A Very Brief Response to “A Few Random Thoughts in the Midst of Zen’s Various Sex Scandals

Apparently my spam blocker is working overtime. Scott Edelstein was unable to share his comment on a reflection where I cited him, and so asked that I post it on his behalf. I said sure. And then found my own “comment” blocked by the spam filter! I’ll try to loosen up the parameters, but until then, here are Scott’s thoughts…

Thank you, James, for this valuable contribution to the discussion.

Although the information now coming out makes many of us heartsick. I think these disclosures will ultimately prove healthful and helpful. They will help—and perhaps force—American Zen to grow out of its childhood phase and into (and eventually through) adolescence. We students can no longer view our teachers in the way that children often view their parents: as all wise, all knowing, and free of faults.

When my book Sex and the Spiritual Teacher was being edited, my editor relayed to me your suggestion that the book include a chapter on female sexuality. I thought quite seriously about doing so, but ultimately decided not to, for two reasons.

I state the first one at the beginning of the chapter on masculine sexuality: Why spend an entire chapter examining the masculine psyche, while largely skipping over the feminine? Simply because sexual transgression is far more common among male teachers than among female ones—as we saw in Chapter 1, by a ratio of twenty-four to one.

The second reason is that, while male teachers who transgress are overwhelmingly male (the best estimate is 96%), their partners are not so overwhelmingly female. You make this observation yourself with Walter Nowick, whose sexual encounters were with his male students. I simply do not see sexual misconduct by spiritual teachers as inherently a male/female issue.

This is important to note, because much of the current discussion about teachers’ misconduct erroneously assumes that the students who are harmed are invariably women. This further wounds those men who have been hurt by teachers’ transgressions, by ignoring or marginalizing them.

Your readers over 50 may remember that, in the 1970s and 1980s, sexual misconduct by Catholic priests was assumed to involve women. Almost no one believed the notion that any (let alone many) of the people harmed were boys. Not until the publication of psychologist Mic Hunter’s 1991 book Abused Boys did people begin to wake up from that delusion. And for the first few years, Hunter was often vilified, pooh-poohed, and called a liar.

That said, I strongly encourage you and others to add to the larger discussion. If anyone feels that female sexuality and/or psychology play important roles in spiritual teachers’ sexual misconduct, I hope they will write about it.

And if my chapter on male sexuality is arbitrary or pretty far off the mark, then all of us will be served by someone—maybe you—advancing the discourse by explaining how and why. In such a case, I’d be very happy to say, “That’s an argument I hadn’t considered. I think the writer makes good points, so I stand corrected.”

I’d also like to add that your sangha, Boundless Way, has what I consider the best, most useful, and most workable ethics guidelines I have seen regarding sexual relationships between spiritual teachers and their students. These can be viewed at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind/2011/02/ethics-code-for-the-boundless-way-zen-sangha.html

Here’s to the healthy development of American Zen.

All best,

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  • Stephen Slottow

    I read with interest that “male teachers who transgress are overwhelmingly male (the best estimate is 96%).” Surely a better estimate of how many transgressive male teachers who are male would be 100%? Or does the methodology take into account male teachers who are not male? If so, it would appear appropriate to include non-male teachers who are not non-male, or even non-male male teachers who, while male, are not not non-male. Don’t you agree?

  • http://www.boundlesswayzen.org jamesford

    You are wicked, Stephen. And it brings to mind how much I am grateful for the opportunity to polish my contributions on this blog. I believe I tweaked the reflection to which this is a response a dozen times, sometimes for very small things similar to this “male teachers” where Scott obviously meant “teachers,” to some more substantive assertions that I found I didn’t really want to stand behind…

  • Justin Whitaker

    Thanks, James, for posting this and for your previous responses to all of this. I like Scott’s line “healthful and helpful.” I trust all of this discussion will be both.

  • CJ

    I can’t speak to the female psychology in a position of power or authority – I’m not there; I’m just a student. What I can say (and this corresponds with what Schireson says) is that what could prompt inappropriate sexual overtures (whether explicit or implicit) on my part as a student can be the feeling that seduction, for women – and myself as one – is power. And this seduction particularly of a man in power functions to equalize the playing field.
    And, maybe, once the dynamic is reversed (I the woman am in “power,” or have authority, teaching students) the need for seduction as a power play is obviated.
    Whereas with men the situation is different: Once they’re in power, they’re playing out a role that requires careful stepping since the role itself may not necessarily require them to develop the care-taking ability they need; deprived of self-care they seek it elsewhere in potentially inappropriate ways, & the rest is history.
    This last can apply to women, and sometimes might, but since it’s typically more socially appropriate for women to seek care within their social network than it is for men, it’s less common.
    At the risk of gross over-generalization, a few thoughts.

  • Stephen Slottow

    Well, yes, Scott Edelstein obviously meant “teachers”, but it was much more fun to take him at his word, so to speak.