskaras and of paraphilia and phobia. In such traditions authentic spiritual experiences are often mixed in with intense psycho-sexual complexes where sexual energy is transferred to a religious object or person. Aldous Huxley explored this theme in his book ‘The Devils of Loudon’.
Those spiritual disciplines that have arisen in more sex positive societies have been better at articulating the aversion problem. This brings us to the topic of Tantricism and the issue of sexual mores in spiritual disciplines.
Indian society is complex. It has certain commonalties that allow us to create the religious category of Hinduism. Yet Hinduism is not a single religion. It is simply an umbrella term for a wide variety of different religious traditions. These traditions were able to flourish because India was never a homogenous political entity, at least, not until independence in 48. The various rulers patronised various sects and allowed them to develop. Some of these traditions are sexually conservative and based on a warrior code, such as orthodox Brahmanism and some forms of Vaishnavism. The Bhagavad Gita is a chapter in a book, the Mahabharata, which is the story of an epic battle between the forces of dharma (good) and adharma (evil). Krishna gives Arjuna a very militaristic form of spiritual advice just before he is to go into the decisive battle. However India also developed a matriarchal, non-warrior based spiritual tradition expressed in some (but not all) of the Shaiva and Shakta groups. Tantra is a non-orthodox tradition that is rooted in the ancient agricultural and matriarchal shamanic traditions. Tantra went on to influence Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religious thought.
There is an unfortunate misunderstanding in the West about what Tantrism is about. It has often been reduced to an exotic set of sexual techniques. However Tantrism itself is divided into two paths, often called the left-hand and right-hand paths. The left-hand path includes a variety of yogic techniques that aim to subvert the moral constraints of orthodox Brahmanism. It is an intentional transgression aimed at subverting aversion. Thus some Tantric yogis meditate near funeral pyres and drink out of a human skull to overcome the aversion to death. Left-hand Tantric yogis may also use sexual acts to both positively affect the psycho-spiritual process and to overcome the aversion to certain sexual practices. The Naga sect often go about naked and the tradition of the avadhut is one that directly challenges normal aversions.
The right-hand path however, does not overtly practice these techniques. Instead they are used only as dharana, or meditative visualizations. Thus a right-handed Tantrika will only visualize having sex with a consort, or only visualize a corpse.
What many Western ‘Tantric’ workshops have actually done is distort the spiritual reasons behind the philosophy and extracted the exotic sexual techniques to heighten often purely individualistic sexual experience. I have nothing against people being taught sophisticated sexual techniques, but it is dishonest to call these workshops ‘Tantric’.
The point is that the various Tantric practices are not ends in themselves. They are techniques designed to achieve a particular end and should be discarded when that end has been achieved.
At this stage I should make a brief note about Taoist sexual practices. Some Taoist schools use sexual practices to increase the flow of Qi. This is done for two broad reasons, to increase health and vitality and to stimulate spiritual awareness. Again, this is not the place to go into detail. I will note however, that there are interesting differences amongst various Yoga schools and Taoist schools. Some Yoga schools prohibit homosexuality and anal sex because it is said to have an adverse affect on kundalini, a psycho-sexual, spiritual energy. There also seems to be a distinct bias in favour of male spiritual realization.
I am also sceptical about the concept of semen retention. There is a tradition amongst warrior cultures of virility. The Latin root is vir, from which we get the words, virtue and virile. It is a also a heroic, disciplined, masculine energy that can be depleted by the feminine. There is often a sense of storing virility in the practice of semen retention and I wonder how much this practice stems from a masculine/feminine conflict. The essence of deep Tantra is the blending of the masculine and feminine aspects of the Divine, often symbolized as the mixing of the white essence of semen and the red essence of menstrual blood. At a deeper level semen retention seems to me to be about trying to control the feminine rather than truly surrendering to it. I am also sceptical as to the extent that it is truly practiced. There have been a number of instances where spiritual teachers have advocated celibacy only to be caught out indulging in sex themselves (thus repeating the big man system of level 2, in other words, it’s simply an exercise of power).
These are questions I cannot answer but they provide an interesting challenge to Integral Sexology.
Religion as a carrier of sexual pathology
Authentic spirituality is a path toward the highest spiritual realisation. Very often authentic spiritual practitioners challenge the authority of conventional religions. Conventional religions may or may not offer an authentic spiritual path. Instead they often act as an important institution within stratified societies, providing a metaphysical and mythical justification to the overall system of power. This is itself a complex issue but it is one that an Integral Sexology must investigate.
Areas to be investigated are (this is not a comprehensive list).
- Sexual abuse by religious leaders, including gurus and priests, not only of children but of adult disciples. What is proper sexual conduct? When is a sexual practice necessary and when is it simply exploitive?
- What is the role of repression in religion? Are some religious experiences simply the expression of sexual pathology? For example, to what extent are religious figures used to project sexual fantasies? Are some spiritual experiences of celibate nuns and priests simply psycho-sexual and not authentic?
- How do religious teachings on sexual morality contribute to a sex negative view and to the increase of paraphilia and sexual phobia? For example, why has the Catholic church experienced such a problem with pederast priests and other Christian denominations with both systemic child abuse and institutional denial of that abuse (it’s the institutional denial that is often the most traumatic to the victim)?
- What does a sex positive, authentic spiritual practice look like?
Integral sexual ethics
The prime directive argues that all human activity ought to be judged by whether or not it promotes the highest developmental potential in society and individuals. Any action can thwart developmental progress or it can assist it. Integral ethics ought to be concerned with advocating any practice that aids developmental progress and speaking out against any practice that thwarts developmental progress.
I have argued that this applies in the field of political economy. It must also apply in the field of sexuality.
What personal and public sexual practices aid developmental progress?
This is not an easy problem to solve. This is because what will aid one person may inhibit another. The solution to one person’s sexual issue may be a more open sexual expression but the solution to another’s may be more restraint. In any case an Integral sexual ethics demands a tolerant society in order to allow the maximum opportunity for positive sexual expression.
It ought to be apparent that the five levels outlined above each have their own sexual ethics. Integral sexual ethics is really postconventional sexual ethics. We can summarize the five ethical positions thus.
- No ethics.
- Ethics designed to maintain tribal/family cohesion.
- Ethics designed to maintain power relations in a stratified society.
- Individual ethics designed to maximise personal pleasure.
- Consensual ethics based on polymorphous groups.
I would also now introduce a sixth level, having outlined the impact of an authentic spiritual practice on sexuality.
- Self-disciplined sexuality under the direction of the integral prime directive.
A self-disciplined person will naturally act in a way that is beneficial to themselves, their sexual partners and to the relevant peer groups, associations, sub-cultures and societies they find themselves in.
One of the aspects of this self-discipline is an understanding of and sensitivity to the developmental level of sexual partners and the peer group affected by the relationship. One of the most challenging aspects of life is successfully negotiating sexual and affective relationships. Because sexuality is such a potent force it gives rise to powerful emotions. Much of the emotional turmoil we feel is based on our reactions to and perceptions (mostly false) of our present partner and those we desire as sexual partners. I would suggest that such emotional turmoil is amplified in sex negative societies where access to sexual release is severely constrained. Such emotions as envy, jealousy, hurt, anger, etc, are closely linked to our access to sexual joy.
And because sex is a powerful desire it can be used to manipulate people. Who hasn’t withdrawn affection and sexual satisfaction to try and control our partners? Who hasn’t flirted with someone else in order to control another? An integral sexual ethic must play careful attention to the games people play and constantly ask if they serve the prime directive.
Here it is essential to reflect on the games played by spiritual leaders on their disciples. There are been too many cases of spiritual teachers abusing their position of authority to gain sexual advantage. As I have mentioned above this sees the organization revert to level 2 where the teacher becomes the big man of a virtual tribe and sex is used as a potent, hidden currency. There will be a core group of enablers who know what is going on, maintain the secrecy and aid the teacher, even picking out potential ‘concubines’ for their teacher. Their reward is a sense of power and a vicarious sexual pleasure. In such cases the enablers may get tossed the scraps, as it were. If the teacher is male, the close male enablers may use the ‘concubines’ rejected by the teacher. In the case of the female enablers they may be motivated by the hope they will somehow share in the teacher’s sexual ‘magic’. Meanwhile the people on the outside of this sexual conspiracy are asked to maintain celibacy, thus increasing the sexual tension in the group. This dynamic would have to be one of the most destructive of genuine spiritual development. It’s an indicator of how pervasive sexual desire is and how it can be manipulated.
A truly integral spiritual practice must clearly understand this dynamic and ensure that there is sexual honesty and transparency in the group. The traditional guru/disciple relationship arose in feudal systems and it is based on level 2 dynamics. A careful reading of the Great Wisdom Traditions reveals that spiritual grace does not reside in a person. A guru is really a theatrical device. The real work is initiated by one’s own inner guru.
An integral sexual ethics is a tough task master, but it is about self-mastery. Only the individual can know their motivations and the real ethical level they are working at.
I should also note the problem of the power and wisdom gap between different developmental levels. Clearly an individual operating at a high level of cognitive development has a more sophisticated understanding than one operating at a lower level. This opens up the possibility of manipulation through a power differential. This is often spoken of in feminist theories of sexual relations. It is also spoken of in terms of professional relationships, such as between a student and teacher, employee and employer, and child and guardian. However, not all power imbalances are inherently abusive. The mentoring relationship can often be dynamic and positive. It is possible for there to be sexual mentoring. But there is also considerable potential for an exploitive relationship. Again, an integral sexual ethic demands self-discipline and considerable honesty in motivation. A sexual relationship should not entered into if it is likely to be harmful to the developmental progress of either individual.
The problem of child and adolescent sexuality
This is one of the most fraught and controversial topics in sexology. And it is the one topic most subject to misunderstanding and emotional confusion. It is also an area where deep psycho-dynamic processes can create public and private hysteria. As difficult as this subject is it is absolutely essential to understand.
First, let’s state some controversial facts, facts that some try to ignore or even suppress.
- Children are sexual beings from birth. Sexual arousal has been measured in both boys and girls in utero. Both boys and girls are capable of sexual arousal throughout childhood. Girls are able to experience orgasm at any age. The issue with boys is less clear – there is some evidence of non-ejaculatory orgasm in boys, with some anecdotal suggestion of a multi-orgasmic potential. These are simply physiological facts. The question of whether children should experience orgasm is cultural. Children are sexually curious and masturbation and sexual play is common. Children also have sexual fantasies and attractions. How children process their sexual curiosity and experiences is again cultural. In sex negative societies the reality of children’s sexuality is often denied or punished. In sex positive societies children’s sexuality is recognised.
- The ethnographic material shows that for most societies across most of human history children have participated in sexual activity in various ways. In tribal societies they witness adults having sex and engage in open sexual play. There are two broad patterns of initiation into full sexual maturity. In many cultures this is simply occurs when the child (particularly a girl) is physically big enough to have intercourse. Amazonian tribes believe that semen causes menstruation and therefore girls start having intercourse between the ages of 8 and 10. Amongst some Australian Aborigines promised brides go to live with their husband around the same age. He has full sexual access to her. India has long had a history of child brides. The other pattern is that menarche and ejacularche mark the beginning of sexual availability (for much of its history the European age of marriage followed Roman law which set it at age 12). Following this custom Mohammed consummated his marriage to his second wife Aisha when she was 9 – she had suffered an early menarche. It is also likely that Mary gave birth to Jesus when she was in her early teens (the myth of the virgin birth may also have to do with her falling pregnant before her menarche). Is God therefore a paedophile? There are enormous variations around this. Some societies allow a period of sexual experimentation before marriage and others try to control adolescent extra-marital sexual activity (with varying degrees of success).
- There is also considerable ethnographic material to show that child-adult sexual relations are also common. This can range from incest to institutionalized access to children, usually through slavery or prostitution. A considerable component of it is purely exploitive but some of it takes the form of mutual enjoyment and as a form of sexual mentoring. In some societies an aunt or uncle initiates the child into sexual techniques. In others sexual techniques are taught and demonstrated.
- The idea that children and adolescents are sexual innocents is actually rare and is confined to European, Christian societies, particularly Anglo-American societies. It is also historically rare, being largely a phenomenon of the late 19th century and finding its fullest expression in the 20th century.
The idea of the innocent child is a cultural construct with an interesting history. The Catholic church had the doctrine of original sin and children were often seen as seducers and tempters until they had been disciplined. During its long hold on power the Catholic church did not challenge the prevailing norm of the marriageable age of 12. The challenge came from two contradictory sources. The first was Protestant theology which challenged the idea of original sin and which developed the contrary idea of original innocence. This doctrine argued that individuals had the choice to individually repeat the story of the Fall when they reached maturity, until that time they were innocent of sin. And given that the Christian narrative of the Fall is inextricably connected to sexuality the act of immoral sex was a primary cause of repeating the error of the Fall. It became essential then, that children be protected from a preternatural Fall by being kept as sexual innocents for as long as possible. The idea of the innocent child was further entrenched when adults began to project their own sexual doubts and fears onto the child as a kind of empty vessel. Thus the idea of the innocent child was invested with considerable adult psychic projective power. In this way adults became very protective, not of individual children, but of a highly romanticized, idealized concept of a perfect, innocent childhood. An idea that has no basis in the reality of children as they are.
The second source was the Age of Reason and the gradual realisation that Christian theology was based on myth. As European civilization encountered scientific evidence and also encountered other cultures with divergent norms the Christian tradition actually retreated further into a romanticized image of the child. The rapid changes of the Industrial Revolution also contributed and by the end of the 19th Century reform movements, thankfully, ended child labour and child prostitution. Of course these things had gone on for centuries without too much objection, children had always worked in the fields and the poor had always sold them into prostitution.
The modern concept of an age of consent arose at this time. As a result of a public outcry over child prostitution in Britain the government increased the non-married age of consent from 10 to 13 in 1875 and then to 16 in 1885. The age of married consent remained at 12 until 1929. This pattern of reform was eventually repeated in many Western countries but with varying ages of consent. The highest age was set at 18 in some American states. The Spanish colonies however, often opted for a much lower age of consent – 13 in Spain and 12 in Peru and Colombia. Japan and Korea have also have a low age of consent.
The justification for the age of consent is actually entirely arbitrary. It is simply the age at which a society feels adolescents (girls in particular) should be able to consent to intercourse. It is actually not based on any solid empirical data. In fact it seems to be more about protecting the institution of Christian marriage, as evidenced by the many instances of gaps between married consent and non-married consent. (In some ME countries there is no minimum age of married consent but a high age of non-married consent – 21).
What this has done over time is actually expand the age of innocence. Strictly speaking a child is pre-pubescent, but now adolescents are being called children and the terms child abuse and paedophilia are being used to refer to all sex with legal minors. Thus a mature adolescent can be called an ‘innocent child’. The term paedophile is being increasingly misused. A true paedophile is an adult who is exclusively attracted to children. An adult who is exclusively attracted to adolescents is actually called an ephebophile. Ephebophilia only became problematic when the age of consent was raised. In the past adult men could marry adolescent girls. Most child abuse is actually committed by opportunistic adults. True paedophilia is rare.
What does developmental psychology have to say about the notion of consent? It depends on what you mean by consent. The idea of the child/adolescent as an innocent means that a child cannot consent because they are innocent. It’s a circular argument. In other words, the age of consent is not really about whether or not a particular child can consent but whether or not they ought to consent.
Consent requires the power to choose and a knowledge of the possible consequences of that choice. For a considerable slice of history women and girls have often simply not had the power to choose. Marriages have often been arranged and non-married women were discriminated against. The idea that a woman or girl could freely consent is actually a product of the modernist discourse on human rights, given extra weight through the feminist movement. Arranged marriages are still a reality in many countries, as unfortunately, is rape as a means of controlling women.
The question of understanding the consequences of an action depend on two important factors. The first is the learned knowledge about the likely consequences and the second is the ability to understand that knowledge. Acquiring knowledge is simply a matter of effective education. In sex negative societies this knowledge either does not exist or is highly restricted. In many societies children are simply not given adequate knowledge about sex. The idea of the innocent child also involves keeping the child ignorant, even of his or her own natural sexual responses. In traditional Polynesian societies children knew what an orgasm was. In the West a child might misunderstand and fear an orgasmic response out of ignorance.
The ability to understand the knowledge is dependent on the level of cognitive, affective and moral development. It is here that we run into an interesting situation. Development in these areas is inconsistent. That is, it can be rapid in one person and slow in another. If we assume that consent can occur when an individual achieves an minimum level of adult competence, which in Kohlbergian terms is stage three (early conventional moral reasoning) and in cognitive terms is formal operational, then we have to admit that some exceptional individuals are able to consent at a young age and some adults are not able to consent at all (which raises the interesting question of sexual rights for the intellectually disabled). The fact is that some intelligent children enter postconventional moral reasoning and systematic thinking before the legal age of consent and despite actually being more competent than the average adult are denied the right to choose.
But consent means nothing unless you define what it is you are consenting to. The fact is that children are expected to make a range of decisions that stretch their developmental abilities all the time. We now come to another factor. In sex negative societies the decision to have sex is a big issue. In sex positive societies it is a relatively small issue. In sex negative societies the sexual act is loaded with complex meanings. In sex positive societies it is often a simple act of pleasure.
What adds considerable confusion to this issue is that it is a really big issue for some people in the West and not so big for others. If you come from a strict Catholic family being caught masturbating as a child may have all sorts of additional meanings. Whereas being seen masturbating in a liberal, secular family may be inconsequential. This diversity of meaning is important to understand, especially when we come to discuss child abuse. And I should add that this diversity of meaning is confusing to many competent adults.
What has all this got to do with Integral Sexology? Quite a lot. The denial of children’s sexuality is one of the major causes of sexual dysfunction in later life. It is a primary cause of paraphilia and phobia. The myth of the innocent child is simply a device to keep children ignorant. It means that they are given no language and no conceptual apparatus with which to understand their sexual desires and experiences. They are therefore forced to invent more acceptable narratives or to simply suppress their experiences.
It’s a serious pathology and I’m going to give it a name, erotopaedophobia, the fear of children’s sexuality. It’s an extension of a general erotophobia found in Western society.
The politics of child abuse
During the 80’s and early 90’s there was considerable public hysteria over child abuse. It has died down but there is still an unacceptably high level of moral panic over the issue. The evidence does not support the hysteria. There has been no increase in the incidence of paedophilia or child abuse. It’s largely a myth created by the same forces who have invested in the idea of the innocent child. In many ways the hysteria bares a remarkable similarity to the hysteria over witches. At its height the hysterics claimed there were multiple satanic covens ritually abusing children. The covens were well connected and included judges, politicians, wealthy businessmen and the police. An FBI report showed that there had been no evidence of ritual abuse. But this did not deter the hysterics. The ritual abusers were so clever apparently they could fool the best forensic scientists. The scenarios painted by the hysterics were elaborate and bore a remarkable resemblance to scenarios painted by other hysterics at other times.
This wave of hysteria also resulted in several famous child care centre abuse cases. These also shared elaborate fantasy scenarios and again, most were eventually thrown out of court or successfully appealed. At the same time repressed memory syndrome was popular. It has now been discredited but it resulted in several serious and tragic miscarriages of justice.
This has now led to a counter movement that argues that there is a politically and religiously motivated child abuse industry that is itself abusing children. Some psychologists have now been deregistered for malpractice and police are getting better training at investigating child abuse. One of the great tragedies of the hysteria is the fear that permeates any activity where adults come into contact with children. In some constituencies parents who want to coach sporting teams have to undergo police checks, this deters many. Mandatory reporting has led to false accusations, such as the father questioned because his pre-school daughter had said he had touched her bottom. Indeed he had, wiping it for her as any parent would. Some parents are now so confused about what appropriate intimate contact is that they have withdrawn most intimate contact, like the father who stopped brushing his daughter’s hair in case it was seen as too intimate, despite the fact that such daughter/father intimacy is important to her development. There have been other cases where children who had experienced pleasurable incidents of adult-child sexual contact and did not feel abused or traumatized have been pressured to say they were and are in denial. One boy successfully sued the counsellor who kept in therapy for a year over an incident he enjoyed. Germaine Greer had this to say about such cases:
“From the child’s point of view and from the commonsense point of view, there is an enormous difference between intercourse with a willing little girl and the forcible penetration of the small vagina of a terrified child. One woman I know enjoyed sex with her uncle all through her childhood, and never realized that anything was unusual until she went away to school. What disturbed her then was not what her uncle had done but the attitude of her teachers and the school psychiatrist. They assumed that she must have been traumatized and disgusted and therefore in need of very special help. In order to capitulate to their expectation, she began to fake symptoms she did not feel, until at length she began to feel truly guilty for not having felt guilty. She ended up judging herself quite harshly for this innate lechery.”
(I do not endorse the uncle’s actions. This would seem to be a case of exploitation. But whatever one’s judgement about the rightness of the relationship it is wrong to further exploit the child in order to satisfy one’s moral outrage. There is a difference between pointing out the undesirability of the relationship and making the child feel sinful).
The list of stupidity is long and now even extends to children themselves being labelled sex offenders.
What happened? Here the Jungian concept of the shadow plays a vital part in understanding this hysteria. According to Jungian theory any psychological complex contains an opposite, or shadow side. The idea of the innocent child must have a shadow aspect. The idea of sexual purity must have an opposite of sexual contamination. In Christian mythology the shadow of Jesus is Satan. As soon as you build an elaborate fantasy of childhood sexual innocence you unconsciously also construct a shadow world of corruption and depravity. However Jungian theory also says that you must project the shadow onto another. Therefore the shadow other of the innocent child is the devious adult, the sinister paedophile. This ‘scapegoat’ must be punished severely and the hysterics will often call for life sentences, arguing falsely that paedophilia cannot be cured. In fact it can. Paedophiles have a relatively low rate of recidivism. A New Zealand approach has reduced the recidivism rate to 5% – an extraordinary result.
Sadly this type of shadow play completely overlooks the complex nature of many sexual abuse cases. The child is often not completely innocent nor is the adult ever completely sinister. The polarised fantasy of the good child and evil predator often acts against a healthy resolution of the abuse incident for either the victim or perpetrator.
Unfortunately the myth makers have considerable influence and they are using that influence to advance a sex negative agenda. This is particularly the case in America where the religious right has invested a lot of political energy in winding back progressive reforms in the area of sexuality. It is about imposing Judeo-Christian morality and the discipline of sexology directly challenges their central moral assertions. Sexology itself has come under a sustained attack with an attempt to discredit Kinsey.
In 1998 the American Psychological Association published a meta-survey (a survey of all available surveys) of child abuse victims. It came up with some startling and controversial results. The myth makers insist that all child-adult sexual contact is abusive and extremely traumatic. The meta survey showed that this was simply not the case. It found that there was a spectrum of response from extremely negative to positive. Around 45% of boys reported positive experiences and around 34% of girls reported positive experiences. Others reported feeling neutral or only mild trauma. There is no doubt that real abuse and trauma occurs but it is not a universal experience. This has since been born out in other similar surveys. A survey reported in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour in 2005 showed that most people who experience sexual abuse go on to lead normal and satisfying sex lives. It also showed that the abuse victims did not show a higher incidence of sexual dysfunction than adults who had not been abused.
Nonetheless, groups aligned to the religious right lobbied the US Congress and the APA was ordered to withdraw the paper. They did not withdraw it but instead issued a retraction. A subsequent investigation found that the paper’s findings were valid.
What this means is that the myth makers are determined to suppress any information that contradicts their myth. We should hardly be surprised because many of them are the same people who are trying to push Creationism and Intelligent Design.
These people have also successfully gained control of sex education in the US and are pushing an abstinence only approach. This program is remarkable for what it fails to teach children and some programs have even been accused of spreading misinformation. This is not about protecting children, it is about protecting the myth of the innocent child. This is having dire consequences. The US has a high teen pregnancy rate, eight times higher than Holland (Sweden also has a low rate). Holland has a liberal sex education program whereas the US has always had a very conservative sex education system. The figures suggest that sexual ignorance is a major contributor to a high teen pregnancy rate. Even more serious is the suggestion that the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases have gone up amongst some US teens because they have been told condoms are ineffective.
In my view the religious right are ethically negligent. They are placing the survival of a myth above the real needs of children and adolescents.
If they are really interested in ending the problem of paedophilia and child abuse they must nip the problem in the bud. That will be achieved by ensuring paraphilias and phobias do not arise in the first place. Unfortunately that will also involve rejecting the sex negative attitudes that cause the problem, attitudes that form a central component of their moral program – sex is a sin (unless performed in a marriage approved by them). I would argue that they are in fact morally incompetent and should be denied any form of moral authority.
Integral sexual ethics and children
Children also go through a developmental process. The prime directive argues that their developmental potential should be nurtured at every possible step. This developmental potential includes sexuality. Children must be allowed to realise their full sexual potential as they mature to adulthood. Integral sexology must carefully understand how paraphilias and phobias arise and promote education about these processes.
It is clear that unwanted sexual attention and abuse can cause phobias and related paraphilias. Some abused children go on to become abusers themselves. However, turning pleasurable experiences into problems and attaching notions of sin and guilt can also create phobias and paraphilias.
I believe that an integral sexual ethics requires a dramatic rethink about how we raise and educate children. Some readers may be surprised to hear that some initial studies show that children raised as naturists have a better body image and a less problematized attitude toward sex. Other studies have shown that children who participate in comprehensive sex education score higher in moral reasoning than children who do not. Knowledge equals wisdom.
It would seem that the confused moral reasoning around the issue of sex pushed by the religious right is actually stopping many children from advancing their own moral reasoning. This makes sense – how can a conventional sexual moral code give rise to postconventional sexual moral reasoning?
Many adults and parents will find it difficult to allow children a degree of freedom in sexual expression. The idea of the innocent child is a deeply held myth. How many adults would feel comfortable around a sexually active and knowledgeable child or adolescent? Yet an integral sexual ethics demands that these fears and concerns be carefully analysed. What is there really to be feared? What are you really protecting?
The religious right have always claimed that educating children will simply lead to them experimenting. This is simply fear mongering. I mentioned above that both Holland and Sweden have comprehensive sex education, they also have a very low teen pregnancy rates and correspondingly low STI rates. Some initial research has shown that Swedish teens delay their first intercourse experience a year later than their English peers. The process is counter-intuitive. The more children understand the wiser their decisions. It is sexually ignorant children who get into early strife (particularly the girl, as the one who can fall pregnant she must get accurate information before menarche). Perhaps we can suggest that those who are told they can don’t and those who are told they can’t will.
It is also important to remember the different spectrums of behaviour. If children are taught that there is a wide variety of expression, including asexual disinterest, they will better resist peer group pressure to act in a given way. A recent survey of Australian teens said that what they wanted to learn most about in sex education was emotions and how to handle relationships. Sex education should include a range of moral issues relevant the given developmental group. I believe the basic physiological facts can be taught at a young age, at the same time basic physiology is normally taught. Then when the child enters puberty and early adolescence the focus should be on negotiating relationships, understanding desire and tolerating difference. In fact it might be wise to drop the name ‘sex’ education and refer to it as ‘life skills’, or some equivalent – negotiating sexual desire being one of many life skills. Having a separate sex education program isolates the issue and therefore de-integrates it – the opposite of what we want. Sex should not be a big deal.