Ever since Freud convinced us that it is our sexual urges that drive our emotional lives it seems that Western culture has fallen under the spell of sex. But Freud's vision was much darker and far more nuanced than the common understanding of it, which, in its most grossly simplified and distorted version, holds that it is the repression of our sexual desires that causes the frustrations which give rise to mental illness. In fact, most people know little, if anything about Freud and would be more likely to hoot in disbelief at ideas of his such as the Oedipal complex than admire the depth of insight of his essentially tragic conception of human sexual desire. Still, the idea that sex holds the key to character continues to exert considerable influence on our understanding of the human condition. But it was another figure, who was more of a sociologist than a psychologist, who had perhaps even greater influence than Freud in shaping our understanding of sex. Alfred Kinsey, the founder of modern sexology, used anonymous surveys and statistical analysis to find out what sexual behaviour people actually engaged in, as opposed to what their sexual behaviour was supposed to be. What his research revealed is that people were far more promiscuous and diverse in their sexual habits and tastes than conventional morality supposed. Although recent scholarship has questioned some of Kinsey's methods, his legacy was at least as important as Freud's in contributing to the contemporary understanding of sex. Freud convinced us that our sexual instincts rule our emotional lives; Kinsey revealed the extensive range of our sexual activities, which affected our sexual norms. Their work, though undertaken separately and with quite different aims, led to the widely shared belief that sex indicates the essential truth of self and that the only true way to understand a personality was by knowing the sexual urges that lay hidden beneath its surface. Sex has always demanded secrecy and privacy, as much for its furtive pleasures, as for its potential for shame. But due in large part to the efforts of Freud and Kinsey, discovering those secrets is now widely considered to be the only way to discover the truth of self.
Although Buddhism has always recognised the power of sexual desire in the formation of personality, it certainly does not believe that sex holds our ultimate truth. But as a psychotherapist, I have to face the evidence of my working experience, which often does seem to vindicate both the ideas of Freud and the research of Kinsey. More to the point, many of my clients believe they have unwittingly discovered their personal truths in the pain and humiliation of their sexuality. Not that all of them have miserable sex lives or have suffered painful traumas related to sex. More often, it is simply the absence of love in their sex lives that drives them to question the wholeness of their personalities and the quality of their experiences in general. For that absence seems to betoken a deeper, more unspeakable loss. If sex is supposed to be the royal road to love, it is only natural to suppose that there must be something terribly wrong with a traveller who has little hope of reaching the destination.
The truth is that erotic experience really can be a gateway to surpassing delight bordering on divine bliss, as poets have always recognised. In Love's Labour's Lost, for example, Shakespeare observed the rapturous effect of falling in love when he wrote: "When love speaks, the voice of all the gods makes heaven drowsy with the harmony." Indeed, the ecstatic union of lovers can even rise to spiritual heights when it is made to serve as a spiritual discipline. In both Buddhism and Hinduism, the esoteric practices of Tantra use erotic imagery to express the exquisite sense of union that occurs upon spiritual realisation. And in so called left-handed Tantra, though not used for the purposes of pleasure or procreation, some practices can even involve actual sexual intercourse. Yet, in spite of its potential for touching divine or near divine realms of experience, sex can far more easily descend into a hell in which the shrieking of the furies drowns out the harmonious chorus of the gods. The echo of those screams can often be heard in psychotherapy.
It is not difficult to see why sex can be such an endless source of suffering. Perhaps nothing else illustrates quite so vividly the principle that craving is the cause of suffering, for which reason Buddhism has always warned against the dangers of heedless sexual indulgence and encourages celibacy for those who are most ardently committed to the dharma. But even before we give in or refuse to give in to such craving, sexual desire arises in us as a chthonic power that can feel as irresistible as a force of nature. This is implicit in the expression "falling in love", even though we are more apt to romanticise such a surge of feeling as two lovers surrendering to passion in order to to unite in erotic bliss. But the reality of being possessed by sexual desire is usually far less pretty. It is more often a case of coarse physical craving finding release in loveless erotic pleasure for which the pornography and sex industries readily provide accessories to their immense profit. Moreover, nature is hardly beautiful when it summons the force of desire in defiance of personal identity or moral expectations. For some people sex is saturated in shame precisely because it reveals to them the selves they don't want to be. Erotic bliss, bordering on the divine, can only appear absurd when sex comes wrapped in disgrace. Yet, the desire for intimacy in sex-- two people willingly participating in bodily passion with and for each other--can survive even the worst sexual experiences. It is also why most people will always believe in love and sex as an ideal unity. Acting on our sexual urges in whatever we can may be a biological imperative, as Freud argued and KInsey documented. But trying to find love in the tropism of desire is surely no less human.
RD Laing once observed the distinction between love and lust by a simple shift of prepositions. Lust, he said, is the feeling of and love is the feeling for the person one desires. Another way of putting this is that sexual loving involves a deep recognition of the subjectivity and desires of the other, loving through sex, rather than using the other for sex. Conceived in this way, the expression "making love" would mean a true act of intimacy, rather than stand as a euphemism for engaging in sex. But what about sex as a natural instinct which, if pursued responsibly and with a modicum of respect for one's sexual partner, can be indulged in with no moral or psychological penalty to pay? For some people this appears to be true. Sex can be as casual as going to the cinema on a rainy afternoon. But for others, sex is always haunted by the absence of an intimacy that they can't help but hope for. And though this is often considered a sexual problem, it is more likely to be a problem about loneliness. For if love is knowing and wanting to know the other, sex between partners without interest or concern for each other suggests a deeper deprivation. Although everyone knows that having sex is not the same as making love, if love can't be found in sex, the fear may arise that it can't be found at all.