Sex is life. It’s a simple truth that came up in a conversation recently. We are here because of sex, for many it’s a powerful, magical thing to hold sacred. Many of our deities, especially the female ones, are depicted in distinctly sexy ways, and the wheel of the year is often expressed as a narrative of reproduction.
I tend to resist all of this. Not least because sexual expression amongst humans is a lot broader than reproduction. Some of us are celibate, or unhappily single, some of us are non-sexual, and some of us have histories that make the celebration of sex pretty much impossible. How a person feels about their own body, their own desire, what scope they have for expression and acceptance – is all part of this mix. Some desires should not be expressed or accepted; anything that involves the non-consent of a participant.
Fertility is a tricky issue too. We could do with a collective slow down on human fertility. In many parts of the world, we’re living longer, child mortality is down, and our populations are expanding. Human fertility puts enormous pressure on the planet. We manipulate and control the fertility of other creatures – largely the mammals we eat – to work for our benefit, and we’ve changed wheat to the degree that it cannot naturally self seed – it cannot reproduce without our participation. Sex can be both one of the most natural, and one of the least natural things we get involved with.
Sex can be power – if you think about who is allowed to have sex, and who is allowed to enjoy it, the issues of power balance are considerable. For a lot of history, sex has been a part of male power over women, with ignorance and shaming reducing the scope for women to enjoy it. The ‘lie back and think of England’ advice from Queen Victoria offers us sex as something women must endure, not enjoy. Sex is incredibly political, and it’s only relatively recently that the law recognised that rape in marriage was even possible. A wedding ring, we’ve finally decided, is not consent to anything at any time forever. What does it say about us that for so much of human history we’ve been happy to make rape part of the institution of marriage while being horrified by women who express and enjoy their sexuality? And there are plenty of places in the world where that’s still happening.
Sex is a big concern for religions. Who is allowed to do it, and under what circumstances. If you look at religious laws, what it often comes down to is a way of controlling women’s sexual activities so that men can be confident about who the father is. Any religion that encourages people to deny the flesh for the sake of the afterlife tends not to be very keen on sex at all, and will tolerate it only between man and wife for the purposes of producing children. The pleasures of the flesh are often represented as being at odds with spirituality, so in a fair few traditions, dedicating to a spiritual life means celibacy.
The theme here for me, is allowing some people to dictate to other people what their relationship with sex ought to be. Whether it’s ‘you have to have sex to be initiated’ or ‘you cannot have the sex you want and be acceptable to god’ there are issues of control. We don’t have to have sex at Beltain. As Pagans, we should not feel obliged to do anything sexual, nor obliged not to. Consent is everything. If we’re not harming, or abusing someone else, then what we do, or don’t do, should be our own business. We can honour the energies of life without having to enact them. We can enact on our own terms should we choose to.
If sex is not celebratory and magical for you, then you need to start from where you are. Feeling pressured to react in a certain way is no kind of liberation, and if Paganism means to hold its head up as a sex-positive spirituality, we must also have room for those who say no.