By Clifford Bishop
Ulysses Press, 192 pp.
For all the changes brought on by the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, the idea of sacred sexuality still strikes an alien note for most people in the United States and Europe. Our attitudes towards sex, as they are reflected in the multiple streams of media that constitute our culture, still hover between hedonism and shame, and we still encounter unplumbed ambivalence about sex and pleasure. "It is impossible to overestimate the influence of the Christian Church on Western sexuality," writes Clifford Bishop, in "Sex and the Spirit." Bishop's feelings about what the Church has wrought can be surmised from the chapter heading in which this quote appears: "The Wounded Body: Sex in the West."
Bishop, an independent English author who spent years in Zimbabwe studying tribal customs, casts his net far wider than the West in this romp through several millennia of human sexuality. He includes tidbits on mating customs of indigenous peoples, the prevalence of homosexuality in every human society, the religious significance of transvestitism among the Plains Indians of North America, and cross-cultural attitudes towards masturbation.
The book follows a roughly chronological pattern, from pre-history and primate sexuality to the esoteric teachings of the "Kama Sutra," Karl Jung, and Wilhelm Reich. With its pictures, off-set boxes of text, and prose passages, "Sex and the Spirit" isn't really a book you read cover to cover. It's better appreciated as a smorgasbord, a not-so-heavy coffee table book of sexuality and its often intimate, often fraught relationship with religion.
Intentionally or not, Bishop supports our image of a sensuous Orient versus a puritanical West. He opposes a libidinous, largely guilt-free indigenous tribal sexuality of sub-Saharan Africa, the South Pacific, and Latin America versus the uptight, sublimated, and agonizing sexuality of the Catholic Church and it Protestant offshoots. Islam is, sexually speaking, betwixt and between, with images of paradise as a free-love commune on the one hand and rigid restrictions on the female body on the other.
The last section of the book, called "Techniques of Ecstasy," focuses almost entirely on Taoism and on Tantrism, in both its Hindu and Buddhist forms.
Of course, there are no "techniques of ecstasy" in the Western religious tradition, at least not prominent ones and at least not identified as such by Bishop. Christianity since the time of Augustine and the Church fathers has seen the body as a source of weakness and sin. Martin Luther did nothing to lessen that opprobrium. The psychoanalytic tradition that emerged in the late 19th century picked up where Christianity left off, portraying sex as a field of shame and of neuroses. When the West encountered the East during the colonialist invasions of the 19th century, it saw a series of cultures that looked uninhibited by comparison.
It is at this point in the story that Bishop falls into an inadvertent romanticism. The Eastern cultures, it may be argued, only look uninhibited to Westerners. While tribal cultures may, as Bishop depicts, be largely free of the sexual stigma of the West and may also be far more comfortable with the spiritual dimensions of sex and procreation, eastern cultures have more than their share of ambivalence, confusion and harshness. Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism have traditions that link sex to meditation and enlightenment. For centuries, the Eastern tradition of Tantrism evolved as way to unite the spirit and flesh, while in China upper-class Taoists focused on female sexual pleasure as a spiritual imperative for both sexes.
But Eastern sex is hardly all fun and games. Confucian teachings create gulfs between men and women far wider than exist in the West. Tantrism encourages such practices such as copulation among corpses in graveyards. What's more, tantrism (as Bishop acknowledges) isn't about sex so much as it is a set of techniques and teachings designed to remove the practitioner from society and set him or her on an arduous path towards nirvana. It's only starry-eyed Westerners looking to the East as a fount of sexual liberation who have glossed over the messier, more ambiguous aspects.
These objections aside, Bishop's brief book is essentially entertaining, and often informative. Bishop doesn't linger on any topic for long, and any reader will find pearls of new information. But by insinuating that it would be more fun to frolic in the East than trudge through the shame and guilt of the West, Bishop misleads. It may be better to be a Hindu, sexually speaking, but it's certainly preferable to be a Western woman.