Recently, The New York Times Magazine carried as its cover story "The Second Sexual Revolution," which sets forth the thesis that Viagra was just the beginning, a mere prelude to medication for high-performance romance. The new sexual-enhancement drugs now available, or soon to come, are revolutionary, in that they enable us to control our sexuality in unprecedented ways.

And quickly, the market for this product has shifted. Ads for Viagra only a year ago featured old men pondering how to deal with erectile dysfunction. Now, ads are appearing showing young men embracing beautiful women with their hair blowing in the wind, and captions raising questions about levels of sexual satisfaction. The genie is out of the bottle, be it the genie in the form of the single couple wanting to maximize recreational sex or the busy married couple who simply can't find time for sex.

Jack Hitt, the author of the story, elaborates on this latter possibility:

With couples holding down two jobs and the enraged pace of modern life, who doubts that a drug-enhanced four-minute sexual encounter among harried day traders could become the norm? The very idea of a long slow evening probably won't completely disappear. It'll just go the way of sitting on the porch, the 3 o'clock dinner, and the literary novel-- something experienced over the holidays or on vacation.
The wonderful world of chemistry invades the bedroom once again, this time enhancing sex rather than controlling births as happened with the earlier sexual revolution. Or is it rather a case of sex becoming still more mechanized, of the triumph of technology over mystery?

This new advance in the regulation of sex raises even deeper questions. When sex becomes goal-oriented, focused on orgasm, what happens to intimacy? Deeper still, by trying to harness sexual power, do we intervene in primordial passion in ways that angels would fear to tread? Might we violate some deep link between the libido and the sacred?

Much could be unraveled here, more than perhaps we can deal with.

I began thinking about these questions long ago. Reading Freud in college piqued my interest, but it was during an interview I was conducting about 10 years ago that it really hit me: sex and the sacred could be closely bound together. The interview was with a 34-year-old woman, a moderate-minded Methodist in North Carolina, who in outward appearance gave no hint of having anything to say about sex--much less about sex and the sacred. She seemed traditional in every way, and I expected a routine interview about her religious life. The dialogue began as follows:

Q: Where do you experience the divine, the sacred, God--whatever name you prefer?

A: My goodness. That's a big question.

I figured I should ask her about her experiences at church. After all, she was a Methodist and living in the South, two attributes that would lead any sociologist of religion to predict institutional-based responses: God is encountered at church. Where else?

But when I asked her about this, what I got was a rather weak "Yes, I do sometimes experience God at church." Her answer did not resonate with the passion I expected. I also asked about the women's group, the Wednesday-night prayer service, and saying grace with her family at meals, to which she gave similar, but not very excited, answers. She was by no means anti-institutional in her views on religion, but it was clear, too, that the sacred for her was not contained within church walls.

In desperation, I said to her, "You tell me, is there any place you really experience God?"

"Yes," she replied in a matter-of-fact manner, "when I have an orgasm making love to my husband. I'm married to a wonderful man, and that's when I feel closest to God."

I was caught off-guard by her answer, and consequently I failed to ask the follow-up questions I wish now I had. As so often happens in religious research, an interviewer can be blinded by his or her unfounded assumptions about people. In this case, I let my expectations about the piety of Southern women get in the way of asking her the more telling questions about her real-life religious experiences. Being a Southerner myself, I should have known better; there is an earthy, indeed even steamy, side of religious passion for Southerners that is never far removed from its public appearance.

Not long after that interview, I came across Father Andrew M. Greeley's research on God-images and marital happiness, in which he speculates that divine intimacy and human intimacy might actually go together. Marital satisfaction is influenced by sexual satisfaction, and sexual satisfaction is influenced by warm religious imagery, and especially so for Catholics, Greeley had argued. The Roman Catholic Church did not buy his argument, but this Methodist woman in North Carolina gave personal testimony to its truthfulness.

To experience the love of God is to experience a sacred union that is at once both mysterious and intimate, and to know such intimacy, even in its limited, imperfect human form, is to know something of the divine possibility.

Greeley's research goes even further. He reports from his surveys that people who are sexually fulfilled in their marriages tend to have warm images of God (as mother, as lover, as spouse, as friend), as opposed to more judgmental and harsh images. The influences are reciprocal, he argues, with human intimacy a model for divine intimacy, and beliefs about the latter encouraging a sacramental conception of human love. The two types of stories--about God and about human relationships--come together.

To return to where we started: What are we to make of the new sex drugs? If Greeley is right, there is not only a deep connection between sex and the sacred, but manipulation of either may bear directly on the other. It is doubtful that greater manipulation of sexual emotions will truly enhance sacred experiences as long as sex is defined apart from true intimacy..

One gets a hint of this fundamental human situation in the comment of a sex therapist reported in Hitt's article. When asked about the four-minute drug-induced romantic encounter, she replies, "Maybe a couple would be better off if they combined four-minute sex with a two-hour conversation over wine."

For sure. It might be the beginning of something divine.

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