photo and text © 2003, Jonathan Zap
Revised 2008 Edited by Austin Iredale
Recently, I was called on to comment on a document that attempted, with the best intentions, to come up with a conscious, inclusive, reformed approach to human sexuality. Although there were many good things in this document, I began to have a strong reaction when I noticed that there was an attempt to create a softer-edged template, a model of romantic relationships that emphasized long-term committed relationships. Although my personal bias favors long-term committed relationships, I found that in reaction to the document I ended up going on a rant against the well-intentioned impulse to regularize human sexuality and conduct. My rant, written at high speed, had a life of its own, and the finished product was more of a personal discourse than something that could be considered actual feedback. The words that came pouring out seem to have more to do with my ever-changing view of human sexuality, and I hope there may be some benefit in my sharing that view. You may notice that I make reference to “God” in this piece of writing. Although I do believe there is an intelligence implicit in the cosmos, I don’t usually use the G-word because it so hopelessly contaminated with anthropomorphisms and is weighed down with more baggage than even a supreme deity could deal with. I used the G-word here because the document I commented on was created by religious people, and I wanted to make an impact on their POV.
The overarching tendency of the patriarchal is to approach human sexuality—and all matters, really—with “one-size-fits-all” formulations. Any one-size-fits-all approach toward sexuality is a rebellion against God perpetrated by the human—usually male—ego. As William James observed, a strong and obvious attribute of nature—one could easily substitute cosmos, God, or Tao for “nature”—is “eachness”. Although many spiritual teachings emphasize the unity of all things, there is often an underemphasis on the ubiquitous evidence of eachness throughout this realm. We encounter a world of individual trees, not a Platonic tree template or undifferentiated mass of treeness. Related but not identical to eachness is the quality of individual variation we find throughout the phenomenal world. Although the popular notion that no two snowflakes are alike turns out to be nonsense, it is very clear that as we advance in the evolutionary hierarchy from inanimate matter to organisms, and especially toward higher forms of life, the degree of individual variance also advances. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny recapitulates divine will. There is more individual variation amongst trees than amongst acorns. Whether your starting point is the big bang, Genesis, or a primeval soup of amino acids, the developmental arc is always toward greater individual differentiation. There certainly seems to be more individual variance amongst mammals than microbial life or insects. And when we look at our own species, what we see is a quantum jump in this quality of individuality, diversity, and novelty. According to evolutionary theorist Terence McKenna, novelty—the creation of new forms and also greater levels of complexity, interconnectedness, communication, and self-awareness—is a drive inherent in the universe, an atropic force that we especially see in human evolution and culture. The universe, as McKenna puts it, conserves novelty.
Sexuality and evolution need to be considered together. We should be wary of any doctrine that seems to stand in contradistinction to the workings of the universe. There is a profound deficiency in our species in recognizing that evolution necessarily means sexual evolution. Sexuality is in ways obvious, and also subtle and mysterious, right at the cutting edge of evolution. One-size-fits-all doctrines regarding human sexuality—from Western religions, Eastern sources, new age, pop psychology, or where ever—need to be viewed very skeptically for they have collectively generated a great number of toxic side effects:
1. A huge legacy for manufacturing suffering, repression, discrimination, etc.
2. Failure to acknowledge individual variation as positive and necessary for the growth of the human species.
3. Presumption that human nature is an absolute constant.
4. Their tendency to become repositories and museum exhibits of unconscious projections and the displacement of ego anxieties into elaborate control systems.
5. Their tendency for the past thousands of years to especially target women and sexually diverse individuals for horrific persecution.
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and we as human authors of any doctrine that attempts to regularize human sexual conduct inherit the legacy of fools and sadists, not angels. A consistent part of the legacy of fools has been a tendency of false sophistication about human sexuality. A patriarchal attribute of religious fundamentalists, modern secular experts, and also hedonistic libertines, is this false feeling of sophistication, of knowing what’s really going on, what the bottom line is when it comes to human sexuality. This reductive view of human sexuality as sin versus sacrament, functionality versus disfunctionality, pleasure versus repression, is a manifestation of the human ego recreating sexuality in its image. We are made in the image of God and the image of God revealed by the manifested world is eachness, individual variation, and mind-boggling novelty. As J.B.S. Haldane said, “The universe is not only stranger than you think, it’s stranger than you can think.” When you consider the evolution that has already occurred on this planet as single-celled life advanced into the novelty engine of human culture, and recognize that future developments may be as profound or even geometrically expansive of these earlier steps, you are forced to recognize that when it comes to human sexuality none of us knows what we are talking about. The developmental arc of our individual lives is mysterious, often confounding, and the future development of the species is in the realm of pure speculation. Sexuality is at the cutting edge of a completely unknown, perhaps unknowable trajectory. It is humbling to realize that we don’t know where evolution and novelty are going, and may not be able to comprehend it any better than an amoeba can contemplate human culture.
Creating a doctrine about human sexuality is a subset of a general human activity of the human psyche observing itself and drawing conclusions, an activity that is the maximal case of subjectivity, with the maximal tendencies toward projection and pernicious illusion. When rules are made based on these conclusions, and these rules are then imposed on others, then we find ourselves living in Gulag Earth, the Babylon Matrix, the prison planet, the place where we all live right now. If your eros is adaptable or conventional enough to be in accord with the rules, then for you the prison bars are upholstered in red velvet.
We need to acknowledge the terrible legacy of the patriarchal ego attempting to mutilate nature into its idealized image of itself. Furthermore, we need to recognize that while the planet is a cauldron of evolution and novelty, the fragile individual organism, which includes the human psyche, is preoccupied with its homeostasis. The human psyche seeks to maintain its fragile, evanescent equilibrium, and as a result, as both Freud and Jung observed, it is profoundly conservative; it will cling to a toxic equilibrium rather than risk novelty. When human psyches aggregate into social groups, this conservative tendency can intensify in such a way that the body politic may have a virulent immunological response to individual variation in sexuality—or some other core attribute.
Freud demonstrated that humor is usually a reflection of anxiety, and since our culture’s humor is typically about sex, it reflects the deep and continuing anxiety human beings have about the mutagenic quality inherent in human sexuality. Therefore, we have a powerful motive to want to clear up the complex ambiguities of the erotic realm.
We have to be wary of the tendency, to imagine an ideal human relationship. Paragraphs 7 and 10—of the document I was asked to comment on—seem to offer a one-size-fits-all template for human relationship. This template may have softer edges than past templates, but, I will not mince words, it is an objectionable continuation of past illusions. Although it is my personal feeling and experience that long-term, committed, monogamous relations are most likely to be developmental for most people, I would never want to project that as a universal requirement.
In acknowledging our patriarchal legacy, we should consider anthropological data on how other cultures have handled sexuality. At the same time we need to avoid the New Age fallacy that artifacts of other cultures—Eastern, tribal, etc.—can be easily adopted for modern Western psyches. We should also expand our inquiry to include fields such as primate research. For example, I am very struck by some of the findings of research into Bonomo chimpanzees. Keeping in mind that the science of genetics, still in its infancy, is famous for making presumptuous formulations, we are now told that chimpanzees are 99% genetically similar to human beings, far more similar to us genetically than chimps are to guerrillas. Bonomo chimpanzees are remarkable for two things: They are the primate group that has the lowest rate of intrafraternal violence—humans are, of course, not even in the running—and the highest rate for novel, frequent sexual transactions across all sorts of expected boundaries. Do these findings warrant any conclusions about human sexuality? Of course not. Inquiries into sexuality so often involve thinking that too quickly reaches conclusions, formulations and the premature closure of mysteries and paradoxes.
Although we may have strong feelings that long-term committed relationships seem to work best, that is just one more subjective perception. We are still looking through a glass darkly. Even if we had studies or evidence to support our feelings, such studies would not be a relevant to an individual wishing to live a nonstatistical life. To the maximum extent possible, we should leave it to the individual to make their own path through the unknown, intervening only in cases of the individual seeking dominion over others. If there were to be one universal , one-size-fits-all principle governing sexuality it would have to be consensuality, but any proscriptions beyond that are highly questionable.
One of the unexamined presumptions we have is that functional, balanced, harmonious relationships are best and that troubled relationships are in need of repairs. But, as James Hillman points out, “the soul pathologizes.” (see essay “Love’s Torturous Enchantments” in A Blue Fire ) The mythologies of love relationships from most cultures and traditions are filled with tragedy, of two people becoming three, of impossible situations and of descent into an underworld. Hillman illustrates that this may be what the soul wants and needs. The supervisory ego, however, wants to step in and do a quick fix with a regularized model or list of precepts.
As June Singer points out in her book Androgyny: a New Theory of Sexuality , the drive to complete oneself with another person may be based on a fundamental illusion. (See Stop the Hottie! and Casting Precious into the Cracks of Doom—-Androgyny, Alchemy, Evolution and the One Ring ).
A central reason that our whole planet is in peril right now is the territorial aggressiveness and other dangerous qualities that have become linked to human sexuality. We desperately need novelty and expanded paradigms in our understanding of sexuality. The patriarchal approach to sexuality is imperiling the life on this planet. (see The Chalice and the Blade by Rianne Eisler and The Alphabet versus the Goddess by Leonard Maslin)
I support the enterprise of individual human development and inquiry. What is needed is not a softer-edged template, but the empowerment of the individual to contribute to divine creativity. As Jung said,
Every advance in culture is, psychologically, an extension of consciousness, a coming to consciousness that can take place only through discrimination. Therefore an advance always beings with individuation, that is to say with the individual, conscious of his isolation, cutting a new path through hitherto untrodden territory. To do this he must first return to the fundamental facts of his own being, irrespective of all authority and tradition, and allow himself to become conscious of his distinctiveness. If he succeeds in giving collective validity to his widened consciousness, he creates a tension of opposites that provides the stimulation which culture needs for its further progress.
— CG Jung
True empowerment is an individual thing, but we can still help to encourage it by, for example, providing resources that help individuals understand how their body image and sexual perceptions have been heavily, heavily conditioned. We need deconditioning more than we need reformed conditioning. Rather than giving individuals a new template, we need to give them tools of exploration and creativity.