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On Sexual Diversity, Perversity, and Ecstasy

Missionary position at "Girl's Breast Point"

The examples of sexual diversity are endless across the world's religions. But the sacred is usually embedded in the sexual rules and scripts, norms and expectations of any given society, and most societies disagree with each other and are internally fraught with conflict about just how sex should relate to the sacred.

Most Americans are familiar with a prevailing monotheistic take on sex, associated with sin, temptation, and paradise lost. (The image of Hester Prynne, Hawthorne's adulterous anti-heroine, being led ignominiously through town with the scarlet letter emblazoned on her chest, is as much part of American mythology as the first pilgrims' landing at Plymouth.) For Christians, the savior was born from a virgin who abstained from sex and had followers convinced that the body was corrupt if not downright demonic, leading to a volatile ambivalence about, but a constant fixation on, sexuality. Monogamous sex in a marriage for the purposes of reproduction, with the man on top of the woman ("missionary" position), makes sense and is given the sacred stamp of approval.

Celibacy and the glorification of sexless bodies spiritually more intimate with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, are also authorized in many Christian communities, though these spiritual intimacies can erupt into full-blown mystical ecstasies often described in quite sexualized terms and images.

Other kinds of sexual relations or imagery are taboo, signs of moral transgressions of the worst order. These are vigorously, yet obsessively, scrutinized in the effort to promote proper Christianized versions of "family values" that are not defiled by the pursuit of carnal, sacred-less, pleasures.

Indeed, American history is plagued by the sexual obsessions of Christians gravely concerned about sexual order; as if the order of society if not the cosmos depended on making sure sex was limited to husband and wife having babies (were intercourse to happen at all).

It is also, of course, peppered with contradictions and hypocrisies when it comes to sex, an activity that opens the chasm between ideal moral virtues and real human appetites in social relations between Christians and others. When Catholic missionaries encountered Pueblo Indians in southwestern North America beginning in the 16th century, for example, they were particularly offended by a radically different view of sexuality, one that knew no God but was integrally tied to the surrounding natural world they lived in and bound to cosmic conceptions of fertility and renewal.

As Ramon Gutierrez has explained it in his When Jesus Came, the Rain Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846:

Erotic behavior in its myriad forms (heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality) knew no boundaries of sex or age. Many of the great gods -- Zuni Awonawilona, the Navajo First Man/First Woman, the Hopi Kawasaitaka katsina -- were bisexual, combining the potentialities of male and female into one -- a combination equally revered among humans. If the Indians sang of sex, copulated openly, staged orgiastic rituals, and named landmarks "Clitoris Spring," "Girl's Breast Point," "Buttocks-Vagina," and "Shove Penis," it was because the natural world around them was full of sexuality.

This was also a matriarchal culture, with women, and women's sexuality, especially powerful in the daily lives of the community; not just for reproduction, but for economic reasons associated with agriculture, spiritual relations concerned with maintaining social harmony, and regenerative rituals based on mythic female creator figures. Were this insufficient to challenge the limits of the missionary position and imagination, the many other honored mythic spirits who were bisexual -- literally both male and female, such as the Hopi Kawasaitaka katsina -- and the orgiastic festivals ritually performed at certain times of the year, only fueled the fires of the missionary spirit and convinced them of the desperate need for spiritual redemption through sexual purification.

The recurring battles and conflicts over the terms of sexuality have been a well-worn pattern in American religious history, with pagan Indians (Captivity Narrative of Mary Rowlandson), polygamous Mormons (anti-Mormonism from the get-go), perverse Jews (Philip Roth), predatory Catholics (Awful Disclosure of Maria Monk), and an assortment of other villains and sexual deviants representing a serious threat to American society and especially to vulnerable women and children. Even with the herculean efforts in America to keep sex in line with an ideal moral order under the control of institutional authorities (whether the church through much of American history or the government more recently) the seductive powers of sexuality, and especially transgressive sexual activities outside the norms, are too strong and deep-rooted to be managed according to the monotheistic standards by which all citizens must abide.

4/13/2010 4:00:00 AM