Navigating spirituality and sexuality (2022)
You can listen to this musing here or read it below.
I recently spent a month in a spiritual community in Brazil. Being off-grid, the eco-village generates electricity, enforces bio-degradable products to avoid waste and self-purifies its waters. In a way, it’s its own garden of Eden. While the COVID virus was raging in the big cities, as another heavy stone on a back already burdened by pollution, poverty, and corruption, in this little village, life continued as usual. But there is something more to it; beyond the clean air and innovative buildings, there is a belief system or a spirituality. As a new arrival, it’s hard to spot it. It’s almost hidden, or obscured, in the mud walls of the buildings, in the shadows of the palm trees and depths of people’s hearts. Yet, it’s the reason why watching the ocean for an hour every morning makes sense, staying longer than needed in a hug or symbolically cupping the hands over your food before eating. And it makes people soft in a pleasant way.
However, this community was changing. In a mist of scandals, the village’s founder had left a few years ago as the queen bee leaving to find another hive. She was leaving a void behind. I could spend this musing writing about abusive spiritual leaders, but others do it better, so check out this webpage. However, I believe that power ultimately corrupts anyone, and that’s why conscious sexuality is so essential.
Spirituality tends to focus on the “upper” chakras, connecting to some kind of God, whatever that means to you. So the practices are almost always meditation, chanting, praying, singing, and believing and at the same time, teaching the body to be quiet by practising yoga, eating simple food etc. So it’s very similar to a traditional monastery. Things are valued in energy and vibrations. And there is a healing process ongoing from worldly life outside; from traumas, burnouts, and the overall harshness of patriarchal capitalism. So when I come there, with my conscious kink and arty-farty BDSM, I’m often faced with two big fears.
The first fear is strangely connected to consent. Or the question, what can I consent to? In my background of BDSM, there is a practice of radical self-expression, or as it’s often said, “Your kink is not my kink, but your kink is okay” (YKINMKBYKIO). It comes from the belief that sexual minorities need to stay together because they often face substantial social stigma, sometimes even being illegal or considered a pathology. So it’s fundamental to be inclusive. But unfortunately, many people entering BDSM in this hype of “kink is the new pink” are utterly ignorant of the suffering of generations before them. So they tend to be more judgemental. Many spiritual communities choose not to be inclusive because they want to limit themselves to like-minded people who share their beliefs. Like veganism, non-violence, soberness, income and labour division based on need, rather than performance, etc. Because that is the reason they left the greater society in the first place. Some communities dares to be outspoken about it, while others don’t.
Fundamentally, it requires a judgemental attitude because it’s crucial to judge who belongs and who doesn’t. And when the shared belief system is more about actual beliefs and less about concrete regulations, things become increasingly tricky because the answer is often more of an intuitive feeling. And then comes the question, whose feeling is it that counts? Probably the one with the highest status in the community, and hence the power hierarchy is born. Often, from a non-conscious nor consensual place. However, I don’t think human beings are stupid, so somewhere deep down, I think we understand that if I enter the spiritual community of a random guru, then that guru’s opinion will be valued higher than mine. And if I want to become someone in this community, I need to climb the social hierarchy.
In a way, I think my work is highly anarchistic because it tends to expose and challenge these power dynamics. And that is not popular in communities where people invest a lot of time and energy calming their positions. Slightly off-topic, but it still warms my heart; I remember when teaching theatre in the poor countryside of Tanzania, a goat-herding girl realized that she could pick a role to play for the first time in her life. She could be someone else than what her community (read tribal grandfather) decided for her.
In my experience, unless actively playing with power, we unconsciously and non-consensually reproduce the patriarchal structures of the world. So when I look at a functional society, like I think Sweden is, after all, I see all the effort spent trying to visualize the power structures, using laws, institutions and roles. So it feels a bit immature, or maybe innocent, in many spiritual communities to believe that they can make it better by completely ignoring it. And I often feel safer in my self-expression in Stockholm than in a random eco-village, course centre, or spiritual gathering. However, something deeply alluring draws me to these places, which somehow attempts to do it differently. The intention inspires me.
The second big fear is dominance, mainly when men express it. Because it is a reminder of the patriarchy that rules the outside world, which the spiritual community often is taking distance from. By focusing on the higher chakras, the “oneness” of things, one excludes the polarities of the lower chakras—the animalistic aspects of life—the carnal, lustful and sexual. These desires are not expressed but rathered silenced. In a way, this is very similar in both spiritual communities and patriarchal capitalism, but for different reasons. Capitalism wants to enslave the body in the name of productivity, while spirituality in the name of devotion. For me, BDSM most often belongs in the lower chakras. Okay, few people practice submission and masochism as devotion to a God, but most people are in it for their bodily or emotional experience.
But still, what we repress under the surface will erupt in the most unexcepted places, in the ever balancing act of life. So a very feminine spiritual community that preaches surrender to some kind of deity, of course, many women will long for a dominant man. Because they lack the embodied experience, they can imagine it, feel the vibration in their field, but not in their flesh. I think this is a combination of the hidden power games (that are very unsexy) and the repression of male sexuality (that creates a void). Instead, I think people long for someone who owns their entire spectrum, from the gods to the animals, and stands proud of the power they are given.
I would guess it’s 70% women, 15% gay men, 15% straight men in my temporary paradise. I also meet many straight men in a similar juxtaposition; they escaped capitalistic patriarchy to be something else, but this new thing is built around repression. They are fewer than the women, probably because men often are more privileged in the outside world, so they have less reason to leave. Then a friend told me that I have to write about the tantric fuck boys looking for a tropical paradise full of goddesses to shag. They present themselves as “vibrating in the higher chakras”, but behind the scenes, they are obsessed with the carnal lusts, for polarity, to simply fuck. Although male sexuality is much more complex than just dominance, most spiritual places tend to be very heteronormative in the sense of both rejecting it and reproducing it simultaneously.
When I first demonstrated my rope bondage in this Brazilian eco-village, one feedback that I got was that it would be much better if the woman tied me instead. And it’s similar when demonstrating my passion in non-kinky contexts in Scandinavia. But that side-step the whole point that many women long domination in a conscious and consensual way. Especially in places where it’s a forbidden desire. Instead, these women are judged for their sexuality, replacing one repressive structure with another. I think most people outside the BDSM subculture don’t understand consent culture’s depth because they keep limiting what people are allowed to consent to.
So how does one navigate this conflict between spirituality and sexuality? By offering a conscious and consensual way to explore power, I think. And by encouraging us to be everything from the animal to the divine and acknowledging that masculine domination spun out of control in patriarchal capitalism. So far, that system no longer values submission and surrender, and there is no longer a win-win situation. So I think part of the solution is to present structures that empower submission and surrender to co-exist with domination without repression. And to play with it openly and intuitively and talk about it rationally and empathically.
One spiritual community working hard to embrace conscious sexuality is Ängsbacka in Sweden. I first went there more than eight years ago and faced a huge social stigma. Nowadays it’s much better. Below is a podcast that they recorded with me about our journey together.